Friday 18 September 2015

Orderly and Humane - Celia Rees

Like most of us this summer, I've been shocked and moved by the images of refugees in flight from the turmoil of the Middle East, fleeing conflict by any means they can, making the long and perilous journey on foot, by boat, and on foot again, trekking towards Europe, seeking to find some sort of security, a new life for themselves and for their children. 

Syrian refugees
This mass movement of people is unprecedented in recent times. In casting about to find any kind of analogy for what we are seeing in our newspapers and on our screens, the nearest most reporters and correspondents can find is the movement of German populations fleeing from the advancing Russians and then the further mass expulsion of ethnic German populations after the Second World War. 

German expellees 
Until recent events, the mass expulsion of Ethnic Germans (the Volksdeutsche) who had been living in the different countries of Central and Eastern Europe, often for centuries, was rather lost to history, just another of the consequences, a postscript to the manifold horrors of the Second World World War. It is, however, worth recalling it now. The scale of the population movement was astonishing. 'The expulsion of the ethnic Germans was not only to be by any measure the greatest forced migration in human history, but may well constitute the greatest single movement of population'*. The operation permanently displaced at least 12 million and perhaps as many as 14 million people. They were the Sudeten Germans, Carpathian Germans, Volga, Baltic, Bessarabian Germans, the Germans of Poland and Pomerania. Some of these populations lived in places very distant from the geographic Germany and most had been there for a very long time. No matter how long they had been there, and some could trace their settlement back to the Teutonic Knights of the 13th Century, they were going to have to move. At Potsdam outside Berlin the victorious Allies, Britain, America and the USSR, were coming to an Agreement about the future of Europe. 

Article XII states: 

'The Three Governments, having considered the question in all its aspects, recognise that the transfer to Germany of German populations, or elements thereof, remaining in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, will have to be undertaken. They agree that any transfers that take place should be effected in an orderly and humane manner.'

Refugee children in Berlin
The expulsions spread beyond the countries stated to include the Baltic States, Yugoslavia and Rumania. It was, as George Orwell commented:
'...equivalent to transplanting the entire population of Australia, or the combined populations of Scotland and Ireland.' 
Refugees on the road
The expulsions were neither orderly, nor humane. Deaths were estimated to have been between 500,00 to 1.5 million. Lieutenant Colonel Byford-Jones' eye witness account gives some idea of the chaos and suffering involved:

'As the morning wore on, we met thousands of people carrying sacks, rucksacks and portmanteaux, who had obviously been on their way for days along that same long, weary road, sleeping at night in barns or on the roadside ... Women who had lost husbands, and children, men who had lost their wives; men and women who had lost their homes and children ... There were also little children who were alone, carrying some small bundle, with a pathetic label tied to them.'** 

A Junker, who had once owned large estates, told him:

'You can keep travelling, sir, and you will see streams of people moving west - millions of them. So they will continue to come like streams of ants throughout the summer, the winter, next summer and next winter, And on the way, in villages, you will find those who have been left behind because they are too old, infirm, ill; and on the sides of the roads you will find graves that are unmarked except by wood crosses made from the branches of trees. they are...the new dispossessed, without homes, without hope, destined to wander from place to place, ever pushed on.'**

The last sentence has a horribly familiar ring about it, doesn't it?  This mass movement of people happened in Europe within living memory. The current crisis has not yet reached anything like these proportions but winter is coming on and there seems no let up in the numbers coming. There have been too many deaths already. We study history so we can learn from it, let's hope that we do. 

Celia Rees

*'Orderly and Humane', R.M. Douglas
**'Berlin Twilight', Lieutenant Colonel W. Byford-Jones


Penny Dolan said...

Yes, let's hope. I knew little about this. As ever, these neat and tidy political solutions have a way of becoming a horrific mess. Almost impossible to say more.

Susan Price said...

History keeps on happening, doesn't it? And present history is messy.

Sophie Schiller said...

We don't have a historical precedent for mass migration (aside from slavery) between continents. WWII was a European issue with displaced citizens, stateless citizens, and changing borders, and many of the displaced and stateless sat in DP camps for up to 2 years as they waited for the chance to emigrate.

Sue Purkiss said...

My father was captured on the way to Dunkirk, and was a prisoner for the rest of the war near Gdansk. He endured two awful journeys - there, and back again at the end of the war, on foot and by cattle truck. But he said the worst thing he saw was the lines of refugees. Thanks for your piece, Celia.

Carol Drinkwater said...

These numbers, each an individual, really make you think, don't they? Everyone of them a life with dreams and furniture and emotions. The extracts you have chosen, Celia, remind me of descriptions of Ireland during the Potato Famine. We just keep turning in circles and I wonder do we learn? I feel so impotent every day when I see/read what is happening in Syria with its mass exodus. What can I do, I ask myself every day. And I feel deeply saddened that we really do not seem to learn at all from our history. Thank you for this.

Celia Rees said...

Both great movements of populations have been caused by failed states an the destructive vacuum of war and, as always it is the civilians, women and children, who are displaced and are forced to migrate.

Leslie Wilson said...

My mother's family was expelled from Silesia, my great-grandfather was ninety and he died in a displaced person's camp in the Russian zone. I may have said this before, but my grandmother said her sister and her family had been routed out of her house on a bitter cold night, and had gone out into the snow with only what they could carry, then put on one of these trains they were dragging dead bodies out of at the end of the journey. My mother and grandmother were deported from Austria 'back' to the Rhineland on a train where everyone had to stand for the whole long journey.But I believe they did have food and drink of sorts. However, the most heartrending story I know from that time was of Ruth Andreas Friedrich, who wrote a memoir of her life during and after the war. In 1946 she went to visit a friend in Leipzig (I think) the first time she'd been outside Berlin since the defeat, and she came across one of those endlessly plodding treks, from Silesia again. There was a little girl who said: 'My feet hurt so much!' They were bleeding.
Silesians were expelled from a part of actual Germany that was given to Poland because Russia wanted the Polish Ukraine. The people who were moved into western Silesia, which as far as I know was virtually emptied, had been expelled themselves from Belorussia and the Polish Ukraine, and their journeys were just as traumatic.
As you say, Celia, it is usually the civilians who suffer, and their sufferings are too often marginalised.