Displaced Communities

displaced by Hitler & Stalin; 95%+)

(over 200,000 expelled, imprisoned, displaced, emigrated; 98.5% total)

VOLGA GERMANS (over 400,000 expelled by Soviets to Kazakhstan)

DUTCH GERMANS (3,691 expelled,
15% of German population)

(100-200,000 expelled after WWI)

(over 3,000,000 expelled
and displaced; 95% total)

(over 100,000 expelled, over
300,000 displaced; 88% of total)

(over 700,000 or 91.5% displaced by Hitler, USSR, & emigration)

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(over 5,000,000 expelled and displaced, nearly 100%) COMING SOON

(nearly 1,000,000 to Germany and Kazakhstan) COMING SOON

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the problems of applying the word 'genocide'
to expelled germans

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The definition of the word 'genocide' has become a subject of intense debate due to its severe political, diplomatic, historiographic, and inter-cultural consequences. The standard definition as accepted by the United States and United Nations is the conscious attempt to target a specific race, culture, religion, or nation for extermination. Many peoples that have historically suffered discrimination or ethnic persecution readily use the term for a variety of factors: 1) a shared feeling of calamity and tragedy for cultural solidarity; 2) as a means to gain political, economic, or commemoration or restitution and; 3) to depict the conscious and premeditated brutality performed by a rival cultural group. Some peoples, such as the Albanians and Armenians, fervently choose the word genocide in order to emphasise the brutality of their political rivals, the Serbs and Turks respectively, who have denied them independence. As a result, even if correct, the word 'genocide' is often used in exaggeration and with great political motivation, and is often bitterly disputed by the ethnic group accused of that genocide. Read our Comparative Genocide Table to see these disputes.

Many political pundits, representatives of expellee interests, and especially neo-Nazis and Antisemities are quick to describe the expulsion of Germans as a genocide. This is perhaps misguided. Indeed, it must be acknowledged that the governments of Poland (under Władysław Gomułka), of Czechoslovakia (under Edvard Beneš), and the Soviet Union (under Joseph Stalin) directly targeted Germans for removal, segregation, and exclusion because of their ethnic, linguistic, and cultural identity. The diverse political aspirations and convictions of the victims were irrelevant (see our essay). In other words, while Nazi criminals were targeted, so were individuals persecuted strictly because of their nationality.

Many human rights groups cite ethnicity-based forced labour and relocation as legitimate qualifiers for a full-scale genocide, as in the case of !Xhosa and Zulu clans in Apartheid South Africa, the Han Chinese and Koreans during the Japanese invasion, Native American peoples during American expansion, the Armenian deportations by the Turks, and even the internment of Japanese-Americans by the American government during World War II. Under this criteria, the expulsion and forced labour of over 10,000,000 German civilians could be framed as a conscious genocide. In total, at least 473,013 expellees may have died in transit due to hypothermia, starvation, and to a lesser extent direct violence [1]. The Red Cross and the West German government cited as many as 2,000,000 deaths, although this is less reliable [2].

However, others are quick to criticise those who call the German expellees' case a genocide. The main argument against using the term 'genocide' is that there was no actual intent to exterminate the entire people. For example, the Soviet Union had every technical and administrative ability to exterminate racial or ethnic groups when they became a perceived threat, including almost all of the 1,084,828 Germans within the USSR's borders (see our essay). Nearly half of all Ingush, Chechens, Tatars, Meskhetians, Volga Germans, and other minorities were killed through forced labour and starvation, purging, and deportation to the gulags by the Soviets at the same time as they expelled nearly a million ethnic German civilians to Kazakhstan, all collectively labeled as 'dangerous populations' (Burleigh 2001, 748). Every single Chechen and Ingush was expelled from Chechnya by Stalin (Naimark 2002, 13).

Given the Soviets' extensive means to remove potentially dangerous populations, it is clear that the suffering of German expellees was not a direct campaign to exterminate the Germans on racial grounds, nor was this the case in Poland or Czechoslovakia. Instead, the expulsions were an effort to REMOVE an alleged source of political antagonism. Not every single victim was intended to be killed, as was the intention of the Germans against the Jews. No longer an intentional extermination of a racial group, the German expellees' case thus would not classified as a genocide. As German minourities were being expelled by Americans, British, Czechs, Poles, and other nations, expulsion was the goal, rather than murder (although at least 400,000 civilians died).

Despite the difficulties in labeling the expulsion as an "ethnic cleansing" or a "genocide," many easily argue that the debate over terminology undermines the genuine suffering of victims of forced migration and delays necessary compensation. For example, it is often argued that by the time the international community agreed that Rwandan Hutu-Tutsi violence constituted genocide, several hundred thousand had already died. While the nature of what was inflicted during the Holocaust, in Rwanda, Armenia, and against the Germans is very distinct, one could argue that the ultimate result was a violation of human rights, war crimes, or even mass murder.

Regardless of terminology, the entire German population of Eastern Europe was specifically targeted not because of any proximity to Germany or any proven adherence to Adolf Hitler, but because of their ethnicity, which was proscribed with collective guilt and an inherent connected with Nazi atrocities during the Nazi invasion. While many among German minorities did sympathise with National Socialism, the universal targeting of the ethnic German minority along ethnic grounds constitutes, at the very least, the largest ethnic cleansing and forced migration in modern history in terms of scale. Debates on motive, blame, and definitions of possible genocide do not dismiss the reality of forced removal because of ethnicity.

There are significant parallels between the expulsion of Germans and the deportation of Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrian Christians by the Ottoman Turks during and after World War I (the latter 3 often being widely accepted as genocides). While each case involved mass death, the basic purpose was to REMOVE these populations in the style of an ethnic cleansing. There has been no scholarly concensus that the Turks desired to completely EXTERMINATE these populations, regardless of the tremendous death toll for Armenians and other victims. Because the function was to remove populations, these events may better be described as ethnic cleansing. In this sense, the only differences between the Armenian Genocide and the expulsion of Germans is the scale of death (400,000+ Germans vs at least 1.3 million Armenians).

This raises a very troubling debate over "how many" lives qualify for genocide. It also raises questions of why the massacre of Bosniaks by Serb militias at Srebrenica, which "only" cost less than 10,000 lives, was universally accepted as a GENOCIDE. Considering the blatant parallels, it is ironic that almost all scholars, the European Union, and the United States use the term GENOCIDE for the ethnic cleansing against Armenians and Bosniaks, but almost never for German minorities.

Another major problem for applying the term 'genocide' to the German expellees' case is inter-cultural and political tension between involved nationalities. Commemoration of this ethnic cleansing is often dismissed in the interests of auspicious political diplomacy. Despite demands by many lobbies in Austria and Germany for restitution and commemoration of the expulsions, the German government has consistently declined to acknowledge the death of at least 400,000 ethnic German civilians because it has damaged Germany's political relationships with Poland and the Czech Republic (read our article on the history of this problem). If Germany were to define these events as a genocide, the Czech and Polish governments would be relegated under the human rights jurisprudence of the European Union to compensate the descendants of the millions of civilians they expelled. As a result of this conflict, the word 'genocide' is greatly opposed by these governments because of the impending political backlash. The Poles also insist that the possible genocide was carried out by occupying Soviet soldiers rather than the Poles themselves, and also that over two million Poles were expelled at the same time as the ethnic Germans by the Red Army from Galicia and eastern Poland when the Soviets incorporated eastern Poland and West Belarus into the Ukrainian SSR and the Russian SFSR. This dispute makes using the term 'genocide' for the German expellees very difficult and problematic. As a result, the suffering of one of the 20th century's largest refugee groups is therefore largely dismissed in the interests of economic and political relations. Ironically and contrarily, the United States and European Union consistently use the term "genocide" in reference to the Armenians because of the importance of Turkish security and economic relationships with the West.

One final, and equally significant problem in using the term 'genocide' for the German expellees is its connotation with far-right Nazism, irredentism, and Antisemitism. The Jewish community, which has understandably monopolised commemoration of genocide altogether due to their unparalleled suffering, has consistently reproached other groups using the word 'genocide' or 'Holocaust' because of a perception that it may undermine the tragedy endured by the Jews or divert blame from the Germans for their atrocities. Many Jews, hugely influential in human rights groups, appropriately fear that the idea that Germans were victims -- not only perpetrators -- of genocide would either reduce commemoration for the Jewish Holocaust or assuage the Germans of guilt and subsidy that have continued almost 70 years later.

It is also true that many far-right and Antisemitic groups emphasise the German expulsions in order to further their claims that Jews deserve no more restitution than any other group, that Nazi crimes were only some crimes among many committed by several nations, or that the Germans have a historic right to re-incorporate Prussia, the Sudetenland, and Alsace-Lorraine into Germany's Fourth Reich. All of these fears among the Jewish community are generally valid: many commemoration groups for German expellees are actively attached to Nazi or far-right organisations, and several of the earliest political groups were staffed by ex-Nazis.

Many Jews are furious that some German expellees are seeking direct court indemnities for stolen art and property in the same way that the Jews have received subsidy from German taxpayers (see article). Others claim that the suffering of German expellees was not comparable to the Holocaust and because Germans were not systematically wiped out in gas chambers (see article).

Regardless of each group's genuine concerns, it is unacceptable in our modern age of human rights to not acknowledge the suffering of ALL nationalities that suffered forced migration. Because of the above economic, diplomatic, and inter-cultural tensions, the forced labour and expulsion of over 10,000,000 German civilians remains widely unknown and uncommemorated today. The death of at least 400,000 ethnic Germans strictly because of their nationality must be documented and commemorated in solidarity with other victims of ethnic cleansing, including Poles, Finns, Koreans, Chechens, Ingush, Kalmyks, Meshketian Turks, Roma (Gypsies), Jews, Armenians, Ukrainians, and other minorities in the dark twentieth century.

In conclusion, it is our assertion that the expulsion of Germans constitutes a remarkable case of ETHNIC CLEANSING (and by far the largest in total numbers), rather than a GENOCIDE. While the debate over such terminology has carried significant legal weight since the Nuremberg Trials, to Rwanda and Bosnia, and to the Congo and beyond, it is important that ALL human rights violations and ethnic cleansings get scholarly, political, and cultural recognition.


Sources Used

Burleigh, Michael. The Third Reich: A New History. Hill and Wang, 2001.

Naimark, Norman. Fires of Hatred: Ethnic Cleansing in Twentieth-Century Europe. Cambridge, MA: Harvard U Press, 2002.

See included links for articles and sources

[1] While the West German government and the Red Cross maintained an unverified and controversial number of over 2 million for many decades, and expellee groups often exaggerated to as many as 3 or 4 million as part of genocide, most scholarly estimates today cite a minimum of 400,000 deaths. Hahn and Hahnova cite 473,013, Ingo Haar "“no more than 0.5 to 0.6 million,” and Overmanns roughly 600,000. See Ingo Haar, “Die deutschen ’Vertreibungsverluste’ – Forschungsstand, Kontexte, und Probleme,“ in Mackensen, Rainer. Ursprünge, Arten und Folgen des Konstrukts Bevölkerung" vor, im und nach dem "dritten Reich": zur Geschichte der Deutschen Bevölkerungswissenschaft(1. Aufl. Wiesbaden: Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, 2009), Hahnová, Eva, and Hans-Henning Hahn. Die Vertreibung im Deutschen Erinnern: Legenden, Mythos, Geschichte (Paderborn: Schöningh, 2010), and Overmans, Rüdiger. "Personelle Verluste der deutschen Bevölkerung durch Flucht und Vertreibung," Dzieje Najnowsze Rocznik (XXI-1994).

[2] Michael Burleigh, The Third Reich: A New History (Hill and Wang, 2001), 799.