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Peter Gengler, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, History

Contending with Flight and Expulsion from the “Lost German East”: The Creation and Instrumentalization of a Master Narrative, 1944-1975

Following the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, the Allied powers and the international agreements they forged sealed the fate of millions living east of the Oder and Neisse Rivers, including an estimated 12 million Germans. These individuals were subsequently expelled and resettled among the occupation zones. For decades, this substantial minority struggled to win legal recognition and social legitimacy in East and West Germany, developing a “standard” master narrative that came to represent the experience of these millions and became familiar to most Germans. Historians, expellee functionaries, politicians, and journalists collaborated and condensed the myriad experiences of refugees into homogenous and streamlined accounts that focused on German suffering and emphasized Russian and East European savagery. This argumentation was heavily influenced by lingering National Socialist propaganda claims, but also Cold War politics. The historical representation of “expulsion” naturally legitimized political, material, and social claims, and expellee advocates invoked their narrative for concrete agendas such as winning the homeland back. By the late 1960s, however, many of the concrete revisionist agendas of the expellee organizations had become anachronistic, particularly in light of West German Ostpolitik and recognition of Poland’s western border. Thus the uses of the narrative changed over time, as expellee associations turned toward the conservation and preservation of an idealized Heimat or homeland through museums, memorials, and literature. By examining the trajectory of the expulsion narrative from its initial construction and instrumentalization through its turn toward nostalgia and institutionalization in various cultural forums, I seek to show the defining impact that this “victim discourse” has had on the public memory and academic interpretation of the European postwar population movements. My work will represent the first full-length investigation of the origins of the master narrative of expulsion that has deep resonances and continues to inform German historical consciousness, thereby providing fresh insights into the relationship between memory politics, the production and narration of history, and political interest group advocacy.