2. Expulsion of Germans from Central Europe – 12,000,000 People Displaced
A primary objective of Hitler’s Third Reich had been to conquer and colonize most of Central and Eastern Europe. As the German military moved into Poland and the Soviet Union they were followed by German settlers. Ethnic Germans encountered in the East, the so-call Volksdeutsche, were also enlisted in this scheme to Germanize Central Europe. This colonization scheme began to go awry after the Battle of Stalingrad when the Soviets turned back the German advance and began, ever so slowly, to retake the territories that Hitler had slated for German settlement. As the Soviets advanced, ethnic Germans began to flee back to the interior of the Reich.
This wave of flight intensified once the Red Army approached the German border. In the winter of 1944 to 1945 treks of German civilians, mostly women and children pressed westward on foot through the cold. Others managed to book passage west on passenger ships operating in the Baltic Sea. Neither escape route was safe. Many of those who proceeded on foot made a perilous crossing over the frozen Vistula Lagoon where the ice was so thin that many wagons fell through. At sea, refugee ships faced attack from the Soviets. One transport ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff, was sunk in January 1945 with 9,400 people on board, mostly refugees, in the greatest maritime disaster of all time.
Though the war ended in May 1945 the removal of Germans from Central Europe continued. Though the Soviets had ostensibly liberated Poland, Stalin was eager to retain the eastern regions of Poland that he had conquered in cooperation with Hitler in 1939. To facilitate this, he proposed that the entire Polish state be moved five hundred miles to the west.
In exchange for the Polish territory that remained under Soviet control, Poland was to receive a large amount of what had been eastern Germany before the war. To solidify the Polonization of this area the remaining ethnic Germans were expelled and replaced with Poles. In all 12,000,000 Germans were driven out through flight and expulsion.