By the late spring of 1945, Germany had lost a war, its honor and millions of dead. There was more to come. The Allies had decided that the country’s east should be carved up between Poland and the Soviet Union and that its German inhabitants should be moved to the truncated Reich. There they would encounter Sudeten Germans, Czechoslovakia’s second largest ethnic group, now also scheduled for deportation. In August 1945, the United Kingdom, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed at Potsdam that these transfers, which had in any case already begun, should be “orderly and humane.”
They were to be neither, and they rapidly evolved into the greatest forced migration of all time. In total, 12 million Germans or more—mostly women and children—were stripped of all they owned and expelled from a vast swath of Eastern and Central Europe. At least 500,000 lost their lives (some estimates are far higher) due to neglect, violence, disease and the debilitating effects of freight wagon and forced march. From the Baltic to the Carpathians and beyond, communities that had flourished for, in some cases, more than half a millennium were smashed and scattered until all that remained were buildings and graveyards.
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