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Germany, its Neighbouring Countries, and the Expellees:
History and History Policy since 1949

The Expellees in the Federal Republic of German

During the postwar decades, the absorption of those Germans who had escaped of been relocated from Eastern Europe was a central political issue in Germany. Since numerically significant German minorities continued to exist in many Eastern European countries despite the expulsions and because German citizenship law remains dominated by a concept of the nation that is mostly ethnically defined, many of these people came and continue to come to the Federal Republic of Germany as so-called Spätaussielder, or "late resettlers". Therefore, the absorption and integration of expellees, refugees and emigrants has remained a politically significant topic until today. Especially in view of the difficult economic conditions which prevailed during the postwar period, dealing with the emigrants constituted a considerable challenge fraught with numerous obstacles and conflicts.

For the Federal Republic and the German Democratic Republic, which is covered separately in the article by Philipp Ther Beitrag von Philipp Ther, alike, the forced migrations of the postwar years meant enormous demographic changes. An estimated eight million people (about one sixth of the total population) had come to the Federal Republic, another four million persons resettled in the GDR. The federal states accomodating the largest number of people relative to the number of their inhabitants were Bavaria, Schleswig-Holstein, and Lower Saxony. The main countries of origin were Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, and Yugoslavia.

Absorption of Refugees and Expellees in the Federal Republic

The speedy integration of the refugees and expellees into West German society was the aim of the Allies' and Federal Governments' policies in order to prevent radical and revisionist tendencies and the emergence of a possible centre of conflict in the beginning Cold War .

The new arrivals' situation was often difficult. They frequently were separated from their relatives and neighbours in an initially strange new environment. Many lived in reception camps or residential camps, some of them for years. Early on, unemployment, jobs in professions other than they had learned or far below their qualifications were the rule. Since the destroyed cities offered too little living space, large numbers of refugees were put up in small towns or villages, for the tightly-knit communities of which they could be a large burden. Due to cultural and denominational differences and the generally difficult situation, the old-established population frequently met the new arrivals with a lack of understanding and rejection.

Serving counter in a reception camp (no information is available on when and where the picture was taken) Inventory of the Seliger Archive, held by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation's Archive of Social Democracy, portfolio no. 124.

From 1949 onwards it was possible to spread the refugees from Eastern Europe more evenly over the entire Federal Republic. A number of welfare measures was initiated. The most important single one of these measures was the Loss Compensation Act of 1952, which was intended to recompense the War's victims for their lost property. Besides persons who had been bombed out, war invalids, war widows and orphans, refugees and expellees from Eastern Europe were also granted financial backing. Intensive state subsidies in the housebuilding sector finally put an end to the housing shortage of the first years after the war. Since 1953, the "Act on the Affairs of Expellees and Refugees", which has been amended several times since then, regulates the economic, social, and cultural policy-related aspects of their absorption and integration. Regulations were also found for the absorption of "late resettlers". Not the least important passages of this act are those which define who is to be assigned to these groups. It is this text which caused the term Vertriebene, or "expellees", to become established in the German language, whereas a large number of terms was used before it was published.

The year 1950 saw the beginning of an economic upswing which culminated in full employment and in which the refugees played a major part both as labour force and as entrepreneurs.

The disbandment of the Federal Ministry of Expellee Affairs in 1969 indicated that the integration of the immigrants was considered as completed and coped with. Until that point, the sum which had been spent for the integration of refugees and expellees amounted to a staggering 100 billion Deutschmarks.

In particular during the Federal Republic's first years, a spate of literature dealing with the expulsions was published - Commemorative literature, books dealing with the regions the expellees came from, belletristic works, but also the first attempts at scientific documentation. Many of these works seem controversial because they document the events in a very biased and subjective fashion and thus can hardly be the basis for promoting dialogue and understanding. Memoirs and document collections were politically exploited and thus were able to gain the character of "exhibits for the prosecution" (cf. Hahn/Hahn, 2002). On the other hand, many of these publications played a role in the authors' reappraising and coming to terms with their traumatic experiences (cf. Lemberg, 2004).

The Expellees and the Beginnings of the Cold War

Besides the economic misery of the first years, the new constellation in world politics at the beginning of the Cold War constituted the setting within Germany and Europe dealt with the expulsion issue. For the Federal Republic, the countries where the expellees came from had become opponents, whereas these countries now were allies for the GDR. The Allies determined the foreign policy followed by the two German states. Since the Potsdam agreement, they had considered the ethnic segregation of Eastern Europe a guarantor for security, stability, and peace and one of the fundamental pillars of the postwar order.

Given these circumstances, it was not realistic to envision the possibility that the expellees might return. The ritually lodged complaints and the demands made by expellee functionaries and politicians must therefore be regarded first and foremorst as a device of association and party politics and a propaganda instrument conveniently used in the Cold War which was easily combined with the anticommunism which strongly shaped the Federal Republic's identity, especially in its first years.

Organized Expellee Interest Groups

Once this had become legally possible, a considerable number of refugee and expellee societies and associations were founded after 1948, which were exceedingly popular, especially during the first years. There are about two dozen associations for refugees and expellees from certain regions. Other associations are ideologically based, such as the Sudeten German societies Ackermann Community (Roman Catholic), Seliger Community (social democratic), and the Witikobund (nationalistic - the heirs of the movement of the same name from the time between the wars which sympathised with the Nazis). The Bund der Vertriebenen (BdV; Federation of Expellees) is the umbrella organization for many of the expellee associations.

It should be noted that the expellees' organizations do by no means represent all expellees, even though the associations themselves often make that claim. They only speak for their members, and on the whole, they are very much influenced by activists who do not always shrink from aggressive campaigning and strident tones. Moderate voices receive much less attention. All in all, the expellee organizations have been quite a significant political power in the Federal Republic of Germany. They knew how to keep the expulsion issue on the agenda for decades and formulated socio-political demands for equal rights, adequate work and an even distribution of the burdens of war. The most important document of their early years is the "Charter of German Expellees" of 1950, which is treated in greater detail in Peter Haslinger's text.

In the late 1960s, West Germany's new Ostpolitik ("policy towards the East"), improving relations with the Eastern European states and a more realistic attitude concerning the new borders meant that the topic of expulsions became less and less compatible with German foreign policy. At the same time, a new perspective of German guilt and responsibility for the crimes of World War II became generally accepted, while the expellee associations' representatives often attracted attention with their not very self-critical view of history. For them, history generally only counted from 1945 onwards and completely overlooked the years that came before. While the integration of most expellees and refugees continued and made a large number of personal success stories possible, the expellees' organizations themselves cultivated a fairly screened-off, closed world view, continuing to see themselves as victims of the War and maintaining their culture and customs with financial support from the state. Dialogue with the countries of origin was obstructed by their unrealistic demands, which also led their members to hope for results which could not be realised. They were faced with accusations of revisionism and revanchism and played an increasingly marginal role in West German politics and in most people's political awareness.

Political Parties and the Expellees

According to its political and social significance, the expellee problem also met with a wide response in party politics. It was not least the parties' interest in millions of possible votes which constituted the reason for all parties to take up the expellees' cause, at least in their rhetoric.

Founded in 1950, the Gesamtdeutscher Block/Block der Heimatvertriebenen und Entrechteten (GB/BHE; All-German Block/Block of Expellees and People Deprived of their Rights) was the most significant party considering itself as an advocate of the expellees' interests. After achieving success on state level (in 1950 gaining more than 23 per cent of the vote in Schleswig-Holstein, where the share of refugees of the total population at times amounted to one third in the years after the War), the party also was represented in the German parliament from 1953 onwards (with a share of the vote of 5.9 per cent) and was part of the ruling coalition headed by the Christian Democratic Union. In 1954, the party had its largest membership - more than 160,000 people. From 1957 (when the party gained 4.6 per cent of the vote) onwards, the GB/BHE's election results constantly deteriorated, a fate which could not be altered by its joining forces with the German Party. The 1961 election result was just 2.8 per cent. In 1965, the party did not stand for the parliamentary elections any longer.

The GB/BHE exclusively remained a party advocating the interests of expellees and refugees alone and did not develop any particular political programme or profile beyond that scope. Politically, its representatives were mostly right-wing or conservative tending towards the right. Former National Socialists also played a role in the party. It was very close to the expellees' organizations, and often the same persons were to be found in both the party and one of the organizations. The emergence and decline of the GB/BHE is closely linked to the history of the expellees' integration. Its existence was a symptom of the often difficult economic situation and the low degree of integration that many expellees found themselves in during the Federal Republic's first years. Once the economic situation improved and the expellees were fully integrated into the society and the labour market, the GB/BHE lost its socio-political relevance and became an increasingly extremist, conservative and nationalistic peripheral phenomenon no longer able to win elections. Most of those who had formerly voted for the GB/BHE shifted their allegiance to the Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union (in Bavaria) parties, much as many of its MPs did. Some members of its leadership, however, moved to the right-wing extremist camp and were among the founders of the National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD).

Even though the percentage of left-wingers and liberals was not very high among the expellees, some expellees were to be found in the Social Democratic Party (SPD) holding high positions at national or federal state level. The most prominent of them was Wenzel Jaksch, one of Sudeten German Social Democrats' leading representatives even before and during the War, who became a member of the SPD's shadow cabinet for the 1961 elections and was a candidate for the office of Federal Minister of Expellee Affairs. During the first years in particular, prominent SPD figures such as Kurt Schumacher also explicitly supported the claim to the former eastern territories.

The new Ostpolitik, which was co-initiated by the SPD in the late 1960s and which was intended to soften up the rigid confrontation of bloc vs. block that was stabilising the Warsaw Pact, placed great strain on the party's relationship with the expellees' organizations. One of the pillars of this new policy was the recognition - not under international law, but at least factual - of the postwar borders, on which the credibility of the policy of détente and of dialogue essentially depended. Since then, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), have been the most important partners for the expellees' organizations on the German party political scene. This applies particularly to the CSU - in Bavaria, expellees accounted for almost one quarter of the population in the late 1940s, and until today the CSU knows how to appear as champion of the expellees' cause and to gain many votes from that particular group.

The explosive impact which the expulsion issue could have on German party politics became evident in the early 1970s. At first, CDU and CSU vehemently opposed the treaties with the East, and the fact that Herbert Hupka, a prominent expellee functionary, changed sides and defected from the SPD to the CDU, a move which was followed by other MPs, as well, brought the social-liberal coalition to the brink of failure in 1972. At the insistence of the U.S. government, which also wanted the policy of détente to succeed, the treaties finally were ratified, with abstentions from most CDU/CSU MPs. Under international law, the fiction of the "borders of 1937" was officially maintained until the "2+4 Treaty" of 1990 - it was finally abandoned by chancellor Helmut Kohl's CDU government.

The Expellees in the early 21st Century

In the past few years, the expellees' associations have made more of an effort to become involved in current affairs once more. The youngest members of the generation witnessing the expulsions first-hand are at least sixty years of age today. The associations have problems attracting new blood. This, among others, is the reason why the expellees are pushing for the creation of a "Centre against Forced Migrations", which is to be intended to be present as a central memorial within Germany's remembrance culture.

Some expellees' representatives stir up trouble concerning the relations with Germany's Eastern European neighbouring states and new EU partners even today. Some of them plan to enforce reparation claims against Eastern European states at international courts of law. Demands such as the one for a "just national order within Europe" or the "right to self-determination" for the German minority in these countries bring back memories of similar diction from the time between the wars and allude to new border shifts.

All parties represented in the Bundestag agree on the finality of the borders and on rejecting the compensation claims made by some expellees' functionaries. They are divided, however, on the most suitable form of remembrance, especially when it comes to the "Centre against Forced Migrations" demanded by the Federation of Expellees, a demand which is supported by CDU and CSU but rejected by the "Red-Green" coalition government of Social Democrats and Greens which was in office until late 2005. Away from such conflicts, which are often motivated by party politics, the relationship between the expeelles and their contries and communities of origin has further developed since the fall of the Iron Curtain. On this level, mutual visits and encounters, political and scientific dialogue, youth exchange programmes and cultural events take place.


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