Currently, I am reading an enormous tome called “Die Vertreibung im deutschen Erinnern“ (“Expulsion in German Memory”), by Eva and Hans Henning Hahn. It seeks to dispel a number of persistent myths, as the authors see it, surrounding the way the flight and expulsion of Germans at the end of the war has been and still is imagined in Germany. Among these myths are inflated numbers of victims, the negative image of Benes, and the notion that Germans living in interwar Poland or Czechoslovakia were in some way victimised by these countries; rather they contributed to their destabilisation through their German-nationalist and völkisch rhetoric and activities. So far, I find this book both fascinating and infuriating. It is high time someone took issue with expellee myths, and who better to do it than the Hahns? I only hope the German press takes a little more notice of the book than they appear to be presently. I rather have the impression the book is simply being ignored, presumably because it flies in the face of conventional understandings. But in a way the Hahns do their basically sound cause a disservice by answering myth with myth. The section on the evacuation from the east in 1944-1945 is a case in point. Here, the Hahns have two arguments. The first is that, in considerable measure, flight was not flight, but evacuation: the Germans didn’t flee, they were ordered to leave by the Nazi Party. This is true to an extent, but not to the extent the Hahns claim. The so-called Schieder documentation of the 1950s, which includes numerous examples of evacuations, also includes as many, if not more of headlong flight following the refusal of local or regional potentates to evacuate. That badly-organised evacuations were one cause of the suffering of Germans has never been denied in West German historiography, as the Hahns seem to think it has. But if this historiography also emphasised the refusal of many Nazis to allow evacuation, and flight as a consequence, surely it was right to do so. The Hahns seem aware they may have overstated their case, and so they advance theory number two: where Germans were not evacuated, then this happened not because evacuation was obstructed by NS functionaries, but because it simply would not have been possible to organise the evacuation of such enormous numbers, and the Nazis knew it. If we take these arguments, and then imagine a conversation, we might get the following:
A: “Listen, you didn’t flee, you’re not a refugee, you were evacuated”
B: “No I wasn’t. There was no evacuation. The Party deserted us, and we had to flee.”
A: “You can’t hold the Party responsible. What could it have done?”
So if you were evacuated, you didn’t flee; and if you fled, you can’t complain at not being evacuated. This all seems a tad harsh to me, and I have a particular problem with the Hahns’ attempt to reformulate flight as evacuation (do they reformulate expulsion as resettlement? I shall have to wait and see, or read and see). Not because evacuation didn’t happen, of course it did, but because playing down the element of flight – which could also, incidentally, occur even in cases where evacuation had already happened – would seem to be an operation in the politics of memory rather than one in the interests of history. Representing Germans as largely victims of Nazi evacuation policy, while excising any suggestion they might also have undergone a harsh fate at the hands of the Red Army or Polish and Czech militia, may serve to debunk the “Germans-as-victims” discourse of the Berlin Republic, but it does not get any closer to the truth than the admittedly one-sided views the Hahns criticise.