On Forced Migrations: Transnational Realities and National Narratives in Post-1945 (West) Germany

Pertti Ahonen

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This article examines tensions between the transnational realities of the extensive forced migrations that accompanied the end of the Second World War in Europe and the nationally focused public portrayals of those forced migrations that have prevailed in individual European countries since the war. The article does so through a case study of West Germany, which became home to some eight million forced migrants defined as ethnic Germans. It argues that a nationally oriented, highly selective public narrative of the forced migrations soon emerged in the Federal Republic, a narrative that stressed German suffering, relativized German crimes, and, crucially, elided differences among the forced migrants as well as between them and the rest of the West German population. The narrative had various useful societal functions, at least in the short term, but in the longer term it imposed significant costs on West Germany, both domestically and internationally. These costs related not only to foreign relations, especially vis-à-vis Eastern Europe, and to memory politics, but also to even wider challenges that contemporary Germany continues to face. These include the ongoing attempts to reconcile the reality of the Federal Republic as a multi-ethnic society of large-scale immigration with the myth of Germanness as an ethnically homogeneous and exclusive category, a myth that the post-1945 public narrative of German forced migrants helped to uphold.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)599-614
JournalGerman history
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Sep 2014


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