War Injustice

As frequent WWII movies continue to show, our culture uses that war as our clearest icon of a just war. So it is important to remember how much injustice there was on the “just” side:

Between 1945 and 1950, Europe witnessed the largest episode of forced migration, and perhaps the single greatest movement of population, in human history. Between 12 million and 14 million German-speaking civilians—the overwhelming majority of whom were women, old people, and children under 16—were forcibly ejected from their places of birth in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, and what are today the western districts of Poland. … They were deposited among the ruins of Allied-occupied Germany to fend for themselves as best they could. The number who died as a result of starvation, disease, beatings, or outright execution is unknown, but conservative estimates suggest that at least 500,000 people lost their lives in the course of the operation.

Most disturbingly of all, tens of thousands perished as a result of ill treatment while being used as slave labor in a vast network of camps extending across central and southeastern Europe—many of which, like Auschwitz I and Theresienstadt, were former German concentration camps kept in operation for years after the war. … Ironically, no more than 100 or so miles away from the camps being put to this new use, the surviving Nazi leaders were being tried by the Allies in the courtroom at Nuremberg on a bill of indictment that listed “deportation and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population” under the heading of “crimes against humanity.”

By any measure, the postwar expulsions were a manmade disaster and one of the most significant examples of the mass violation of human rights in recent history. Yet although they occurred within living memory, in time of peace, and in the middle of the world’s most densely populated continent, they remain all but unknown outside Germany itself. …

Contradicting Allied rhetoric that asserted that World War II had been fought above all to uphold the dignity and worth of all people, the Germans included, thousands of Western officials, servicemen, and technocrats took a full part in carrying out a program that, when perpetrated by their wartime enemies, they did not hesitate to denounce as contrary to all principles of humanity. (more)

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  • Doug

    Based on the criteria of least war crimes/best treatment of civilians the most “just” war in world history is probably the US civil war.

    Both sides exercised tremendous restraint, especially considering the sheer carnage unleashed in battle upon the soldiers.

  • Another helpful source for this kind of remembrance is Sebald’s Natural History of Destruction: http://bit.ly/MyCm3y

  • bluto

    War hasn’t changed in human history.  WWII is remembered as a just war mostly because it was the first war fought in the era of mass communication, yet preceeded easy transmission of remote video which both humanized opponents and brought the horror of war home to potential soldiers’ loved ones.  No democracy will ever be able to win a war afterward (win and occupy territory). 

  • Douglas Knight

    RM Douglas plays word games about responsibility, blurring together different parties. This makes me not trust anything he says; I prefer the account in wikipedia

    Who did this? The Allies collectively or just the USSR? The local governments? Did these local governments have autonomy then that they lost in 1956 and 1968? The British quotes imply they had no power and perhaps no foreknowledge. But he does claim Americans were involved. Wikipedia seems to say the US involvement was to receive them in the US zone of Germany, as an alternative to disordered expulsion or just slaughter.

    The basic outline of WWII is that the Western powers made a deal with the devil. They agreed to let the USSR keep Poland in return for defeating the guy who claimed to want to expel all Poles. Even if we had forgotten about these post-war crimes, the role of the USSR is clearly not just. If we are to call the war just, it is only the actions of the Western powers; and their action was choosing the lesser of two evils.

    Or maybe Douglas’s implications are correct and the Western powers were complicit in these crimes. But I’m not going to believe that just because he says so.

  • Halvorson

    Douglas has a book coming out, so presumably this is fleshed out more there, but I didn’t see much evidence in the article for his claim that the Western Allies were enthusiastic participants in the expulsion of Germans from territory they did not control. The idea that Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union did some evil things in World War II should surprise no one.

    An injustice is an injustice, and any decent person would feel badly about what happened to ethnic Germans in Eastern Europe after the war. But World War II was filled with innumerable awful atrocities and we can’t weigh them all equally. The incidents we choose to highlight say something about our cultural biases. In the mental universe of English speaking people, Germans are a million times “closer” to us than the Slavs. Thus, today many World War II buffs are aware of the mass rape of German women by advancing Soviet troops and of the ethnic cleansing of Eastern European Germans, but can give only vague generalities about what the Germans did that made the Poles and Russians so mad at them.

    For example, after the German conquest of Poland the Nazis established militias composed of the country’s small (1-2 percent) German minority. Without orders, one of these ethnic militias shot 10,000 Poles and Jews at Mniszek, a crime so obscure in the West it doesn’t even have its own Wikipedia article. They killed another 8,000 at Karlshof and 2,000 at Klammer. The fact that many ethnic Germans in Poland were enthusiastic participants in mass murder against the people who later expelled them does not justify their mass deportation, but certainly puts the event in perspective.   A person who’s not a WWII obsessive is only going to be able to remember a handful of the war’s big events and I would prefer it if the gigantic crimes committed against the Russians, Ukrainians, Poles, Serbs, and Greeks (and just about everyone else) took precedence over the mass expulsion of the Germans.

    And a final note: World War II is remembered as a just war in our culture because it was the most just war ever fought. There needs to be a distinction between the selfish reasons certain Allied countries entered the war (e.g. the US being attacked at Pearl Harbor) and the overall morality of the war itself. I mean, even discounting the Holocaust, if Germany won Hitler was planning to gradually exterminate the Slavs in Poland and the Soviet Union and replace them with German settlers by the late 20th century; he was unbelievably, cartoonishly evil.The fact that the Allies (even the Western Allies) committed atrocities themselves on a much, much smaller scale doesn’t change this fact at all. This is one of those situations where the average idiot on the street actually has a more accurate view of the situation than the intellectual hipsters.

    • Douglas Knight

      Yes, people aren’t going to know many events, but this is the single largest ethnic cleansing in the history of the world, comparable to, but probably larger than the partition of India. But at <5%, it probably had the lowest fatality rate of any ethnic cleansing.

    • andrew mwangale

      And this is what it always boils down to. As difficult as contra-factuals are to explore, an Allied’s loss would have seen what outcome for Africans, or Asians or South Americans?. Even a stalemate leading to accommodation of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan would create a world today so radically different from what we see, that it is truly a terrifying dark place to explore.    

  • daedalus2u

    I know someone who was on the legal
    team at Nuremberg prosecuting the Nazis and who wanted to prosecute
    industrialists for their explicit assistance in the construction of
    the Death camps. The killing and body disposal facilities were
    designed by chemical engineers who knew what they were designing and
    so had to have authorization from the companies involved.
    Unfortunately all the Americans with chemical engineering experience
    were too busy stealing German chemical secrets for their own
    companies to cooperate with prosecuting the industrialists.

    These Germans in formerly occupied
    territories were, in effect, illegal immigrants. Many today would do
    the same kind of deportations on illegal immigrants from Mexico and
    points south. Maybe the deportations today would not be as brutal,
    but food is much cheaper now.

    If the US had a hot war with Mexico,
    where Mexican nationals participated in atrocities against
    non-Hispanics, what would happen to all the illegal Mexican
    immigrants if the US won the war?

    How are Muslims being treated in the
    US? How were the people rounded up by the Northern Alliance in
    Afghanistan and sold to the US as “Taliban” treated in
    Guantanamo? Why were there no investigations of torture committed by
    US forces?

    • V V


      These Germans in formerly occupied
      territories were, in effect, illegal immigrants. Many today would do
      the same kind of deportations on illegal immigrants from Mexico and
      points south. Maybe the deportations today would not be as brutal,
      but food is much cheaper now.

      They weren’t necessarily immigrants, much less illegal immigrants. German-speaking minorities had been residing in neighboring countries for centuries before WWII.

      If the US had a hot war with Mexico,
      where Mexican nationals participated in atrocities against
      non-Hispanics, what would happen to all the illegal Mexican
      immigrants if the US won the war?

      What happened to legal Japanese immigrants, and US citizens of Japanese ancestry, during WWII?


    • The Volkdeutsch had been in eastern europe for a long time, Konigsgrad was a pretty important German cultural center. When Jews were still restricted to living in the Pale of Settlement, ethnic Germans filled many of the roles in Russia proper they would later take up (see Yuri Slezkine’s book).
      Curtis Lemay rather famously said that he and his comrades would have been on trial for war-crimes if the war had gone the other way.

      • Dave9

         I visited Prague recently. Now the Germans are being welcomed back and are investing in the area. When they were kicked out they were replaced by Gypsies as agricultural workers.Now the Gypsies live in shacks and have a high crime rate.One mayor tried to build a wall around their community but was stopped.What goes around comes around.

  • jhertzli

    For some reason, we don’t see a DLO (Deutschland Liberation Organization) dedicated to the return of the refugees … even after several generations.

    • anon

      The Schengen Agreement (establishing a free movement area in Europe) kind of makes the matter moot nowadays.  They _can_ go back if they so desire, and some German folks have done so (for personal reasons, not as a political matter).

    • The fact that you don’t see such groups has to do with the fact that they don’t write in English. http://www.bund-der-vertriebenen.de is an organization for the refugees.
      When they Allies took over Germany they also make sure that there isn’t complete free speech in Germany. The propaganda strategy had two parts:
      1) Forbid the most extreme views that Germany should reclaim the territory with military force.2) WWII movies and books of the type Robin Hanson describes that paint the Allies as the just force.Politically Germany concerened itself a long time with reunification. Part of the trade to get the Allies to allow Germany to reunite was that Germany made it clear that they accepted the Eastern border.Today any German who wants to return to those territories can move there though open European borders. 

  • I thought you were going to discuss the firebombings of Dresden & Tokyo, along with nuking Hiroshima & Nagasaki. I actually agree with the folks Douglas indicts that the expulsion of the Volkdeutsch seems like a pretty successful example of ethnic cleansing which prevented another war from breaking out. There were certainly a lot of needless deaths and if the western allies had occupied the territory rather than the Red Army (who had been on the receiving end of a much more vicious war front) I’m sure it would have gone better.
    But I’m not going to completely absolve the Anglosphere for Stalinist brutality. Look up Operation Keelhaul. We knew what sort of regime we were allying with and were complicit in its actions.

  • stevesailer

    The Germans in Eastern Europe were much like the Americans in Texas and California in the days of the Mexican republic: representatives of a more advanced, more competent, better organized culture, who could do a lot for the place economically, but might eventually decide to just take over. 

  • These injustices were mainly carried out by the Soviet Union under Stalin’s orders.

    Mao was even worse.

    Americans can be proud of what they accomplished in the dirty business of war. 

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