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. The 61‑year-old Beneš had 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 the Austro-Hunga­rian Empire 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’ born-again 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 like Beneš 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, August 3, 1945. With the excep­tion of a quar­ter mil­lion ethnic Ger­man “anti-fascists” and others judged crucial to the revival of Czech industry and com­merce, 1.6 mil­lion of the nation’s “dis­loyal Ger­man minor­ity” were eventually deported to the Ameri­can occu­pa­tion 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 in 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 postwar 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 and the Polish govern­ment-in-exile, both located in England, worked 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 [Polish] 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 from areas outside the redrawn borders of post-Nazi Germany created major social dis­rup­tions in the receiving Ger­man states (Laender). The states were hard pressed to pro­vide mil­lions of new resi­dents with decent housing, schooling, employ­ment, and finan­cial assis­tance. An esti­mate from the year 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