Day By Day

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Aftermath of World War II

As we get further in time from WWII we gain broader and more nuanced perspectives on it and as we do the simplistic narrative of the "Good War" becomes harder and harder to sustain. R. M. Douglas has a nice piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the horrors suffered by Germans living in Eastern Europe in the wake of the war -- atrocities abetted and sometimes instigated by American and British authorities. He writes:
Between 1945 and 1950, Europe witnessed the largest episode of forced migration, and perhaps the single greatest movement of population, in human history. Between 12 million and 14 million German-speaking civilians—the overwhelming majority of whom were women, old people, and children under 16—were forcibly ejected from their places of birth in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, and what are today the western districts of Poland.... The number who died as a result of starvation, disease, beatings, or outright execution is unknown, but conservative estimates suggest that at least 500,000 people lost their lives in the course of the operation.

Most disturbingly of all, tens of thousands perished as a result of ill treatment while being used as slave labor (or, in the Allies' cynical formulation, "reparations in kind") in a vast network of camps extending across central and southeastern Europe—many of which, like Auschwitz I and Theresienstadt, were former German concentration camps kept in operation for years after the war.
This is not to say that atrocities effected by the Western Allies are comparable in scope to those committed by Stalin and Hitler, but to note that these were extremely rough times during which nobody's hands were clean. It is with this awareness that we might want to reconsider the rather stark moral judgments that inform our popular understanding of this critical period in modern history.

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