Book Review: Orderly and Humane by R.M. Douglas
Full disclosure, Ray Douglas was one of my history professors at Colgate University.
That said, Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans After the Second World War delves into a history many people have forgotten, even those who lived it. After World War II ended, millions of German-speakers remained in Eastern Europe. Some of them were settlers sent East by the Nazis, to Germanize the conquered territories, but most of them came from families that had been there since the Middle Ages. The governments of the newly liberated countries, especially Poland and what was then Czechoslovakia, considered the “ethnic Germans,” called Volksdeutsche in the book, as guilty as the Nazis for the war and all the suffering visited upon the peoples of Europe. Furthermore, the continued presence of Volksdeutsche outside of Germany would be a threat to Europe’s future peace. Eastern Europe, with support from the Western Allies and the Soviet Union, began forcing the Volksdeutsche to leave for Germany in mass expulsions that lasted from the end of the war to the early fifties.
Orderly and Humane is a scholarly work of history that weaves a compelling tale about man’s inhumanity to man. There is a strange fearful symmetry to the history; much of the animus that resulted in the mass expulsions of Volksdeutsche was a consequence of the Nazi racial program. As the Nazis conquered territory in the east, Poland in particular, they prepared to ‘Germanize’ it; that is, settle German-speakers on the land, and collect any indigenes that could be considered German and give them a proper education (teaching them to speak German, encouraging them to think like Nazis). When the war turned against Germany, some of the settlers and Volksdeutsche fled west, hoping to get out of reach of the Red Army, but most remained where they were when the war ended.
The governments of the USSR, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Yugoslavia and Romania argued that the remaining Germans in their lands represented a danger that needed to be dealt with quickly. As early as 1944, the exiled leaders of Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe prevailed upon the Western Allies to support population transfers. Douglas goes deep into the development of the plans for population transfer, and how it laid the groundwork for the tragic execution. Before and after the war, the question “who is a German?” became all-important, and remained murky and questionable. But Orderly and Humane does not spend too much time dwelling on questions of ethnicity, rather Douglas presents the conclusions history’s actors came to, because the understanding of ethnicity that drove such disparate personalities as Hitler and Edward Benes are what matter here. If we are to understand the expulsions of the 1940s, it is necessary to face the ideas of ethnicity and nation used by the perpetrators. While the world is used to imagining that Hitler viewed race in stark terms, when it came to Poles and Czechs, the Nazis allowed some ambiguity. The Poles and Czechs, Douglas argues, would take the same ambiguous view. Individuals that could be ‘reclaimed’ for their respective nations, usually children, were brought back into the fold by the same force that sent penniless, destitute expellees into a ruined, occupied Germany that could not or would not care for them. Ironically, the expulsions robbed Eastern Europe of millions of economically productive individuals and contributed to an economic ruination of certain regions.
I mentioned in the opening paragraph that Orderly and Humane describes a forgotten episode. Douglas even describes the deliberate process of forgetting that began as early as the expulsions did. Expellees, especially children, were prevented from speaking out once they reached Germany. The Allies re-wrote the story to turn the expellees into victims of Communism, while the Communists that ruled Eastern Europe for two generations presented the expellees as unreconstructed Nazis. Over time, the tale was simply not told. American history classes tend not to cover the expulsion. The ironic thing about this forgetting is that the expulsions were not secret. They could not be kept secret. Trainloads of expellees were loaded in full view of reporters. Germany itself has had a hard time grappling with the mass expulsions as history. Konrad Adenuaer talked about righting wrongs visited on Germany, but was never in a position to address them directly. Expellee attempts to petition the UN proved fruitless over and over again. To make the forgetting even easier, bringing up this topic can be construed as asking people to feel sorry for Nazis (rightly or wrongly, as the case may be) or is easily deflected by the simple, factual expedient that Nazi crimes outweigh the experience of German expulsions by whatever metric you would like. Douglas did not write Orderly and Humane because all human suffering is equal, or to make us feel bad for Nazis, but because it is history, the expulsion of the Germans contributed to the creation of modern Europe and the story needs to be told.
The book ends with a pointed conclusion about the lessons the modern world failed to learn from the 1940s thanks to this deliberate forgetting. Douglas quotes politicians and political commentators who have argued for further population transfers in the Balkans and the Middle East as a way to create a lasting peace by separating members of feuding tribes. The idea that population transfers can solve political problems is still with us. Douglas wrote his book to answer the question: does this help? His answer is emphatically no. Douglas argues that the experience of the Germans prove that population transfers do not resolve problems, but create them. You cannot move millions of unwilling migrants without directly harming the expellees and the economies they leave behind and move to. Furthermore, mass expulsions will only leave a legacy of bitterness and pain that is just as likely to create the tension they were meant to avoid. He says it very specifically in the book: orderly and humane population transfer is an oxymoron. Benes and others in Eastern Europe claimed they could move millions of people humanely, orderly and quickly. Only quickly was accomplished.