The cycle of revenge

The “largest forced population transfer in human history” is one which not many people remember. I learned about it only recently, and I found more details about it in R. M. Douglas’s Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War. According to Douglas, between 12 and 14 million people designated as ethnic Germans were compelled to leave Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Yugoslavia, sometimes under deadly conditions. The Allied powers encouraged and directed much of this relocation.

One reason this event isn’t often mentioned may be that it’s a story with no good guys. The expulsions were an act of ethnic revenge, an attack on people simply for their ancestry or language. Nonetheless, many of the ethnic Germans in eastern Europe, probably most, did support the Nazi government to varying degrees.

Another reason which Douglas mentions is the reluctance of historians to sound as if they agree with Holocaust revisionists on anything. There are people who claim that the expulsion of Germans was the full moral equivalent of the mass slaughter of Jews. Criticizing the expulsions doesn’t mean forgetting that the German government did far worse, but some scholars may be afraid of getting praise from disreputable quarters.

The events after World War II illustrate how injustice leads to revenge, revenge to injustice, and so on to cycles of retaliation. It’s worst when revenge allows serious fanatics to grab power, as Hitler did campaigning against the perceived injustices of the Versailles Treaty. When whole ethnic groups are blamed, the innocent aren’t separated from the guilty. We can see that today in some people’s reactions to the 9/11 attacks.

One of the things I find most disturbing about people is the way they’ll adopt a new position en masse without any compelling argument for it. It makes me wonder whether I can really know anything about them. Persuading them that they have a common enemy is one of the most effective ways to make them turn around that way.

Justice requires recognizing that individuals are responsible for their actions and that others don’t share the blame just because of their language, appearance, or national origin. Many people, though, are less interested in justice than in finding someone to strike out against.

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