German evacuation from East-Central Europe near the end of World War II
|Flight and expulsion of Germans during
and after World War II
|Wartime flight and evacuation|
|Post-war flight and expulsion|
The German evacuation from East-Central Europe ahead of the Soviet advance in World War II was delayed until the last moment. Plans to evacuate people from the territories controlled by Nazi Germany in Central and Eastern Europe including from former eastern territories of Germany were prepared by German authorities only when the defeat was inevitable, resulting in utter chaos. The evacuation in most of the Nazi-occupied areas began in January 1945, when the Soviet forces were already rapidly advancing westward.
The number of civilians in the eastern territories during the final stages of World War II is currently estimated at 10 million. Among them, were the 7,3 million permanent residents with one million ethnic Poles spared the expulsions and 6,4 million German speaking persons including settlers (deutschsprachige Bevölkerung), as well as 2,5 million transients consisting of 1 million slave workers from occupied Europe and 1.5 million bombing raid evacuees from the Reich. The evacuation did not concern all of them. The priority was given to bureaucratic administrative staff with their families estimated at 750,000. Along with the German civilians, well over a million German speakers from the east were evacuated or fled. Most of them had settled into occupied Poland before March 1944. They took up farms and homes of Poles forcibly removed (or executed) during the ethnic cleansing operations in the preceding years. The number of Germans who had fled eastward temporarily in fear of the British and American bombings in the heartland of Germany is also estimated between 825,000 at a minimum, and 1,134,000 by some historians.
Apart from the evacuation of civilians, the Germans also evacuated Nazi concentration camp prisoners of many nationalities who were forced to walk to the Austrian and German borders as the Soviets approached from the east. The German SS evacuated camp after camp as the war drew to a close, sending at least 250,000 men and women on death marches starting in March and April 1945. Some of those marches to the heartland of Germany and Austria lasted for weeks, causing thousands of deaths along the road.
Statistics dealing with the evacuations are incomplete and there's no guarantee that estimates are accurate because in the Cold War years various government offices have manipulated them in order to make a political point. According to a recent estimate in Germany up to six million Germans may have fled or had been evacuated from the areas east of the Oder-Neisse line before the Red Army and the Soviet-controlled Polish People's Army took hold of the entire territory of postwar Poland. The West German search service was able to confirm the deaths of 86,860 civilians due to the wartime flight and evacuations from those areas.
The plans to evacuate the German speaking population westwards from Eastern Europe including from cities and towns in the Eastern Gaue of Nazi Germany were prepared by various Nazi authorities towards the end of the war. According to report submitted in 1947 by the Nazi governor of Warsaw, Gruppenführer Ludwig Fischer: "in roughly mid-August  Gauleiter – of the Warthegau district – Greiser directed a huge column of trains and other transportation means filled with goods, furniture, textiles, and medical supplies from Warsaw to Posen. During the whole time that fighting was ongoing Greiser evacuated not only gasoline, but everything that he could."
By most current accounts drawing on research carried out by Theodor Schieder, up until the end of the war 7,494,000 persons evacuated from East-Central Europe to the heartland of Germany including 3,218,000 from Silesia, 2,053,000 from East Prussia, 1,081,000 from East Pomerania, 330,000 from East Brandenburg, and 812,000 from General Government. Among them, were the Germans who had fled or have been resettled during the war into occupied Poland (deutschsprachige Bewohner), and who took up homes of Poles subjected to ethnic cleansing operations in the preceding years. Before the end of war the number of Germans who evacuated from Czechoslovakia is estimated at 150,000 to 370,000; from Hungary 50,000-60,000; from Romania 100,000; from Yugoslavia 200,000-300,000 and from the USSR 324,000. According to sources, the total number ranged from 10 to 15 million persons. Many of those who were evacuated during the war returned to their homes in the east after May 1945; only to be transferred back to Germany in the following years. According to Rudiger Overmans the West German search service was able to confirm the deaths of 93,283 civilians due to the wartime flight and evacuations including 86,860 from the territory of present day Poland and the Russian Kaliningrad region. According to the German Federal Archives 100,000 to 120,000 civilians were killed during the wartime flight and evacuation from the territory east of the Oder Neisse line.
In most cases, however, the implementation of the plans was either delayed until Allied forces had already advanced into the areas to be evacuated, or it was prohibited entirely by the Nazi apparatus. Despite the rapid advances of the Red Army, the German authorities in many areas forbade leaving one's place of residence without a permit and an officially valid reason. Millions of Germans were left in these areas until combat conditions overwhelmed them, as a direct result of both the draconian measures taken by the Nazis towards the end of the war against anyone even suspected of 'defeatist' attitudes (such as suggesting evacuation) and the fanaticism of many Nazi functionaries in their mindless support of useless 'no retreat' orders. When the German authorities finally gave people the order to leave their homes, the available means of transport (such as trains and ships) were inadequate, and this forced many to leave most of their belongings behind. The first mass movement of German civilians in the eastern territories included both spontaneous flight and organized evacuation starting in the summer of 1944 and continuing through to the spring of 1945.
The guards and inmates of the Majdanek camp were evacuated starting on April 1, 1944. However most of the evacuation efforts commenced in January 1945, when Soviet forces were already at the eastern border of Greater Germany, including the largest death marches.
The first Volksdeutsche to exit the traditional Soviet territories were the Black Sea Germans and those from around Leningrad. They were resettled and/or evacuated already in 1942–43, partly to Greater Poland (then Reichsgau Wartheland) and partly to Germany proper. In December 1943 the city of Berdychiv was evacuated by the Reich Germans, the German Volksdeutschen, agencies of the civil government, the government of the country, and the able-bodied population. From Slovakia 70,000 - 120,000 Germans were evacuated at the end of 1944 and the beginning of 1945. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Germans panicked and fled to the west in 1945, particularly from East Prussia, attempting to seek safety within parts of Germany not yet occupied. Nazi propaganda widely publicized the details of the Soviet atrocities, such as the Nemmersdorf massacre of October 1944, in order to strengthen the German morale. The Soviet propaganda machine (including Ilya Ehrenburg) encouraged a harsh and vengeful attitude toward the Germans. While advancing toward the West, soldiers of the Red Army committed a variety of atrocities, most notably rape, mutilation, murder and looting.
The evacuation plans for East Prussia were ready in the second half of 1944. They consisted of both general plans and specific instructions for each individual town. The plans encompassed not only people but also industry and livestock. The evacuation was planned to be conducted in three waves: the first two of them in July and October 1944, when about 25% of the 2.6 million population, mostly elderly, women and children, were supposed to be evacuated to Pomerania and Saxony.
In fact the population of Memel east of the Neman River was evacuated to the western parts of East Prussia in late summer 1944. On October 7, 1944 that area was the only part of East Prussia completely evacuated. On October 16, 1944 the Red Army reached German territory for the first time in World War II in the southern part of East Prussia near Gumbinnen, encountering German civilians and committing the Nemmersdorf massacre. After the Wehrmacht managed to reconquer large parts of the territory, the East Prussian Gauleiter Erich Koch partially conceded the requests of the Wehrmacht and gave permission to evacuate a small strip of 30 km directly behind the front line. Civilians from that area were sent to the northern parts of East Prussia.
The third wave of evacuation happened in January 1945, when the Soviet East Prussian Offensive was already in progress. While Nazi authorities propagated the faith in the Final victory, any self-contained flight preparation was labelled as defeatism. Most civilians left their homes just hours before the Soviets overran them, and were often directly involved in combat. At the same time Nazi representatives, like Gauleiter Koch who had prepared two steamboats in the harbour of Pillau for his personal use, were the first to escape to the west. After the Red Army reached the coast of the Vistula Lagoon near Elbing on January 23, 1945, cutting off the overland route between East Prussia and the western territories, the only way to leave was to cross the frozen Vistula Lagoon and to try to reach the harbours of Danzig (Gdańsk) or Gdingen(Gdynia), to be evacuated by ships taking part in Operation Hannibal. This phase of the evacuation followed two major routes: westwards, towards Danzig and Pomerania, and northwards, towards Königsberg and Pillau port. About 450,000 Germans fled East Prussia over the frozen Vistula Lagoon and were then evacuated by ship from Baltic port cities.
According to West German figures out of a pre-war German speaking population (deutschsprachige Bewohner) in East-Prussia of 2,473,000; 511,000 were killed or missing (including 210,000 military personnel). Some 301,000 civilians died due to the wartime flight and post-war expulsions. In total, some 1,200,000 people managed to escape to Germany, while about 800,000 pre-war inhabitants remained in East Prussia as of the summer of 1945.  The number of fatalities is disputed by historian Ingo Haar who maintains that they were inflated by the West German government during the Cold war,Haar pointed out that the West German search service was able to confirm 123,360 civilian fatalities in East Prussia due to the wartime flight and post-war expulsions
The evacuation of Pomerania was also delayed. It was further complicated by the influx of the Germans evacuated from East Prussia. At the end of February 1945, the Nazis ordered the evacuation to be suspended. This delay resulted in the land evacuation routes soon being blocked by the advancing Soviet and Polish forces. Kolberg, the main seaport within the German-held pocket, was declared a "fortress" and became the center for sea-based evacuation of both civilians and military from Farther Pomerania. Germans who were evacuated on ships were landed either in German seaport cities west of the Oder River, or in Denmark, where internment camps were set up by the Danes after the war. In total almost 2.2 million people were evacuated this way, and about 14,000 drowned when their ship was sunk by the Allies.
About 85% of the Lower Silesian population was evacuated in 1945, first across Oder River and then to Saxony or to Bohemia. However, many of the Silesians ignored the evacuation orders, believing that their knowledge of Polish and their Polish provenance would spare them the horrors feared by Germans.
February 1945 the Soviet Red Army approached the city of Breslau (now Wrocław). Gauleiter Karl Hanke declared the city a Festung (fortress) to be held at all costs.[clarification needed] Hanke finally lifted a ban on the evacuation of women and children when it was almost too late. During his poorly organised evacuation in early March 1945, 18,000 people froze to death in icy snowstorms and -20°C weather.
- Flight and expulsion of Germans (1944–50)
- Nazi-Soviet population transfers
- Hegewald (colony) in Reichskommissariat Ukraine
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In March 1944, Greiser sent a telegram to Hitler reporting that the Gau now had one million Germans: »full of pride and joy I may report to you, My Führer; as the first success of this real Germanization process, that today the number of one million has been reached.« Greiser raised the percentage of Germans in the Warthegau from 6.6 percent of the population in 1939 to 22.9 percent by April 1944.[page 192]
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Note 167: trial of Ludwig Fisher. Evacuation of Warsaw alone encompassed 1,502.5 tons of goods, including 15 tons of medicine, 25 tons of soap, 352 tons of paper, 342 tons of steel goods, 62 tons of steel machine parts, 208 tons of agricultural machinery, 24.5 tons of leather goods, 265 tons of textiles; among other items.
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