Heimat, Loss and Identity

Flight and Expulsion in German Literature from the 1950s to the Present

by Karina Berger (Author)
Monographs VIII, 227 Pages


What became of ethnic Germans in Eastern Europe during the Second World War? In recent years, their suffering, flight and expulsion during and after the war has attracted increasing critical attention. A wave of literary fiction has accompanied this trend, contributing to, and sometimes triggering, heated debate in the media and German-speaking society more widely. Often said to have broken a ‘taboo’, these postunification novels are in fact only the latest in a long history of literary representations of flight and expulsion in German writing.
This book offers the first comprehensive account in English of ‘expulsion literature’ in West Germany from the early 1950s to present-day Germany, providing detailed readings of both canonical and lesser known texts and carefully placing the novels in their broader literary and historical context. The book demonstrates that these literary representations have often been viewed too narrowly and offers an alternative and, arguably, more positive perspective on the representation of flight and expulsion over six decades in German literature.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: Victims of Fate: The Representation of Flight and Expulsion in Novels of the Early Postwar Period
  • Chapter 2: ‘A Clear Counter-Discourse’: Expulsion Novels during the Politicized 1970s and 1980s
  • Chapter 3: The Volte-face in the Reception of Walter Kempowski: Shifting Attitudes towards (Representations of) German Wartime Suffering
  • Chapter 4: An Era of ‘Normalization’? Representations of Flight and Expulsion in Postunification Germany
  • Concluding Remarks
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series Index


I thank all colleagues, friends and family who supported me throughout the writing of my PhD thesis, on which this book is based. Thanks also to Dr Helen Finch and Dr Jon Hughes, who offered advice at the manuscript stage.

I would like to thank the editors of the publications in which shorter, earlier forms of Chapters 1 and 3 appear:

‘Expulsion Novels of The 1950s – More than Meets The Eye?’ In Germans as Victims in The Literary Fiction of the Berlin Republic, edited by Stuart Taberner and Karina Berger. New York: Camden House, 2009, 44–52.

‘“Gegen den Strich”: The Early Representation of German Wartime Suffering in Walter Kempowski’s Mark und Bein’. German Life and Letters 62/2 (2009), 206–219.

‘Walter Kempowski’s Alles umsonst (All for Nothing)’. In The Novel in German Since 1990, edited by Stuart Taberner. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, 211–225.

‘“Und es gab einen Bums, und das Schiff legte sich auf die Seite”: Die Darstellung des Untergangs der Wilhelm Gustloff im Werk Walter Kempowskis’. In Die ‘Wilhelm Gustloff’. Geschichte und Erinnerung eines Untergangs, edited by Bill Niven. Halle: Mitteldeutscher Verlag, 2011, 261–284.

Lastly, a note on translations: since this book is intended for readers who may have no German, but equally for those who wish to examine the original texts, I have provided both German and English translations for quotations from literary sources. All translations are my own, unless otherwise stated.

K. B.
September 2014
← vii | viii →

← viii | 1 →


It is estimated that between 12 million and 14 million ethnic Germans either fled or were expelled from the eastern territories of the Reich at the end of the Second World War and during its aftermath.1 The process of flight and expulsion, which lasted several years, can broadly be divided into three main phases – the initial flight, the ‘wild’ expulsions, and the organized expulsions following the Potsdam Agreement – although circumstances and timings varied widely depending on the region. From the end of 1944, Germans fled in advance of the Soviet army. Terrified by pictures of the Soviet advance released as part of National Socialist propaganda, 4 million to 5 million Germans fled from Danzig, East and West Prussia, Upper and Lower Silesia, and Outer Pomerania. Hundreds of thousands died of exhaustion or the cold, drowned in the Baltic Sea, were killed during bomb attacks, were caught between front lines, or fell victim to rape by Soviet soldiers. Many Germans decided to stay in their homes rather than risk a dangerous escape into the unknown. However, once their home territories were overrun by the Soviet army and its Allies during the final stages of the war, those who remained were often subject to various forms of abuse, including theft, violence and rape. Soon after, in May and June 1945, the so-called ‘wild’ expulsions began in Poland and Czechoslovakia, which were to continue roughly until the Potsdam Conference in July 1945. Germans expelled as part of the ‘wild’ expulsions were typically only given a few hours to pack a small amount of personal luggage, and then marched to the borderline, with theft and rape occurring frequently along the way. ← 1 | 2 →

The Potsdam Conference marked a turning point in the expulsion process. The eastern territories east of the Oder–Neiße line were placed under Polish administration, and the agreement gave formal three-power approval for the ‘orderly and humane’ ‘transfer’ of the remaining German populations from Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary.2 The decision at Potsdam was an attempt to replace the chaotic expulsions with more orderly population transfers, and was implemented in several stages according to region. Even so, many were forced out of their homes through organized mass deportations, which were carried out under harsh conditions. Often, ethnic Germans were forced to leave homes or holding camps suddenly, with a bare minimum of possessions. Typically, evacuation and flight involved long and arduous treks towards unknown destinations, often in horse-drawn carts or on foot, amid the chaos and destruction of war. Overall, up to 14 million expellees arrived in the four occupation zones, while an estimated 2 million died during their journey west. Those who made it to safety inevitably struggled in their new environments: not only did they often own little more than what they had been able to carry, but they had arrived in a war-torn country where basic necessities were lacking, and where the local inhabitants were not welcoming. Many lived in makeshift accommodation and faced hardship and prejudice for many years before settling into their new homes.3

German Wartime Suffering in Postunification Germany

Recent years have witnessed a surge of interest in Germany in ‘German wartime suffering’, most notably the Allied bombings of German cities and the expulsion of ethnic Germans from the eastern territories at the ← 2 | 3 → end of the war.4 The subject of German victimhood was brought back to the fore in W. G. Sebald’s series of lectures in Zürich in 1997 on ‘Luftkrieg und Literatur’ [‘Air War and Literature’], published in a revised form as a collection of essays under the same title in 1999.5 Sebald’s theme was the failure of postwar German literature to adequately document German suffering; both the lectures and essays received a great deal of attention in Germany and abroad.6 Arguably more significant still was the publication of Günter Grass’s Im Krebsgang [Crabwalk] in 2002, which tells the story of the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff in 1945 in which thousands of expellees died. Said in some quarters to have broken a long-held silence on the subject of German wartime suffering, the novella by this prominent member of the intellectual left prompted a host of newspaper articles, talkshows and TV documentaries on the expulsion, rape and forced marches of the ethnic Germans from the eastern provinces, and firmly placed the topic of wartime suffering into mainstream national debate.7 The ‘Forced Journeys’ exhibition in Berlin in 2006 and plans by the Bund der Vertriebenen – the federation of German refugees and expellees – for a controversial Centre Against Expulsions ensured that the topic remained in the news. Another set of triggers were conflicts in other parts of the world, notably the bombings of Serbia and Iraq, which stimulated a great deal of media interest in the Allied bombings against Germany, as well as the ethnic cleansing in ← 3 | 4 → the former Yugoslavia, in the context of which numerous newspaper articles appeared in the German press on the expulsion of Germans in 1945.8

The current preoccupation with German suffering can be seen as part of a general development in postunification Germany towards a more open and inclusive approach to the period, with a clear tendency to engage with aspects of the Third Reich and certain ‘lived experiences’ that had previously been considered ‘taboo’ or largely confined to private memory.9 In this context, the role of the generation of ’68, widely held to have been responsible for the institutionalization of the focus on German perpetration, has come under increased scrutiny, with a number of politicians, commentators and scholars criticizing a public discourse dominated by what they see as ‘political correctness’ and the exclusion of all aspects of the war other than German culpability. At the same time, it may also be the case that German historical responsibility for Nazi crimes has been established securely enough within public memory to make it possible to represent Germans as perpetrators and victims without necessarily raising suspicions of revisionism. The term ‘normalization’ has been much used in this context. Once the property of the German right, it has now become a key element of Germany’s social and political consensus. The term has broadly come to signify Germany as a nation that balances a democratic self-confidence embedded in western values, with an acknowledgement of German crimes and the institutionalization of remembrance of the Holocaust. Indeed, the integration of German wartime suffering into the country’s historical narrative has come to be seen by many as the final stage ← 4 | 5 → in Germany’s Vergangenheitsbewältigung [coming-to-terms with the past] and as an indication of the nation’s new ‘normality’.10

The attempt, after Germany’s reunification, to reach a consensus about how the country should manage its past – a process that is still very much ongoing – has not been an easy process, but has been marked by opposition, controversy and often fierce public debates.11 Among the most important events are the debate about the War of Annihilation: Crimes of the Wehrmacht, 1941–1944 exhibition – which toured Germany from 1995 to 1999 and sought to show that the regular German army had participated in the murder of Jews and Soviet POWs destroying the widely held belief that it was only the SS who had committed such crimes – and the opening of the Berlin Holocaust memorial in 2005 after years of heated debate. Other important events include the publication in 1993 of the German translation of Christopher R. Browning’s Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and The Final Solution in Poland, which attempted to explain how ordinary men readily killed and deported Jews during the war, and, in 1996, of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s book Hitler’s Willing Executioners, which put forward the thesis that anti-Semitism had been a typical characteristic of ‘ordinary Germans’ during the Hitler regime. Also of significance in this context are Martin Walser’s 1998 speech on receipt of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade Association, during which he controversially called for an end to the ‘instrumentalization of Auschwitz’ and the ‘permanent exhibition’ of ‘our shame’.12 Significant temporal markers included the ← 5 | 6 → turn of the millennium, which prompted a process of stock-taking, and the sixtieth anniversary of the end of the war on 8 May 2005.

As a result of this series of events, the centrality of the Holocaust has given way to a ‘more particularized, more fragmented’ memory culture that reflects ‘the manifold social and cultural changes the country has undergone in the decades since the end of World War II’.13 The way in which the Second World War and its aftermath have been discussed, represented and commemorated in recent years in Germany is thus of a more textured and more inclusive nature, characterized by a growing willingness to accept certain historical contradictions or gaps in knowledge. Most notably, this has included the realization that German perpetrators might also have been victims and a willingness to consider the personal circumstances of historical actors, and even extend empathy, while at the same time insisting on a framework that acknowledges guilt and responsibility.

Anne Fuchs and Mary Cosgrove have proposed the term ‘memory contests’ to describe these often ferocious debates about Germany’s National Socialist past, or, as they phrase it, the dialogue between the private and the public, which inevitably arises at the point at which ‘communicative memory’ passes into ‘cultural memory’.14 The frequency and intensity of such ‘memory contests’ highlights the continued importance of the Nazi past to the German present and to the personal investment many feel they have in how the period is represented. One reason why the debate remains so intensely personal, even for those who are too young to have experienced the war first-hand, lies in the fact that the way we view and remember our past directly affects our sense of identity in the present. Peter Novick has noted the circular relationship between collective identity and collective ← 6 | 7 → memory and claims that we choose to centre certain memories because they seem to express, and reinforce, what is central to our collective identity at that point in time.15 If the points of reference on which a society bases its identity are indicative of its current self-understanding, then the resurgence of German wartime suffering in recent years has a lot to do with the question of what it means to be German today. This step towards ‘normalization’ may thus be seen as a reflection of a new-found confidence: while today’s Germany acknowledges the moral and political responsibilities of the war, it also takes pride in its achievements as a democratic state in the past sixty years.16 More broadly, the Germans’ tendency to embrace, and identify with, their victims, coincides with a more global ‘victim culture’.17 In this concept of self-understanding, victimhood is now increasingly seen as a means of constructing a new national identity.

At the same time, the changing general framework within which society operates may necessitate a re-interpretation of historical events. Much reference has been made to Maurice Halbwach’s theory, which posits that memory is shaped by attitudes and objectives of the present.18 In other words, as Novick has put it, ‘shifts in memory culture relate to changing circumstances and changing decisions about collective self-understanding and self-representation’.19 It may be argued, then, that it was primarily the shifting framework that has allowed the topic of German victimhood to return to the fore, and to be embraced as part of the country’s historical narrative. Indeed, Laurel Cohen-Pfister has noted that recent representations of German wartime suffering have, in some cases at least, not necessarily changed significantly, but that it is the framework in which they are published and evaluated that is crucial to their changed reception in Germany ← 7 | 8 → today. She claims that this socio-political interpretative framework is influenced by factors such as the changing generations, the shift towards the ‘emotionalization’ of history, as well as less German-specific forces such as foreign conflicts or the phenomenon of globalization – factors that create an environment that is more conducive to the remembrance of German victimhood.20 Bill Niven, too, has pointed to the effects of the globalization of Holocaust memory in relation to German wartime suffering, claiming that if Germany is now one of many with a duty to remember, then the pressure is reduced, which opens up space to rediscover German suffering.21

The ‘Taboo’ Claim

Much of the initial reaction by critics and scholars to the re-emergence of the subject of German wartime suffering centred around the frequently made claim that the subject had been ‘taboo’ in the Federal Republic. This claim has since been refuted. It has convincingly been shown that the theme of German victimhood is not new, but that it was ubiquitous in the late 1940s and 1950s in West Germany and remained a strong component of both political and cultural memory in the following decades, despite the greater focus on crimes committed under Nazism from the late 1960s onwards. The explosion of interest in German wartime suffering in the 1990s thus represents, as Niven notes, ‘at the very most […] a reprise, at ← 8 | 9 → the very least an intensification’, but not a new phenomenon.22 Similarly, Robert G. Moeller argues that ‘when themes of German innocence and victimization surfaced in the mid-1980s in the “Historians’ Dispute” or even more recently in May 1995 when Germans were exhorted not to forget “the beginning of the terror of the expulsion”, they represented nothing particularly novel, but rather the return of the (never completely) repressed’.23 Notwithstanding the convincing research, the taboo claim has proven stubbornly persistent, especially in the media, where it often continues to be used in order to give the impression that the subject of German victimhood is ‘new’ or groundbreaking.

The notion of a taboo rests on the generally accepted chronology of the competing collective memories in the Federal Republic, which posits that, after the early postwar years, when memories of German wartime suffering were ubiquitous both in the public and private realms, from the late 1960s onwards there was a clear division between the public sphere, which was dominated by a collective memory of Germans as perpetrators, and the private sphere, which continued to focus on German victimhood – in other words, shifting socio-political interpretative frameworks that could either encourage or suppress the subject. The underlying assumption of this model is that German perpetration and victimhood are necessarily mutually exclusive. Aleida Assmann, for instance, has spoken of the ‘irreconcilable nature of guilt and suffering’, arguing that the discourse has been locked into an unhelpful ‘logic’ that the memory of German suffering ‘cancels out’ the memory of the Holocaust, and vice versa, leading to a dead end.24 Thus, while in the public realm the focus on German perpetration in the 1970s and 1980s is understood to have ‘cancelled out’ memories of German suffering, it is equally accepted that in the private sphere, family stories of wartime suffering have been told continuously since the immediate postwar ← 9 | 10 → period, but that such recollections do not include the Holocaust. Assmann describes the relationship between the retelling of stories of German suffering in private circles and the ‘official’ focus on German perpetration. ‘Such stories have been told continuously within German families and other private circles,’ she claims, adding: ‘This communicative effect of family narratives […] did not cross over into public discourse. It did not find a larger public resonance in the society as a whole. Thus the disconnection and divide between private memory and official remembrance, so characteristic for postwar German history, started already in the 1950s.’25 Similarly, Harald Welzer, Sabine Moller and Karoline Tschuggnall speak of the contrast between the ‘album’ of family memories of bombing and expulsion, and the public ‘lexicon’ of factual knowledge about the Nazi period and the Holocaust.26 Based on interviews of Zeitzeugen [contemporary witnesses] and their children and grandchildren, their study suggests that victim narratives play a dominant role in private memory, but that the plight of the Jews and the Holocaust are virtually absent from such family recollections.

The assumption, then, is twofold: that memories of perpetration and suffering cannot co-exist, and that, as a result, there is a clear-cut division between public and private memory. This book argues that the notion of such a distinct division between private and public memory, or between ‘official’ commemorative practices and the intergenerational transmission of personal experience that takes place in families, is too simplistic to adequately represent the nuanced process that has taken place since the end of the war. The literary texts referred to in this book illustrate that private memories of German suffering have consistently found expression in the public sphere since the immediate aftermath of the war, even during the ← 10 | 11 → politicized 1970s and 1980s, and in so-called elite literature, as well as in popular texts, both of which are included in this book.

Elite literature, or ‘high’, ‘critical’ or ‘canonical’ literature, is understood in this context to refer to a group of literary works that is considered among the most important of a particular time period and which has been canonized, via scholarly publication and debate, as being of the highest merit. Marked by formal accomplishment and, often, a critical engagement with prevalent beliefs and mindsets, such works are commonly widely studied and respected by literary critics and scholars. Popular literature, on the other hand, is understood to be literature that is intended for a broader audience, and which is designed primarily to entertain. It is not usually of high literary merit, if we take this to mean complexity, aesthetic innovation, or challenge to the reader, and is not intended to endure. It is generally characterized by simplistic and clichéd language, plots and characters, and a propensity towards happy endings.

The assumption, then, is that literary representations can tell us much about private memories, offering an insight into a group’s self-understanding at a certain point in time. Judith Ryan, for instance, has commented that retrospective novels do not just reveal the facts of a particular historical period, but, more importantly, specific views of it.27 Popular literature is, arguably, of particular interest here, primarily because, as Ludwig Fischer has posited, in order to ensure success, popular literature’s elementary interest lies in reproducing the world view of the ordinary person.28 Of course, elite literature can, and often does, also act as a mirror in this way. However, it may be argued that popular literature reproduces mainstream prejudices ← 11 | 12 → and attitudes more closely because of its uncritical nature and, ultimately, market pressure to appeal to a wide audience. Indeed, the representation of private memories is especially pronounced in popular literature, which focuses on German victimhood throughout and continues to be published with great commercial success, but it is also to be found in elite texts, albeit to a lesser extent. It may be argued, then, that the distinction between public and private memory may not be the most suitable concept for the discussion of expulsion literature – all these texts are public, after all – but that it may be more appropriate to distinguish between popular and elite discourses.

Biographical notes

Karina Berger (Author)

Karina Berger holds a PhD in German from the University of Leeds. Her previous publications include Germans as Victims in the Literary Fiction of the Berlin Republic (2009), co-edited with Stuart Taberner.


Title: Heimat, Loss and Identity