01 June 2021

Prewar Ethnic Cleansing in Europe

From Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, by R. M. Douglas (Yale U. Press, 2012), Kindle pp. 39-41:

In one respect it is misleading to speak of “the postwar expulsions.” From the very beginning of the Second World War, the European totalitarian powers engaged in ethnic cleansing on a scale never before seen in history. For Adolf Hitler, a continent from which “undesirable” peoples—Jews, Slavs, Roma, and others—had been displaced to make room for incoming German colonists lay at the very heart of his nightmarish racial vision. Even the Holocaust, when it had finally been decided upon, was but a means to this larger end. But his fellow dictator Josef Stalin also had grand ambitions to redraw the ethnographic map of the continent. During the two years of their uneasy partnership under the Nazi-Soviet Pact, both men found it convenient to work together.

Neither was a newcomer to the task. Stalin especially had a notable record of moving potentially troublesome national minorities around his empire, both as a form of collective punishment and to ensure that vulnerable borderlands were inhabited by ethnic groups—principally Russians and Georgians—in whose loyalty he considered he could repose greater confidence. To be sure, the internal transfer of smaller nations falling within the Russian orbit already had a long and dishonorable history by the time Stalin assumed control. Tsar Alexander II, the ironically named “Tsar-Liberator,” displaced nearly half a million natives of the western Caucasus in 1863–64 to enhance the security of the border. His grandson, Nicholas II, would follow his example in the first months of the Great War, removing to the Russian interior the ethnic Germans of central Poland along with an even greater number of Polish Jews. With the front beginning to collapse in the face of Hindenburg’s counterattacks in January 1915, Army General Headquarters stepped up this purge of potentially disloyal German, Austro-Hungarian, and Turkish subjects, by the simple expedient of giving the expellees a short period to collect what goods they could and then setting fire to their houses and crops. As the displaced people fled east, without food or any semblance of an evacuation system in operation, they began to die in large numbers. In the central Asian regions and the Far East of the Russian Empire, Chinese, Korean, and Moslem populations were removed for similar reasons. But it was only after the Bolshevik Revolution that internal deportations of entire peoples became a regular instrument of state policy.

A youthful Stalin cut his teeth as an architect of forced removals when as “Commissar for Nationalities” he assisted his fellow Georgian, Sergo Ordzhonikidze, to clear out the Terek Cossacks from the northern Caucasus in 1920. In the second half of the 1930s, movements of this kind reached unprecedented levels. “Between 1935 and 1938,” as Terry Martin notes, “at least nine Soviet nationalities—Poles, Germans, Finns, Estonians, Latvians, Koreans, Chinese, Kurds, Iranians—were all subjected to ethnic cleansing.” Most of these movements were connected to the Soviet leader’s paranoia over “spies” and “wreckers” within the country. In 1937, for example, 11,868 ethnic Germans living in the USSR were arrested as suspected Nazi agents; the following year no fewer than 27,432 were detained on similar charges. The number of Soviet Poles held for espionage was greater still. The majority of these detainees were executed; the peoples to which they belonged were internally exiled by police and NKVD units. During the years of Stalin’s “Great Terror,” a total of approximately 800,000 members of national minorities were victims of execution, arrest, or deportation—generally to the Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, which began to rival Siberia as convenient dumping grounds for peoples the government viewed with disfavor.

Although Hitler had less scope than his Soviet counterpart for large-scale transfers of population, he too worked energetically to convert Germany into an ethnically and racially homogeneous state even before the war. The persecution of the Jews since 1933 had the explicit intention of compelling them to leave the country: in its crudest form, this consisted of physically pushing those who held dual citizenship across the borders into the territory of neighboring countries. A further wave of coerced migrations, this time under international auspices, ensued as a result of the Munich Agreement, which provided a six-month window of opportunity for ethnic Czechs and Slovaks to move out of the Sudetenland (and Germans elsewhere in Czechoslovakia to transfer in) and established a German-Czechoslovak commission to “consider ways of facilitating the transfer of population.” In the spring of 1939, Germany browbeat neighboring Lithuania into ceding the largely German Memelland to the Reich, though tens of thousands of Volksdeutsche were left in the areas remaining under Lithuanian control. Lastly, at Mussolini’s behest, Heinrich Himmler opened negotiations with Italy in May 1939 to secure the removal of the 200,000 ethnic Germans of the Alto Adige region in the Italian Alps. Notwithstanding his “Pact of Steel” with Hitler concluded in the same month, the Duce had not been oblivious to the recent fate of countries bordering on the Reich that harbored German minority populations. After the Nazi state’s absorption of Austria in the Anschluss of 1938, Mussolini considered it wise to remove temptation, and his ethnic Germans, from his new partner’s field of vision. By July, an agreement in principle had been reached for the “voluntary” departure of the German-speaking population, though no decision was taken as to their ultimate destination. Although the pact supposedly required the ratification of the ethnic Germans themselves in a plebiscite, an affirmative vote was ensured by declaring that any who elected to remain ipso facto consented to be resettled anywhere within the Italian domains that Mussolini chose to send them. According to rumors deliberately spread to make certain that voters saw the matter in the correct light, this was to be Abyssinia.

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