The German refugee situation: Everything old is new again, including the prejudice


German refugees being driven out of Silesia, sometime in the 1940s. Scenes like this one have special significance for me, because my own mother and her family were among those refugees and probably looked much the same, pushing their few portable belongings on handcarts out of Silesia. They headed “back to Germany” from the former Yugoslavia in October 1944, when World War II was going to shit for the Germans on all fronts and the Russians overran the country. And the reception they got from their supposed “own people” was, well, rather remarkable:

The people’s rage is boiling, and the speaker knows exactly what the people want to hear: “Refugees must be thrown out, and farmers have to actively help with that!” screams Josef Fischbacher. The local director of the Bavarian Farmers’ Association is pouring plenty of oil on the fire, and even uttering the Nazi phrase “blood disgrace”.

What sounds like Saxony in 2016, is Bavaria in 1947. And the refugees Fischbacher wants to throw out don’t come from Syria — they are German outcasts, refugees from Eastern Europe. “Blood disgrace”, to the farmer-functionary, is what happens “when a farmer’s son marries a north-German blonde.”

The current refugee crisis reminds one of that other wave of refugees at the end of the Second World War, as Germany had to take in millions of displaced persons. But back then, the burden for the populace was much higher than today. And, unlike in often clouded hindsight — such as when in schoolbooks there is talk of “successful reintegration” — the reception of the newcomers was not exactly hearty.

Germany was supposed to grow bigger; that was why the Nazis started a world war. In 1945, the war was lost, and Germany smaller than ever before. The toll was paid by 12 to 14 million Germans, who were driven out of their homes in Central and Eastern Europe. They fled in the final stages of the war before the Red Army or were chased out after the war’s end by the new power-holders. Hundreds of thousands died. The survivors streamed into a starving, bombed-out land, in which no one was looking forward to them.

Most of the bigger cities and several smaller ones lay in ruins. The need for homes was indescribable and business was flat. In city centres and in the heavily bombed-out industrial regions, especially along the Ruhr, the social safety net had broken down. In these regions, it was forbidden to move in. The outcasts were therefore quartered in mainly rural areas, where the welfare situation was better.

But even there, the forced migration caused anger and problems. For one thing, the influx was enormous: Some regions, such as Mecklenburg, doubled their population. In today’s Schleswig-Holstein, where 1.59 million people lived before the war, the population rose to 2.65 million in 1946. Bavaria took about 1.8 million people in by 1950 — a growth of 30 percent.

For another, now big groups of people, often of other religions and who brought foreign dialects in with them, landed in a previously religiously uniform area — for example Oberbayern or the Lüneburger Heide. There, many villages had remained virtually untouched by the war. The arrival of the displaced ended this idyll. “The people who have lost the most are now in closest contact with the farmers, who have lost the least,” noted an American observer in 1946.

The forced communities, with unpopular tenants and a shortage of food, were tinderboxes. The reaction of the locals was accordingly harsh. Fischbacher’s above-noted rant is just one example among many; another Bavarian local politician even called for pogroms. Common insults for refugees were “refugee pigs”, “Polacks”, “rucksack Germans”, or “40-kilo Gypsies”. In Swabia, a “prayer” circulated that called the refugees “riffraff”:

“Lord God in Heaven, see our need,
We farmers have no fat or feed.
Refugees are feeding themselves fat
And have stolen our last cot.
We’re starving, suffering great pain–
Lord God, send this riffraff home!”

In Schleswig-Holstein, where many East Prussians found refuge, they said in Plattdeutsch, no less coarse: “In de Nordsee mit dat Schiet!” — “Into the North Sea with that shit!”

And a vintner in the Rheingau had to pay a fine for saying “You refugees all belong in the boxes in Auschwitz!”

So many refugees have no good memories of this time. Gisela Bertl, who fled from Pomerania, says:

“I have very bad memories of the first family we were living with. They gave us scornful looks and not one friendly word: ‘Well, we have to take you in.’ They had a farmstead, so they weren’t suffering any lack. They never thought of giving me, a child, a cup of milk. It hurt us to have to walk past their fully set table. To this day I still feel hatred when I think of how this family dealt with me and my mother.”

Often, the local natives only took their forced tenants in under threat of armed force. Without the pressure of the occupying forces, the uptake of so many persons in the run-down rest of Germany would not have been possible. It often came to conflicts; historian Andreas Kossert even speaks of civil-war-like circumstances.

The occupying forces therefore had to stop the displacements in the east, in order to prevent things from heating up more in the uptake regions, says Kossert, who wrote “Cold Homeland: The History of German Displaced Persons After 1945”, a standard work on the subject.

The newcomers, who had often experienced chicanery and violence while on the run, found themselves treated to exclusion and disdain as second-class citizens in their new homeland. Only in 1952, with the Equalization of Burdens Act, were the war- and displacement-related losses compensated in all areas.

Without the millions of new citizens, who nearly all had to start over from the beginning, the business wonder would not have been possible, says Kossert. The displaced formed an army of often well educated, motivated workers. They were also a vital motor of modernization for Germany: their arrival brought about the strongest social and religious changes in Germany since the Thirty Years’ War.

The newcomers, with their foreign accents, their other traditions and professions, softened up the formerly very uniform relations. The confrontation between different religious groups created a push for secularization. Only from this manifold clash could a new German post-war identity arise — so, in the long run, the integration of the displaced was a success after all.

Translation mine; links as in original.

Here’s a map showing the origins and numbers of refugees streaming into Germany at war’s end:


My mother’s family came into Germany by a roundabout route, from the Serbian Vojvodina province through (then) Czechoslovakia, then Silesia, and finally into northeastern Germany. From there, they were sent south again, into Bavaria, to the village of Grub (pronounced “groob”). There, my mother’s parents found work on a government research farm, a sheep operation. And yes, they were badly snubbed by the locals because they were refugees, and treated as second-class citizens (or less) for years. Everything from their Donauschwäbisch accents to their Balkan habit of eating green peppers (raw, even!) was criticized. My mother, who was six years old when they fled Yugoslavia, was so skinny from the dreadful wartime food shortages that she was assumed to be sick, and had missed two years of school while on the run (she caught up fast, much to the snobbish teacher’s surprise, and was promoted two grades in less than one year). Never mind that she, like all the women and girls fleeing the war zone, had had to guard herself constantly against rape by “partisans” in and around the DP camps. The village doctor in Grub scolded her for being afraid to take off her top in his office, telling her that refugees had no need to be so damn modest. Would he have extended the same courtesy to a local native of the same age and gender?

When the family fled Yugoslavia, my mother’s grandfather locked up his homemade wine in a hillside cellar typical of the region, expecting one day to come back to it when the Russians were gone. He never did; he died of colorectal cancer in a refugee camp, wracked with bloody diarrhea. My great-grandmother died on the run, too, though of what cause is unknown: poor diet? Dysentery? A combination of the two, which was what killed my mother’s baby sister? Something else — heart failure due to the sheer distress of the whole damn situation? Nobody knows. I don’t even know where the two were buried, or if their paupers’ graves are marked in any way at all. For that matter, I don’t even know where they buried the baby who should have been my aunt, who didn’t live even a full year, and whose tiny casket was draped with the swastika flag. So much of my own family history is lost to me because of that goddamn stupid racist war, and I have no hope of finding it again.

So, if you wonder why I give a damn about refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria, or even from the war zones of Africa — now you know. In the mid-1940s, my mom and her family were exactly where these poor souls are now. I can’t help but draw parallels. And frankly, all this latest racism and finger-pointing and victim-blaming nauseates me, because it all sounds exactly like what my mother and her family went through so long ago. It didn’t even matter that she and her family were all just as German, ethnically speaking, as the locals they came to live among. They were still treated with a hatred and disdain that bordered on actual racism. The same that is now being levelled at refugees from other war zones, in other parts of the world.

It’s like nobody’s learned a goddamn thing from their own history, and that is what sickens me the most.

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