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The forgotten story of when the Germans were the refugees

Former camp for expellees in Eckernförde, Germany, in 1951. (Bundesarchiv)

It's been said that the refugee crisis currently engulfing the world is the worst since World War II. That's a startling thought, and one that leaves a bitter taste when you compare the lack of compassion shown towards the Jewish refugees in the 1930s to that shown to the Arab or African refugees of 2015. There's another refugee crisis from 70 years ago that also should be remembered, too – one that involved Germans fleeing to Germany.

Perhaps surprisingly, the refugees in this case were German.

Coming at the tail end of World War II and following the horrific crimes of Nazi Germany, the mass expulsion of ethnic Germans from places such as Poland, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union has often been overlooked in history books. However, in recent years, historians have begun to more fully investigate this period, finding not only a forced migration to Germany and Austria of enormous scale but also one of tremendous human cost.

Historian R.M. Douglas has written one of the only English language books on the subject, has described it as "not merely the largest forced migration but probably the largest single movement of population in human history," with between 12 and 14 million civilians to move in just a few years. Douglas wrote that this mass movement of peoples was accomplished "largely by state-sponsored violence and terror" – including murder, torture and rape. Hundreds of thousands of Germans ended up in internment camps, some of which had just shortly before been Nazi concentration camps.

Accounts from those who made the journeys are horrific. One woman wrote of spending days standing on a freight train traveling from what is now northeastern Poland. "Pregnant women who had given birth had frozen to the floor," the account, later published in Der Spiegel, read. "The dead were thrown out of the windows."

As Douglas has argued, this would be considered "ethnic cleansing" these days, and some have gone so far as to call it a genocide, though the term is disputed. The death toll was certainly enormous – a minimum of 473,000 by one estimate, others more than 1 million. At the time, Western officials expressed horror but seemed unable to do anything about it. Britain's Belgrade Embassy reported in 1946 that the conditions for the Germans remaining in Yugoslavia "seem well down to Dachau standards." American officials, horrified by the chaos caused by the number of traumatized refugees returning to Germany in 1947, warned that it was time to stop regarding the country as "a waste-paper basket with a limitless capacity for the unwanted waste of the world.”

The expulsions left a permanent mark on Europe. They radically changed the ethnic makeup Central and Eastern Europe, stripping countries of German communities that had in some cases existed for centuries, who were now seen as agitators. A number of historians have suggested that the apparent success of the forced migrations encouraged subsequent forced migrations in places like Yugoslavia. Lauded names like Oskar Schindler, a Czech-born German, got caught up in the migration and ended up spending virtually all of his fortune to get his family and friends out. (Schindler, credited with saving 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust, was forced to rely on charity for much of the rest of his life.)

In Germany, the expulsions are still remembered, even while Nazi atrocities are, too. "The Nazis' crimes had been far worse," Der Spiegel wrote in a lengthy article in 2011, "but the suffering of ethnic Germans was immense." Perhaps that's why the current refugee crisis, of a comparable scale to the German expulsions (almost 12 million people have been displaced in Syria alone), has found a relatively large amount of sympathy in Germany, a country that expects to receive 800,000 refugees this year. Even if many in the country are far too young to remember the German expulsions themselves, they may remember the damage wrought upon older family members. Much like these family members, modern-day refugees are having their fate decided for them by their nationality.

The collective memory of what happened after the refugees settled in Germany may have lessons too. While there was undoubtedly bitterness and resentment among the new arrivals, as well as discrimination against them by other Germans, these communities eventually integrated and things gradually got better. West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer set up a special ministry to deal with their demands and a tax was imposed to help compensate them for their losses of homes and livelihoods. Soon, the economy flourished, and so did they. "By the early 1960s [the German expellees'] unemployment rate had fallen to little more than the average in West Germany as a whole," Richard Evan, a historian of the Third Reich, wrote in the New Republic.

The immigrants heading to Europe now don't have the advantage of a shared culture or language, but they are arriving in a Europe that is far more stable. Eventually, like the Germans who arrived 70 years ago, they may well make their new home far stronger.

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