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The Lost German East: Forced Migration and the Politics of Memory, 1945-1970.

The Lost German East

Forced Migration and the Politics of Memory, 1945-1970

By Andrew Demshuk. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (, 2012. 302 pages. Bibliography. ISBN 978-107-029733. Hardbound.

"The politics of memory" or "historical politics" is a politically motivated activity that is intended to shape individuals' image of the past. Andrew Demshuk's book is not about political games over history, however. It is a study of human memories that--although exploited to the highest degree by politicians--are perceived by the author as ultimately divorced from politics. Demshuk is interested in the memories of Germans expelled from their eastern lands after the Second World War. He concentrates on the inhabitants of Silesia and tries to show on what basis they accepted the loss of their Heimat.

Numerous theorists have already tried to explain how Germans acquiesced to their loss. The most significant explanation has been that Germans lost interest in the revanchist agenda of their leaders: the prosperity of the expellees' new Fatherland, West Germany, and their being cut off from the lands of their ancestors by the Iron Curtain played a role. Demshuk argues that this theory is false.

The two key phrases of Demshuk's study are "Heimat of memory" and "Heimat transformed." The former refers to an idealized image created on the basis of selective memories that made the lost territories into a paradise lost. The latter refers to the shocking reality of the places that the Germans left behind. News about the devastation of war, depopulation, and Polish settlers taking over what was left had first reached the expellees by letters from the few who had not fled. Tourist travel became possible after 1956, to which the expellees engaged en masse. Hundreds of thousands of Germans could then compare with their own eyes their "Heimat of memory" with the "Heimat transformed." Demshuk argues convincingly that the extreme contrast between their dreamland built on selective memories and the postwar communist reality of Soviet-occupied Poland was the main factor that enabled the expellees to accept the fact that the "German East" had irrevocably become the "Polish West."

On Stalin's order issued ten days after Yalta (Order No. 7558, paragraph 6b of February 20, 1945), all German lands that were to be transferred to Poland were subject to total pillage of their infrastructure. Over three years, the former German areas were completely deindustrialized.

This book focuses on the German point of view, as amply indicated by its lack of balance. We learn how and why this fairytale "Heimat of memory" arose, but we do not learn why the "transformed Heimat" was so degraded. The destruction of war? Communist administration? The fact that the Soviet military was stationed in Poland throughout the communist period (1945-1991)? Demshuk mentions (in one sentence!) the fact that the Soviet soldiers removed "machinery" from the region. He gets close to an important discovery, but never follows his trail. He is more interested in how Germans reacted to the reality they encountered than what made that reality arise. The Bismarckian myth of "polnische Wirtschaff" recurs over and over in the book, a German slur against Poles. Demshuk cites it with premonitory comments, but he does cite it because it is found in the expellees' reports made when, in search of a dreamland, they discovered devastation.

It is therefore worth adding at least one fact. A Soviet "Trophy Army" followed on the heels of the Red Army when it entered the territory of Silesia in 1945. That plague erased everything from the earth that had made up the expellees' Heimat. On Stalin's order issued ten days after Yalta (Order No. 7558, paragraph 6b of February 20, 1945) all German lands that were to be transferred to Poland were subject to total pillage of their entire infrastructure. Over three years, the entire area was completely deindustrialized. When the Soviet Trophy Army was finished, all that was left for the Poles were bare walls and the ground.

Like the expellees, Demshuk apparently knows nothing about the organized looting by the Soviets of the lands granted to Poland. He shows unintentionally how that ignorance can be the source of anti-Polish prejudice among Germans even today. The irrepressibility of that prejudice surprises Demshuk, and while he ostensibly opposes it he remains unable to repudiate it on the basis of historical facts.
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Author:Stepien, Maciej B.
Publication:Sarmatian Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2014
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