Illustration Ragni Svensson

Reviews Ethnopolitical dilemmas. Europe’s 20th century: the century of expulsions

Detlef Brandes, Holm Sundhausen & Stefan Troebst (eds.) Lexikon der Vertreibungen Deportation, Zwangsaussiedlung und ethnische Säuberung im Europa des 20. Jahrhunderts. [Lexicon of expulsions: Deportation, forced resettlement, and ethnic cleansing in twentieth-century Europe] In cooperation with Kristina Kaiserová und Krzysztof Ruchniewicz Vienna, Cologne & Weimar Dmytro Meyshkov, 2010, 801 pages

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds pages 37-39, BW 2010 vol III:3
Published on on September 22, 2010

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The Lexicon of Expulsions, the subject of this article, is likely to become a standard work. It was edited by three highly regarded historians from Germany, specialists in East Central and South-Eastern European history, in cooperation with two experts from East Central Europe (Kristina Kaiserová from the Czech Republic and Krzysztof Ruchniewicz from Poland), who are equally familiar with this topic. The topic of expulsion is covered in 308 entries. The individual contributions deal with various groups affected by expulsions; programs that have led to mass migrations; conferences and resolutions that sanctioned expulsions; key players who have had a significant role in bringing about expulsions (to a lesser extent even people who were involved in relief efforts for the victims of expulsions); and also pivotal terms that in the “century of expulsions” have become established in the language of politics, jurisdiction, and, last but not least, historiography, and are investigated as both analytical and basic concepts. The result is an extraordinarily multifaceted kaleidoscope, ranging alphabetically from “Ägypter” (Egyptians) to “Zwangsassimilation” (forced assimilation). Except for a few glances outside Europe, it focuses on European history, understood in broad geographical terms, with the Balkan wars in the 20th century serving as the starting and end points, thus spanning the time frame from 1912 to 1999. An index of people, places, and things (pp. 744–799) makes the voluminous work accessible. The publisher of the volume, Dmytro Myeshkov, did an extremely good job, and the extensive, thoroughly cross-referenced index makes it easy for the reader not only to search specifically for individual terms, but also to browse through the material assembled by the more than one hundred authors and to make many surprising discoveries in the process.


The lexicon presents a balanced view of the results of studies (whose numbers have increased enormously in just the past two decades) investigating forced migrations of all types. At the same time, it participates in the continuing historiographic and above all historico-political controversies surrounding the question of how the phenomenon of the forcible displacement of populations should be incorporated into the history of the 20th century. The editors make their position on these arguments (which are still far from decided) clear in their preface, when they refer to the history of the lexicon’s origins. Debates, ongoing since the beginning of the 21st century, surrounding a “Center against Expulsions”, which a foundation closely allied with the “Association of Expellees” (the umbrella organization of Germans expelled from Eastern and South-Eastern Europe) wants to construct in Germany, have led to historico-political difficulties in Germany’s relations with its eastern neighbors. The intent of the lexicon is to counter this rejection (p. 12) using the fruits of the work of an “Ecumenical Movement of Historians” (and other academic disciplines); on the whole this movement functions extremely well, although the at-times-heated debates in the “national public arena” (id.) would suggest otherwise. Here, assessing the state of research in the form of a lexicon proves extremely helpful. By fanning out the topic in the manner of a kaleidoscope into a multitude of terms, the editors can avoid the danger of adding yet another master-narrative to those already in existence, some of which are hotly disputed. Nevertheless, when one reads the lexicon, and particularly the editors’ preface, which creates a sort of narrative framework for the entries, it becomes clear that the work has a specific perspective on the topic. It points to “the numerous nation-building processes in multi-ethnic nineteenth-century Eastern Europe” (p. 8) and also the “reevaluation of ethnicity as a state-building principle” (id.), thereby focusing on the nation-state and its institutions as the leading stakeholders. This focus is also clear in most of the entries, and raises the question of further levels to be considered (imperial, regional, local), as well as stakeholder groups beneath or beyond the level of the (nation-)state. The gray areas of everyday life can of course only be touched on; however, the questions of where perpetration and victimhood meet in one person and how individuals co-determine the state’s actions through their attitudes is of fundamental significance for the understanding of mass expulsions in the 20th century. Regardless of such general considerations, however, it must be pointed out that the lexicon succeeds in opening up long-accepted narratives to question, even though the subtitle “Deportation, Forced Emigration, and Ethnic Cleansing in Twentieth-Century Europe” gives the research paradigm of “ethnic cleansing” greater prominence.1 On the positive side, it must be noted that this does not result in a fixation on particular (supposed) retrospectively essentialized groups (such as, for example, all the Germans expelled from Eastern Europe, who “shared a common destiny”). Rather, the articles show groups in varying historical contexts, and this demonstrates how dependent the respective sphere of action is on its context and how people attribute actions to themselves and to others.


Particularly enlightening are articles that make their argument in terms of conceptual history and are thereby able to distance themselves from the source language. This leads to an interesting historicization of discourses concerning forced migrations. It is obvious that terms formerly considered basic concepts deriving from the language of the sources have to some extent already found their way into the language of international law (documents of the United Nations or protocols of the war criminals tribunals), as is the case, for example, in the entry “Ethnic Cleansing” (pp. 229–234). Against the background of considerations of this sort that are based on conceptual history, however, the limitations of the lexicon articles (which are of necessity short) become clear: for example, the demarcation attempted by the article on the term “genocide” (pp. 262–265) as opposed to “ethnic cleansing” is not convincing. Indeed, many articles contribute more to renewed essentializing than to a lucid history of a term, as is the case with “Ethnopolitics” (pp. 234–236); others, on the other hand, are exceptional in their clarity regarding historical terms: see, for example, the elegant analysis of “Collaboration with the Enemy of the Nation” (pp. 345–348). In addition to such historico-political terms, many legal terms have found their way into the lexicon. These revolve primarily around legal positions of those affected by expulsions and focus on the one hand on individual rights (“Human Rights”, pp. 417–418) and on the other on group rights (“Protection of Minorities”, pp. 430–434) or on legal institutions that involve both individual and group rights (“Citizenship”, pp. 619–620). Sometimes relatively narrowly defined legal terms (for example, “Confiscation”, pp. 354–355) raise questions that pertain to broader concepts that one might have wished to see discussed in their own lexicon entry — in connection with “confiscation” perhaps the concept of “property”, which includes implications for both legal and experiential history. The reference system, typical for lexicons, brings the individual articles together as in a discussion, whereby the relative context-dependence of terms relating to research and above all legal terms is made clear: in this way, for example, the term “ethnic cleansing” can be understood either as a term of the “perpetrators” or as a category that has meanwhile found its place in documents pertaining to international law.


The way the entries are put together is striking: there are specific thematic points of emphasis that result from the placing of the lexicon in an absolutely concrete historical context. For instance, the work presents a wealth of articles relating to the politics of remembrance, which demonstrate that the theme of expulsion has become the object not only of historiographical attention but also of debates on the culture of remembrance and of historico-political initiatives, and, indeed, that these were a significant factor in the creation of the lexicon. In West German society there was great awareness of the expulsion of the Germans from Eastern and South-Eastern Europe after the Second World War, as lobby organizations (“Hometown Communities”, p. 285; “Cultural Associations for Germans Born in the Eastern Parts of the Reich”, pp. 377–381; “Sudeten-German Cultural Association”, pp. 627–629) had ensured that these historical experiences were thematized in the public sphere (“Monuments and Memorials of German Expellees”, pp. 114–117; “Museums and Forced Migration”, pp. 448–450). Since 2000 this thematization has become more dynamic and international with the plan to erect a “Center against Expulsions” (pp. 736–739). The setting up of a “Federal Foundation for Flight, Expulsion, Reconciliation” (pp. 96–97), the creation of the “European Network’s Remembrance and Solidarity” (pp. 236–239), and the as yet unsuccessful initiative of the European Council to found a “Center for the Commemoration of the Peoples of Europe” (pp. 734–735) can be seen as reactions to this project. Other articles show that the “Expulsion Complex” has been the object of increased public awareness since the end of the Communist regime in Eastern Europe, particularly in Poland and the Czech Republic, and that there are disputes there about “foreign” and “native” victims and also about perpetration and responsibility (“Monuments and Memorials in Poland”, pp.  117–120; “Monuments and Memorials in the Czech Republic”, pp. 120–122). The post-Yugoslavian societies are still a long way from such analyses of the events of expulsion in terms of the culture of remembrance; in the relevant articles the measures to immediately (materially) overcome the consequences of expulsions still dominate, as do questions of revamping the penal system.


A strong emphasis on the German context is obvious in the consideration of the different groups of expellees, as it is in the entries pertaining to the politics of remembrance. The article under “Germany” (pp. 197–204) begins: “In the decades of the World Wars, 1914–1945, Germany was an important driver of the forced migrations that took place in Europe. Then from the end of World War II until the present it became an important destination of European and global refugee movements” (p. 197). While the first of the two sentences quoted finds an echo in relatively short articles in the lexicon that describe the expulsion and extermination policies of the National Socialists, there is corroboration for the second sentence, particularly in the description of the numerous groups of German nationals who became victims of expulsion during and especially after World War II. At least seventy pages are dedicated to just the various Germans who came from Eastern Europe, from “Baltic Germans” to “Germans from Volhynia” (pp.126–196). It is not obvious to the reader what criteria were used in deciding which individual groups of expellees should receive more (or less) extensive entries. This is particularly striking in regard to the Jewish expellees, for whom expulsion was the first step to assassination, and who are dealt with very briefly (“Jews: Deportation and Extermination”, pp. 313–315). One advantage of a lexicon is that it does not have to get involved with the creation of a hierarchy of different forms of forced migrations but can deal with the complexity of historical contexts simply by juxtaposing events. Even so, we have to ask whether the fact that the expulsion and deportation of the Jews was then followed by genocide justifies the lexicon’s all-too-cursory treatment of those first events. One cannot help wondering why some groups have more or less space devoted to them — such as the “Gagauz from Bessarabia” (pp. 256–258) or the “Kalmuks 1943–1945” (pp. 326–329). Some large groups, such as the Soviet citizens who were deported to Germany for forced labor, are missing entirely; they are dealt with only under the entry “Forced Labor” (pp. 739–744). In their case specifically (but also in the case of the Poles, victims of two dictatorships [pp. 515–534]) it becomes clear that it is worthwhile to consider the two sets of expulsions jointly, those caused by the National Socialists on the one hand and those caused by Soviets and Socialist states on the other.

Just as such questions of weighting are open to discussion, reading the lexicon tempts one to think about additional entries. One could imagine that the concept of “Ethnopolitics” (not convincingly written in any event) could lead to that of “Biopolitics” and the methods of violence associated with it. This would be an opportunity to set aside the focus on “ethnicity”, the dominating category in the lexicon, and thus make it possible to look at other categories that influenced the introduction of social engineering by the state. Existing entries, such as “Nation-State and Ethnic Homogeneity” (pp. 474–477), could be supplemented by entries on empires and regions: after all, in many regions where expulsions took place, imperial, national, and also regional and local visions of social and political order had an effect on the planning and carrying out of expulsions. There is no doubt that nation-states, nationalism, and the ethnic homogenization associated with them represent important frameworks for expulsions, but these frameworks are destroyed again and again. They are not the only nor the most important prerequisite for political action; it can materialize in other spatial contexts, too, as one entry shows: it presents a wholly concrete place beyond geographical determination — the “Concentration Camp” (pp. 373–376). It is especially the thematization of such spaces that tempts the reader to follow up an investigation of expulsions with an examination of forces of violence in Europe in general.2

One basic term that can be found in the sources and that is missing in the lexicon is “autochthonous people”. Naming (and along with that, dealing with) people excluded by expulsion speaks volumes about societal and state concepts of order; these change over time, and of course have an impact on the respective expulsions. Moreover, for a careful analysis in terms of conceptual history, concepts of this type, located in the political language as well as in legal discourses, such as the ambiguous “Right of Domicile”, can be used. Even more difficult to grasp — but nevertheless a significant topos in the expulsion debates within the culture of remembrance — is the term “Home”, which likewise does not as yet have its own entry. Closely connected with this term are concepts relating to feelings, such as nostalgia, renamed “nostalgeria” (p. 251), in the very informative entry “The French from Algeria” (pp. 250–252), which tempts one to draw comparisons with the way German or Polish expellees mythologize their references to their respective Eastern regions, lost after World War II. When one thinks of a possible second edition of the lexicon, which could include these additions and others, in general an expansion of the topic to contexts outside Europe would be desirable. In the course of decolonization, as shown in the discussion of the “Algerians” (pp. 34–37) and particularly of the “Harkis” in that article, momentous migrations took place; when we look at these, it becomes clear how concepts originally transferred from the metropolises to the colonies are now returning to impact the “mother countries”. This is merely a small, very subjective selection of suggestions for expanding the scope of the topic. Every user of the lexicon will certainly have different desires regarding the expansion of the topic and its in-depth discussion. In light of this we must consider whether an online version of the lexicon could be a reasonable medium, with moderated discussion of the terms, and continual expansion of the range of entries, which would make possible an ongoing discussion within the circle of researchers working on the topic of expulsion. Whether as an online version or as a traditional (and, it must be noted, exceedingly beautiful) book, the lexicon is highly topical and is positioned right in the center of a continuing process of discussion. It is a very well-informed contribution to the current debates and will hopefully have many readers, above all from beyond the narrow confines of specialist circles. ≈


  1. This is also underscored to a certain extent by the fact that the lexicon is dedicated to the East European historian Hans Lemberg, who as early as 1992 thematized the concept of “ethnic cleansing” definitively for twentieth-century European history. Hans Lemberg, “‘Ethnische Säuberung’: Ein Mittel zur Lösung von Nationalitätenproblemen?” [Ethnic cleansing: a means of solving citizenship problems?], Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte, vol. 46 (1992), pp. 27–38.
  2. This is the challenge given by Michael Wildts, in light of the German debates about incorporating expulsions into a history of the twentieth century. See Michael Wildts, “‘Erzwungene Wege: Flucht und Vertreibung im Europa des 20. Jahrhunderts’: Kronprinzenpalais Berlin, Bilder einer Ausstellung” [“‘Forced paths: Flight and expulsion in twentieth-century Europe’: Kronprinzenpalais Berlin, pictures of an exhibition], Historische Anthropologie: Kultur, Gesellschaft, Alltag, vol. 15 (2007), pp. 281–295.

Detlef Brandes, Holm Sundhausen & Stefan Troebst (eds.) Lexikon der Vertreibungen Deportation, Zwangsaussiedlung und ethnische Säuberung im Europa des 20. Jahrhunderts. [Lexicon of expulsions: Deportation, forced resettlement, and ethnic cleansing in twentieth-century Europe] In cooperation with Kristina Kaiserová und Krzysztof Ruchniewicz Vienna, Cologne & Weimar Dmytro Meyshkov, 2010, 801 pages