Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Andrew Demshuk's "The Lost German East"

Andrew Demshuk is a history professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Lost German East: Forced Migration and the Politics of Memory, 1945-1970, and reported the following:
Due to Allied decisions at the 1945 Potsdam conference, Germany lost one-fourth of its prewar territory, and 12 million Germans expelled from Eastern Europe (especially from these former German territories) came to form roughly one-fifth of the population under the nascent West German democracy. The Lost German East enters into this complex world of ubiquitous German refugees and political instability. Expellee political leaders constantly argued that their compatriots were waiting on packed suitcases, fully prepared to enact a mass reverse-migration across the borders into territories their ancestors had inhabited, and which were now part of Poland. In fact, I find that expellees very quickly came to accept the permanence of their exile. Reports from the former “German East” led expellees in the West to imagine the physical spaces they had left behind as an altered, negative image of Heimat (homeland) I call the Heimat transformed. Repelled by this dystopia, they preferred to reside in an idealized Heimat of memory they cherished, distinct from the world they had known.

Page 99 is set in the chapter detailing how Germans who still lived in Polish-occupied Silesia in the late 1940s actually came to develop a “desire for expulsion” to the West: “Although the German outlook was often burdened by old racism, it also generated the sense that Silesia was now dominated and given its shape by Poles rather than Germans; by communism rather than the peace and order they longed for in an imagined past that, with each month, they increasingly realized could never come again.” Of particular emphasis on this page is the region of Lower Silesia, which had suffered an almost complete exchange of populations by 1948; relating the utter foreignness of the Heimat transformed, these “expellees” urged old neighbors already in the West to “write off” the lost Heimat.

The extremely pessimistic firsthand reports recounted on page 99 help to show why, in the tense early years of the Cold War, an immense population of refugees in West Germany chose to begin accepting the permanence of their lost homeland, rather than actively plan and push for physical return, helping to break the cycle of violence that had devastated Central Europe over the preceding years.
Learn more about The Lost German East at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue