Cleaning house: the German expulsion from postwar Poland and the consolidation of communist rule
As part of the more general dismemberment of the former German Reich at the end of the Second World War, several eastern German territories (East Prussia and Upper Silesia, along with most of Lower Silesia and parts of Brandenburg and Pomerania) were transferred to Poland by the Potsdam agreements of 1945. The expulsion of the German minority (around three million people, ) from these newly acquired territories was carried out as part of a broader programme of nation-building pursued by the new communist government between 1945 and 1949. The centrepiece of this programme was an attempt to achieve the ethnic homogenization of the state, to ensure as close a match as possible between its ethnic and political borders. As a means of increasing the popularity of the Polish Workers’ Party (PPR, from 1948 reformed as the Polish United Workers’ Party, PZPR) by connecting it in the public mind with a radical and extremely popular form of Polish nationalism, the nation-building project overall was of great importance. Within this wider strategy, moreover, the role played by the expulsions stands out as especially significant.
Displacing popular anger
The PPR’s dependence on this project for securing its rule stemmed from the chaotic conditions of postwar Poland, and the radicalization of popular nationalism as a result. Poland in 1945 was a ‘politically divided, war-ravaged country’, devastated after the German and Soviet occupations and experiencing economic and population losses as well as political disintegration. These problems, alongside the traumatic transition to communism, generated what Michael Fleming calls widespread ‘social anger’, manifested as sporadic protests and strikes throughout the country. While such anger accumulates in all political systems, the PPR suffered from a legitimacy deficit that left it particularly vulnerable. To a large extent, this derived from the past record of Polish communists, whose internationalist outlook had led them to be ‘universally despised’ as unpatriotic traitors. Their association with the Soviets was especially problematic following the brutality of the Red Army’s conduct during their occupation and subsequent ‘liberation’ of Poland, as well as Soviet removal of industrial resources and labour, which exacerbated the economic turmoil. The PPR therefore had a pressing need to divert this social anger onto an alternative target, a role for which the German minority was ideal.
Anti-Germanism as a rallying-point
Of the national minorities remaining in Poland, the Germans were easily the most hated. This hatred had its roots in the right-wing ‘Dmowskian’ variant of Polish nationalist thought, which ‘had always had a strongly anti-German thrust’, and had taken root in Polish national consciousness in the interwar period. The antipathy towards Germans had been heightened by wartime experiences of the vicious and xenophobic German occupation, which had led to the murder of several million Polish Jews and Gentiles, the enslavement of hundreds of thousands more in Germany, and the devastation of Polish cities, industry and agriculture.
Unsurprisingly, the majority of the surviving Polish population was ‘infected with hate’ by 1945, a hatred that only even began to dissipate a few decades later. This, in turn, instilled in the populace a ‘lust for revenge’ that was reflected in the ‘brutal’ character of many of the expulsions and the anti-German discriminatory measures that accompanied them. Coupled with this was a popular fear that the Germans would return to rob Poland of its new western territories—a fear not wholly without justification. By 1945, in short, this anti-German resentment had hardened into a consensus that the expulsion of the German minority was in the national interest. By tapping into this sentiment, the PPR was able to identify itself with the defence of the Polish nation, considerably enhancing its legitimacy.
A qualified success
In these terms, the expulsions were a profound success for the PPR. They certainly achieved their objective of an ethnically homogeneous Poland: by 1950, the state was an ‘ethnographic monolith’, with over 95 percent of its population consisting of Polish gentiles. This was the most visible achievement of the expulsions, and the one that best illustrates their importance to the overall nation-building project.
As a whole, furthermore, the project succeeded in consolidating a sense of ‘Polishness’ in society, binding otherwise hostile groups in a national mission that they all supported, and in which they were all willing to participate. This was evident in the policies and rhetoric of political parties across the spectrum, from the independent socialist Polish Peasants’ Party to the right-wing ‘Endecja’ radicals who enjoyed a long-term collaboration with the communists. Non-political organizations such as the Polish Western Association and, most influentially, the Catholic Church played a pioneering role in establishing the institutional and social frameworks that made resettlement possible. These institutions also encouraged numerous ordinary Poles to participate, including settlers from central and eastern Poland who migrated (some voluntarily, though many at gunpoint) to the western territories. The ‘national solidarity’ that emerged from this co-operation endured throughout, and even beyond, the communist era, further cementing the PPR’s hegemony.
In this way, the nation-building project laid the foundation for popular acceptance of communist rule. The ‘national solidarity’ made the transition to communism a smoother and more consensual process: by involving society in policies such as the nationalization of property; by offering Polish settlers property and other tangible benefits that gave them a stake in the success of the new political system; and by giving the party the opportunity to carry out ‘political cleansing’ in the new territories alongside the expulsions and resettlement. The fixation on the German threat and German wartime crimes, while downplaying the similarly brutal (and current) Soviet occupation, also made Polish membership of the international socialist alliance less controversial.
The advantage for the communists of this societal co-operation should not be overstated, of course. The alliance on which it rested was purely tactical, and depended on the PPR’s continued adherence to nationalist policies. When such policies were abandoned, such as during the attempt to introduce Stalinist reforms in 1948, this ‘bridge’ between party-state and populace was compromised, and the unity of Polish society became a powerful means of resistance to state intrusion.
On the whole, however, the PPR benefited far more from the association between the nation-building project and its own legitimacy. The greater freedom of political action it enjoyed as champion of the Polish nation allowed it to exploit nationalism for its own ends at home and abroad, while the ‘national solidarity’ fostered by the association led to a domestic stability that, aside from the 1956 uprising, endured uninterrupted for the first two postwar decades. More than any other factor, therefore, the nation-building project was vital for the rehabilitation of the communists and the legitimization of their rule, and the German expulsions can be seen as the most important contributor to that success.