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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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2 responses to “Don’t mention the war!”

  1. I first came across this in the mid 1980s, in Dinkelsbühl on the Romantische Strasse.

    Walking around what was left of the earthworks outside the town walls (now converted to an attractive park) I found a large wooden plaque, barely a foot off the ground, planted in the earth.

    I had to read it several times to understand that it was a memorial to the homeland in «Siebenbürgen», which I subsequently discovered was Transylvania, from where many of the current citizens had originated.

    However, I knew that not all German speakers had been driven out of the area, as Swiss friends of mine had travelled to Transylvania inthe summer of 1979 and were fascinated to discover villages of German speakers, living in dire poverty. Known as the Banater Schwaben, they were the decendents of immigrants to what is now Romania from Franconia, Bavaria, Baden and the Rhine Palatinate, as well as Austria, Alsace, Loraine and Luxemburg, having been invited to settle there by the Autro-Hungarian Monarchy in the late 17th century as the area had lost most of its population during the wars agains the Ottoman Turks. The heartland was centred on Kronstadt, Austria-Hungary, now called Braşov.

    Ironically, «Banater Schwaben» seems to be translated into English as Banat Saxons (according to Wikipedia), not Banat Swabians.

  2. I didn’t realise that some of them had ended up in Dinkelsbühl, but I have travelled fairly extensively in the Siebenbürgen in Transylvania. There are not that many German speakers still out there, but a lot of the properties in the Saxon villages are still owned by families who now live in Germany, and they usually visit every year, so you will regularly see cars with German numberplates. Unfortunately that does tend to mean that the villages are half empty, with most of the inhabitants having been ‘sold’ back to Germany by Ceausescu, who wasn’t keen on ethnic minorities, even though most of them had lived in Transylvania for hundreds of years. An interesting story.

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