I grew up in a German immigrant family that carried a lot of silent guilt. Guilt can be heavy, messy and complicated. Small wonder that religion was so important.
The word refugee was a common term in our house. The German word is Flüchtling (literally meaning: person in flight). Growing up, there were two kinds of Germans…the Reichsdeutsche (someone from Germany proper—they had status) and the Flüchtlinge (this word had a condescending feel to it). These were my childhood impressions.
The word “Reich” literally means ‘kingdom’ or ‘empire’ as in Hitler’s Third Reich. The Third Reich, was an attempt to rebuild after the failed “Second Reich,” (formed in 1871 under Bismarck with the unification of the German states) and ending with the German defeat in 1918. (The First German Reich was the Holy Roman Empire from 962-1806.)
My dad was a Reichs German and my mom was a Flüchtling. As a child, I confused ‘Reich’ with ‘reich.’ The noun and the adjective. To be ‘reich’ means to be rich. And this certainly was the case. The Reichs Deutsche might have had bombed out homes, but they still had homes. The Flüchtlinge had to flee their homes, their farms and their villages. They had literally nothing—not even photos, and few documents. For example, my mom had no birth certificate.
There’s another term synonymous with the Flüchtlinge of my growing up years: Volks-deutsche. A Volk-German is an ethnic German living outside of the Reich. There were substantial German populations throughout Europe: Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Soviet Union, Lithuania, etc. In most cases, these people had been living peacefully side-by-side with the locals for centuries. Hitler changed all that with his push for Lebensraum. When the war ended, the Allies determined that the best way to solve the German problem was to force all ethnic Germans into Germany proper. And that’s what happened.
Moving between twelve and fourteen million people (mostly women, children and elderly) identified as German between 1945 and 1950 became the largest ‘ethnic cleansing’ in history. It happened at a time when resources for the whole continent were limited. No country had extra food for millions of homeless, needy people. Consequently, it was an expulsion with horrific suffering. Because the ethnic Germans had benefited under the Third Reich there was little sympathy for their subsequent plight. Whether they were babes in arms or bedridden elderly, they were German and therefore they had to pay for the crimes of the Nazis.
It’s because of this guilt that their stories have been hushed. I’m not trying to judge the morality of this. Rather, I’m trying to understand the experiences of my family. All of Europe was a quagmire of suffering throughout the forties. I’m exploring this ugly time of humanity because it had a such a major impact on my immediate family. Nobody would or could explain their stories to me while I was a kid growing up in the suburbs of Winnipeg.
History books never gave more than a few passing references to the expulsions. That’s why I devoured R. M. Douglas’s book, with the ironic title: Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War. It finally gave me a sense of perspective—gave voice to the guilty silence. It also helped me to understand the difference between the Flüchtlinge who were fleeing the Soviet advance in the winter of ’45 and the people displaced because of a desire for revenge. These people were forced to leave their homes, detained in transition camps and finally shoved into overcrowded freight trains and dumped into a bombed-out Germany. The country obviously had no resources to absorb the millions of newcomers. The Allies supervised this ethnic cleansing, while Nazi leaders were being tried for the same crimes.
Politics matter. Let's make sure we don't vote for leaders who have hostile intentions against our neighbours.
Top photo attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1983-0422-315 / Donath, Otto / CC-BY-SA 3.0