Academic journal article Refuge

German Expellee Organizations between "Homeland" and "At Home": A Case Study of the Politics of Belonging

Academic journal article Refuge

German Expellee Organizations between "Homeland" and "At Home": A Case Study of the Politics of Belonging

Article excerpt

Abstract

Since the expulsion of more than ten million ethnic Germans from Central and Eastern Europe after the end of the Second World War, the political and cultural organizations of the expellees have advocated the interests of this segment of the Federal Republic's population. The article examines the various ways in which activists in the expellee organizations have used the ambiguity of homeland and belonging in the political process in Germany and increasingly in Europe to further a political agenda that, while it has undergone major changes, remains deeply problematic in some of its objectives and many of its implications.

Introduction

Between 1945 and 1950, one of the largest forced migrations in European history took place: as a consequence of the Second World War almost fourteen million ethnic Germans fled or were expelled from their traditional homelands in Central and Eastern Europe. (1) Of the survivors, approximately two-thirds were resettled in the American and British zones of occupation, and one-third in the Soviet zone. Thus, the population of the newly established Federal Republic of Germany comprised around one-sixth of people whose geographic and cultural background, although not homogeneous in itself, was significantly different from that of their new environment, and who had recently experienced uprooting and expulsion from their homeland. (2) Therefore, and because of their large numbers and widespread distribution across occupied Germany, the expellees were visible victims themselves, but their very presence also increased the self-perception of victimhood among the indigenous population who were required to share with them what little was available in terms of food and shelter. The belonging of the expellees to the reemerging German polity was therefore not uncontested in the beginning, precisely because the expellees themselves as well as the indigenous population did not perceive those parts of Germany to which the expellees had come to be their homeland. Thus, the sense of victimhood among the expellees differed in another crucial respect from that of the rest of the German population: the loss of their homeland. This dimension has subsequently provided an additional impetus for a collective identity to be formed among refugees and expellees from very diverse countries in Central and Eastern Europe.

The resultant politics of homeland also became a politics of belonging rooted in a certain sense of (deliberate) ambiguity of what and where the expellees' homeland was, and how and where they belonged. This ambiguity has proven to be a salient factor and can explain why, despite the fact that the integration of the expellees was more or less completed by the late 1950s, a so-called expellee identity remained a political factor to be reckoned with--particularly in relation to the reconciliation process between Germany and its neighbours in Central and Eastern Europe, well into the twenty-first century.

In the following, I will examine the various ways in which activists in the expellee organisations have used the ambiguity of homeland and belonging in the political process in Germany and increasingly in Europe to further a political agenda that, while it has undergone major changes, remains deeply problematic in some of its objectives and many of its implications.

After a brief theoretical exploration of the concepts of homeland and belonging in the context of forced migrations, I proceed chronologically in my analysis of the policies of the expellee organizations over the past half-century, paying particular attention to the domestic political process in Germany and to the country's relationship with Poland and the Czech Republic. I conclude with some general observations on the likely future significance of homeland and belonging.

Conceptualizing Belonging

That "identity and belonging are ... potentially divisive" is an observation made by Anthony Giddens in his seminal work The Third Way. …

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