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Don’t mention the war!

The British Museum, with its new exhibition ‘Germany – Memories of a Nation’ opening next month, looks set to stir some deep and traumatic memories that Germans themselves have successfully glossed over. Till now.

Those memories relate to what the museum Director Neil MacGregor has called “the biggest forced migration in Europe’s history.” That migration, the ‘Vertreibung’ of 1945-47 saw millions of ethnic Germans from areas such as Prussia, Pomerania, Silesia and Sudetenland (seceded to neighbour countries at the end of the war) being uprooted from their homes, relocated, and made to live amongst the ruins of post-war Germany.

Whole trainloads of these refugees, between 12 and 14 million of them, were transported across a much diminished Germany and deposited on regional towns and cities. In most cases local residents were forced to give up rooms in their houses to these unwelcome visitors, and many of the newcomers remained with their hosts, as deeply resented ‘guests’, for years, until Germany’s economic recovery was sufficient to breathe back new vigour into their lives.

In many cases these populations never supported the German side in the war, and their only crime was in speaking the German language. Says MacGregor: “It’s as though in 1945 the entire population of Canada and Australia had been forcibly settled in Britain. It’s certainly the biggest forced migration in Europe’s history, possibly in all history.”

So deep was the trauma of this migration, so deep the resentment of the migrants, that numbers of residents of German towns and villages still feel unwanted today, and some original residents still discriminate between true locals and war-time incomers.

So why bring all this out now? Well, only an outsider institution like the British Museum would be able to consider this as worthy subject matter to be included in a major exhibition. Frankly, most Germans don’t like to dwell on it, seeing the migration as part of the punishment for losing the war, and overwhelmed by the shame at behaving so badly towards the rest of Europe in general, and the Jews in particular, during the conflict.

But there is another factor at work in the timing: the generation that was translocated all those decades ago is disappearing fast, and those that remain have started to open up about their memories and experience of their war years. For many of their children and grandchildren it is virtually the first time they’ve heard their parents and grandparents speak about it, and of course they are sitting up and paying attention.


The British Museum’s Germany: Memories of a Nation opens 16th October. BBC Radio Four is running a 30 part-series with the same title, and presented by Neil MacGregor, starting from September 30th.

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