Philipp Ther. Deutsche und polnische Vertriebene: Gesellschaft und Vertriebenenpolitik in der SBZ/DDR und in Polen 1945-1956. Goettingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1998. 382 S. DM 74.00 (gebunden), ISBN 978-3-525-35790-3.
Reviewed by Roland Spickermann (Department of History, University of Texas-Permian Basin)
Published on H-German (August, 2001)
Often the absence of something is more significant than its presence. With the uprooting of about a fifth of all Germans and Poles in 1945-1947, the absorption of expellees thereafter, and the subsequent decline of expulsion as an issue deserves more notice than it has received. Thus far, the scholarship on East German and Polish policies has not matched the outpouring on refugees and expellees in West Germany. In this light, Philip Ther's new work is welcome, for the amount of evidence so concisely presented, for the useful comparisons generated therefrom, and finally for the greater insight of the role of the expellees in the reconstruction of the state in both territories.
Ther notes that the problem of integrating the expellees into their communities in East Germany and in Poland overlapped with the new regimes' need to consolidate and legitimize authority. It was equally brutal for both Germans and Poles, he shows: those who fled before the expulsions were only marginally better off than those subject to the violent "wild expulsions" conducted by arriving settlers before governmental authority was restored, or than those subject to later, more nominally "orderly" expulsions conducted by the Polish and Soviet governments. The logistical difficulties of resettlement for East German and Polish officials also were similarly nightmarish: the war had brought infrastructure and housing everywhere close to collapse. Expulsion would have constituted an overwhelming problem, even for already established, functional governments.
The book's merit includes thorough discussions of the background history of population transfers, and of the World War II agreements on the transfers, but perhaps of greater historiographical interest is his placement of expulsion into political and logistical context, namely, the often contradictory needs to secure their authority as Communist regimes, and to absorb these uprooted populations. Both governments, as imposed entities, had to legitimize the Soviet Union as their patron, and had to minimize anything which might generate conflict. Polish authorities thus referred to the expellees from lands now belonging to the Soviet Union as somehow "repatriated", while East German authorities referred to expellees as "transfers" (Umsiedler), and ultimately simply declared their resettlement problems solved and wrote them out of existence as a group, thus avoiding a troublesome issue with Poland. One notes the contrast with expellees in West Germany where there was an ideological premium in referring to expellees as such, and where government-sponsored efforts documented their experiences.
Both governments had only limited success with initial charitable ("socialcaritativ") policies designed to alleviate immediate needs. Here the German and Polish experiences initially diverged, but ultimately led to the same result. While the East Germans faced the problem of crowding more people into a smaller territory, this territory at least had retained its local administrative structures. Local leaders, however, either reserved their scarce resources for "their own" and consigned expellees to a resented secondary status, or treated them as equals by redistributing already inadequate resources, thus generating resentment among locals (and attracting still more expellees). The usual result was some grudging redistribution, but expellees nonetheless remained less well off than natives. In Poland, the initial absence of local structures and administrators in the new territories did not make matters work more smoothly: the new territories acquired the sobriquet "Wild West" as expellees and other settlers raced (and often fought) to seize the best lands before the government could even inventory what was available, much less apportion it. The "Repatriation Office", often the first local Polish governmental presence, could do little to evict such squatters and plunderers from central Poland who arrived first and left less desirable land for the expellees who followed. (It did not help matters, as Ther notes, that officials themselves often participated in the plundering.) Thus, Ther notes, expellees often received the crumbs of assistance in both countries, despite the fact that they had greater need. Only partial integration was initially achieved, and had more to do with the expellees' own efforts than with the government's.
Absorbing and governing this population was not merely a problem of housing and food until expellees could support themselves, but also of integrating them into a new environment. Ther notes that the governments had greater success with more systematic redistributive policies, such as land parcellization (which the need to assist the expellees helped to justify). Here they could act more safely, since much of this could be done without taking land from locals. In Poland, for example, the amount of vacated land facilitated the process, while in East Germany most of the expellees settled in Mecklenburg on parcellized estates confiscated from Junkers or Nazis. More difficult, though, was the provisioning of equipment to make that land productive, which led to further conflict among "natives" and expellees in both countries. Difficulties in land distribution also led to competition among farmers: here, however, the expellees, being poorer and more poorly organized than the migrants, were at a disadvantage. This undermined the creation of a community-sense in the new villages. Attempts at redistribution of livestock and equipment was to alleviate this to some degree, but only generated resentment. Concerted efforts in both countries to build infrastructure, such as housing and facilities, also failed to meet expectations, for lack of resources.
Appropriately, Ther discusses how expellees fared in such ambivalent environments. In both the GDR and Poland, many could not make their land work without equipment and support, and drifted to the cities (or back to their original homes, for settlers from central Poland in the West). Ultimately, Ther notes, the expellee issue faded in both countries, in part undoubtedly due to both regimes' suppression of the issue, in part because the levelling and collectivizing tendencies of Stalinization reduced differences, and finally because expellees did eventually find ways to "join" society on their own, a process which their children's intermarriage with non-expellees completed.
The comparative structure of the book, which helps Ther to contrast the expellee-government relationships in each country, also creates conceptual blind spots, in that he emphasizes only comparable data. Ther thus highlights rural expellees but neglects urban expellees. But surely efforts to establish governments, redistribute goods, and rebuild lives in the towns were just as critical. (Indeed, if a more complete story of population transfers in postwar Europe is to be made, we need to examine such urban experiences much more. One might consider the new settlers of Lvov, arriving from elsewhere in the USSR to replace the expelled Poles, and compare them to the latter's experiences in repopulating Wroclaw/Breslau. Who was chosen to go? Why? What were Soviet policies?) Nonetheless, the book is a worthy and instructive read, because of the skill and thoroughness with which Ther has mined East German and Polish sources and consolidated and added to the present literature. Scholars of central Europe will no longer be able to see expulsions solely through a West German lens, but now will have to treat it in a regional context.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-german.
Roland Spickermann. Review of Ther, Philipp, Deutsche und polnische Vertriebene: Gesellschaft und Vertriebenenpolitik in der SBZ/DDR und in Polen 1945-1956.
H-German, H-Net Reviews.
Copyright © 2001 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at email@example.com.