March 26th 2016

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Articles from this issue:

ROYAL COMMISSION INTO SEXUAL ABUSE: J'accuse...! A travesty of justice

CANBERRA OBSERVED Turnbull's grand plan coming apart it seems

EDITORIAL Defence White Paper: rhetoric outpaces action


DOMESTIC AND FAMILY VIOLENCE Is not family breakdown the real issue?

ECONOMICS Oil offers resistance to free market's operation

HISTORY OF TAIWAN Kaohsiung Incident opens road to democracy

LAW AND SOCIETY Section 18C may render all speech "inoffensive"

VICTORIAN PARLIAMENT Risk to democracy, rights in health complaints bill

RESEARCH Transgenderism: treat it as a mental illness

MUSIC In deliberate pursuit of accidental sounds: Arve Henriksen

CINEMA AND SOCIETY Hollywood writes in "hero" part for Trumbo

CINEMA Hailing the Golden Era: Hail Caesar!

BOOK REVIEW Diminished expectations

BOOK REVIEW 12 million refugees

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12 million refugees

News Weekly, March 26, 2016


ORDERLY AND HUMANE: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War

by R.M. Douglas

(Yale UP, New Haven, 2013)
Paperback: 504 pages
ISBN: 9780300198201
Price: AUD$45.95


Reviewed by Bill James


This was, by the author’s admission, a difficult book to write, or at least to explain to his academic colleagues, and it is also a difficult book to read. On the one hand, it commendably reveals the little-known truth about the appalling treatment of German minorities after World War II. On the other hand, it does not reflect well on the war’s victors, and upsets our simple, black-and-white stereotype of Germans as perpetual perpetrators of abuse and never victims of it.

But that is not a reason for remaining silent: “Among the examples of mass human rights violations of modern times, in no other case has the argument been advanced that acknowledging the fact of its occurrence should be discouraged for fear that doing so might tend to diminish the horror that properly should be felt in respect of a still greater crime.”

During the years 1945–47, at least 12 million Germans, the vast majority women, children, and the elderly, were expelled by Czechoslovakia, Poland and Yugoslavia, which had been occupied by the Nazis, and by Germany’s wartime allies Romania and Hungary.

Expulsions from Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary were recognised at the 1945 Potsdam Conference by the Big Three – Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union – who cooperated with them.

The motivation for the expulsions was threefold.

First, they were meant to rectify the failures of the post-World War I Versailles Treaty’s attempt at self-determination, that is, to force national boundaries to correspond with ethnic homogeneity. Second, they represented a cleansing of alleged traitorous elements who had collaborated with German expansionism, and might do so again. Third, they were an opportunity for nations to regain a sort of pride by humiliating and looting representatives of their recent conquerors.

Two waves of expulsions

The first wave, the so-called “Wild Expulsions” of 1945, were an attempt by governments, using troops and police while painting them as spontaneous populism, to terrorise their German minorities into fleeing en masse before the Big Three changed their minds or introduced troublesome procedures. Subsequent “Organised Expulsions” over the next two years were carried out with at least a formal semblance of official supervision and organisation.

Both stages however, were experientially similar for their expellee victims. They were herded into filthy, overcrowded, corruptly administered detention centres, without adequate shelter, heating, food, water, hygiene, sanitation or medical facilities, and subjected to beatings, sexual abuse and executions.

A combination of disease, starvation, exposure and ill treatment produced tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands of deaths. Children were separated from parents, sometimes permanently, and both children and adults were used as forced labour.

Conditions on the trains that took these Volksdeutsche “home” were as bad as in the camps, and on their arrival in Germany they were faced with administrative chaos, bombed-out housing, unemployment, and precious little sympathy from the resident Reichsdeutsche.

Not only in the expelling countries, but also in the victorious Western democracies, the predominant attitude (with honourable exceptions, such as George Orwell) was that the forcibly ejected German communities deserved everything they got. After all, they were Germans, they had supported Hitler, and they had therefore been complicit in the Nazi horrors visited upon their host countries.

Their post-war hardships were a taste of their own medicine, and actually less of a punishment than they deserved for the far worse sufferings imposed by the German subjugations after 1939.

Now, it is true that there is no moral equivalence between what was endured by Nazi-occupied European countries 1939–45, and what was endured by the German minorities forced out of them 1945–47. R.M. Douglas is aware that he could be accused of drawing just such a false comparison, thereby somehow mitigating the evil of fascism.

He therefore states unequivocally: “Whatever occurred after the war cannot possibly be equated to the atrocities perpetrated by the Germans during it, and suggestions to the contrary – including those made by expellees themselves – are both deeply offensive and historically illiterate. Nothing I have written in this book should be taken to suggest otherwise.”

Women, children, the elderly

That being said, some related points should be made.

First, as pointed out above, most expellees were women, children and the old, and therefore unlikely to have participated in war crimes. Their demonisation is an illustration of the dangers of the attribution of group guilt.

Second, some were anti-Nazi, and many others simply kept their heads down and went along with the occupations in order to survive, as did most of the population in nearly every invaded country.

Third, members of resident German communities who actively collaborated with, and benefited from the occupations, did not necessarily deserve to be treated with the arbitrary and savage violence which so often accompanied the operation of expulsions.

While the foregoing gives the gist of Douglas’ account, he analyses many other interesting aspects of this hitherto neglected historical episode. These include the unseemly fights over abandoned German property in the evacuated areas, and the generally disastrous attempts to resettle them with members of the ethnic majority; historical antecedents of, and parallels to, forced population movements (such as Stalin’s); the status of mass deportations in international law; and the subsequent experiences and treatment of expellees in East, West and reunified Germany.

Douglas sums up his case thus: “Expulsions are not practicable unless they are carried out quickly; and if they are carried out quickly, they cannot be carried out humanely”.

His exemplary scholarship, humanity and impartiality are displayed in the book itself. His sense of irony is displayed in its title, Orderly And Humane, which is quoted from the directions of the 1945 Potsdam Conference as to how the expulsions were to be conducted.

Purchase this book at the bookshop:


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