Unmentionable Memories: German Deportations 1945-1950

I would like to bring a few elements together: A film, a novel, a professor, and an unrealized museum.

After victory in Europe had been declared (8 May 1945), Joseph Stalin, Clement Attlee, and Harry S. Truman convened in Potsdam (a small city just outside of Berlin; former home of Friedrich the Great). Here they collectively signed the Potsdam Agreement – a postwar protocol that included spoils to be awarded to the victors and necessary punishment to be meted out to the losers. [1] It was in this protocol, that the face of Europe was carved up and reconfigured. Germany lost significant stretches of territory – both land that it had forcibly captured up to and during the war, as well as swathes of terrain that had been historically “German” and whose populous was German speaking. This territory covered parts of East-Central Europe, including sections that were to become Western Poland (formerly Silesia, Pomerania, East-Brandenburg, and East-Prussia). Although much of former German territory was “given” to Poland, the nation was under Soviet control (both things seriously complicating Polish identity).

The German populations in these territories – whether having moved there during Nazi expansion plans, or having been historical residents – had to leave. This period of “flight and expulsion,” at it has been called, was approximately five years of violent de- and repopulation. Even those German-speakers who were also Polish speaking, for example, and whose families held roots in the land for generations were no longer welcome. Any remote connection to Germanness implied a connection to Nazi power and resulted in forced evacuation. Subsequently, in the case of Poland, Poles were brought in from the East to repopulate cities and villages that formerly bore names such as “Breslau” or “Danzig” – turning them into “Wrocław” and “Gdańsk” and infusing them with real Poles and a Polish identity.

This process was not easy. Nor was it bloodless. Above all, it is, particularly in Germany, not easy or popular to talk about. Any history focusing on injustice wrought upon Germans in the aftermath of the Second World War runs the risk of relativizing the Holocaust – of placing the suffering of Germans above that of Jews. To a certain degree I believe in this logic, particularly in light of postwar memory of WWII in Germany, when German’s were dusting themselves off, clearing rubble, and nursing their wounds, and when the scope of the Holocaust was subject to silence and denial. The extent of pain injustice inflicted on the German community does not even remotely approximate the fact of systemic discrimination and violence, as well as of industrialized mass-murder . Particularly since any of the violence and discrimination brought unto Germans was done without the intention of eliminating an entire culture as a whole.

 That being said, I would still like to talk about this violence. I find it important as it was inflicted in the name of national belonging. The point being that local identity must be commensurable with national identity – therefore speaking a different language and practicing different customs than the declared majority community would not be allowed under the rubric of some abstract, homogenous idea of a national Dasein. In this schema, plurality is not to be tolerated (particularly curious considering Poland has historically been a diverse nation, of Poles, Jews, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, etc.). I do not approve of any violence that purports to preserve and protect the purity of Nation-State, nor of the myth of national subjects as a Volk of sorts.

Last night I went to another film as part of the Polska Film series. This one was a contemporary drama, entitled “Róża” (“Rose,” like the name). It took place in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War in Masuria– a Prussian region that had been home to both German and Polish speaking groups. An officer of the Polish Home Army (Armia Krajowa) goes to Masuria, where he meets Rose, a bilingual Masurian woman. The officer, Tadeusz, had witnessed the death of her husband, a Wehrmacht soldier, and has come to return some of his possessions. He helps Rose demine her potato field and ends up staying. A romance develops between the two, marred by disturbing memory: Rose had been raped numerous times by invading armies; Tadeusz witnessed his wife’s brutal rape and murder. The horror does not remain limited to memory. Rose is under constant threat because of her Germanness – her home is constantly broken into by members of the new local Polish Authority who rape her. Her body is so wounded and weakened by these repeated rapes that she dies. Tadeusz marries her Polish-speaking daughter so that she will not be deported to Germany like the rest of the German-speaking community, who we see climbing into cattle cars, reminiscent of other deportations. The film is filled with disturbing representations of violent rape and other graphic confrontations. It is a frightening story that shows that the violence and killings did not end with the official end of the war.

The film reminded me of a novel I had begun reading a few years ago and never finished (ironic in light of its title). It was my first confrontation with the history of German expulsion. The book is Reinhard Jirgl’s Die Unvollendeten [The Incomplete or Unfinished]. The story traces the history of one family from the summer of 1945 until today. It opens in Czechoslovakia during the beginning of the expulsions of the German-speaking population. We witness the dispossession, concentration, and eventual deportation of the German-Czechs. Jirgl writes this process in an experimental prosaic style, substituting “und” [and] with an ampersand (&) or just an “u,” and the word “ein” [one] with its numerical equivalent (1). Words are often mangled or strung together, with exclamations points beginning or interrupting individual words or sentences. This style gives the text a sense of urgency and disjointedness. One feels uneasy, awkwardly passing over strangely built phrases that do not offer the comfort of familiar or stable composition.

The first page opens with shouts:

 Zuerst, u wie in Früherenzeiten vor der-Pest, drangen von-Überall-her die Warnschreie menschlicher Stimmen an : !Heutmorgen sind Viele schon erschlagen & erschossen worden –.– In der kleinen Stadt Komotau im Sudentenland wurden seit Stunden Strassen & Gassen mit immerdenselben Durchsagen in tschechischer Sprache beschallt. [2]

My rough translation:

 First, n like in early times before the-plague, the warning cries of human voices push from-all-over : !Thismorning many were already beaten & shot –.– In the small city of Komotau in the Sudetenland the streets & allies were for many hours ensonified with alwaysthesame announcements in Czech.

The Announcement:



Jirgl captures the haste and rush of leaving, of leaving everything behind. The family we are following, like so many other families, gets separated. One daughter, married to a Czech, attempts to stay behind. Notes are left at train stations. Bodies are squeezed into train cars and dropped off into inhospitable German territory. Unwanted, and viewed with suspicion, the protagonists are given shelter in an old barn, waiting out the winter atop piles of hay. They need to build for themselves a new existence in a new country, enveloped in a climate of animosity. It was their “Germanness” that had them forced from their homes in Poland or Czechoslovakia, but it is their perceived otherness – their not being from the particular village or region they found themselves in – that makes their transition into German life difficult and painful.

This is not such an obscure history. Millions of Germans can trace their family roots to these former German territories. Return was, of course, impossible. For those who found themselves in West Germany, visiting their former homes was not even an option until the fall of Communism and the borders were reopened. During my last semester at Hampshire, I took a German class at Smith College that dealt with migration stories. The professor, Gertraud Gutzmann, an animated and impassioned woman who specialized in the books of Anna Seghers, revealed a few tidbits of her own history. She had been born in a town that is now part of present-day Poland, and was forced as a child to leave for Germany. She has since visited the town and described coming upon the church, in which a service was taking place. She told us of her initial urge to cry out This is not your church! This is not your town! But quickly calmed herself, nodding to the Polish worshippers as they silently left the building. Despite decades of living in East Germany, West Germany, and the United States, she could not totally divorce herself from a sense of origin – a home she barely knew but could not enter. She is an American citizen now – a title she bears despite an accent, previous passport, or memory of another landscape.

Professor Gutzmann mentioned that there were other German professors teaching in the Pioneer Valley with similar biographies. There are so many Germans who feel set apart for having been born in these contested spaces. Their stories are a profound reminder of the power of landscape, and of how artificial certain identities can be. A passport or certificate of citizenship does not tell someone’s full story. “German” includes within it millions of individual stories, with millions of unique longings, be it for a glimpse of the North Sea, the Black Forest, the River Oder, the sea coasts of Anatolia, or the frozen streets of St. Petersburg. Like so many personal histories, German expulsion has been, for the most part, excluded from German cultural memory. There was an attempt a few years ago to establish a museum to German Flight and Expulsion. It was to be erected in Berlin. The city was already engulfed in discussions and debates about a central Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The thought of establishing another memorial site dedicated to the horrible effects and after-effects of war, but which broached the issue of German suffering, came as a horrible insult to the memory of all Jewish victims of the Holocaust (as well as to Poles who do not want a resurgence of German nationalism on Polish soil).  This critique is not unfounded. Many of the expelled Germans had been vehement supporters of National Socialism. Many were ardent German nationalists, anti-Semites, and anti-Slavs. Rather than a museum, a foundation has been established within the German Historical Museum  – Stiftung Flucht, Vertreibung, Versöhnung [Foundation Flight, Expulsion, Reconciliation].

A problem with establishing a museum in Berlin – the national capital – is that this history then becomes an explicit chapter of German national history. It becomes something done to the Germans, rather than as a more complicated expression of unstable identities. The question asked by the film, Jirgl’s book, or my professor’s story is who belongs here? This question is not limited to East Prussia or the Sudetenland – it has been repeated time immemorial. In addition to redefining (or doing away with) the parameters of national belonging, how we write histories needs to be reconsidered. If we reframe German expulsion as an event that was not perpetrated against the Germans, but rather as an example of violent national myth making and the aggressive creation of an artificial, homogenous national identity, then this history could perhaps be told. Watching on screen the horrific rape of Rose’s body, one cannot accept that such an act could be tolerated, because of the victim’s perceived “Germanness.” If an imposed identity (German, Pole) results in deadly bodily violation or in forced removal, what do we want with such identities? We must ask, who dictates belonging? “Germanness,” “Polishness,” or “Americanness” do not carry with them intrinsic qualities. But national identities silence memory and dictate remembrance.

[1] As a side note: I am not a particular fan of this winner-loser matrix, in which the Soviet Union, Great Britain, the United States (and occasionally France) represent the triumphant parties, and Germany takes on its title of supreme villain. The problem with this conception is especially apparent in the case of Poland – a nation invaded by both Nazi and Soviet forces, and which never had a Quisling (Nazi-collaborationist) party. They “won” in the sense that they had helped fight off the Germans, but “lost” in that they were subsequently occupied by unwelcome Soviet forces for decades to come.

[2] Jirgl, Reinhard. Die Unvollendeten. Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag: 2007. 5.

[3] Ibid.


3 comments on “Unmentionable Memories: German Deportations 1945-1950

  1. […] Unmentionable Memories: German Deportations 1945-1950 (emvben.wordpress.com) […]

  2. curi56 says:

    Wir treffen uns hier: die Ausgestoßenen, die Weggesperrten, die Hinterbliebenen, die von Menschen Verdammten et al.

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