One-fifth of the postwar West German population consisted of German refugees expelled from the former eastern territories and regions beyond. My dissertation examines how and why millions of expellees from the province of Silesia came to terms with the loss of their homeland. Revising the traditional expectation that this population was largely interested in restoring prewar borders as a means to return to the East, I offer a new answer to the question of why peace and stability took root in West Germany after decades of violent upheaval.
Before Bonn recognized Poland’s postwar border in 1970, self-appointed political and scholarly spokespeople for the expellees lost no occasion to preach the “right to the homeland” (Heimat) and advocate for a revolutionary migration, in which all expellees would return to the lands that had once been inside Germany’s 1937 borders. Confronting the generally accepted theory that expellees either thought like their leaders or lost interest in the East because of material prosperity in the West, I examine a wide range of neglected archival holdings, periodicals, circular letters, memory books, travel reports, and unpublished manuscripts to show how, through fantasizing about the old Heimat, expellees steadily came to terms with the permanence of their exile. Discarding what might imperil their own victim status, they generated idealized imagery of a Heimat of memory: a timeless, pristine, and intimate space without Slavs, Jews, or Nazis. The Heimat of memory was threatened by what they imagined as its dark inverse, a Heimat transformed: disordered, decaying, foreign, and dangerous, allegedly due to the influence of Russian armies and Polish settlers. Applying theories of memory and nostalgia, my dissertation demonstrates how, though expellees never surrendered their “right” to the Heimat of memory, they also came to realize that the lost world they mourned no longer existed to be recovered in the transformed spaces of physical reality.
We open with an historical overview of German history in Silesia before the expulsion. Further background is then offered through exploring the official narrative of border revision devised by self-proclaimed expellee spokespeople who, after the founding of the Bonn Republic in May 1949, received funding and support from the state. However, at the same time that official narratives dominated publications about the German East and exerted considerable political influence, expellees continued to deal with their loss and realize the impossibility of return. This process had already begun in 1945, when hundreds of thousands of eastern Germans managed to briefly return, witness the drastic changes in the former Heimat, and then return to tell others that there was no going back. Through reflection on what the homeland had been, through establishing continuity via a new sense of Heimat whenever they gathered, and through traveling back to see the changed spaces of western Poland for themselves, expellees steadily came to realize through the 1950s and 1960s that their professed “Right to the Heimat ” was in fact a right to the Heimat that they imagined in memory, rather than to a space that they could never return to inhabit. In light of these findings, it becomes self-evident why most expellees showed quiet resignation when Bonn recognized the Polish western border in 1970. Though expellee spokespeople continued to demand territorial restitution, most expellees had come to realize long before that the East was truly lost. Peace and even understanding thus became possible along a border that had known such hatred and bloodshed.