Displacement of people, mass evacuation and forced deportation was a common occurrence in several countries following the Second World War. These evacuation and expulsion were caused by a number of factors including the increasing hostilities between the Allied and Axis Powers and the ensuing border changes that were enacted during the pre-war settlement. In Europe, the end of the Second World War resulted in the largest population transfers in the continent’s history. For instance, there was expulsion and evacuation of millions of Germans from Eastern Europe; hundreds of thousands of Jews who survived the genocide carried out the Nazi embarked on securing homes outside their native lands; and refugees from all countries in the Eastern Europe moved out in order to evade the newly established Communist governments. The movement of Germans was the most remarkable and entailed the transfer of at least 12 million people, which was the largest population movement for any single ethnic group in contemporary history. Douglas points out that the post-war evacuations were a manmade disaster characterized by a mass violation of human rights in contemporary history. The mass population transfers are often illustrated as a justified retribution for the atrocities committed by the Nazi Germany during wartime. In addition, a number of historians argue that the population transfers were a painful but needed measure in order to guarantee future peace in the continent. As Frank points out, the move to expel German-speaking minorities is justifiable taking into account the fact Germans were responsible for the Holocaust, and that the population transfers have proved to be “a fruitful experiment in the facilitating the diffusion of ethnic antagonisms in Europe”. This paper accounts for the post-war population transfers in Europe.
Historians have provided with different accounts of mass population transfers in Europe after the Second World War. Owing to the complexity of the affected regions and the contradictory interests of the Allied powers that emerged victorious after the war, it is relatively difficult to come up with a definitive account of the population transfers in Europe following the World War II. Furthermore, when placing emphasis on the mass expulsion of Germans from their territories after the war, Douglas points out that the Potsdam Agreement stated vaguely and agreed that the transfer of German populations in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland to Germany would have to be carried out, albeit in a humane and orderly manner. The four main motives for expelling Germans included the need to establish nation-states that were ethnically homogeneous; the perception that a German minority was likely troublesome; the need to punish the Germans for their atrocities and war crimes; and soviet political considerations.
The first explanation to the mass transfers in Europe, particularly with regard to the expulsion of Germans back to their home country, was driven by the need to establishing nation-states that were ethnically homogeneous in Eastern and Central Europe. This was the official reason for expelling Germans as spelled out in the Potsdam Agreement and other previous conferences carried by Allied powers. The principle adopted by every nation to build its own nation state resulted in a chain of resettlements and expulsions of Ukrainians, Poles, Germans and other individuals who had settled outside their supposed home countries. The legitimacy of the concept was derived from the 1923 population exchange between Turkey and Greece. With regard to the desire to establish and develop ethnically homogeneous nation states, there was no need to set up borders through regions that were already characterized by homogeneous inhabitation by Germans with no minorities. For instance, During September 9, 1944, a treaty was signed in Lublin between Soviet Union and Poles in order to facilitate the exchange of Ukrainians and Poles residing on the “wrong” area of the Curzon line. This resulted in the expulsion of about 2.1 million Poles from the Soviet territory of Kresy, resettlement of “repatriants” back to former Germany territories. In 19 May 1945, Eduard Benes, the second President of Czech Republic, signed a decree that declared Germans and ethnic Hungarians as being “unreliable for the country, which was instrumental in paving way for the expulsions and confiscations of Germans back to Austria and the East and West Germany. From this case, it is evident that the desire to establish a nation state that was ethnically homogeneous was instrumental in facilitating the mass transfers of people who found themselves outside their home countries after the Second World War.
The second reason for the mass population transfers in Europe after the World War II was the perception that, even a German minority was likely to be troublesome; this stemmed from the distrust and hostility and the need to prevent ethnic violence in the continent. One of the major reasons for the mass transfer of Germans from their prior territories was the assertion that these the Nazi movement dominated these areas. Joseph Stalin, a de facto leader of the Soviet Union, cited this reason as a justification to expel the Germans from their previous eastern territories. Nevertheless, neither Joseph Stalin nor other supporters of this assertion required that German expelled be assessed to determine the nature of their political activities or attitudes. Even in a few instances when the Germans were checked, they were found to be opponents, victims, or bystanders of the Nazi movement, but they were not spared from the deportation. Further, the hatred for the Nazi movement was exploited and manipulated to intensify the deportation of Germans; an example being Polish Communists, who justified their mass expulsion of the Germans using their hatred towards the Nazis. For the case of Germans who lived in pre-war Poland, the fear of disloyalty from Germans in Pomerelia and Eastern Upper Silesia, which stemmed from the wartime Nazi activities, was instrumental in their expulsion. Nazi wartime activities that resulted in the fear of disloyalty from the Poles included the identification and execution of poles as well as illegal detention by a Nazi ethnic German organization known as Selbstschutz. With regard to the need to prevent further ethnic violence, parties to the Potsdam Conference maintained that the only way to prevent further ethnic violence was through the expulsions. As Winston Churchill, a former British Prime Minister, stated in the House of Commons, “expulsion is the only method that is likely to lasting and most satisfactory and that it will eliminate the mixture of population that is likely to cause endless trouble...”
Moreover, the third reason that accounts for the mass population transfers in Europe following the Second World War was the need to punish German Nazis for their atrocities and starting the war. According to Frank, there was the yearning for retribution for the German’s brutal treatment of non-German civilians in German territories during the Second World War. As a result, the mass transfers were partially motivated by the need to punish the German conquerors for their war crimes, brutalities and atrocities. In 28 October 1945, Czech Republic President, Eduard Benes, justified the expulsions of the Germans by claiming that a majority of Germans in the country supported Hitler. Benes held Germans liable for the actions initiated by their home country. In Czech Republic and Poland, there was a public call for retribution for German’s wartime activities by politicians and newspaper agencies. In addition, commanders of the post war Polish military called for retribution and pointed out that the German population was liable for the war crimes committed in the name of their country. However, in Poland, the country had lost about 6 million people and almost the entire Jewish population following the Holocaust; as a result, Germans in the country were perceived to be Nazi-perpetrators, and it was time to punish them collectively for their past heinous actions. Another reason for the population transfers in Europe following the Second World War was a counter action by Germany to reprise the exodus of Germans from Eastern Europe. This resulted to the eviction of Poles by the Nazi Germany during the Second World War, which was a huge Nazi German operation that sought to forcefully resettle at least 1.7 million ethnic Poles from all its territories in order to achieve their geopolitical Germanization objective.
Another account for the post war mass population transfers in Europe can be related to the political considerations of the Soviet Union. Joseph Stalin had earlier ordered several population transfers that seemed to work in favor of the Soviet Union. For instance, the satellite states felt the need for Soviet Union to protect them from angered Germans following the expulsion. In addition, the expellees left numerous assets in Poland and Czech Republic, which were used in rewarding collaboration with the new governments, and supporting the Communists particularly in regions that had witnessed massive expulsions. Furthermore, settlers who inhabited in the territories embraced the opportunities provided by the vacated homes and fertile soils, which increased their loyalty to Soviet Union. Since the outcomes of earlier German expulsions from their Eastern and Central territories worked in favor of the Soviet Union, this served as an incentive to undertake further population transfers.
Jolluck analyzes the mass population transfers in Europe basing on Potsdam Conference decision, and formulates four accounts of the population transfers. First, the Potsdam conference sought to prevent German from expanding to the east. For a long time, German nationalists had exploited the existence of large numbers of German minorities in other nations as a framework for expanding their territories. For instance, Adolf Hitler exploited this ideology in order to wage aggressive wars. Basing on this line of reasoning, it was perceived that expelling Germans from Eastern and Central Europe would help alleviate German’s expansion eastwards and eliminate the likely causes of trouble. Second, mass population transfers were perceived as act of historical justice, wherein Germans were supposed to pay for the crimes committed in the name of their country. Third, Poland perceived that the only viable solution to address issues facing its citizenry was to expel Germans away and utilize their properties to help its people in need. Forth, mass population transfers in Europe can be attributed Joseph Stalin’s greed for land. Basing on this perspective, it is apparent that the reason for Soviet Union shifting the Polish-German border was to expand the Soviet Union westwards. Moreover, Joseph Stalin had the intent of paying the Poles fir the Eastern areas of Poland so that they could be annexed by the USSR.
The mass population transfers can also be looked at in the light of the established sovereign states in Europe using their sovereign power to initiate mass population transfers. Before World War II, there were instances whereby established governments in the continent opted to use their sovereign power to initiate mass population expulsions on the basis of state’s interests. For instance, during the First World War, the Tsarist Russian military initiated a forced resettlement of the Jews in their Southern and Central Polish territories on account that they were not loyal to Russian interests. Another example is the case of Turkish government putting Armenians on forced marches during World War I in 1915. Previously, the Turkish government had signed an agreement with Greece to voluntary exchange Turkish and Greek minorities from their corresponding territories. The Second World War was not a struggle for international, territorial and empire domination but also a competition between social and political systems. During the early phases of the war, governments emphasized on their right to carry out forced resettlements and population expulsions on the basis of military and political interest. This resulted to the mass deportation of minority ethnic groups or minority national groups on accounts that their existence was a threat to the national security and that national or ethnic homogeneity strengthened national security. Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy drew upon this ideology to expel minorities from their territories.
In conclusion, this paper has discussed a number of reasons that attempt to account for the population transfer in Europe after the Second World War. The reasons highlighted in this paper include the need to establish nation-states that were ethnically homogeneous in Eastern and Central Europe; perception that even a German minority was likely to be troublesome, this stemmed from the distrust and hostility and the need to prevent ethnic violence in the continent; the need to punish German Nazis for their atrocities and starting the war; and the political considerations of the Soviet Union, wherein he had earlier ordered several population transfers that seemed to work in favor of the Soviet Union. Other accounts include the need to prevent German’s expansion eastwards, and Poland perceived that the only viable solution to address issues facing its citizenry was to expel Germans away and utilize their properties to help its people in need. However, it is imperative to note that it is relatively difficult to come up with a definitive account of the population transfers in Europe following the World War II because of the complexity of the affected regions and the contradictory interests of the Allied powers that emerged victorious after the war.