By R.M. Douglas
Yale University Press
1940s movies and domestic propaganda put an understandably noble face on Allied efforts in World War II. It was only in the decades afterwards that some of the morally questionable and transparently brutal counter-evidence emerged: not just the Holocaust and Japanese Army atrocities but the British firebombing of undefended Dresden, the American saturation terror bombing of Tokyo, the deadly irradiating of Nagasaki, to name the most prominent . By the 1960s, war novels by American veterans were revealing unflattering memories. Revelations continue--in the novel By Blood, the previous book reviewed here, for instance, the reality that even after the war, even after some German concentration camps were liberated, Jews continued to live in them, because no other country would take them.
But in today’s soundbite history, World War II has reverted to the purity of The Last Good War fought by The Greatest Generation. The truth as it still emerges is a great deal more complicated for what one historian calls the number one “multicide” in human history, with a minimum of 66 million dead, at least half of them civilians.
And the death toll did not end with the end of the war. Historian R.M. Douglas writes in compelling detail about a little known set of events: at war’s end the Allies ran “the largest forced population transfer—and perhaps the greatest single movement of peoples—in human history.” Some 12 to 14 million German-speaking civilians, most of them women and children, were extracted from their homes in eastern Europe and sent to Germany “amidst the ruins of the Reich, to fend for themselves as best they could.”
Some were transported in locked train freight cars, scenes that we know from Nazi treatment of Jews, and some were held in concentration camps, including Auschwitz. Starvation, disease and abuse resulted in half a million to a million deaths. Douglas explicitly states there is no legitimate comparison or equivalence to the Holocaust, but some of the Holocaust’s victims saw a moral parallel. An Auschwitz survivor viewed with shame the silence that surrounded these events. “We used to console ourselves by saying ‘only the Germans are capable of such things.’”
German speakers were expelled and their property confiscated largely at the behest of host countries (Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland) because they wouldn’t be tolerated by their majority populations, though no evidence was offered for this claim. The massive transfers—or what more recently would be called ethnic cleansings--quickly turned into bureaucratic and international nightmares.
Douglas relies on verifiable sources to describe these expulsions within the context of the relevant and tangled history of Europe, especially the legacies of World War I. They bear directly on the 1990s ethnic violence in the Balkans, and aspects of this story are way too reminiscent of the recent Iraq occupation. This is an absorbing and eye-opening account, an educational astringent and an antidote to the oversimplified and self-satisfied cliches about World War II that constitute the current conventional wisdom.