January 05, 2013
In 1918, the remnants of the multinational Habsburg and Ottoman empires were carved into sovereign nation-states, in accordance with the Wilsonian ideal of “national self-determination.” As Hannah Arendt perceptively argued, the world stood convinced in 1918 that “true freedom, true emancipation, and true popular sovereignty could be attained only with full national emancipation, and that people without their own national government were deprived of human rights.”"A Brutal Peace: On the Postwar Expulsions of Germans", Tahra Zara reviews Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War by R. M. Douglas.
The problem with this principle was that borders and nations were not neatly aligned in Eastern and Central Europe. Citizens of the Habsburg Empire’s many linguistic, national and confessional groups were hopelessly intermingled. In many cases it was not even clear who belonged to what nation, because so many citizens of the empire were bilingual or indifferent to nationalism. Equally important, in spite of the rhetoric of national self-determination, the frontiers of the new successor states had been drawn with geopolitical imperatives in mind. Even though German speakers formed an absolute majority in the borderlands of Czechoslovakia (which would come to be known as the Sudetenland), and most wanted to join the Austrian rump state, the region was forcibly annexed to Czechoslovakia for the sake of the state’s economic viability.
A new so-called “minority problem” was born in interwar Eastern Europe, with German speakers and Jews ranking as the largest minority groups. While all of the successor states were forced to sign minority protection treaties (much against their will) and the League of Nations was charged with enforcing them, such treaties held little purchase on the ground. Czechoslovakia, which still enjoys a reputation as the most liberal, democratic and “Western” state in interwar Eastern Europe (and styled itself the Switzerland of the East), launched a “colonization” scheme to populate the German territories with large Czech families. It also arbitrarily fired German civil servants, closed German schools and, in many cases, forcibly reclassified self-declared Germans as Czechoslovak citizens on the census in order to shrink the official size of the German minority.
The presumed link between democratization and nationalization in 1918 enabled Eastern European leaders to justify such policies in the name of democratic values. And if minority protections offered one potential “solution” to the “minority problem,” the failure of these protections led many policy-makers to embrace the more radical alternative of forced population transfers. All told, between 1918 and 1948, millions of people were uprooted to create homogeneous nation-states: Greeks were swapped with Turks, Bulgarians with Greeks, Ukrainians with Poles, Hungarians with Slovaks. Certainly, population transfers were more “humane” than the wholesale extermination suffered by Armenians and Jews. But surely there are choices other than extermination and ethnic cleansing?
The existence of a large, disgruntled German minority in Eastern Europe ultimately provided Hitler with a welcome pretext to overrun the region in the name of “liberating” Germans in the East. The Nazi regime also justified its brutal campaign to “Germanize” occupied Eastern Europe as a way of exacting reparations for the decades of denationalization allegedly suffered by the Volksdeutsche between the wars. The Third Reich simultaneously launched an ambitious plan to bring Germans “home to the Reich,” by transplanting hundreds of thousands of ethnic Germans from the USSR and Tyrol to its newly annexed Polish territory and assigning them to homes, businesses and farms recently expropriated from deported Poles and Jews.
Ironically, then, the postwar population transfers completed a process of segregation and ethnic cleansing that Hitler himself had begun.