Ethnic Cleansing and Nationalization in the German-Polish and German-Czech Borderlands
In his study of the Polish massacre of the Jewish inhabitants of Jedwabne in July 1941, Jan Tomasz Gross suggested that the myth of Jewish collaboration with the Soviet Union, often used to justify Polish indifference to the fate of the Jews, was in fact constructed by Polish collaborators:
Thus, it appears that the local non-Jewish population projected its own attitude toward the Germans in 1941 (this story remains a complete taboo and has never been studied in Polish historiography) onto an entrenched narrative about how the Jews allegedly behaved vis-à-vis the Soviets in 1939. . . . Could this be, perhaps, a particular instance of a more general phenomenon characteristic of this epoch? Aren’t people compromised by collaboration with a repressive regime predestined, so to speak, to become collaborators of the next repressive regime that gains power over the same area? Such individuals would be inclined to demonstrate enthusiasm for new rulers and their policies right from the beginning, in order to accumulate [End Page 143] sufficient credit in advance, to balance their liabilities in case their roles under a previous regime become known. Alternatively, they will collaborate because they are such an obvious and easy target for blackmail once their past record becomes known to new rulers. . . . In light of what has been said here so far, I would venture a proposition that in the process of the Communist takeover in Poland after the war, the natural allies of the Communist Party, on the local level, were people who had been compromised during the German occupation.1
Gross thus suggests a link between nationalism and communism across Europe, but perhaps in an unexpected way. Many nationalists across Europe may have had a visceral hatred of socialism, but their behavior in many ways furthered and enhanced communist rule, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Such a complexity of motivations and consequences for nationalism and communism can be seen in the works under review here, all of which deal with the topic of the ethnic cleansing of Germans during and after World War II. Although ethnic cleansing has many faces, it found its most concrete realization at this time with the mass deportation of millions of Germans from Poland and Czechoslovakia, where these acts were framed in terms of national justice or social reform.
In West Germany in the 1950s, there were some eight million expellees and refugees from Eastern Europe. Organized into Landsmannschaften, they often ended up playing an outsized role in postwar politics, both at home and abroad. In this politicized atmosphere, scholars in Eastern Europe and West Germany were preoccupied with justifying the expulsions or retelling the suffering of the expellees—the scholarship is too rich to list here. Newer works focus on the reintegration of the expellees, the nationalization of “post-German” landscapes, and the influence of expellees on their new societies.
The English-language works reviewed in this essay are the results of the post-1989 opening of archives that allowed for new ways to look at the expulsions in Poland and Czechoslovakia as well as the fate of German expellees in comparison with the Poles and Czechs who settled the “recovered territories.” Here, this essay will look at what these recent works can tell us about the origins of the expulsions, the relationship between communism and nationalism, and how the expulsions can relate to the question of whether Nazism and communism are two sides of the same “totalitarian” coin.
Deep Roots of Ethnic Cleansing?
Collectively, the works under review reveal the deep roots of ethnic cleansing. The violence that followed World War II did not originate with the war but already emerged in the interwar period. The war itself must therefore be viewed as the prism that refracts different strands of development. This is not to say that the expulsions were predestined, and all the authors are wary of teleology. R.M. Douglas warns that one [End Page 144] should not see the expulsions as “inevitable, necessary, or justified” (5). Similarly, Eagle Glassheim argues that such a view has “no historical merit” and adds: “Rather than the inevitable culmination of ancient hatreds and rivalries, Czechoslovakia’s expulsions emerged in a context of war and revolution, at a specific moment when collectivism and ethnic engineering pervaded national and international discourse” (62).
Yet when did this “specific moment” begin? In these texts, nationalist rhetoric and activation from the interwar period remain important, and the authors explore not just the dimensions of the conflict between ethnic groups but also the transnational influences across interwar state borders. In interwar Bohemia, the national conflict was deeply intertwined with the social question. Social inequity in land distribution or urban development was attributed to the long national domination by the Germans. As Eagle Glassheim notes, the resulting rhetoric and mindset of “local perpetrators” are crucial for understanding the expulsions. Above all, the discourse of “White Mountain”—the supposedly “German” victory over the Czech people—was widely circulated in Bohemia following World War I (43–45), feeding anti-German sentiments that would later facilitate the expulsions. On the other hand, Germans in interwar Czechoslovakia often believed they were the targets of discriminatory policies designed to drive them out. This belief led them to rally around the defense of a “Heimat soil” as well as to resort to a Sudeten German identification (30–33).
In his study of Upper Silesia, which was partitioned between Germany and Poland between the wars, Peter Polak-Springer emphasizes how German campaigns and Polish nationalists learned from each other and provoked one another in their borderland spectacles, especially in the rallies of Polish scouts and Hitler Youth. He notes that “the development of a ‘tradition’ of irredentist spectacles was an inherently transnational process, in which Germany and Poland influenced each other’s discourses and strategies” (81). Moreover, German and Polish nationalization plans for their “recovered territories” often mirrored one another (185, 215). This competition and borrowing showed how rival nationalists could work together in a “multidirectional” way. During World War II, the Germans used mass murder and expulsions to solve the national question. After 1945 the expulsion of the German population would be used to solve the social question.
The ethnic struggles and national claims to the region were often fueled by observers from the metropoles. Even Joseph Roth, much acclaimed for his later “multicultural” novels and stories, was not immune to this nationalism of the borderlands. Writing for the Neue Berliner Zeitung, Roth visited the Upper Silesian town of Sosnowice in May 1921 following the Annaberg battle between Freikorps units and Polish insurgents. After dismissing Polish claims to the region, Roth insisted that Upper Silesia was integral to Germany: “We must keep Upper Silesia. And even if all our other claims were unfounded, the fact alone that Germany needs Upper Silesia more than any other country ought to let us keep it.”2 For Roth, Germany’s [End Page 145] economic survival trumped any qualms about the region’s ethnic composition, for Upper Silesians would ultimately assimilate into German culture as they developed economically and socially.
Yet the inhabitants of the borderlands were not without agency, and the works under consideration here do not contradict the recent fruitful work on “national indifference,” which characterized the majority of the populations of the German-Czech and German-Polish borderlands.3 They emphasize how nationalists became increasingly radical in their attempts to politically activate their ethnic brethren, whose apparently stubborn resistance to nationalization was often attributed to opportunism or local identities. In a sense, German and Czech (or Polish) activists campaigned not just against one another, but rather against the active indifference and parochialism of their purportedly own ethnic base.
Yet regionalism was not necessarily a counterweight to nationalism and could even be used to promote the national idea. In Upper Silesia, Polak-Springer explores the concept of “the Oberschlesischer Mensch [sic]” (Upper Silesian person; 140, 163, 172), which was constructed not as a “nationally indifferent” figure, but as the incarnation of Germandom. Its supposedly unimpeachable German credentials allowed Upper Silesians to continue cultivating a regional identity alongside a German one. After 1945 the concept was redeployed as Lud Śląski (Silesian People), which now promoted the idea of Upper Silesians as native to sacred Polish territory and hence themselves “Polish” (186). Thus, the polarizing effects of the conflict between German and Polish nationalists did not mean the death knell for in-between nationalities, but it actually prevented the Upper Silesian borderland identity from going extinct as locals deployed it strategically to retain their regional autonomy. Polak-Springer goes further to show that this victory of Silesianness was not just due to the grit of regionalists, but also facilitated by German and Polish nationalists who decided to weaponize Silesian identity in their conflict with one another (15, 243).
Nonetheless, wartime exacerbated existing tensions, and new ones were born as well. The German occupation created new cleavages through programs such as the Deutsche Volksliste, the pathway to citizenship for those deemed to be somehow “re-Germanizable.” Yet the fluidity of identity and loyalties meant that Germanization often did not go according to plan and indeed backfired. The apparent contradictions between citizenship and ethnicity created by Nazi policies served as the starting point for postwar policies toward Volksdeutsche as well as those who had been registered on the Deutsche Volksliste. Although R.M. Douglas argues that the expulsion of the German population was not inevitable, he still bemoans the “failure of imagination” of the Volksdeutsche who believed their behavior had been impeccable during wartime. This lack of empathy with Nazism’s victims would have tragic consequences for those Germans who believed they could safely stay in postwar Poland and Czechoslovakia (63–64). As Service observes, the process of national “verification” did not “filter Poles [End Page 146] from Germans” in Upper Silesia, but instead removed Germans openly unhappy with living in Poland from a population that was overwhelmingly willing to conceal an ethnic choice in order to avoid expropriation and deportation (179–180).
At the same time, conditions in the postwar states worsened for those suspected of being German, despite their ethnonational and political affinities. Using the words of Czesław Miłosz, John Kulczycki describes the demoralized atmosphere in Poland that made life cheap: “The killing of a man presents no great moral problem. . . . The nearness of death destroys shame.” The apparent vulnerability of the German population in the annexed borderlands after the war encouraged many to plunder their property, and “gold fever” in Upper Silesia and Mazuria attracted looters from elsewhere in Poland. Their actions “frequently assumed the patriotic cloak of retaliation against the Germans,” but this violence also disgusted many borderland inhabitants and hindered their identification with Poland. Quite tellingly, when the central and regional governors tried to stop this looting of German property in early 1946, the authorities realized that their policies were ineffective (104–106). At the same time, the attempt to “Polonize” the landscape also backfired: “replacing the German signs, symbols and institutions in Poland’s new territories with Polish ones . . . played a role in their estrangement from Polish culture and society” (Service 304).
Negotiating with Communism
Although none of the reviewed books engage this issue directly, they all relate to the question of how much responsibility for the expulsions can be attributed to communism and the Soviet Union. After the war, it appears that the second totalitarian regime finished the ethnic cleansing first wrought by National Socialism and that the new states became dependent on the Soviet Union for protection from a revanchist Germany. Yet was there anything particularly communist about this ethnic cleansing?
For Hugo Service, the leading role of the Communist authorities appears important, as his frequent usage of variations of “Communist-controlled” in reference to the postwar governments makes clear. His short section on the war period includes Soviet wartime ethnic cleansing, and the postwar expulsions by Poles and Czechs appear in this continuum as one of many crimes committed by Stalin (34–39). In the chaos and lawlessness that followed the shifting of Poland 200 kilometers to the west, the Communists embraced nationalist ideology—and expulsions—as a tool to further their hold on power (53). While he does not investigate the Sudeten expulsions in depth, he finds that the Czechoslovakian was similar to the Polish case: both were not simply about revenge, but part of a repopulation process led by a “Communist-dominated” government (333). Here, Service suggests that Communist authorities mainly instrumentalized nationalism until they were secure in power, implying that nationalism was somehow not integral to communism (63).
All the authors acknowledge that communism cannot be painted in broad brush [End Page 147] strokes, especially when one is dealing with local officials, leaders in Prague or Warsaw, Soviet occupation forces in the country, and Soviet authorities in eastern Germany that received the expellees. Moreover, they recognize that nationalism was not something that could be flipped off and on like a switch, and national cleansing had become the idiom of the day beyond any political party. Given the deep roots of ethnic cleansing previously discussed, a focus on the new Communist authorities as the primary drivers of expulsions would ignore the often quite nationalistic views from below. Stalin may have supported the expulsions, but the Communists, both native and imported, were also reacting to local events and demands. As Eagle Glassheim points out in the case of the so-called Brno Death March, which resulted in the deaths of some 1,700 Germans, ordinary Czech people were often more radical than the authorities, and the former adopted elite vocabulary to justify their claims. Glassheim shows that locals in Brno were pushing for expulsions not just because they believed their neighbors were traitors, but primarily because their expropriation would relieve the housing crisis in the city (52–53). Glassheim’s “local perpetrators” did not dirty their hands because they were hapless victims of elite manipulation.
At the same time, the big picture matters. Douglas dismisses the claim made by apologists that the expulsions actually saved the Germans from a worse fate at the hand of their neighbors, suggesting that there were other solutions for the Germans even after the experience of World War II (364–366). He thus emphasizes that the violence that drove the initial wild expulsions still would not have resulted in the thorough cleansing of Poland or Czechoslovakia had it not been for the political framework of the Allied Powers that enabled the organized expulsions. The Western Allies underestimated the difficulties associated with territorial transfer and were themselves gripped by “the beguiling vision of a land that would have spontaneously cleared itself of its own population” (81). Such visions were peddled by those non-Communist governments in exile during and after the war. Edvard Beneš, the Czechoslovak president, had contemplated expelling the Sudeten Germans while he was in exile. During the war, Beneš lobbied Stalin for the removal of Germans, promising that it would not only be a national revolution, but one that would solve the social question as well. Douglas concludes that the Czech Communists had no independent role in the expulsions. Likewise, the Polish government-in-exile in London had decided on the removal of Germans in September 1944 (25, 26, 257).
Together, these works return agency to the “bloodlands.” Much of the violence and energy preceding the expulsions had been driven from below and tolerated from above. Communist authorities, themselves divided into several fields, were an important part of this puzzle, but they did not always set the tone. Authorities feared being outflanked by forces from below, and their desire for popular legitimacy meant that their positions were often determined by forces on the ground. A model of negotiation, rather than imposition, is thus more fruitful for understanding the expulsions. This approach illustrates the inherent problem of telling the story of the expulsions [End Page 148] without making it teleological. It is the challenge of looking at the contingency of the situation and examining how local events may have driven larger processes.
Understanding National Socialist and communist ideologies as broadly similar and deadly in their impact on the lands of Eastern Europe has recently been the focus of much attention. If the works considered here have, for the most part, established that it was a confluence of events, mentalities, and actors in the period of National Socialism and communism that enabled the expulsions, do they run the risk of subsuming both ideologies within a totalitarian narrative? None of the authors touch on this question directly, but their subject matter still suggests continuities between Nazism and communism.
Above all, the camp became the symbol of both totalitarian ideologies. Part of the process of deportation was the use of camps, including those at Świętochłowice (Schwientochlowitz) and Łambinowice (Lamsdorf), where thousands of Germans were interned. As Kulczycki notes, the young commandant of Łambinowice “ran the camp on the model of the Nazi concentration camp in which he had been a prisoner” (102). Conditions reached the point that the Vatican protested and demanded that the camps be closed (130). Douglas likewise cites how one Auschwitz survivor, now a doctor for a forced labor camp, was shocked by the mistreatment of the German detainees who worked on Pomeranian farms in 1946 and 1947. Indeed, the main camp of Auschwitz itself had been converted into a camp for Germans (Douglas 143–145).
The national mood and violence went beyond just an anti-German orientation. Other ethnic groups that were purged included the Ukrainians and the “Gypsies,” but especially contrasting the fate of the Germans with the fate of the Jews is instructive. Already in 1943, the Polish leader of the London government-in-exile, Władysław Sikorski, told British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden that Poland’s 3.5 million Jews could not continue to stay in a postwar Poland (Douglas 24). Polish nationalists, after all, saw Jews as a danger to the national fabric as well. As Marcin Zaremba and other historians have pointed out, Poles killed more Jews than they did Germans during the occupation (excluding the September 1939 campaign and before the Warsaw Uprising of 1944), and the lessons were carried on in a “fourth phase of the Holocaust” after the war.4 After the war, returning Jews were not welcome and subject to attacks by Poles. As historian Karolina Panz has detailed, several Jews who returned to the southern Polish town Nowy Targ were murdered by Polish nationalists. Two of the victims, Ludwig Herz and Salomon Lindenberger, had actually been rescued during the war by Oskar Schindler.5 While Jews were not formally expelled, the hostile atmosphere in Poland made emigration to the West or Palestine even more attractive. By the 1950s, most of postwar Poland’s initial population of some 250,000 Jews had left the country.
Yet the question lingers: What do we call these crimes? Were these camps Polish/Czech or Stalinist/Communist? The works in this essay were mostly completed in [End Page 149] the early 2010s, when optimism about reconciliation within the framework of the European Union had been high and before significant political shifts that increased EU-skepticism as well as tensions with both Russia and Germany. The politics of history in the region today focuses on how National Socialists helped Communists in subjugating the nations, hence the drive by several Czech and Polish institutions to make August 23—the date of the infamous Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939—into a European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Totalitarian Regimes.6 In this interpretive framework of homogenous totalitarian repression from 1939 to 1989, the crimes that were committed cannot be attributed to Poles or Czechs since their countries had not been sovereign.
Especially Polish sensitivities about assigning blame for the above-mentioned camps has led to a terminological blame-shifting. In 2016, the Polish education minister, Anna Zalewska, objected to the formulation that “Poles” committed a pogrom that killed several dozen people in Kielce in 1946. She preferred the term “antisemites.”7 A similar controversy circulated around a recent book that pointed to the Polish role in running the camps and detention centers.8 Rather than objecting to the idea of the expulsions being referred to as a “little crime” in the title, there was opposition to the term “Polish concentration camp,” which allegedly might be construed as further evidence of “Polish death camps” during World War II—and hence strengthen the impression of Polish antisemitism and complicity in the Holocaust.9 While such nuances in terminology seem to make a difference in the question of Poles and Czechs as perpetrators, the change sheds little light on the fate of the victims of postwar violence, be they Jewish, Roma, or German.
Such historical politics elide the fact, as the books here show, that ordinary Czechs and Poles helped Communists consolidate their hold on power. Communist authorities did not carry out the expulsions because they were part of a totalitarian continuum, but because they followed an increasingly radical nationalist view of seeing the world in the postwar period. Communist leaders often tried to keep up with events on the ground, and they were too weak to oppose violence against Germans when they did want it to stop. It is important to remember that even if Poland and Czechoslovakia were not sovereign, these states, whether we call them “Communist” or not, greatly reduced the presence of ethnic minorities and hence largely fulfilled a longstanding nationalist vision even if nationalization was never complete. Kulczycki notes that the concept of a “culture of purity” that promoted ethnic or racial homogeneity ran through the history of the German-Polish borderlands between 1939 and 1951 (7). If there was a constant factor that connected the interwar and immediate postwar years, then it was certainly the problem of an extreme nationalist logic that cannot be attributed just to German Nazism or Soviet Communism.
Comparisons of the expulsions with the Holocaust can be uncomfortable, but none of the authors equate the crimes of Hitler with the crimes of Stalin. However, Douglas [End Page 150] notes that holding on to the Holocaust as the ultimate test for genocide might make it easier for lesser actions of ethnic cleansing to continue (347). Several of the works also examine what happened to the expellees once they arrived “home” in western Germany as well as how Czech and Polish resettlers, themselves often expellees from other regions, acclimated to their new surroundings. This social history is part of the rich and productive discussion of what expellees thought of their wartime experience, their lost homeland, and the people who now lived in their homes. Looking at the ecological and social impact of the expulsions, Eagle Glassheim explores how in the Sudeten German expellee imagination the environmental disaster in the postwar Sudetenland was associated with a lack of rootedness of the newcomers. In turn, Czech political dissidents also couched their social and environmental criticism of the regime in a similar discourse of “Heimat deficit” (176).
Hence, it is important to understand the different faces of ethnic cleansing beyond forced deportations. Robbery, rape, forced labor, and environmental destruction can also be tools that ultimately facilitate ethnic cleansing. Moreover, the national agenda does not always need to be up front: as Polak-Springer shows, even the local concept of Silesianness could be instrumentalized to facilitate ethnic cleansing. Furthermore, he stresses that the lesson is to acknowledge not just how metropoles change the peripheries, but how peripheries can change national cultures of the center (131). Together, the reviewed works reveal that the expulsions involved a complex interaction of forces from above and below. Such bottom-up perspectives thus chip away from the top-down model of totalitarianism inherited from the Cold War.10
It may be best to conclude here by returning to Jan Tomasz Gross, with whom this essay began. As he suggests, the intersection of nationalism and communism needs to be explored not just on the ideological level, but also through the role of individual complicity and trust. He asks if those who were involved in murdering their Jewish neighbors during wartime actually furthered the social atomization process and hindered the ability of generating the community solidarity needed to resist communist power.11 Although Gross was writing about antisemitism and the Holocaust in particular, the works examined here have in their rich detail helped to answer the same question for the destruction of borderland communities at the end of World War II.
1. Jan Tomasz Gross, Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland (New York: Penguin, 2002), here 104–105, 110.
2. Joseph Roth, “Das Recht auf Oberschlesien. Polen und Deutsche—Zeitungswesen—Korfantys Agitation—Polen als Absatzgebiet,” Neue Berliner Zeitung—12-Uhr-Blatt, May 28, 1921, in [End Page 151] Joseph Roth Werke 1. Das journalistische Werk 1915–1923, ed. Klaus Westermann (Cologne: Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 1989), 567–571, here 569–570.
3. On national indifference, see Tara Zahra, “Imagined Non-Communities: National Indifference as a Category of Analysis,” Slavic Review 69 (Spring 2010): 93–119.
4. Marcin Zaremba, “Die vierte Phase des Holocausts,” Heute im Osten. Neues aus Osteuropa, Mittedeutscher Rundfunk, April 20, 2017, http://www.mdr.de/heute-im-osten/ostblogger/interview-marcin-zaremba-polen-und-holocaust-100.html.
5. Karolina Panz, “‘Dlaczego oni, którzy tyle przecierpieli i przetrzymali, musieli zginąć’: Żydowskie ofiary zbrojnej przemocy na Podhalu w latach 1945–1947,” Zagłada Żydów. Studia i Materiały 11 (2015): 33–89.
7. Adam Soboczynski, “Missbrauch der Geschichte. Ein polnisches Gericht urteilt über ‘Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter,’” Die Zeit, August 29, 2016, http://www.zeit.de/2016/31/polen-antisemitismus-unsere-muetter-unsere-vaeter; Joseph Croitoru, “Polnische Geschichtspolitik. Beim dunklen Kapitel blind,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, August 26, 2016, http://www.faz.net/aktuell/feuilleton/debatten/polnische-geschichtspolitik-revisionismus-14404060.html.
8. Marek Łuszczyna, Mała zbrodnia: polskie obozy koncentracyjne (Cracow: Znak Horyzont, 2017).
9. Paula Szewczyk, “Po wyzwoleniu nazistowskich obozów Polacy ponownie je otworzyli? ‘Mała zbrodnia’ Marka Łuszczyny,” Newsweek Polska, January 21, 2017, http://www.newsweek.pl/historia/-mala-zbrodnia-polskie-obozy-koncentracyjne-ksiazka-marka-luszczyny,artykuly,403834,1.html; see also Waldemar Szymczyk, “Polskie czy komunistyczne?,” Silesion, January 25, 2017, https://silesion.pl/polskie-czy-komunistyczne-25-01-2017.
10. Paul Corner, “Introduction,” Popular Opinion in Totalitarian Regimes: Fascism, Nazism, Communism (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2017), 1–13, here 4.
11. Gross, Neighbors, 111–112, 110. [End Page 152]