[This review was published in the Summer 2012 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 257-264.]


Book Review


50 Theses on the Expulsion of the Germans from Central and Eastern Europe 1944-1948

Alfred de Zayas

Verlag Inspiration Un Limited, 2012


               In recent years,  “ethnic cleansing” has come to be seen in the media and the international community as a particularly heinous human rights violation.  At the same time, a strong double standard has existed to suppress any mention of what Alfred de Zayas calls “the greatest forced migration of civilian population in history” – the well-documented expulsion of vast numbers of ethnic Germans from their ancestral homelands in east-central and Eastern Europe at the end of World War II.  Approximately 19 million ethnic Germans had lived in those regions, often for hundreds of years.  Of these, de Zayas says that some 12 million were expelled, 4 million were allowed to stay in their homes “but for the most part without rights or minority protection,” one million died in the war, and the final two million were “killed or perished in the course of the expulsion and its aftermath.”  We are told that “numerically speaking, only the so-called population exchange between Pakistan and India in the years 1947 and 1948 comes close….”  Indeed, the German expulsion “far exceeds the ‘ethnic cleansing’ conducted by Serbia in the former Yugoslavia between 1991 and 1999.”

               Article XIII of the communique issued at the end of the Potsdam Conference in July 1945 spoke of the deliberations between U.S. President Harry Truman, British prime ministers Winston Churchill and Clement Atlee (the latter having supplanted Churchill during the conference after the British elections that month), and the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin about the “transfer” of Germans.  It seems that Article XIII was inserted hurriedly because, aware that a brutal expulsion was already ongoing, the Western Allies wanted to provide that expulsions would be “orderly and humane” and to place them under the supervision of the Allied Control Council in Berlin. 

                “Orderly and humane” predictably turned out to be a mere verbal cover for a brutal process.  Statistical assessments of the numbers who died vary widely.  De Zayas himself accepts a two million figure, which is consistent with the number of 2.225 million determined by a 1958 investigation by the German Federal Statistical Office in Wiesbaden.  The same two million estimate was stated by the German government in 2006.  At the same time, however, “in his Memoirs Konrad Adenauer noted: ‘According to American figures a total of 13.3 million Germans were expelled… 7.3 million arrived in the Eastern zone and the three Western zones [of Germany]… Six million Germans have vanished from the earth… They are dead, gone.’”  It would seem, then, that the number is open to question.

               The taboo against any mention of this particular ethnic cleansing still continues.  De Zayas observes that “the silence surrounding the expulsion of the Germans transgresses the very ethos of scholarship” and “constricts both research and open discussion.”   It is noteworthy that Canadian historian James Bacque, in his book Crimes and Mercies (Little, Brown and Company, 1997), says that “my fellow author, Alfred de Zayas, a graduate of Harvard and of Goettingen, spent years researching and writing his book Nemesis at Potsdam, about the expulsions from the east of Germany.  And then he had to spend ten years sending it round to almost a hundred publishers in the West before the manuscript was finally accepted.  The president of one of the biggest houses in New York returned the manuscript with the note that he would never publish a book sympathetic to the Germans.”  Despite the taboo, however, de Zayas and a few other scholars continue their efforts to make the episode (if we may call something of such magnitude that) known.  The memory of the horrors, and of the people who suffered in the experience, is also kept alive by an organization called the “League of Expellees,” which de Zayas calls “the largest and most peaceful association of expellees in history” (it is peaceful because, in the words of its charter, “the expellees renounce all thought of revenge and retaliation.”

               Alfred-Maurice de Zayas was born in Havana, Cuba, in 1947, and in a long and distinguished career has excelled as a scholar.  Presently, he is Professor of International Law and World History at the Geneva School of Diplomacy.  Educated at Harvard, where he earned his Juris Doctor degree, and at Goettingen, where he received a Dr. phil. in modern history, he has written nine books and over 200 scholarly articles.  This is in addition to having occupied leading positions at the United Nations in the area of human rights.  Much of his writing has to do with international law and ethnic cleansing, with special focus on the expulsion of the ethnic Germans. 

               As we assess his work, we are bound to appreciate the fact that he is one of the world’s relatively few scholars who are willing to tackle taboo subjects, perhaps doing so precisely because such subjects cry out to honest minds to have their story told.   We notice, however, that he has not cast his net widely to seek out some other rather obvious taboos to challenge, which causes him to be selective in the instances he cites, such as the expulsions of Armenians, Greeks, Assyrian Christians, Bosnians, Croatians, Albanians and Serbs.  Nor does he challenge the taboo against scholarly investigations for which serious scholars have gone to prison in Europe and Canada on the pretext that their work amounts to violations of “hate speech” laws.  It would not be unreasonable to criticize de Zayas for railing against one mind-closing taboo while thus actually participating in the taboos on other subjects, also vastly important.   To say this does not detract, however, from the credit he has brought upon himself by his courage, humanity and determination in shining a light on one horrific episode that the dishonest veneer of contemporary thought would like to keep submerged in its memory hole.  Were de Zayas to enter the ring to fight on other subjects, his message would become diluted and would be subjected to attack on grounds that are extraneous to the expulsion of the east European Germans.  There may well be a conjuncture of wisdom and prudence in the choices he has made.

                It ought not to be necessary to point out that his work is seriously misconstrued if it is taken to be, as the publishing house editor thought, an apologia for the Germans.  It is evident from all that he writes that De Zayas’s sympathy for the expellees is as human beings, the vast majority of whom had nothing to do with Hitler or his regime.  (De Zayas discusses the question of “collective guilt,” and denies its validity, arguing that “well established principles of due process and the rule of law” see guilt as individual, not assignable to vast populations (which necessarily include women and children and countless numbers of people who are simply trying to live their lives) because of their ethnicity or the like.  De Zaya does not come to his research as a sympathizer with the Nazis.

               The “fifty theses” referred to in the book’s title consist of fifty paragraphs, frequently of some length, broken down into three categories: historical, points of international law, and conclusions.  The first seventeen tell the story of the expulsions and the background of the Volksdeutsche who were expelled.   In the course of this explication, he addresses the question of collective guilt and the idea, advanced by some, that expulsions are irreversible (de Zaya rebuts this by citing several examples of populations, such as Poles, Crimean Tartars and the Alsatian French, who have indeed returned to their homelands).  This historical review of the expulsion of the Germans from eastern Europe at the end of World War II gives the statistics recited above about the numbers of expellees and of those who died, but 50 Theses is not the place where de Zayas gets into the human details such as are bound to be revealed in the “tens of thousands of individual testimonies” contained in the German Federal Archives.  Readers who want those details will find them in his books Nemesis at Potsdam: The Expulsion of the Germans from the East (third edition, 1988) and A Terrible Revenge: The Ethnic Cleansing of the East European Germans, 1944-50 (1994).  Considerable detail is also given in Giles MacDonogh’s After the Reich (2007).[1]

               Theses 18 through 35 discuss international law as it relates to “human rights.”  In addition, the book contains statements from Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Jose Ayala Lasso, who was the first U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (serving from 1994 to 1997). 

               De Zayas takes international law and the recent emphasis on “human rights” seriously, as one might expect from a man of his educational background.  He is thus one of many intelligent and well-meaning people who accept its legitimacy.  Indeed, one should take it seriously in light of the judicial heft placed behind the law by the existence of the International Criminal Court at The Hague.  And yet, one of the more interesting features of de Zayas’s discussion is how much it reveals (contrary, no doubt, to the impression he would prefer to leave) the almost surreal nature of the “international law thinking” that has developed since the beginning of the twentieth century.  We mean no reflection on de Zayas specifically when we say that this thinking reflects a worldview that  emanates from quite a peculiar mentality -- that of a long-existing cosmopolitan elite whose thinking is at once unworldly and ahistorical.  One might say that it weaves a tapestry of a “do-gooder’s paradise.”  That something so divorced from reality is given judicial weight so that it is enforceable against actual human beings is necessarily a travesty of justice, violating the very essence of the “rule of law” in its truest sense.   Not only is it esoteric, but it inevitably calls into play a selective enforcement against those who lose wars or who are not shielded from prosecution by being identified with one of the superpowers. 

               Why do we speak of it this way?  Consider just a few of the points on their merits.   The U.N. Declaration on Population Transfer and the Implantation of Settlers, adopted in 1997, says that it “sets standards which are applicable in all situations” and sets out that “every person has the right to remain in peace….”  All human history cries out that this expresses an aspiration, dear to the heart of every non-bellicose human being, but one that cannot possibly be met unless history comes to an end, with a radical change in human beings and arriving at a stasis that affirms the status quo in all situations.   It manifests the mentality that underlay the Kellogg-Briand Pact which in 1928 purported to outlaw all war.  The reality of international conflict demonstrated quite soon how wide of the mark that was, making it seem ludicrously naive in the context of the world war that soon followed.

               De Zayas says that Article II of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines “genocide” as “acts or actions intended to partially or entirely destroy a certain national, ethnic, racial or religious group.”  Lawyers can hardly avoid grimacing at this definition’s open-ended, ambiguous nature.  Instead of requiring, as a minimum, a significant destruction, it includes “partially destroy.”  But how large or small a part?  Will one percent of a population count as “genocide”?  The act is declared a “crime,” but the truism that crimes are to be defined with definiteness, surely a part of “due process,” is ignored.

               We are told that “expulsion and deportation can qualify as genocide,” and then are told that “all victims of expulsion have a right to compensation,” a right as to which “no statute of limitations applies.”  Has anyone thought this through?  If there is no statute of limitations, the seeking of compensation can go back for wrongs long ago.  Given this norm, will anything ever become settled among peoples?  The scabs can be torn off of every wound, including those inflicted many decades or even centuries ago.  Further, who is to provide the “compensation”?  If there is no such thing as collective guilt, how can it be justified that people of future generations who played no part in a “wrong,” if that’s what it was, can be made to give of their substance to compensate for what earlier people did?  Is this not in fact itself a violation of their human rights?

                De Zayas tells us that “since the late 1990s the United Nations has recognized and promoted the right to truth, which entails the right to historical memory.”  Fantastically, this presupposes that there could ever be a consensus about  what “truth” and “historical memory” are in given situations.  The very fact that de Zayas has himself had to fight a suffocating taboo on a subject of major historical importance belies the existence of such a consensus.  We live in a world in which myths of all sorts prevail and in which there are conflicting interpretations of almost everything.  This is to say nothing of the major religions with their varying cosmologies, and of the tension that looms so large in modern life between science and secular humanism, on the one hand, and those who repose faith in the supernatural, on the other.   Disregarding this maze of disputation, the mentality of “let’s declare as law whatever feels good” takes it upon itself to proclaim that there is a “right to truth.”  Part of the problem with this is that it is housed in juridical language and given the force of “law.”  Instead of leaving “truth” to scientists, scholars and philosophers in an eternal, on-going process of seeking, the mentality presumes to reduce it to something that can result in the final judgment of a court.  One can hardly imagine so insouciant a reductionism.

                The lack of respect for differences in opinion or perspective appears in another way, too.  De Zayas argues that “advocacy of the expulsion or negationism of the attendant crimes can be taken as a violation of Article 20” of the U.N. Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.  This is similar to the criminalization of “Holocaust denial.”  It runs counter to the intellectual freedom to gather and weigh evidence and to reach conclusions that may or may not agree with an existing consensus about an event’s occurrence, extent or seriousness.  It means “scholars beware,” because a given perception is hardened into criminal law.

               All of this should be enough to illustrate the point.  What is clear is that there has been for several decades an “international community” of the oddest sort.  It isn’t too much to say that its thinking  takes on the form of a new religion, far removed from the realities of life as it is actually lived.  It claims absolute truth and universality.  And it has a messianic temper: in Commissioner Lasso’s speech to the German expellees, set out as one of the appendices to 50 Theses, he says “we really want to create a new international order… a new conscience.”  It is a “new world order” that transcends national sovereignties, as we see when Lasso goes on to say that “we cannot be indifferent to violations of human rights, wherever they happen.”  We can see in this that the American “neoconservative” and “neoliberal” drives for a universal remaking of cultures to fit the preferences and worldview of the United States (or, more correctly, of the governing elite in the United States and perhaps of Europe)  at a given time.  An interesting feature is that the elite’s own beliefs evolve over time, never being quite the same from decade to decade, even though at any particular time it feels convinced that it is the guardian of immutable truth.

                Taken all together, we see that 50 Theses contains two very different things: a vitally important introduction to the little-noted atrocity that occurred at the end of World War II when millions of ethnic Germans were uprooted from their ancestral homes; and an eye-opening introduction to the wonderland of “international law” as it pertains, especially, to “human rights.”  Thoughtful readers will find both of these dimensions worth pondering.


                                                                                                                 Dwight D. Murphey

[1] This book was reviewed by this reviewer in the Spring 2009 issue of this Journal, pp. 95-110.  The review may be found on the reviewer’s website, www.dwightmurphey-collectedwritings.info as Article 99 (i.e., A99).