Bibliothek der FES Netz-Quelle Pressemitteilungen Hilfe Impressum

FES Net Source: History and Politics

Forced Migration and Expulsion
in 20th Century Europe


Bild - Flüchtlingslager

Essensausgabe in einem Aufnahmelager (Nachkriegszeit, keine genauen Angaben zum Datum und Ort der Aufnahme vorhanden). Bestand Seliger-Archiv im Archiv der sozialen Demokratie der Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, Mappe Nr. 124.



Forced migrations were a central element of European history in the 20th century. A nationalism which demanded ethnic homogeneity as a basis of political order became one of the most effective and powerful ideologies of the era. This nationalism presented the displacement of parts of the population as a legitimate political means, legitimized the use of force against minorities and made millions of human beings into victims of arbitrariness, persecution and expulsion. Ethnic engineering is one of the darkest sides of industrial modernism.

Seen from this perspective, a connection can be perceived between a multitude of events which took place during different periods in various regions of Europe:

  • the expulsions and population transfers in the Balkans in the first quarter of the century
  • the reorganization of national borders after World War I
  • Germany's "population policy" during the period of National Socialism, especially when acting as an occupying power in Eastern Europe
  • the expulsions in Eastern Europe after the end of World War II
  • the "ethnic cleansings" which happened in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s

Some connecting factors can also be discerned if one looks at the Holocaust.

This is not meant to discount the specific characteristics which marked every single one of those events. The victims' point of view inevitably varies from individual to individual and is marked by personal experiences.

The Net Source Forced Migrations and Expulsions, which focuses on the expulsion of the German population from Eastern Europe after 1945 as its central topic, still uses this approach without treating the expulsion of Germans as a unique event. Instead, it is to be embedded in the larger historic scope, and correlations which exist beyond the immediate events are to be shown and their inherent problems are to be expounded on.

On the Terminology

The many events which are being dealt with on these pages happened at different times, in different places and under quite different general historic conditions. One thing all types of forced migration do have in common, however, is that the members of an ethnically defined section of the population had to leave their homes because they belonged to that very group. This is why all these phenomena can be subsumed under the term forced migrations.

There is a number of terms used for forced migrations and related phenomena, terms which on sthe one hand describe different events but on the other hand can be used because they are linked to a specific interpretation of historic events. The terms "Aussiedlung" ("relocation") or "Umsiedlung" ("resettlement") suggest an orderly procedure. A similar connotation adheres to the Czech expression odsun ("expulsion") or the Polish term "repatriation", which was used during the communist era for the forced resettlement of the Polish population from those areas that had been annexed to the Soviet Union after World War II.

Forced migration always originates with governments (or de facto governments, as in former Yugoslavia), which use the national power structure in order to enforce these activities. Almost all forced migrations take place in connection with wars or civil wars.

  • Forced migrations can be effected by governments who transfer members of their "own" ethnicity living in other countries to their own state (similar to the model of the "population exchange" conducted between Greece and Turkey). The basis for such procedures are international treaties between governments.
  • During World War II, Germany, as an occupying power, had large areas of land cleared for German settlers, for instance in Poland and Czechoslovakia ("Generalplan Ost", or "General Plan for the East"). Deportations of people into forced labour camps, concentration camps and ghettos were a major part of German occupation policy.
  • The forced resettlement of national minorities is the third important type of forced migrations. It happened, for instance, after World War II in the liberated countries of Eastern Europe or in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Some connected phenomena, which often take place at the same time are

  • so-called "wild expulsions", which are not organised centrally, but come about locally and spontaneously (in many cases, however, they are tolerated or even secretly steered by the state)
  • Escape, e.g. from an approaching army. The term 'evacuation' implies that it is organized by governmental or military authorities.
  • Genocide, which does not aim at expulsion, but at the deliberate and systematic death of the members of an ethnic group and the extermination of the group as a whole.

The interrelation between these types of events, the dividing line between which can become quite fluid is currently discussed very vividly by historians.

In the Federal Republic of Germany, the term expulsion (Vertreibung) and the word expellee (Vertriebener) have become general usage after World War II. The Federal Expellee Act of 1953 was a major influence in this respect, while in the years prior to this act, other terms had been used, especially the expressions "escape" and "refugees" (c.f. the sources stemming from that time).

Note of Thanks

Thanks to the Erich Brost Foundation's support, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation Library is able to provide Internet users, especially in Germany and Poland, with a large number of digital full texts, literary references and other information.
We also wish to thank all authors who wrote contributions to this Web site, Mr. Rainer Gries of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation Library for his support when it came to choosing the literature and clarifying the issue of publication rights, Mr. Wolfgang Stärcke of the Archive of Social Democracy (AdsD) and, in particular, Mr. Horst-Peter Schulz, also of the AdsD, for his contribution to choosing texts and documents from the archive.


Bonn, im Oktober 2004
Gerrit Schäfer


Literary References

Franzen, K. Erik
Die Vertriebenen : Hitlers letzte Opfer , [Begleitbuch zur dreiteiligen Fernsehserie] / K. Erik Franzen. - Berlin [u.a.] : Propyläen Verl., 2001. - 288 S. : Ill.
Literaturverz. S. 282 - 284
ISBN 3-549-07135-3
Weitere beteiligte Personen: Hans Lemberg
Signatur(en): C 01-139

Empfehlenswerte, gut lesbare Einführung, die die Vertreibung der deutschen Bevölkerung aus Osteuropa nach 1945 zum Schwerpunkt hat, aber auch auf wichtige Querverbindungen zum Gesamtphänomen "Zwangsmigrationen" hinweist.


Umsiedlung, Flucht und Vertreibung der Deutschen als internationales Problem : zur Geschichte eines europäischen Irrwegs ; Darstellungen und Perspektiven, das Thema im Unterricht, Quellen und Materialien / Hrsg.: Haus der Heimat des Landes Baden-Württemberg. Autoren ...: Mathias Beer .... - Stuttgart, 2002. - 92 S. : zahlr. Ill.
ISBN 3-935293-33-X
Signatur(en): C 02-2488

Gute Einführung speziell für den Unterrichtsgebrauch. Enthält viel Quellenmaterial und Karten. Erhältlich beim Haus der Heimat des Landes Baden-Württemberg.


Flucht und Vertreibung in europäischer Perspektive :
Zeitschrift für Geschichtswissenschaft, 51/1 (2003). -
Hrsg. v. Jürgen Danyel und Philipp Ther
Signatur(en): X 1069

Sonderheft der ZfG mit zahlreichen sehr lesenswerten Beiträgen zur aktuellen wissenschaftlichen Debatte zum Thema Zwangsmigrationen und Vertreibungen.


Link to the Forword of Gesine Schwan

Literature out of the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation Library

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(Text in polish language/ Tekst w języku polskim)