John Wilkins
John Wilkins

Fellowship Title:

Old Lands and New Germans

John Wilkins
October 30, 1967

Fellowship Year


OCTOBER 20, 1967


Mr. Wilkins is an Alicia Patterson Fund award winner, on leave from The Tacoma News Tribune. Permission to publish this article may be sought from The Managing Editor, The Tacoma News Tribune, Tacoma, Washington.

“I cling to Silesia… as… a child to a mother.”

Herbert Schwarzer, executive secretary of the Federation of Expelled Germans, spoke to me thus emotionally only after a long matter-of-fact interview had run out of gas. Refueled with coffee, the conversation had continued into areas of his personal feeling and conjecture.

No longer was he speaking as full-time director of an association representing 10.6 million German-speaking people in West Germany (about 18 per cent of its population) who had fled or been expelled from territories east of the Oder and Neisse rivers or from other areas in Central and Eastern Europe. (The figure includes children of fathers who had come from those areas.) Now be was speaking as one of them.

Schwarzer looks 15 years younger than his 60 years. He is blond, blue-eyed, compactly small, with the mental and physical zest that I am coming to associate with Silesians. He carries some scars and other physical mementos, but not all were collected while fighting the Russians or being their captive. An expert alpinist before the war, he had a bad fall, which left him with a stiff leg, so he wasn’t drafted until the last year. He told me that even then, when off duty as a signalman, he managed to do some moderate climbs in the Carpathians before the military situation became truly desperate.

ln the earlier stage of the interview in his small office in Bonn, he had given me statistics, described the federation’s objectives and some of its tactics, referred me to a diversity of sources, and generally displayed the professional attributes of a well qualified public relations director in The United States. Granted, he speaks for a “special interest,” but so do most spokesmen. His back grounding for me was helpful; the interview even produced a couple of potential spot news items, of which more herein. However, with the Oder-Neisse line running through much European news these days, what really interested me in the interview were Schwarzer’s feelings — and hopes and ideas — as an individual expellee.

But the terms expellee and refugee as used in West Germany should be defined. How the two groups and the lands they left figure in Europe’s equation today? Here is some background before returning to Schwarzer.

Notes On Germany

1.  In Three Parts.

The Federal Republic of Germany, known as West Germany, is the size of Oregon and is the third largest nation in Europe after France and Spain. It has the biggest population if The Soviet Union is accepted. It rules about half the territory possessed by the Reich in 1937 and claims to be the only legitimate sovereignty, on that total area.

Almost 25 per cent of West Germany’s 60 million people are from the remaining half or from islands of ethnic Germans in Eastern Europe.

Those more than 14 million Germans — refugees, expellees, and their children — are of the flood that began late in WW2 and for the most part is now a trickle.

The Three (Or Four) Parts Of Germany

**(Map reproduced from publication of Federal Republic of Germany)

The territories within the dark lines comprise Germany within its 1937 borders. A is the present Federal Republic of Germany. B is the German Democratic Republic. C and D are the “lost lands” east of the Oder and Neisse rivers.

The Federal Republic’s official position is that the “so-called German Democratic Republic” (DDR) is merely a Soviet puppet, that geographically it is “Middle Germany” rather than “East Germany,” and that the provinces beyond the DDR’s eastern border (roughly the Oder and Neisse rivers) that were taken over by Poland or The Soviet Union under the Potsdam Agreement are merely under temporary foreign administration pending adjustment of the border and conclusion of the long-awaited peace treaty between “Germany” and her conquerors.

Almost every week in 1967 some aspect of the “German problem” has made legitimate news. Bonn establishes diplomatic relations with Romania and trade agreements with Czechoslovakia. Bonn sends missions to Moscow, and trade with The Soviet Union rockets above last year’s. The status of the Munich Agreement of 1938, which forced Czechoslovakia to cede the Sudetenland and its German-speakers to the Reich, is debated in West Germany, with Chancellor Kiesinger finally saying ambiguously that it “was valid” but is no longer so~ and with Schwarzer’s association claiming that it is valid until re-negotiated. De Gaulle — in my opinion running interference for Bonn — reassures the Poles and Russians about the permanence of the Oder-Neisse line but also prods them to allow reunification of the rest of Germany (but very recently Kiesinger tells a reporter that he could not make such a deal for fear of right-wing reaction in West Germany). Bonn breaks precedent by sending an official note to the DDR seeking top-level talks; the offer is rejected on the grounds that Bonn should first recognize the Pankow regime as legitimate. . . And so on. Any “solution” is in the shadows of the future, where the might of The Soviet Union and The United States are the most palpable forms and the vision of a united Europe becomes a strain on the eyes.

In the meantime, life goes on. The Federal Republic is very much alive and it isn’t living merely on hopes. Bonn, the “federal village,” is torn up enough and strangled enough by traffic to look as though it will really be a national capital instead of just a temporary one. And the expellees and refugees have their life to lead and their children’s future to plan — now.

One in four West Germans has his roots east of the Elbe. While the crux of the “German problem” is the lands they left behind, these people are important in another sense. They are part of a new society — that of the Federal Republic — and their presence has influenced that society strongly. They have been decisive in making a welfare state mandatory; their presence as newcomers has forced parochial, suspicious Germans in ancestral villages and valleys to make adjustments. In contrast to former Germanic migrations, which were “outward” and tended to keep the Germans disunited, this “inward” migration has tended to modify regional differences and to open horizons.

It may happen that the society they and their fellow West Germans are building will prove to be of more historical importance than the “German problem” as it is now viewed. The nature of that society may come to exercise the dominant influence toward a resolution or withering away of the problem.

2.  Where They Came From.

The people of West Germany stem from these migrations:

  1. About 2,000 years ago German tribes from the North and East completed a long moving-in operation upon the Celts who had lived between the Elbe and Rhine This area includes much of today’s Federal Republic, and the migrants were ancestors of much of today’s stock.
  2. Many of the above migrants had come from the land between the Oder and the Elbe, which covers much of today’s DDR. Former permanent residents who fled from the DDR to the Federal Republic are called refugees. They number about 3 1/2 million.
  3. ln the Middle Ages German knights, peasants and burghers moved eastward beyond the Oder and colonized a vast area — part of which was taken from Germany after WWI and part of which includes the Oder-Neisse territories, under Polish and Russian administration since WWII. People forced out of the Oder-Neisse territories are listed among the 10.6 million expellees. (The figure includes about 3 million who had se led. Temporarily — after their expulsion — in the DDR and are not listed as refugees.)
  4. In the 17th and 13th centuries German settlers penetrated eastward beyond the heavily German areas and established minority communities among Slavs, Balts, Magyars, Romanians, and Germans from earlier migrations. They were ethnic Germans, living beyond the borders of the Second and Third Reichs. Those now living in West Germany are included in the over-all expellee figure -and, together with Sudetenlanders; they amount to more than half.

It was natural for the world to overlook the drama and suffering and death in the huge movement of German civilians that began as the Russians rolled back the Wehrmacht, as well as the misery of the subsequent formal expulsions. The stupefying facts that were coming to light about the extermination program; the mourning for allied servicemen who did not come back and for civilians who died in “total war”; the accrued misery at war’s end — these drained the emotions of the more fortunate parts of the world to a degree that didn’t leave much sympathy to apportion to Germans. And when we did begin thinking of the Germans it was likely to be in terms of “Don’t let them get started again,” or as allies in the Cold War, or with sympathy for those trapped in the DDR — but seldom with interest in the Germans from the East who were now citizens of The Federal Republic.

**Areas Of ‘Germanyi East Of The Oder-Neisee Line

(Map reproduced -from publication of Federal Republic of Germany. Historical notes on map are part of the reproduction.)

The two blocks of territory enclosed by the darkest lines have been under Polish administration since 1945, with the exception of northern East Prussia, which has been under The Soviet-Union. The West German government claims that 1.2 million perished in the expulsion process.

According to The Federal Republic’s Press and Information Office, here is the expulsion balance:

  • In 1937 about 17 million German citizens or ethnic Germans were living in the areas involved, exclusive of almost 2 million in The Soviet Union. Nine and a half million were living in the Reich, 31/2 million in Czechoslovakia, and 4 million in other countries.
  • One and one-tenth million were killed in the war, and from 1939 to 1945 the excess of births over deaths was 660,000. Accordingly, at the end of the war the German-speaking population in the expulsion areas was about 16.6 million. Of these, 11 3/4 million were expelled from their homes to Central or West Germany. Another 2 ¾ million were allowed to remain or were forcibly kept back because of mining or other industrial skills. Another 2.11 million died en route to Germany or while being deported to The Soviet Union.

The story of the refugees from the DDR, before and after the building of the wall, is better known than that of the expellees and there is no point in reviewing it here.

A Welfare State

Absorbing the newcomers into the shattered life of West Germany was a staggering job. Some of it still goes on, especially the financial part. Sharing the burden of aid has been a leveling influence. In fact, one of the realities offsetting the stereotype of the expellees being right wing is that, having lost everything, they support social legislation — such as the current push for liberalized home loans for low-income families — that characterize0a welfare state.

Schwarzer describes himself as “a Tory — a Christian Democrat” with a “socialist for a boss.” That is, Reinhold Rehs, president of the Federation of Expelled Germans and an expellee from East Prussia, is a Social Democratic member of the Bundestag, representing a Schleswig-Holstein constituency. Schwarzer insists that expellees are divided among political parties in about the same proportion as their fellow West Germans, though with a generally more conservative cast because a high percentage of them were farmers.

Expulsion And Flight

**(Map reproduced from publication of Federal Republic.)

Some expellees were German citizens from the eastern parts of the Reich. Others were “ethnic Germans” who had been living in Eastern Europe.

(However, Schwarzer said that expellees have found it difficult to get party positions: “In many localities the party cliques are very strong.”)

The view that expellees are ‘ diversified politically was also expressed to me by political pros including Ernst Wolf, a staff member of the Christian Democratic Party at its federal headquarters in Bonn. Wolf’s specialties include expellee and refugee affairs and Eastern European political questions. Alarm was generated early this year after two areas in Bavaria with heavy expellee populations were among the constituencies that gave the allegedly neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (NPD) more than 5 per cent of the vote, but Wolf claims that a close analysis by the CDU discovered no evidence of a block vote. There were local questions involved, he said, and “as election returns came in from other states there was just no indication that the NPD vote anywhere in Germany bore a direct relationship to the percentage of expellees — except where there are large numbers of former farmers who have not yet been able to get land in West Germany.”


When an expellee group such as the Sudetenlanders holds a get-together with traditional music and costumes and with oratory about historical claims, some of the oratory is frequently interpreted by reporters as aggressive.

The very idea of such get-togethers causes head-waggings among some liberal Germans; especially the young ones who think the “lost lands” should be forgotten. Grievances regarding the eastern frontiers were part of the Versailles heritage, which the Nazis exploited to the hilt while building support.

I have not yet attended any of the expellee meetings. Obviously their atmosphere must be quite different from that of the North Dakota Picnics I used to cover in Idaho — bitterness added to the nostalgia served with the potato salad. But while it is undisputed that some expellees are highly nationalistic, it should at least be noted that all these groups have gone on record as opposing force as a means of return. Prominent in traveling exhibits on the culture and history of the eastern territories is material on another “migration” — that of opponents and potential victims of the Nazis in the 1930s. In such a display in Dűsseldorf I saw a book-of-honor with the names of East Germans who were killed by the Nazis after the July 20 anti-Hitler plot. In a Bad Godesberg exhibit, along with pictures of immortals such as Kant, Schopenhauer and Gryphius there were photographs of Carl Goerdeler, Helmuth von Moltke, Ewald von Kleist, and other plotters, and of the meat hooks from which many of them were hanged.

Certainly the expellees speak of the “injustice” of their expulsion. But if this in itself be extreme nationalism, the West German government itself stands condemned. Without attempting to make a fine judgment on the alleged injustice — or on other injustices that are part of the heritage of most men, including people who have lived close to Germans — it would seem that the important thing now in judging the expellees themselves is to ascertain what their objectives really are and how they propose to achieve them. And even then it should be recognized that as each year passes, the expellees are becoming less an identity; fewer and fewer of them would actually return to the old land if they had the chance, even under German rule.

The Price

Whether or not a German believes Germany was guilty of the war, he knows that Germans have had to pay a price. And it is obvious that some Germans have had to pay a bigger price than others without being any guiltier.

Among those hit hardest were expellees, refugees, victims of bombing, and prisoners of war.

Their special problems are the concern of the Federal Ministry for Expellees, Refugees and War Victims.

“Our philosophy has been that the burden must be shared, and we have taxed the more fortunate and richer people in order to ease the strain on the less fortunate,” an official of the Ministry told me.

Most of the programs for spreading the load stem from the “Equalization of Burdens Law.” It imposes a 50 per cent levy (1948 values) on property surviving the war — the levy being paid over a 30-year period ending in 1979. And because West Germany’s 1948 currency reform was “conservative” in that capital goods retained the most value, compensating levies have been made. All this money goes into a fund outside the federal budget, along with more funds from levies imposed on mortgages and other gains.

The central element of the payments is the “main compensation,” through which losses sustained as a result of expulsion or material damage are compensated at rates that grow smaller the higher the extent of damage.

This compensation has been augmented by programs for such things as household goods compensation, housing assistance, business loans, training aids for children, maintenance assistance, compensation for lost savings, and assimilation in agriculture — though only a traction of the 400,000 farming families among the expellees have been provided with viable farms; West Germany’s small farm holdings are having a rough time in the Common Market, and the number of farms steadily declines.

Assimilation has been helped greatly by a resettlement program. Most expellees first went to the agricultural states of Schleswig-Holstein, Lower Saxony and Bavaria. These still have the greatest number, but voluntary resettlement has distributed a good number of them almost proportionately to the other states. They include a million farmers who — though not often finding viable farms, as noted above — have ht least found homes “on the land” for part-time farming to augment other jobs.

The three large states referred to above saw the NPD enter their parliaments this year, but so did the other three states, which had elections — and traditionally liberal and socialist Bremen, saw the biggest percentage of all.

In business, in industry, in the professions, in all but agriculture and government, the expellees have been well assimilated. The years of boom and labor shortage had much to do with their being woven into the fabric of West Germany, but major credit must go to the social policies, which helped them start a new life. This has been an expensive enterprise, but it has cleansed the social rot that surely would have spread if the expellees had been made to vegetate and fester as second-class citizens.

Persons in West Germany who fled from the DDR and are classified as refugees rather than expellees have been given emergency help but have not received Equalization of Burdens benefits. They number about 3 1/2 million. The Ministry now is working on a plan to present to the federal parliament in March that would extend Equalization benefits to the refugees.

The Germans from the East have been a boon as well as an expense to West Germany. They have helped rebuild the country. The ages of refugees (not expellees) have partially offset the effects of the low birth rate that has continued since the end of the war: each year since 1952 the new refugees have contained double the number in the 18-25 group than the corresponding proportion of the total West German population.

But, of course, there has been no influx of German men to fill in the age-group holes left by two world wars. The heritage leaves 1,100 women to every 1,000 men in the Federal Republic, despite there being a surplus of males over females at ages under 40. To an American who, like myself, has not been to The Soviet Union or other land with such a magnitude of bloodletting in its recent history, the sparcity of men between their early forties and mid-fifties is striking. At certain places and times of day, Germany can seem to be a land of old women with canes and dogs. A high percentage of the middle-aged men who do exist are crippled or scarred or old looking or all three. When you spot a vigorous, go-getting “American-type” chap in his early forties, chances are he does speak English — American-type English, picked up in the States as a POW after he was drafted late in the war. He probably feels he is lucky not to have been a bit older or to have been sent to the Eastern Front. That’s partly why he smiles so much. But all in all, there seems to be a sadness in Germany that is caused partly by a lack of continuity and understanding between generations. Yet for all that, it is a sane society.

…To me, the mystery and sadness of the passing of time shroud Germany like the haze on the Rhine. A middle-aged man is seated on a bench, his back straight, his hand on a cane planted before him. His face is as set as the bows of the tankers passing before him on the Rhine. It is Sunday; his old-looking wife sits on another bench and watches their immaculately dressed child at proper play. Of what is the father thinking? Of defeat?  Of youth? Or am I too preoccupied with those subjects? In tracking down the backgrounds and fates of 10 Germans teen-aged exchange students I knew in the States in 1935, I find overpowering emphasis on things of youth, with the future as vaguely glorious as eternity. Youth and strength: the outdoors, athletics, comradeship, self-sacrifice, something bigger than oneself…and then, keep going; attack, attack. . . kill.”

–I am an associate member of the S.S.

–Not the Schutzstaffel, but the “Sauna Säufers,” the sauna drinking companions.

There are eight or nine regulars, mostly middle-aged businessmen from a Rhineland town. They meet at a sauna Wednesday afternoons. Big and chunky, sweat streaming over their shrapnel-pocked bodies, they break into marching songs as a former Hitler Youth leader swirls a towel to send heat waves rolling against the pink flesh.

After a plunge into the cold pool, my sponsor, a 46-year-old former Silesian with one leg, chatted with me.

“How can I explain?” he said. “To you, those are Nazi songs. To us, they are songs of youth. Youth is the best time of life, so when we get together once a week we try to act like youths again; we snap towels and tell dirty stories and act foolish and sing those songs.”

Later we join his wife over a bottle of wine. He says that though it is difficult to explain the days of his youth to an American his own age, it is “impossible” to make sense to younger Germans. He talks about how one remembers the good things of youth and blocks out the bad; he says that when seeing films of the Nazi period, he can hardly believe that he was part of the strutting, Nazi-saluting columns of youth. But he well remembers his pride in “taking” the discipline of his school and in winning races there — and he remembers the single-minded dedication that followed.

His Stuka dive-bomber was shot down on the Russian front but Germans rescued him. He recalls the semi-conscious state in which he emerged from anesthesia after his leg was amputated:

“I was dreaming, or imagining, that 1 would be out of the hospital in a week, ready for duty. I knew that I would be grounded and non-combatant, but I had an inspiring vision: I would be able to do the work of two men. You see, I visualized all of us paper workers seated on a big table — and I would be producing double because, with only one leg, I would only be taking up half a space.”

He said that his zealousness went into decline only when the Nazi salute, rather than the military one, was made mandatory in tile armed forces shortly after the July 20 Hitler assassination plot was smashed. His reaction to the order was not entirely that of an officer outraged at a “political” salute; he saw it as evidence that Hitler had lost his nerve and his faith in Germans.

The expenditure of one’s youth in a cause that one now regards with ambivalence; the loss of most of one’s youthful comrades — these are synthesized in the German experience with the loss of the eastern territories. It seems to me that the people from the “lost lands” are now so well blended into West German society that their one special grievance can not set them apart as a source of trouble. But this of course does not mean that the grievance itself — the status of the lost lands — is a slight one. It is the basic problem of German politics and of the European confrontation between East and West.


Herbert Schwarzer, whose expression of homesickness for Silesia was the opening line of this newsletter, does not wear his heart on his sleeve. And my questioning him about his personal feelings about his Heimat was not, I trust, a maudlin impulse.

Some of what had run through my mind before I questioned him went like this: So many of these educated Germans from eastern territories have a detailed and lively store of lore regarding Central Europe. They have opinions and anecdotes about tile Hapsburgs and Frederick the Great, a knowledge of the ebb and flow of Teuton and Slav. They are a frontier people but it was an old frontier; some regions had a culture more “European” than parts of Germany far to the West. These people can see their expulsion as a small painting on a very large historical canvas — yet it is their own lives that are involved…

“How does it feel,” I asked, “to have on the one hand a historical perspective on your homeland and yet realize that your span of life probably will be lived out in what you regard as a tragic phase of that history?”

Then had come his answer of pure feeling that he clings to Silesia “like a child to a mother.”

Briefly he spoke of his emotions at seeing photographs of hills where he had skied. . . of a valley where he had walked with a girl.

But he said that a trauma exists for many expellees when they think of their homelands — a trauma that in many cases kills all desire to return. It stems from the circumstances of the expulsion. Schwarzer referred to brutalities and terror, assuring me that he had mountains of documentation, though we felt neither the need nor the desire to pick the bones of atrocities.

“I would go back in a minute,” he said, “but not until most of the Polish settlers moved back out. I honestly don’t think I could stand the sound of those Polish voices.”

(His army unit had surrendered only with the general capitulation. He says that in Czechoslovakia he saw Sudetenlanders being expelled and that later he was a captive of Poles who continually beat and whipped the POWs. His reference to “Polish voices” his only remark that might be termed “prejudiced” reminded me immediately of reactions some visitors have in Germany: jumpiness at the sound of German voices in moments of boisterousness or anger; alarm at the sound of voice and foot in cadence, even when the singers wear funny hats and the song is of wine and the Rhine.)

But how can those expellees who want to go back, expect to go back?

“The illusion of the present can be the reality of the future,” said Schwarzer. “Our hope is in evolution — that within a united Europe the borders will lose their harshness.”

The Federation of Expelled Germans is not tied to a demand for pure restoration of the territories, be said. “We want agreement with the Polish people. The poles living where we used to live don’t like it there. They get special payments and other benefits to move there — but every three years there is a change of population. Poland is under populated. In return for Poland allowing Germans back into those areas, we could give Poland development aid. And we need industrial manpower ourselves. We have a million foreigners working here, so why not Poles? In the Ruhr there is a tradition of Polish workers; many were completely assimilated there before the war.”

Though he hopes for liberalizing tendencies in the satellites, he stressed that The Soviet Union is the key. His remarks continued along lines that stirred certain geopolitical echoes and were a reminder that ‘West Germany is not forever forged to The United States or Western Europe with bonds of steel.

“Over the centuries Russian-German relations have been very good, on the balance, and. they can be again. It was always Austria that complicated the picture. The General Staff hated Hitler’s desire to attack Russia. It was his Austrian background that gave him the obsession.”

But any togetherness with Russia presumably will be a long time acoming, and it is likely that Schwarzer will never again see Silesia. His day-to-day work for the Federation goes on: seeking more compensation for expellee losses; supporting general legislation whose beneficiaries include expellees, such as liberalized home financing; sending packages to those Germans who are still in the lost lands.

He said there are recent hitches in some of the programs for ethnic Germans and former German citizens who want to leave the now-Communist countries for West Germany. “Before the diplomatic recognition of Romania this year, we regularly received several hundred Germans from there each month — but since then there has only been a handful. We are trying to discover why. My strictly personal opinion is that some of the Romanian officials are seeking bribes.” (A source in the Federal Ministry for Expellees, Refugees and War Victims told me that in September the Germans leaving Polish-occupied territory began having to pay 5,000 zlockies apiece.)

Another type of problem: Schwarzer says that one reason the Federation maintains that the Munich Agreement must be regarded as valid until renegotiated is that it is the basis of German citizenship of the expelled Sudetenlanders: “Without it, they might be classified by Czechoslovakia as tax avoiders or military deserters.”

But the Federation’s positions on bi-lateral matters carry little weight where it counts. Said Schwarzer — perhaps a bit plaintively, in view of his hopes in regard to Russia — “It seems that the Oder-Neisse problem is made to order for Russia in this period of her history.”

Received in New York October 30, 1967.