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Book Review: A Terrible Revenge

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A Terrible Revenge: The Ethnic Cleansing of the Eastern European Germans, 1944-1950
by Alfred-Maurice de Zayas (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994); 179 pages;. $19.95.

Speaking to a group of German officers over dinner in September 1941, Adolf Hitler explained: “It is the eternal law of nature that gives Germany as the stronger power the right before history to subjugate these peoples of inferior race, to dominate them and to coerce them into performing useful labors” for their German masters.

In the drive for mastery over Europe, dirty work would have to be done to eliminate certain “undesirable” groups. But in the eyes of the Nazi leadership, such conduct would make German men strong. In October 1943, Heinrich Himmler told a group of SS officers:

Among ourselves let us for once be quite frank…. I mean the evacuation of the Jews, the extermination of the Jewish people…. Most of you know what it means to have a hundred corpses lying together, of five hundred, or a thousand. To live through this and at the same time … remain decent, that made us hard. This is a noteworthy page in our history.

This is how Kurt Werner of Sonderkommando described such hard work during the massacre of over 30,000 Jews at Babi Yar in the Ukraine in September 1941:

It was not long before the first Jews were brought to us over the side of the ravine. The Jews had to lie face down on the earth by the ravine walls…. Each successive group of Jews had to lie down on top of the bodies of those that had already been shot. The marksman stood behind the Jews and killed them with a shot in the neck. I still recall today the complete terror of the Jews when they first caught sight of the bodies as they reached the top edge of the ravine…. It is impossible to imagine what nerves of steel it took to carry out that dirty work down there…. I had to spend the whole morning down in the ravine. For some of the time I had to shoot continuously.

In 1943, SS officer Ernst Gobel was in charge of a group of mass executions, also on the Eastern Front:

The victims were shot by the firing-squad with carbines, mostly with shots in the back of the head. . . . Meanwhile [a] Rottenführer . . . shot the [small] children with a pistol. . . . He got hold of the children by the hair, lifted them up from the ground, shot them through the back of their heads and threw them into the grave.

In Democide: Nazi Genocide and Mass Murder (1992), political scientist R.J. Rummel summarized the result of Hitler’s drive to create a thousand-year Reich in a new, greater Germany:

By genocide, the murder of hostages, reprisal raids, forced labor, “euthanasia,” starvation, exposure, medical experiments, and terror bombings, and in the concentration and death camps, the Nazis murdered from 15,003,000 to 31,595,000 people, most likely 20,946,000 men, women, handicapped, aged, sick, prisoners of war, forced laborers, camp inmates, critics, homosexuals, Jews, Slavs, Serbs, Germans, Czechs, Italians, Poles, French, Ukrainians, and many others. Among them 1,000,000 were children under eighteen years of age. And none of these monstrous figures even include civilian and military combat or war-deaths.

But in 1944-1945, as the war was approaching its end with a German defeat, Hitler had no more sympathy for the German people than he had had for the Jews and Slavs, whom he despised as subhumans. In July 1944, after the attempt on his life, Hitler had declared:

If the German nation is now defeated in this struggle, it has been too weak. That will mean it has not withstood the test of history and was destined for nothing but doom.

And in March 1945, Hitler told Albert Speer, his minister of armaments and war production:

If the war is lost, the people will be lost also. It is not necessary to worry about what the German people will need for elemental survival. On the contrary, it is best for us to destroy even these things. For the nation has proven to be the weaker, and the future belongs solely to the stronger eastern nation [Russia]. In any case only those who are inferior will remain after this struggle, for the good have already been killed.

The German people had failed Hitler’s belief in their destiny for mastery over Europe. In the Führer’s eyes, they did not deserve to live. Having brought death and destruction to so many in the rest of Europe, the ravages of war now fell upon the Germans. Enemy armies were overrunning the country; day-and-night firebombings were leaving German cities nothing more than smoldering cinders. Millions of Germans were dead and wounded, and millions more were being driven from their homes with no food and only the clothes on their backs.

In his earlier book, Nemesis at Potsdam: The Expulsion of the Germans from the East (1977), Alfred-Maurice de Zayas chronicled the policies of the allied powers in World War II towards the defeated German nation. Now, in his new book, A Terrible Revenge: The Ethnic Cleansing of the Eastern European Germans, 1944-1950, Mr. de Zayas summarizes the wartime policies that resulted in the expulsion of millions of Germans from their homes in Eastern Europe and also describes the personal tragedies that befell them.

Even far more than still today, Eastern Europe before the Second World War was a patchwork quilt of different ethnic and national groups clustered together inside various nation-states. The interventionist and collectivist policies of practically all the governments in Eastern Europe meant that the state was used to benefit some ethnic groups at the expense of others. Hitler had played effectively on this situation when, in the 1930s, he argued that all German-speaking people should be unified within the same greater German Reich.

During the war, the Big Three — the U.S., Britain, and the USSR — along with the Polish and Czechoslovakian governments-in-exile — determined that “the German problem” in these areas would be resolved through the forced expulsion of millions of Germans from Poland and western Czechoslovakia; for the vast majority of these Germans, this meant being forced off land and property that, in many cases, had been owned by their families for hundreds of years. The magnitude of the forced population transfers that were to be implemented was magnified by the fact that, at the Teheran and Yalta conferences, Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin had agreed that eastern Poland and the northern half of the German province of East Prussia would be permanently transferred to Soviet jurisdiction, while Poland would receive, as compensation, the southern part of East Prussia and all German territory east of the Oder and Neisse Rivers, including all of Silesia, most of Pomerania, and part of Brandenburg.

The result was that between 1945 and 1950, 11,730,000 Germans fled and were expelled from these eastern territories of Germany, Czechoslovakia, and other Eastern European countries; specifically, over 6.9 million from the eastern territories of Germany, more than 2.9 million Germans from Czechoslovakia, and more than 1.8 million from other parts of Eastern Europe. And besides the forced expulsion of these 11.7 million people, another 2.1 million died or “disappeared” during the expulsion process.

In thinking about the fate of these millions of Germans, Mr. de Zayas asks us not to shrug it aside as mere just retribution for the Nazi cruelties committed during the war:

The merciless revenge that poured over the entire German civilian population of Eastern Europe … should also awaken compassion, for in either case the common people — farmers and industrial workers, the rich and the poor — were all victims of politics and politicians. In judging these events, the nationality of a victim should not matter; pain and suffering have no nationality. Nor does murder. Every crime is reprehensible, regardless of the nationality of its victims — or of the victimizer.

In stark and gruesome detail, Mr. de Zayas presents the personal testimony of literally dozens upon dozens of these German victims during those years of expulsion. Soviet soldiers were given carte blanche to rape and plunder tens of thousands of people. In their thirst for revenge, Soviet troops gang-raped women over and over again, and some of these German women were in their sixties, seventies, and even eighties. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who was a young captain with the Soviet army that entered East Prussia in January 1945, later wrote:

Yes! For three weeks the war had been going on inside Germany and all of us knew very well that if the girls were German they could be raped and then shot. This was almost a combat distinction.

Because of his opposition to this behavior, Solzhenitsyn was arrested and sent to forced labor in the Gulag.

German male civilians were hunted down by Russians, Poles, and Czechs and brutally beaten and murdered. Homes were robbed and burned. German men, women, and children were rounded up and imprisoned, sometimes in the recently liberated concentration camps. Millions of Germans were set out on the roads and ordered to march west, with neither food nor clothing to shelter them from the elements during the long trek to western Germany.

Though the American government did not overtly endorse the brutalities that accompanied the expulsion of the Germans, support for the deportation of these millions of people was laid down as official U.S. policy while the war was still in progress. In November 1944, Franklin Roosevelt sent a letter to the Polish president-in-exile, in which FDR stated:

If the Polish Government and people desire in connection with the new frontiers of the Polish state to bring about the transfer to and from territory of Poland of national minorities, the United States Government will raise no objection, and as far as practicable, will facilitate such transfer.

Through this endorsement and promise of assistance, therefore, Roosevelt made the United States an accomplice, before-the-fact, to one more of the cruel crimes that resulted from the Second World War.

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).