I was flipping through television stations the other night and I landed on the National Geographic channel, where the show they were airing was about the days, months and years after the end of World War II. Fortunately, I only missed a small portion of the start but one part of it I did see was part of the war and post war I had never heard of! It was never taught or talked about in school, even in the college history courses I had taken. It was the genocide of German citizens, not military personnel, but everyday next-door neighbor citizens, after the end of the war.
History Repeats Stirs the Fires in Poland
Anyone who has ever studied European history, knows that the borders of each country have changed more times than most can count. Each dynasty, general and emperor leaving its mark. From the Romans who conquered almost the entire European continent to Napoleon and the Hapsburgs. Poland had spent 120 years under the control of the Habsburg and Prussian rulers.
Poland had a predominately German population from 1772-1918, where the Polish felt that they had not been treated fairly. Tensions were high between the two groups of people and after World War I, Poland received a large portion of German land, including 2.1 million German people.
The people of Poland felt that Poland was only for the Poles, anyone who was a non-Pole, needed to leave. They considered Jews, Ukrainians, Roma (gypsies) and Germans non-Poles and these people needed to either leave or they needed to become “Polish”. It didn’t matter that these families had lived there for generations, it didn’t matter that they had been neighbors for decades, it only mattered that they weren’t Polish.
Cryl Ratajski, Poland’s interior minister stated in 1924 that “every German that we can somehow get rid of must leave”. Between 1926 and 1933 Germany appealed several times to the League of Nations to enforce treatises that Poland had signed protecting minorities. The League of Nations did nothing and in 1934 Colonel Jozef Beck added to the problems between Germany and Poland when he renounced the treatises that Poland had signed. This just stoked fires already burning between the two peoples.
The German government, through private organizations, began sending money to German citizens. Germans were facing hunger and joblessness due to persecution by the Polish government who wanted them out.
By now, in Germany, Hitler has taken power and the Polish government believed that with the German government sending money to German citizens it is making them dependent and thankful to the Nazi regime. And, while the Polish government is right to feel worried, the German government is asking ethnic Germans to remain quiet and not to cause any trouble with Polish citizens.
Poland’s Flames Rise Higher
When Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, it was under the pretext of the horrible treatment of German citizens. Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi head for propaganda, was brilliant at his job. Soldiers from the SS used a German Silesian man they had arrested on August 30, 1939 who had Polish sympathies. They dressed him as a saboteur, killed him with a lethal injection, shot holes in his corpse and placed his body outside of a Polish radio station. The propaganda department used the man’s death and corpse to stir up anti-Polish feelings in Germany so that they would back the attack on Poland. It was just what they needed.
During World War II Poland suffered horribly under the Nazi regime and the Nazis were ruthless when it came to hunting down Jews in Poland. If a Polish family was caught hiding a Jew, it meant death for the entire family. But the Nazi’s didn’t stop with the Jews, one-third of Poland’s population vanished. In that one-third was 55% of its lawyers, 40% of its doctors, 33% of its university professors and 33% of its Roman Catholic clergy. Thousands of lives, gone.
When the war ended for Poland, it began to immediately expel non-Poles from its borders. It had signed an agreement with the Russian government for large scale “population exchanges” with Soviet occupied Ukraine, Belorussia and Lithuania. Between 1944 and 1946 Poland forcefully expelled 500,000 ethnic Ukrainians, not including tens of thousands of ethnic Belarusians and Lithuanians. It is estimated that six million Germans fled Poland to avoid the Red Army between 1944 and 1945. Of those who couldn’t flee, an estimated 150,000 babies were born to women who had been raped by members of the Red Army.
The Potsdam Agreement
On August 1, 1945 the Potsdam Agreement came into effect, it stated that any country expelling Germans had to follow a set of rules to ensure the safety and well being of those being transported out of the country- Poland didn’t care, they did not follow the rules.
Ethnic Germans and German citizens who were willing to leave were given special passes to get out of the country. Most of those who did flee did so on foot, horse drawn cart, motorized vehicles and trains headed for allied control Germany. They wanted to be clear of the Red Army and wanted to be under the control of the American and British forces.
The Polish government and the Red Army re-opened Nazi labor camps where they interned ethnic Germans and German citizens. Of the approximately 400,000 people who died during the expulsions, including those who died fleeing the country, those caught in cross fires and those killed by angry Poles, the largest amount of dead came from inside the re-opened labor camps.
The Polish government and the Red Army divided the German citizens and ethnic Germans into three groups:
- Inter-War Germans- People who did not meet the verification process applied to former German citizens and were expelled from the country.
- Germans who met expulsion criteria to be expelled- however, they were forced to stay because of their expertise in a certain field. Such as doctors, lawyers, farmers, etc.
- Germanized Poles- They were allowed to stay in Poland, however they were treated horribly, forced to learn Polish (by 1945 German could no longer be taught in school or have its own schools. German would not be taught again until 1970).
With so many Germans fleeing Poland, most headed into countries under the control of the American and British forces, the countries had no place to put them so they were placed in Displaced Persons Camps. Between 1945-1958 Eastern European countries received over 300,000 requests looking for children that had gone missing during the expulsions. Any German that remained in Poland was marginalized and made to feel unwelcome.
The Polish expulsions were not harmonious. Polish citizens used brutality, murder and concentration camps against the expellees. They were not given or allowed to take enough food and water to survive the journey and in the end 14 million Germans became refugees. They treated them the same way the Nazis treated the Jews and others they had taken.
Have We Learned Anything?
I can honestly say that I really don’t think as a whole the people of this world have learned much from the events of World War II and afterwards. It is rather scary that kids in school now days have no idea what happened at Auschwitz and why it is important to remember it.
Martin Luther King Jr. said “darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that”. And I truly believe that. I believe that if we keep sharing these stories and telling our kids what happened and that love is always better than hate, that we can leave this world better that we found it.
As a person, I cannot understand persecuting a person because they have a different religion than you do, a different color skin than you do or speak a different language than you do, it doesn’t make sense to my mind. And to push someone out of whatever country you were born in, because they weren’t born there, is nonsense. If you truly look at your family history, you are a mixture of every place, every person in your ancestry had ever been. And that is part of what makes each of us so unique and so interesting.
In my next blog, I’ll be sharing the story of another country whose expulsions where much worse than Poland’s and even caught on film. I hope you will join me and that you have enjoyed this blog. Please feel free to leave comments and consider following the blog. See you in two weeks!