Prague, Czechoslovakia · August 3, 1945

Following Germany’s defeat in 1945, Czechoslovakia’s presi­dent Edvard Beneš pursued a policy of “no mercy” toward the roughly three mil­lion ethnic Ger­mans and Hunga­rians living in his country. Beneš held the same office of presi­dent in pre­war Czecho­slo­vakia when, aban­doned by his French and British allies, he was com­pelled to capit­u­late to Adolf Hitler’s terri­to­rial demands during the Sude­ten­land crisis in Septem­ber 1938. (Sude­ten­land was a German-speaking region absorbed by Czecho­slo­va­kia after the col­lapse of Austria-Hungary in 1918.) With­in days of the infa­mous 1938 Munich Agree­ment (Czecho­slo­va­kia was not even a signa­tory), Beneš resigned his office (he had been elected presi­dent in 1935) and went into exile as Nazi Ger­many and Poland (which occupied the disputed Těšín area) dis­mantled his coun­try in the months leading up to Hitler’s inva­sion of Poland on Septem­ber 1, 1939. In a series of decrees an­nounced by Pre­si­dent Beneš’ reborn govern­ment, since April 1945 back on Czech soil, Ger­man and Hun­ga­rian pro­per­ties were to be seized with­out com­pen­sa­tion to cover post­war repa­ra­tions. (Euro­pean polit­i­cal leaders had learned their les­son years ago when the Ger­man Wei­mar Repub­lic suc­cess­fully avoided paying required repa­ra­tions after World War I.) In accor­dance with the “popu­la­tion trans­fer” clause in the four-party Pots­dam Agree­ment (August 2, 1945), Pre­si­dent Beneš issued a decree that began the expul­sion of Ger­mans and Hun­garians from Czecho­slo­va­kia on this date in 1945. With the excep­tion of a quar­ter mil­lion ethnic Ger­man “anti-fascists” and others judged crucial for Czech indus­try, 1.6 mil­lion of the nation’s “dis­loyal Ger­man minor­ity” were eventually deported to the Ameri­can occu­pa­tion (southern) zone of what would become West Ger­many, and an esti­mated 800,000 were deported to the Soviet occu­pa­tion zone in what would become East Ger­many. (To put these num­bers into per­spec­tive, between 12 and 14 mil­lion Ger­man speakers, pri­marily from central and south­ern Europe, were relo­cated to Ger­many after the war.) Esti­mates of casu­al­ties (including sui­cides) during the Czecho­slo­va­kian expul­sion range wildly, from 20,000 to 270,000 people. In 1991 Czech Presi­dent Václav Havel apolo­gized on behalf of his nation for the mas­sacres of inno­cent Ger­man civil­ians and other out­rages committed during the chaotic postwar expulsion.

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German Postwar Population Upheaval and Resettlement

Sudeten Germans expelled from Czechoslovakia, probably 1945Sudeten Germans leave Czechoslovakia for Germany, 1946

Left: A group of expelled Sudeten Germans. Edvard Beneš and his Czecho­slo­vak govern­ment-in-exile pursued a two‑fold policy: (1) restore Czecho­slo­vakia to its pre-1938 (pre-Munich) boun­daries and (2) remove or at least reduce, through a com­bi­nation of minor border recti­fi­ca­tions and popu­la­tion trans­fers, the state’s Ger­man and Hun­garian minori­ties in order to restore the terri­torial integ­rity of Czecho­slo­vakia and establish greater national homogeneity.

Right: Sudeten Germans make their way to the rail­way station in Liberec, Czecho­slo­vakia, to be trans­ferred to Ger­many in this July 1946 photo. The crea­tion of ethnically homo­geneous nation states in Central and East­ern Europe was pre­sented as the key rea­son for the offi­cial deci­sions of the 1945 Pots­dam and pre­vious Allied con­fer­ences as well as the resulting expul­sions. The prin­ciple of every nation state having and living within defen­sible borders gave rise to a series of forced popu­la­tion trans­fers and resettle­ments (we know them today as “ethnic cleansing”), not just of ethnic Ger­mans, but Poles, Hun­garians, Roma­nians, Ukrai­nians, and others who after the war found them­selves out­side the borders of their recon­figured home states.

Refugees from Poland head for new German border, 1945Refugees and belongings at Berlin’s Pankow freight station, 1946

Left: East Prussian “repatriants” from what is today Poland drive past ruins to reach the safety of Ger­many, 1945. Poles believed the expul­sion of Ger­mans from Poland would avoid future atro­cities like those the Nazis had in­flicted on their popu­la­tion during the war. Polish exile autho­ri­ties pro­posed a popu­la­tion trans­fer of Ger­mans as early as 1941. During the war the Beneš Czecho­slo­vak govern­ment-in-exile worked with the Polish govern­ment-in-exile toward this end. With at least 12 mil­lion directly involved, possi­bly 14 mil­lion or more Ger­mans were swept up in the largest single ethnic popu­lation up­heaval in Euro­pean his­tory, an up­heaval that dis­placed more than 20 mil­lion people in total.

Right: With their modest possessions, refugees from Ger­many’s “lost East­ern terri­tories” make their way to Berlin’s Pan­kow freight sta­tion to secure rail trans­porta­tion to other parts of Ger­many. The post­war Polish and Czecho­slo­vak govern­ments charac­ter­ized the forced exile and con­fis­cation of expellees’ pro­perty as “a just punish­ment for Nazi crimes.” During the popu­la­tion up­heaval over 2 mil­lion civil­ians, mostly women and chil­dren, died from hun­ger, disease, and viol­ence (10–30 per­cent were killed).

Refugee family in Bavarian camp, 1945Refugee camp in Schleswig-Holstein, 1951

Left: A family, possibly from Czech Sudeten­land, takes up new resi­dence in a refugee camp in Bava­ria in 1945. The expul­sion of ethnic Ger­mans created major social dis­rup­tions in the receiving Ger­man states (Länder), which were hard pressed to pro­vide mil­lions of new resi­dents with decent housing, schooling, employ­ment, and finan­cial assis­tance. An esti­mate from 2000 suggests that as many as 20 per­cent of Ger­many’s 80 mil­lion citi­zens were expellees and their descendants.

Right: A photo from 1951 of barracks in a refugee camp in Schleswig-Hol­stein, North­ern Ger­many, shows the poverty into which many refugees, many who were well-to-do and privi­leged before the war, were forced to settle.

1938 Munich Agreement and the Dismemberment of Czechoslovakia