In his book "Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War," R.M. Douglas examines the catastrophic effects of expelling ethnic Germans from the countries of Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary and other nations after World War II.

Share story

‘Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War’

by R.M. Douglas

Yale University Press, 486 pp., $38

R.M. Douglas has written a serious book that deserves the serious commitment it takes to read it.

“Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War” is crammed with details about the policies created to deal with postwar Europe, the circumstances those policies failed to envision and the deprivations that resulted from that failure.

Given the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany, it’s hard to be sympathetic — then or now — to the ethnic Germans expelled from Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary and other nations. Douglas, a Colgate University history professor, makes it clear that he is not equating the Nazi actions with the expulsions.

As he points out, the purpose of the expulsions was to move millions of people from one place to another; the purpose of the Nazi concentration camps was to annihilate millions of people.

Still, moving 12 million to 14 million ethnic Germans — mostly women, children and old people — in open train cars, often in winter and without adequate food and clothing, is going to result in thousands of deaths no matter what the purpose. Douglas says the deaths probably ranged from a low of 500,000 to 1.5 million or more.

Douglas also points out that those in charge of the expulsions often worried that what they were doing was disturbingly similar to what the Nazis had done.

Perhaps his most poignant point is that if what the Nazis did is the standard and everything not as horrifying as that is acceptable, then this is a fallen world as far as human rights are concerned.

The ironic title “Orderly and Humane” comes from the section of the Allies’ 1945 Potsdam Agreement on how the “population transfers” were to be handled.

Douglas finds the governments of nations covered under the agreement — Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary — guilty of “wholesale violations of human rights.” His research includes survivors’ stories, official reports and news accounts to trace the violence used to roust ethnic Germans from their homes, conditions in the holding areas (often former Nazi concentration camps) and the overcrowded trains used to carry expellees into Allied-occupied areas of Germany.

The Allies do not escape culpability. Douglas condemns them for ignoring studies that warned of the harm that would come from such operations.

Douglas writes that the expulsions have been little noted because none of the nations involved can look back without the risk of uncovering uncomplimentary information about how they acted (How did many former German properties end up in the hands of prominent officials in the expelling nations?).

But while the expulsions are little remembered, they are not forgotten — in October 2009, the president of the Czech Republic refused to sign a European Union treaty until other nations agreed that his country would not be liable if expelled Germans tried to regain their properties lost more than 60 years ago.

The book is far from a breezy summer beach read. But it makes an important argument, that the German expulsions should never be held up as exemplary of how “population transfers” (read that “ethnic cleansing”) can solve national or international problems. There was nothing orderly or humane about the WWII expulsions, and anyone who thinks otherwise — and Douglas cites examples — should read this book.