- From the European and American media, one can often get
the impression that World War II needs to be periodically resurrected to
give credibility to financial demands of one specific ethnic group, at
the expense of others. The civilian deaths of the war's losing side are,
for the most part, glossed over. Standard historiography of World War II
is routinely based on a sharp and polemical distinction between the "ugly"
fascists who lost, and the "good" anti-fascists who won, and
few scholars are willing to inquire into the gray ambiguity in between.
Even as the events of that war become more distant in time, they seemingly
become more politically useful and timely as myths.
- German military and civilian losses during and especially
after World War II are still shrouded by a veil of silence, at least in
the mass media, even though an impressive body of scholarly literature
exists on that topic. The reasons for this silence, due in large part to
academic negligence, are deep rooted and deserve further scholarly inquiry.
Why, for instance, are German civilian losses, and particularly the staggering
number of postwar losses among ethnic Germans, dealt with so sketchily,
if at all, in school history courses? The mass media -- television, newspapers,
film and magazines -- rarely, if ever, look at the fate of the millions
of German civilians in central and eastern Europe during and following
World War II. 
- The treatment of civilian ethnic Germans -- or Volksdeutsche
-- in Yugoslavia may be regarded as a classic case of "ethnic cleansing"
on a grand scale.  A close look at these mass killings presents a myriad
of historical and legal problems, especially when considering modern international
law, including the Hague War Crimes Tribunal that has been dealing with
war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Balkan wars of 1991-1995.
Yet the plight of Yugoslavia's ethnic Germans during and after World War
II should be of no lesser concern to historians, not least because an understanding
of this chapter of history throws a significant light on the violent breakup
of Communist Yugoslavia 45 years later. A better understanding of the fate
of Yugoslavia's ethnic Germans should encourage skepticism of just how
fairly and justly international law is applied in practice. Why are the
sufferings and victimhood of some nations or ethnic groups ignored, while
the sufferings of other nations and groups receive fulsome and sympathetic
attention from the media and politicians?
- At the outbreak of World War II in 1939, more than one
and a half million ethnic Germans were living in southeastern Europe, that
is, in Yugoslavia, Hungary, and Romania. Because they lived mostly near
and along the Danube river, these people were popularly known "Danube
Swabians" or Donauschwaben. Most were descendants of settlers who
came to this fertile region in the 17th and 18th centuries following the
liberation of Hungary from Turkish rule.
- For centuries the Holy Roman Empire and then the Habsburg
Empire struggled against Turkish rule in the Balkans, and resisted the
"Islamization" of Europe. In this struggle the Danube Germans
were viewed as a rampart of Western civilization, and were held in high
esteem in the Austrian (and later, Austro-Hungarian) empire for their agricultural
productivity and military prowess. Both the Holy Roman and Habsburg empires
were multicultural and multinational entities, in which diverse ethnic
groups lived for centuries in relative harmony.
- After the end of World War I, in 1918, which brought
the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Habsburg empire, and the imposed Versailles
Treaty of 1919, the juridical status of theDonauschwaben Germans was in
flux. When the National Socialist regime was established in Germany in
1933, the Donauschwaben were among the more than twelve million ethnic
Germans who lived in central and eastern Europe outside the borders of
the German Reich. Many of these people were brought into the Reich with
the incorporation of Austria in 1938, of the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia
in 1939, and of portions of Poland in late 1939. The "German question,"
that is, the struggle for self-determination of ethnic Germans outside
the borders of the German Reich, was a major factor leading to the outbreak
of World War II. Even after 1939, more than three million ethnic Germans
remained outside the borders of the expanded Reich, notably in Romania,
Yugoslavia, Hungary and the Soviet Union.
- In the first Yugoslavia -- a monarchical state created
in 1919 largely as a result of efforts of the victorious Allied powers
-- most of the country's ethnic Germans were concentrated in eastern Croatia
and northern Serbia (notably in the Vojvodina region), with some German
towns and villages in Slovenia. Other ethnic Germans lived in western Romania
and south-eastern Hungary.
- This first multiethnic Yugoslav state of 1919-1941 had
a population of some 14 million people of diverse cultures and religions.
On the eve of World War II it included nearly six million Serbs, about
three million Croats, more than a million Slovenes, some two million Bosnian
Muslims and ethnic Albanians, approximately half a million ethnic Germans,
and another half million ethnic Hungarians. Following the breakup of Yugoslavia
in April 1941, accelerated by a rapid German military advance, approximately
200,000 ethnic Germans became citizens of the newly established Independent
State of Croatia, a country whose military and civil authorities remained
loyally allied with Third Reich Germany until the final week of the war
in Europe.  Most of the remaining ethnic Germans of former Yugoslavia
-- approximately 300,000 in the Vojvodina region -- came under the jurisdiction
of Hungary, which during the war incorporated the region. (After 1945 this
region was reattached to the Serbian portion of Yugoslavia.)
- The plight of the ethnic Germans became dire during the
final months of World War II, and especially after the founding of the
second Yugoslavia, a multiethnic Communist state headed by Marshal Josip
Broz Tito. In late October 1944, Tito's guerilla forces, aided by the advancing
Soviets and lavishly assisted by Western air supplies, took control of
Belgrade, the Serb capital that also served as the capital of Yugoslavia
. One of the first legal acts of the new regime was the decree of November
21, 1944, on "The decision regarding the transfer of the enemy's property
into the property of the state." It declared citizens of German origin
as "enemies of the people," and stripped them of civic rights.
The decree also ordered the government confiscation of all property, without
compensation, of Yugoslavia's ethnic Germans.  An additional law, promulgated
in Belgrade on February 6, 1945, canceled the Yugoslav citizenship of the
country's ethnic Germans. 
- By late 1944 -- when Communist forces had seized control
of the eastern Balkans, that is, of Bulgaria, Serbia and Macedonia -- the
German-allied state of Croatia still held firm. However, in early 1945,
German troops, together with Croatian troops and civilians, began retreating
toward southern Austria. During the war's final months, the majority ofYugoslavia's
ethnic German civilians also joined this great trek. The refugees' fears
of torture and death at Communist hands were well founded, given the horrific
treatment by Soviet forces of Germans and others in East Prussia and other
parts of eastern Europe. By the end of the war in May 1945, German authorities
had evacuated 220,000 ethnic Germans fromYugoslavia to Germany and Austria.
Yet many remained in their war-ravaged ancestral homelands, most likely
awaiting a miracle.
- After the end of fighting in Europe on May 8, 1945, more
than 200,000 ethnic Germans who had remained behind in Yugoslavia effectively
became captives of the new Communist regime. Some 63,635 Yugoslav ethnic
German civilians (women, men and children) perished under Communist rule
between 1945 and 1950 -- that is, some 18 percent of the ethnic German
civilian population still remaining in the new Yugoslavia. Most died as
a result of exhaustion as slave laborers, in "ethnic cleansing,"
or from disease and malnutrition.  Much of the credit for the widely-praised
"economic miracle" of Titoist Yugoslavia, it should be noted,
must go to the tens of thousands of German slave laborers who, during the
late 1940s, helped to build the impoverished country.
- Property of ethnic Germans in Yugoslavia confiscated
in the aftermath of World War II amounted to 97,490 small businesses, factories,
shops, farms and diverse trades. The confiscated real estate and farmland
of Yugoslavia's ethnic Germans came to 637,939 hectares (or about one million
acres), and became state-owned property. According to a 1982 calculation,
the value of the property confiscated from ethnic Germans in Yugoslavia
amounted to 15 billion German marks, or about seven billion US dollars.
Taking inflation into account, this would today correspond to twelve billion
US dollars. From 1948 to 1985, more than 87,000 ethnic Germans who were
still residing in Yugoslavia moved to Germany and automatically became
German citizens. 
- All this constitutes a "final solution of the German
question" in Yugoslavia.
- Numerous survivors have provided detailed and graphic
accounts of the grim fate of the ethnic German civilians, particularly
women and children, who were held in Communist Yugoslav captivity. One
noteworthy witness is the late Father Wendelin Gruber, who served as a
chaplain and spiritual leader to many fellow captives.  These numerous
survivor accounts of torture and death inflicted on German civilians and
captured soldiers by Yugoslav authorities adds to the chronicle of Communist
oppression worldwide. 
- Of the one and a half million ethnic Germans who lived
in the Danube basin in 1939-1941, some 93,000 served during World War II
in the armed forces of Hungary, Croatia and Romania Axis countries
that were allied with Germany or in the regular German armed forces.
The ethnic Germans of Hungary, Croatia and Romania who served in the military
formations of those countries remained citizens of those respective states.
- In addition, many ethnic Germans of the Danubian region
served in the "Prinz Eugen" Waffen SS division, which totaled
some 10,000 men throughout its existence during the war. (This formation
was named in honor of Prince Eugene of Savoy, who had won great victories
against Turkish forces in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.) 
Enlisting in the "Prinz Eugen" division automatically conferred
German citizenship on the recruit.
- Of the 26,000 ethnic Danubian ethnic Germans serving
in various military formations who lost their lives, half perished after
the end of the war in Yugoslav camps. Particularly high were the losses
of the "Prinz Eugen" division, most of whom surrendered after
May 8, 1945. Some 1,700 of these prisoners were killed in the village of
Brezice near the Croat-Slovenian border, while the remaining half was worked
to death in Yugoslav zinc mines near the town of Bor, in Serbia. 
- In addition to the "ethnic cleansing" of Danube
German civilians and soldiers, some 70,000 Germans who had served in regular
Wehrmacht forces perished in Yugoslav captivity. Most of these died as
a result of reprisals, or as slave laborers in mines, road construction,
shipyards, and so forth. These were mostly troops of "Army Group E"
who had surrendered to British military authorities in southern Austria
at the time of the armistice of May 8, 1945. British authorities turned
over about 150,000 of these German prisoners of war to Communist Yugoslav
partisans under pretext of later repatriation to Germany.
- Most of these former regular Wehrmacht troops perished
in postwar Yugoslavia in three stages: During the first stage more than
7,000 captured German troops died in Communist-organized "atonement
marches" (Suhnemärsche) stretching 800 miles from the southern
border of Austria to the northern border of Greece. During the second phase,
in late summer 1945, many German soldiers in captivity were summarily executed
or thrown alive into large karst pits along the Dalmatian coast of Croatia.
In the third stage, 1945-1955, an additional 50,000 perished as forced
laborers due to malnutrition and exhaustion. 
- The total number of German losses in Yugoslav captivity
after the end of the war -- including ethnic "Danube German"
civilians and soldiers, as well as "Reich" Germans -- may therefore
be conservatively estimated at 120,000 killed, starved, worked to death,
- What is the importance of these figures? What lessons
can be drawn in assessing these postwar German losses?
- It is important to stress that the plight of German civilians
in the Balkans is only a small portion of the Allied topography of death.
Seven to eight million Germans -- both military personnel and civilians
-- died during and after World War II. Half of those perished during the
final months of the war, or after Germany's unconditional surrender on
May 8, 1945. German casualties, both civilian and military, were arguably
higher in "peace" than in "war."
- In the months before and after the end of World War II,
ethnic Germans were killed, tortured and dispossessed throughout eastern
and central Europe, notably in Silesia, East Prussia, Pomerania, the Sudetenland,
and the "Wartheland" region. Altogether 12-15 million Germans
fled or were driven from their homes in what is perhaps the greatest "ethnic
cleansing" in history. Of this number, more than two million were
killed or otherwise lost their lives. 
- The grim events in postwar Yugoslavia are rarely dealt
with in the media of the countries that emerged on the ruins of communist
Yugoslavia, even though, remarkably, there is today greater freedom of
expression and historical research there than in such western European
countries as Germany and France. The elites of Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia,
largely made up of former Communists, seem to share a common interest in
repressing their sometimes murky and criminal past with regard to the postwar
treatment of German civilians.
- The breakup of Yugoslavia in 1990-91, the events leading
to it, and the war and atrocities that followed, can only be understood
within a larger historical framework. As already noted, "ethnic cleansing"
is nothing new. Even if one regards the former Serb-Yugoslav leader Slobodan
Milosevic and the other defendants being tried by the International War
Crimes Tribunal in The Hague as wicked criminals, their crimes are trivial
compared to those of Communist Yugoslavia's founder, Josip Broz Tito. Tito
carried out "ethnic cleansing" and mass killings on a far greater
scale, against Croats, Germans and Serbs, and with the sanction of the
British and American governments. His rule in Yugoslavia (1945-1980), which
coincided with the "Cold War" era, was generally supported by
the Western powers, who regarded his regime as a factor of stability in
this often unstable region of Europe. 
- The wartime and postwar plight of Germans in the Balkans
also provides lessons about the fate of multiethnic and multicultural states.
The fate of the two Yugoslavias -- 1919-1941 and 1944-1991 -- underscores
the inherent weakness of multiethnic states. Twice in the 20th century,
multicultural Yugoslavia fell apart amid needless carnage and a spiral
of hatreds among its constituent ethnic groups. One can argue, therefore,
that it is better for diverse nations and cultures, let alone different
races, to live apart, separated by walls, than to pretend to live in a
feigned unity that hides animosities waiting to explode, and leaving behind
- Few could foresee the savage inter-ethnic hatred and
killings that swept the Balkans following the collapse of Yugoslavia in
1991, and this among peoples of relatively similar anthropological origins,
albeit different cultural backgrounds. One can only speculate with foreboding
about the future of the United States and western Europe, where growing
interracial tensions between the native populations and masses of Third
World immigrants portend disaster with far bloodier consequences.
- Multicultural Yugoslavia, in both its first and second
incarnations, was above all the creation of, respectively, the French,
British and American leaders who crafted the Versaillessettlement of 1919,
and the British, Soviet Russian and American leaders who met at Yalta and
Potsdam in 1945. The political figures who created Yugoslavia did not represent
the nations in the region, and understood little of the self-perceptions
or ethnic-cultural affinities of the region's various peoples.
- Although the deaths, suffering and dispossession of the
ethnic Germans of the Balkans during and after World War II are well documented
by both German authorities and independent scholars, they continue to be
largely ignored in the major media of the United States and Europe. Why?
One could speculate that if those German losses were more widely discussed
and better known, they would likely stimulate an alternative perspective
on World War II, and indeed of 20th century history. A greater and more
widespread awareness of German civilian losses during and after World War
II might well encourage a deeper discussion of the dynamics of contemporary
societies. This, in turn, could significantly affect the self-perception
of millions of people, forcing many to discard ideas and myths that have
fashionably prevailed for more than half a century. An open debate about
the causes and consequences of World War II would also tarnish the reputations
of many scholars and opinion makers in the United States and Europe. Arguably,
a greater awareness of the sufferings of German civilians during and after
World War II, and the implications of that, could fundamentally change
the policies of the United States and other major powers.
- 1. Mads Ole Balling, Von Reval bis Bukarest (Copenhagen:
Hermann-Niermann-Stiftung, 1991), vol. I and vol. II.
- 2. L. Barwich, F. Binder, M. Eisele, F. Hoffmann, F.
Kühbauch, E. Lung, V. Oberkersch, J. Pertschi, H. Rakusch, M. Reinsprecht,
I. Senz, H. Sonnleitner, G. Tscherny, R. Vetter, G. Wildmann, and others,
Weissbuch der Deutschen aus Jugoslawien: Erlebnisberichte 1944-48 (Munich:
Universitäts Verlag, Donauschwäbische Kulturstiftung, 1992, 1993),
vol. I, vol. II.
- 3. On Croatia's armed forces during World War II, and
its destruction after 1945 by the Yugoslav Communists, see, Christophe
Dolbeau, Les Forces armées croates, 1941-1945 (Lyon [BP 5005, 69245
Lyon cedex 05, France]: 2002).
- On the often critical attitude of German military and
diplomatic officials toward the allied Ustasha regime of the Independent
State of Croatia ("NDH"), see Klaus Schmider, Partisanenkrieg
in Jugo-slawien 1941-1944 (Hamburg: Verlag E.S. Mittler & Sohn, 2002).
This book includes an impressive bibliography, and cites hitherto unpublished
German documents. Unfortunately, the author does not provide precise data
as to the number of German troops (including Croat civilians and troops)
who surrendered to British forces in southern Austria, and who were subsequently
handed over to the Yugoslav Communist authorities. The number of Croat
captives who perished after 1945 in Communist Yugoslavia remains an emotion-laden
topic in Croatia, with important implications for the country's domestic
and foreign policy.
- 4. Anton Scherer, Manfred Straka, Kratka povijest podunavskih
Nijemaca/ Abriss zur Geschichte der Donauschwaben (Graz: Leopold Stocker
Verlag/ Zagreb: Pan Liber, 1999), esp. p. 131; Georg Wildmann, and others,
Genocide of the Ethnic Germans in Yugoslavia 1944-1948 (Santa Ana, Calif.:
Danube Swabian Association of the USA, 2001), p. 31.
- 5. A. Scherer, M. Straka, Kratka povijest podunavskih
Nijemaca/ Abriss zur Geschichte der Donauschwaben (1999), pp. 132-140.
- 6. Georg Wildmann, and others, Verbrechen an den Deutschen
in Jugoslawien, 1944-48 (Munich: Donauschwäbische Kulturstiftung,
1998), esp. pp. 312-313. Based on this is the English-language work: Georg
Wildmann, and others, Genocide of the Ethnic Germans in Yugoslavia 1944-1948
( Santa Ana, Calif.: Danube Swabian Association of the USA, 2001).
- 7. G. Wildmann, and others, Verbrechen an den Deutschen
in Jugoslawien, 1944-48, esp. p. 274.
- 8. Wendelin Gruber, In the Claws of the Red Dragon: Ten
Years Under Tito's Heel (Toronto: St. Michaelswerk, 1988). Translated from
German by Frank Schmidt.
- In 1993 the ailing Fr. Gruber returned to Croatia from
exile in Paraguay, to spend his final years in a Jesuit monastery in Zagreb.
I spoke with him shortly before his death on August 14, 2002, at the age
- 9. Stéphane Courtois, and others, The Black Book
of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press,
- 10. G. Wildmann, and others, Verbrechen an den Deutschen
in Jugoslawien (cited above), p. 22.
- 11. Armin Preuss, Prinz Eugen: Der edle Ritter (Berlin:
Grundlagen Verlag, 1996).
- 12. Otto Kumm, Geschichte der 7. SS-Freiwilligen Gebirgs-Division
"Prinz Eugen" (Coburg: Nation Europa, 1995).
- 13. Roland Kaltenegger, Titos Kriegsgefangene: Folterlager,
Hungermärsche und Schauprozesse ( Graz : Leopold Stocker Verlag, 2001).
- 14. Alfred-Maurice de Zayas, Nemesis at Potsdam: The
Expulsion of the Germans From the East. (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska, 1989
[3rd rev. ed.]); Alfred-Maurice de Zayas, The German Expellees: Victims
in War and Peace (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993); Alfred-Maurice de
Zayas, A Terrible Revenge: The "Ethnic Cleansing" of the East
European Germans, 1944-1950 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994); Ralph
F. Keeling, Gruesome Harvest: The Allies' Postwar War Against the German
People (Institute for Historical Review, 1992).
- 15. Tomislav Sunic, Titoism and Dissidence: Studies in
the History and Dissolution of Communist Yugoslavia (Frankfurt, New York:
Peter Lang, 1995)
- Tomislav Sunic holds a doctorate in political science
from the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is an author, translator
and former professor of political science in the USA. Tom Sunic currently
lives with his family in Croatia.