Matthew Frank. Expelling the Germans: British Opinion and Post-1945 Population Transfer in Context. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. x + 320 pp. $110.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-923364-9.
Reviewed by Richard Scully (Department of History, University of New England [New South Wales])
Published on H-German (August, 2009)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
The Expulsions from the Outside
Of all the issues in recent German history, few are as controversial as the 1944-46 loss of the eastern territories (and the Sudetenland) and the fates of the millions of Germans who fled westwards from those regions. The roughly eight or nine million refugees and expellees who were displaced by the advancing Red Army and postwar policy have constituted a stumbling block to final reconciliation between Germany and its Polish and Czech neighbors since the 1990s. Demands for public commemoration and any comparison of their fate with that of the victims of Nazi-era displacements have been steadfastly rejected by successive Polish and Czech governments, while the status of the refugees and expellees as an important bastion of conservatism (and even irredentism) in the West has also caused controversy within Germany itself. Works by Günter Grass and others have kept the issue (and the potential for legal and financial compensation) in the public eye, and those on the floor of the Bundestag have witnessed the periodic reminders of yet another of the legacies of Germany's troubled past.
While a wealth of scholarship (and circumstantial literary discussion) covers the German, Polish, and Czech impact of the expulsions, beyond that context, international attitudes have not been well researched. What is known of attitudes beyond the immediate context has come largely from discussions of the high-level U.S., Soviet, and British machinations at Tehran, Yalta and Potsdam. The determination of Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin to erase Prussia and Prussian influences from the map of Europe is perhaps common knowledge, but beyond this elite level, even scholarly understandings of international attitudes are limited. Matthew Frank's new book therefore represents a significant milestone in the study of a neglected subject. As Frank shows, the relocation of millions of Germans was not merely a matter of concern only to eastern Europe and "The Big Three," but also to a British public conscious as never before (or since) of European affairs. Frank's focus falls on the attitudes of journalists, administrators, academics, and the "general public" as well as politicians, and offers a refreshing account of the ways in which a whole political society reacted to policies of immediate relevance to the emergence of a new Europe. A scholar of "British attitudes" myself, I marvel at the sheer inclusiveness of Frank's analysis.
The casual observer may ask why British attitudes should take center stage in the case of an exercise in demography and political geography undertaken primarily by the USSR, Poland, and Czechoslovakia. Quite apart from the fact that the final destination for so many of the refugees and expellees was the British-occupied zone of Germany, what Frank's book serves to illustrate is that transnational interactions are an essential lens through which to observe all aspects of modern European history. The clear-cut national lines so often drawn in the historical profession are just as deceptive as those drawn by Great Power policymakers at the treaty table, and though it may seem paradoxical, it is impossible to understand an issue like the German expulsions without attention to a situation where such borders are simultaneously of lesser importance and indispensable. The expulsions were an event of European (if not global) significance that deserved scholarly treatment from a broader perspective, and Frank illustrates the necessity of this stance well. Hopefully, the book will prompt a similar investigation of Russian, U.S., and French attitudes, as well as those of the other European populations affected directly or indirectly by the German displacements.
The title of the book is therefore revealing, as Frank provides an account of British attitudes in their pan-European "context." Part of this mood relates to British attitudes towards similar, earlier mass movements of population, not merely those attempted by the Nazis. Therefore, it is refreshing to see a discussion of attitudes towards the Greek-Turkish transfers of the early 1920s (which were also highly controversial at the time and now are largely "forgotten") included early on in the work. British attitudes to the Greek-Turkish case were a mixture of approval regarding the policy's long-term goals, but misgivings regarding the immediate human impact, a stance that sets up a useful paradigm for understanding the German case. Lord Curzon's opinion, expressed at the Lausanne conference at which such transfers were discussed, is revealing. As Frank shows, he felt the social and economic drawbacks in the short term were seen to be "compensated by the removal of deep-rooted causes of quarrel ... and greater future homogeneity of population" (p. 25). This material is then linked effectively to a discussion of attitudes during the Second World War itself, material that also points to a degree of ambivalence on the part of British policymakers and the general public, but grudging acceptance of the desirability of population transfers following victory over the Axis (and officially agreed to at Tehran in 1943). Perhaps most fascinating for me was Frank's exploration of how Adolf Hitler's own "Home to the Reich" policy was accepted in wartime Britain as an admirable and apparently successful model for any postwar system of population transfers.
Such attitudes carried over into the 1944-46 period, when despite humanitarian concerns, the British accepted the need for massive resettlement in tandem with the adjustment of frontiers. Churchill's own advocacy of the inclusion of a specific provision relating to population transfers in the Potsdam Declaration (eventually included as Article 12) shows how a commitment to "orderly and humane" transfers was endorsed by the British government. As Frank shows, this article was pushed for after the British war leader had been exposed to widespread public concern over potential expulsions and transfers throughout 1944 and 1945. For Frank, British policymakers in 1945-46 therefore had a longstanding interaction with and understanding of the concept of population transfer, generally imagined to be a rational solution to the problem of nationalities and minorities in the context of modern state structure, though one which was generally deemed a policy of last resort. As Frank argues persuasively, however, first-hand experience of such policies in action during 1945-46 shifted attitudes towards the negative, though they still remained in essence highly ambivalent.
For Frank, the shift in this ongoing ambivalence was most noticeable on the ground in central and eastern Europe during the organized expulsion phase of the German population movement, in 1945-46. While concerns regarding the "wild" phase of expulsion were based on circumstantial reportage from eastern Europe, the presence of British officials, servicemen, and journalists during the organized, post-Potsdam phase allowed for a much clearer understanding of the outcomes of such policies. Frank shows how the concerns of British officers and servicemen responsible for the transfer of Germans from the territories of Prussia, Silesia, and Posen often led to conflict with their counterparts in the newly reconstituted Polish and Czechoslovakian administration and military. The humanitarian concerns of British administrators were more often than not at odds with the interests of eastern Europeans, which often had more to do with revenge and national reconstruction following the utter atomization of their societies by German imperialism. Frank therefore shows admirably that such real moral concerns always needed to be balanced by British policymakers with a concern for good diplomatic relations with newly reconstituted Poland and Czechoslovakia (especially given the problem that the precise status of the latter relative to the Soviet Union had yet to become clear in 1945-46).
Impressively, given this context, Frank does not allow his analysis to fall into an Orientalist, Anglocentric dichotomy between humanitarian British and vengeful eastern Europeans. Thoughtful quotations from key journalistic sources show just how tinged humanitarian British attitudes were with an acceptance of Realpolitik, such as the following from the Daily Mail: "[the] picture of elderly women, and young girls, with children almost dying on the railway stations of Berlin ... provides [a] test of political convictions. Humanitarian, not soft-hearted, considerations rise unwillingly to the surface" (cited on p. 135). Similarly, one of the chief concerns of British administrators in the newly established zone of occupation was the effect such a massive influx of ex-Prussian and -Silesian Germans would have on a society and economy for which Britain was now responsible.
In a well-expressed and lucid account, Frank shows how actual experience of population transfer in eastern Europe (as opposed to the distant observation of the 1920s Near Eastern, as well as 1930s and early 1940s Nazi-inspired movements) prompted a significant debate both in occupied Europe and in Britain itself. Frank argues that while experience of the interwar and wartime population transfers entrenched an ambivalent, but on balance positive attitude towards such policies, direct experience of the German case led the Clement Attlee and succeeding Conservative governments of the postwar period ultimately to reject population transfer as viable policy. Some small inconsistencies aside--such as contradictory statements about the popular acceptability of the Lausanne outcomes, and an unwillingness to take the discussion beyond Europe to explore postwar British support for population transfers in South Asia--this is an impressive book. More discussion of the difference between the attitudes towards those Germans expelled and those who fled as refugees might have strengthened the work, but this is a personal preference, and not itself a criticism of the book Frank has written. Such a controversial and enduring issue as the German expulsions deserves a well-written, scholarly focus, which Matthew Frank has certainly provided.
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Richard Scully. Review of Frank, Matthew, Expelling the Germans: British Opinion and Post-1945 Population Transfer in Context.
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