World War II : German Refugees


Figure 1.--We do not have details about this German World War II photograph. We believe it is a German propaganda photograph designed to show how the Luftwaffe was aiding refugees, probably in Poland. We are not sure when it was taken, perhaps September 1939. In fact, the Lufwaffe air lift capability was incapable of supporting the needs of the German military, let alone to address the needs of the enormous numbers of refugees, especially after the reverses in the East.

Large numbers of ethnic Germans lived throughout Eastern Europe, as far east as the Volga. This was a pricess began in the Middle Ages. After World War I with the break up of the Austrian, German, and Russian empires, many Germans found themselves in new countries with highly nationalist agendas. Many had previously been in the German Empire or ruled by the Austrian Hapsburgs. The NAZI-controlled media before World War II gave considerable play to the suposed mistreatment of ethnic Germans in neigboring states, especially Czechoslovakia and Poland. There were no significant numbers of refugees from these countries as Hitler preferred that they stay in these countries and cause incidents which can be used to justify German intervention. Some Germans were attacked by the Poles after the German invasion (September 1, 1939) before Wehrmacht troops arrived. As far as I know, these Germans were not allowed to seek refuge in German. Rather the focus was on deporting Poles to the General Government and replacing them with ethnic German settlers. The first German refugees were the ethnic Germans in the Baltics and the areas of Romania (Bessarabia, Bukovina and Volhynia) to be seized by the Soviets (1939-40). Hitler ordered them "Home to the Reich" NAZI negotiators met with Baltic officials and the NKVD to work out both the population transfer as well as property and tax issues. About 0.5 million Germans were involved. [Burleigh, p. 448.] The NAZIs used them to resettle the areas of Poland annexed to the Reich and were being cleared of Poles. Some refugees also came from Yugoslavia. The Soviets when the Germans invaded tranported the Volga Germans and other ethnic Germans east beyound the reach of the invading Wehrmacht. Some ethnic Germans were reached in the western Ukraine ad eastern Poland before the NKVD could deport them. Generally NAZI policy was not to repatriate ethnic German populations in Poland and the Soviet Union, but rather to use them as part of the occupation regime. This of course changed when the tide if battle went afainst the Wehrmacht. Ethnic Germans in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe followed the Wehrmacht as it retreated east toward the Reich. After the War, the various countries involved expelled Germans who tried to remain. This created one of the largest refugee problems in history.

Displacement of Anti-NAZIs and Non-German Elements

The NAZIs set out to purify Germany. The first step was establish a dictotshop and comcentration camps to either kill or batter anti-NAZI Germans into submission. This was imprtant because amahority of Geransn had coted aginst the NAZIs. This included most workers who had supported the Socialists and Workers. Some could be converted or atbleast silenced. Those who could not be comverted had to nbe elimnated or driven outbof Hermany. Nin German elkements, especially Jews, were denied citizenship. At foirst the goal was to ndribe them out of Germany. Once the War began, the goal became vtonconcetrate them and sunject them to mslabe labor until they coukld be murdered. As the NAZIs seized foreeign territory the goal became to displace an ever expanding list of non-Germnas and either enbslave themn or kill them si a vast German agricultural colomy could be created in the East. The SS created the process for accomplishing this -- Generalplan Ost.

Dispalcement of the Germans

The problem for the Germans is that Hitler lainched the War with a country that did not have the capacity and resources to accomplish his horific goals. The German Wehrrmacht virually invented modern war and achieved major victories, especially the defaat of France (June 1940). But even before the fiurstbyear if wae was oiverm the vaunted Luftwaffe had been defeated in the Battle of Britain, meaning British industry and technology had bettered the Germans (September 1940). This was disasterous in that Hitler had led the vGermans into a war with nkarger more populace countries with grater resources. His only nhope of victoiry was superior technology and will. The vBritish bhad demobstrated that had neither. And then only a little over a year later the Germans failed to defeat the Red Arny before Moscow (December 1941). The Red Army iaunnched a massive Winter Offensive dealomg the Germans losses in mean and material losses they could bever replace. Barbaross was Germany's nest chance to win the War and they failed. The next year, the British begam thev stratehic bombing of Germany ctrating internal regugees (1942) soon rtbe joined by the Americans neriuvabs (1943). The Sovieds after Stalingrad becan the liberation of thrir couuntry (1943). The Soviets soom began reaching atras with Germanscibiliamd (early 1944) and finally areas oif the Reich itself (late-1944). Millions of terrified Germans, mistly women , children and ld mnen, abandoned by their NAZI leaders. trdging on foot west to a shrinking Reich in the worst winter in mineory--many falling along the road, disappering in the snow. Thus a milirary camapign aimed at driving non-Germans out of much of Europe would result im Gerams being driven out of areas where they had lived for centuries, often with the violence which they had inflicted on others, but without the same genocidal vigor. .

Arrival of the Refugees

Europe was awash with refugees at the end of World War II. They were a pitiful site, but they were actually the lucky ones--they had survived. Germany was a mix of over 10 million foreign slave and other forced laborers trying to get home as well as several million POWS. A much smaller number of Jewish survivors, many of which could not go home. These non-German refugees are the ones which most commonly come to mind when people think of World War II refugees. Actually, there was another group of refugees headed the other way--over 10 million Germans from the liberated countries. One of the ironies of history was the NAZI policy of remaking the ethnic map of Europe (Generalplan Ost) resulted not in expanded German populations in the East, but in driving the Germans west from areas where they had lived for centuries. And the numbers of German refugees from the East were swelled by the Germans whose homes were destroyed by the Allied bombing or fleeing Soviet rule. Many Germans from Eastern Europe wisely fled the advancing Red Army as the Wehrmacht retreted west. The NAZIs organized ships to take the German refugees from East Prussia. Memel and other Baltic ports were used. They were for women and children and the elderly. Men and older boys were susposed to stay and fight. Some of these ships were sunk by Soviet submarines with great loss of life. Some came by rail, the rail system in eastern Germany was not as damaged as that in the west. Many came the old fashion way--on foot. And at the end of the war, refugees began to come from areas of Germany that had been German for centuries. These were areas that were seized by the Soviet Union such as K├Âninsberg (Kalinigrad) or transfrred to Poland (such as Danzig, Pomerania, and Silesia). A special class of refugees were the German children evacuated from the cities when the Allied bombing intensified. And adding further to the dislocation and tumault were Germans in the Soviet occupation zone that decided to live in the west. The Germans who tried to stay in their ancestral homes in Eastern Europe (Czechosolvakia, Poland, Yugoslavia, and other countries) were forcibly expelled, both by local vigelantees and/or expulsion laws. The Germans in motion at the end of the War, constituted the lsrgest migration in European history.

Caring for the Refugees








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Created: 8:46 PM 9/17/2009
Last updated: 12:15 AM 4/1/2020