RefugeesEurope’s refugee crisis: the last time round it was much, much worse

By R. M. Douglas

Published 21 September 2015

During the immediate postwar years, Germany – then divided into West Germany and East Germany – absorbed between 12 and 14 million people of German descent who were forcibly expelled from Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Romania, and the Soviet Union. At least 500,000 had died as a result of hunger or disease. Substantial though today’s exodus from the Middle East may be, it pales in comparison to the situation Germany faced and surmounted after the war. The arrival of up to a million newcomers in 2015 presents real challenges, but a prosperous European Union with a population in excess of 500 million has the means to overcome them. The fact that nearly three-quarters of the refugees are healthy working-age men, in contrast to the expelled population of seventy years ago, will further reduce the economic burden of absorption. The problem is different: Long before the limits of Europe’s demographic or economic absorptive capacities are reached, voters are likely to rebel against open-ended commitments to find homes for the victims of collapsing states and civil wars in the Middle East. If the continent’s leaders are not to bring about fundamental political and cultural changes – changes which are acceptable to an increasingly anxious population – then it seems clear that they will have to demonstrate their ability to address the problem of forced migration at its source.

R. M. Douglas, Colgate University // Source:

As train after train of refugees arrives in Germany, swamping the railway stations and stretching the capacities of welfare organizations, a senior Berlin-based administrator protests against the strain the newcomers are placing on the country’s resources.

Germany, he warns, cannot go on indefinitely being treated “as a waste-paper basket with a limitless capacity for the unwanted waste of the world.”

More importantly, the scale of the influx is in danger of giving rise to a toxic brew of resentment on the part of the indigenous population that might well lead to neo-Nazism and ultra-nationalism once again becoming significant forces.

“Do we not now,” he asks, “tend to compress that mixture to the point of detonation?”

Crassly worded though his protest may be, the speaker’s concerns are widely shared by those responsible for Germany’s, and Europe’s, governance. Yet he is not himself a German, nor is he referring to the refugees coming from Syria or Libya in the summer and autumn of 2015.

His name is Colonel Ralph Thicknesse, a migration specialist in the British army of occupation after the Second World War, and he is expressing his alarm in the summer of 1946 over the worst refugee crisis in Europe’s history — one deliberately created by the victorious Allies themselves.

This episode, which is examined in my book Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, provides essential context for the way in which Europeans in general, and Germans in particular, are today approaching a problem that has forcefully reminded many of them of their own traumatic postwar experiences.

Trouble with minorities
Before 1939, millions of German speakers lived in communities scattered throughout central and southeastern Europe — in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Romania, and even the Soviet Union.

After the First World War, they became minorities in the new states created in the Paris peace settlement. Resentful of their drop in status, undesired by their new rulers who viewed them as impediments to the creation of “pure” ethno-national countries in the region, they were a source of — and pretext for — international instability in the interwar era.

Indeed, it was the condition of the German minority in Danzig and the so-called Polish “Corridor” that provided the excuse for Adolf Hitler’s launching of another world war in September 1939.