forgotten voices


In the immediate aftermath of World War II some 12 to 14 million Germans were forcibly moved westwards from Eastern Europe and eastern Germany. This ethnic cleansing, which involved many human rights abuses, has, however, not surprising in light of Nazi Germany’s notorious abuses of human rights, given rise to a profoundly conflicted debate about the quality of the victimization defined for these ethnic German expellees. In his analysis, Ulrich Merten, an independent scholar, essentially makes a case for the defense, namely that the expellees were relatively innocent rather than perpetrator victims. Though Merten directly aims to illustrate the fact of their persecution through a historical narrative covering in single chapters each of the homelands of these Germans from Prussia to Silesia  to Hungary, Yugoslavia,  and Rumania, he points to three pieces of evidence which strongly illustrate the expellees undeserved, irrational, and unjustified persecution. In each locale persecution always commences in the wake of the advance of Soviet armies and successful partisan actions in support of a newly installed communist government. Second a final historical summary always shows that in general the ethnic Germans had become fully integrated and loyal citizens of the areas from which they were expelled. Thirdly and most significantly representative and brutally honest eye- witness accounts of multiple pages in length illustrate the complete innocence of these single victims. In his concluding chapter Mr. Merten notes that many governments in Eastern Europe today have apologized for their citizens’ behavior in the late 40s’, thus testifying further to the relative innocence of the expellees. Though Merten’s  account does take sides in an argument, his scholarly tone, the materials he employs, and his explicit denials of any intention to equate the fate of the expellees to the Jews in the  Holocaust, and /or to relativize  the Holocaust, suggests strongly that he is open to further discussion about the character of the expellees. As such this is a sound and level-headed introduction for Americans to a subject of which they are largely ignorant.


John Flynn Professor Emeritus  The University of the South. Sewanee TN.


Preface to “Ulrich Merten, Forgotten Voices: A Chronicle of the Expulsion of the Germans from Eastern Europe.”



This book offers a multi-faceted and, in the English language, largely unknown history of the expulsions of Germans from Eastern Europe written by one who himself lost his home.  Ulrich Merten, born in 1930 in Berlin, fled Nazi Germany for the United States as a child together with his parents, who actively opposed the Nazi regime.  His father, Dr. Georg Muhle Merten, was a member of the German Democratic Party and Regierungsrat (Councilor) in the Prussian Ministry of the Interior during the Weimar Republic, which he actively supported.  In fact, during the mid 1920s, he became head of a government intelligence organization that was in charge of prosecuting anti-democratic activities and thus opposed the Nazi party early on.  Once the Nazis were firmly ensconced in power, he was charged with high treason and incarcerated in the notorious Oranienburg concentration camp north of Berlin in 1934-35.  The years before their emigration to the United States in 1938/39, when Georg Muhle Merten remained active in the anti-Nazi resistance, were extremely difficult for the family.  Yet, once he was settled in New York, the elder Merten resumed his anti-Nazi activities and worked for British and American intelligence, in which capacity he helped unveil Nazi commercial and financial activities in the United States and South America.

Ulrich Merten, the author of this study, has held a life-long interest in the fate of the German population in the former German provinces of East and West Prussia, Pomerania, Silesia, Eastern Brandenburg, and the Sudetenland, as well as the destiny of the large German minorities in Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia, and Rumania that were expelled from their native territories after 1945.  After attending universities in Switzerland and Spain, Ulrich Merten graduated from Columbia and Pennsylvania’s Wharton School before embarking on a distinguished career in banking.  It was during his extended stays in central Europe in the immediate post war period that he witnessed first-hand the plight and misery of millions of ethnic German refugees.  Now more than six decades later, retirement has finally afforded him the time to investigate these problems in depth and acquaint the American reader with one of the corollaries of the most destructive war in human history with which even the educated public on this side of the Atlantic is wholly unfamiliar.

Before the Second World War well over eighteen million Germans lived in what was generally referred to as Eastern Europe during the Cold War, that is, in East Prussia, Pomerania, the eastern Part of Brandenburg, Silesia, the free city of Danzig, as well as in territories outside the then German Reich, in Czechoslovakia, notably the Sudetenland, in the Baltic States, in inter-war Poland, Hungary, Rumania, Yugoslavia and in parts of the Soviet Union.[1]  Beginning in the late summer months of 1944, of those who had survived the war up until then, more than fourteen million were expelled.  Between the end of 1944 and 1948 about two million were killed or died of starvation or suicide.  And even though no reliable figures exist, there is a basic consensus that the overall number of those who perished was in the neighborhood of two million.[2]

Of the millions of refugees who survived, more than eight million made it to one of the three Western zones of occupation that became West Germany in 1949; more than four million found a temporary home in the Soviet zone, the latter-day East Germany, from whence many subsequently fled to the West; while about half a million, mostly from the Sudetenland, Yugoslavia, and Rumania, found a home in Austria.[3]  Since Germany’s war-torn and bombed-out cities could barely support their own indigenous populations, refugees were generally settled in rural parts of Germany, such as Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in the East, or Bavaria, Schleswig-Holstein and Niedersachsen in the West, to the point that in the late 1940s, the populations of Schleswig Holstein and Niedersachsen had risen by more than fifty percent.

In what was the Soviet zone of occupation that became East Germany in 1949, the East German regime denied, for political reasons, that any wrongs had been committed against the expellees.  This was reflected in semantic changes, so that politically charged terms such as “expellees” or “refugees” were changed to “Umsiedler” (re-settlers) or  “new citizens.”  In West Germany the problems of the expellees and refugees soon receded from public consciousness by the late 1950s and 1960s in spite of the enormous numbers involved.  There had been little interest in their fate from the beginning, since indigenous local populations were faced with seemingly insurmountable problems of their own after 1945.  In the gloomy postwar years, starvation was widespread, and before the Marshall Plan and the full onset of the Cold War it seemed quite likely that the destroyed German cities would never be fully rebuilt.  No wonder then that refugees were made to feel unwelcome and undesired, though until the 1950s their sheer numbers constituted a formidable presence at the polls that had to be taken seriously by politicians.  In both parts of Germany they quickly came to be associated with extreme nationalism and Nazism and were disproportionately blamed for Hitler’s rise to power.  It is a fact that in the elections of the early 1930s, Prussia’s eastern provinces — East Prussia, Pomerania and parts of Silesia — were strongholds of the NSDAP, which won over 50% of the vote in some districts in the 1932 parliamentary elections.  And it is also true that the ethnic German population in the Sudetenland rallied around Konrad Henlein’s nationalistic Sudetendeutsche Party — partly as a reaction to the repression of the Sudeten German minority by the Czechoslovak government ever since 1919.  But millions of those expelled from East Prussia, Pomerania, and Silesia had voted for the SPD, the Center Party, or other Weimar democratic parties before Hitler came to power in 1933.  The blanket condemnations refugees encountered were thus wholly unjustified. 

That the actual process of the expulsions was a far cry from “the orderly and humane way” in which they were supposed to be conducted according to Article Thirteen of the Potsdam Agreement, signed on August 2, 1945 by the American President Truman, Soviet leader Stalin, and the British Prime Minister Attlee, was well known at the time.  In fact, Western democracies were fully aware of the nature of the expulsions of the ethnic German population from what had been their homeland for more than 800 years and of the human cost involved, as is borne out by a letter from Bertrand Russell to the London Times of October 23, 1945 in which he wrote: “In eastern Europe now mass deportations are being carried out by our allies on an unprecedented scale, and an apparently deliberate attempt  is being made to exterminate many millions of Germans, not by gas but by depriving them of their homes and of food, leaving them to die by slow and agonized starvation.”[4]  Yet, in the immediate post-war period the mental climate, even in the West, was understandably such that after all the crimes committed by Hitler’s henchmen in the name of Germany, any reprisals visited upon German refugees, regardless of their involvement with the regime, seemed justified.  All Germans were implicated in this charged atmosphere and few asked whether particular individuals had supported the Nazis or opposed them.

The strengths of Ulrich Merten’s detailed and careful study are manifold.  He aptly contrasts the authenticated and verified eye-witness accounts assembled by the West German government in the 1950s, which attest to the suffering and inhumane treatment of the expelled German population, with accounts of German atrocities, such as concentration camp death marches, and the participation of ethnic Germans in Waffen SS units, such as the “Prinz Eugen Division” in Yugoslavia.  He also makes it very clear that in those days the dividing line between good and evil was fluid.  The same Red Army that committed savage atrocities against the civilian population in the East also liberated the annihilation camps and brought the Nazi death factories of Auschwitz, Sobibor, and elsewhere to a standstill.  Merten also offers us here a very comprehensive account that covers expulsions of ethnic Germans not just from the former German provinces of East Prussia, Silesia, eastern Pomerania and Eastern Brandenburg, but also from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, and Rumania.  Throughout the book, the author provides clear explanations needed to elucidate the historical context for the American reader, such as brief histories of German settlements in countries that, in the case of Rumania, for example, reach back into the Middle Ages.  And he throws light on the motivations of governments by providing official justifications of  the expulsions put forth, for example, by Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary.

To understand the ferocity of the expulsions and the atrocities committed in their wake, it is important to remember that Hitler’s war of extermination in the East and the mass murders committed by his regime, had just preceded them.  Merten does an exemplary job of elucidating this vital connection.  In post-war Germany, the political Left has tended to ignore the topic of the expulsions of the German population from the east.  Some have accused those who write about the expulsions and Vertreibungsverbrechen – the crimes accompanying them – as serving the interests of the political Right or seeking to lessen German culpability for the outrages of the Nazi period.  This is manifestly not the case here.  Ulrich Merten provides us with a balanced account of this emotionally charged issue.  Based on his own eye-witness experience and understanding, as well as his mastery of the relevant literature, the author approaches this topic with both a cool intellect and an informed heart.

                                                                                                Hermann Beck; Professor of History

                                                                                                University of Miami

[1] Gerhard Reichling, Die deutschen Vertriebenen in Zahlen. Teil I: Umsiedler, Verschleppte, Vertriebene, Aussiedler 1940-1985 (Bonn, 1995), 17; Andreas Kossert, Kalte Heimat. Die Geschichte der deutschen Vertriebenen nach 1945 (Berlin, 2008), 22-23.

[2] Kossert, Kalte Heimat, 41; Jörg Echternkamp, Nach dem Krieg. Alltagsnot, Neuorientierung und die Last der Vergangenheit 1945-1949 (Zürich, 2003), speaks of “over two million” (47), while Manfred Görtemaker, Geschichte der Bundesrepublik Deutschland.  Von der Gründung bis zur Gegenwart (Frankfurt/M., 2004), mentions the figure of “about 2.1 million” (169).

[3] Echternkamp, Nach dem Krieg, 50; Kossert, Kalte Heimat, 10.

[4] Quoted in Kossert, Kalte Heimat, note 14, 359.