Poland: Post-WWII assaults on minorities

Introduction | Atrocities | Fatalities | Ending | Coding | Works Cited | Notes


Poland’s occupation by Nazi Germany formally ended after Germany’s defeat and capitulation in May 1945, although the German forces had already been pushed back beforehand by the advancing Soviet Army. Polish territories temporarily remained under the control of the Red Army until the Soviet-backed Polish communists and their allies took control in June 1945. In February and August 1945, the Allied conferences at Yalta and Potsdam agreed to shift Poland’s new borders westward; the country lost almost of half of its pre-war territory to the Soviet Union and in exchange gained the former German territories east of the Oder-Neisse line.[i] These border changes initiated mass population movements as Germans fled or were forced to move westwards while Ukrainians living in Poland were expelled into the USSR.[ii] The Polish Jewish communities, already ravaged and vastly diminished by Nazi policies during the war, also faced post-war violence.


The initial postwar years in Poland were marked by lawlessness and political confusion. The communists consolidated their power through a rigged national referendum in 1946 and fixed parliamentary elections in 1947. However, anti-communist armed groups and former partisan fighters initially resisted the new communist government as well as the Soviet occupying forces. Their resistance was met with forceful state suppression, mass arrests and deportations (this period is sometimes referred to as a “Polish civil war” or “anti-Communist insurrection”).[iii]

The majority of civilian deaths between 1945-1950 resulted from the forced internment and expulsions of millions of Germans and several hundred thousands of Ukrainians who had found themselves within the boundaries of the new Polish state. The majority of expulsions occurred in Germany’s former eastern territories, where, according to the German sources, approximately 8.5 million Germans lived in 1939 (it is difficult how many of these were still living there in 1945).[iv] The removal of the Germany minority occurred in three stages:

War-time flight (1944 – May 1945): The first wave of refugees consisted of those Germans who were evacuated by the retreating German army or fled as the Red Army advanced toward Germany’s eastern territories.[v] In Upper Silesia for example, ca. 20-50 percent of the rural German population evacuated before the arrival of the Red Army in January 1945.[vi] This phase ended with the cessation of military operations in 1945, and some of the Germans who had fled actually attempted to return.[vii] This time period is outside this project’s parameters.

Wild” or unauthorized expulsions (Spring 1945–December 1945, climax May–July 1945): Starting in spring 1945, Polish authorities unilaterally initiated forced expulsions of Germans who had stayed behind or returned. These actions were aimed at legitimizing Polish control over former Germany territories east of the Oder-Neisse line before the Allied forces could come to formal decision regarding the German minority in the east (although they had already endorsed the principle of a population transfer).[viii]

The forced expulsions of the German minority were ordered and encouraged by the Polish post-war government as well as the Soviet occupying forces. On 3 May 1945, authorities in Warsaw issued the Act on Expulsion of Enemy Elements from Poland, which gave local authorities a legal basis for the “wild expulsions” that had already been occurring.[ix] The Polish Army initially implemented the expulsions.[x] Later on, direct violence against civilians was exacerbated by a variety of Polish militia, especially the ORMO (Volunteer Reserve of the Citizens’ Militia). These militia groups included many Polish men who had joined them upon returning from forced labor in Germany in order to take revenge for the injustices they had suffered. The expulsions thus have to be considered in the context of the displaced, death and destruction suffered by the Polish population under German occupation during the Second World War. The general atmosphere of lawlessness and impunity further facilitated violent excesses.[xi]

In the first half of 1945, German citizens or Polish citizens of German descent were deprived of their Polish citizenship, their property was expropriated and their livestock confiscated.[xii] Malnutrition as well as insufficient access to medical care contributed to high mortality rates among infants and the elderly. Deaths due to edema and typhus reached epidemic proportions by early 1946 (Germans were charged for immunizations).[xiii] In the first phase of the transfers, the expulsions were performed ruthlessly and often accompanied by violence, pillaging, and rapes.[xiv] Civilians were often forced to leave on short notice and transported in unheated freight cars without access to food or water, with the weakest and the sick dying from exhaustion and the cold.[xv] Many also died in the cattle cars transporting them to forced labor camps in the Soviet Union.[xvi]

After the Potsdam Conference in August 1945, the Allies formally agreed to the population transfers under international supervision, yet initially put the expulsions on hold to prepare for the influx of Germans from the east. Polish authorities did not fully comply with the decisions taken in Potsdam and continued with forced expulsions into the Soviet zone of occupation until the end of 1945.[xvii]

Authorized mass transfers (1946-1947): The Potsdam Conference attempted to regulate the expulsions of Germans and reduce the levels of violence, but its initial impact was limited. In November 1945, the Allied Control Council adopted a detailed resolution outlining the transfer of Germans from the east with the aim of completing the expulsions by mid-1946.[xviii] Beginning in early 1946, the expulsions were indeed carried out in a more orderly manner, even though harassment and maltreatment persisted. From 1946 to October 1947, 1.2 million people were transferred to the British occupation zone and 2.3 million to the Soviet zone.[xix]

Even after orders were issued to make the deportation process more “orderly and humane,” practical circumstances such as the lack of adequate transport means meant that the suffering continued.[xx] The new Polish government also implemented a system of forced labor for those awaiting expulsion or useful for the Polish economy.[xxi] Many Germans were detained in transit, internment or labor camps awaiting expulsion, often in difficult or inhumane conditions.[xxii] De Zayas notes that as many as 6,488 civilians (including 628 children) may have died in Camp Lamsdorf in Upper Silesia, renowned for its particularly harsh conditions.[xxiii] Although Polish authorities blamed zealous local officials when confronted by the Allies, the government played the central role in orchestrating and implementing the expulsions as well as internment and forced labor.[xxiv] The Office of Public Security in particular was responsible for countless offenses against civilians. It controlled 119 prisons and 681 detention camps, including Camp Lamsdorf in Upper Silesia, where three-fourths of the inmates perished.[xxv] However, there is no evidence of the systematic execution of Germans by Polish security forces.[xxvi]


Fatalities as a result of expulsions of the German minority: best estimate 400,000.

German estimates:

  • 1.6 million: The Federal Statistical Office of Germany (Statistisches Bundesamt) in 1958 released a report analyzing the figures relating to expulsion-related population losses. The Office used prewar population figures, wartime estimates and postwar numbers of expellees in both German states. It estimated that a total of 1,606,900 had died as a result of the expulsions in the former German eastern territories, Poland (1939 borders), and the free city of Gdansk combined.[xxvii] These accounts are imprecise as they include all missing persons that simply could not be accounted for in the chaotic post-war period, as well as people who might have died due to the harsh conditions in post-war Germany.
  • 367,392: The summary of the German Church Search Service Findings, released in 1965, which was based on surveys/eyewitness accounts and local community records, found a total of 367,392 confirmed civilian deaths from the territory of contemporary Poland and an additional 1,404,993 unresolved cases. The confirmed deaths included 10,330 suicides; 32,947 deaths in forced labor camps; 27,847 deaths in transit camps prior to expulsion; 86,860 during the flight west; 57,814 after the expulsions; and 106,991 due to undetermined causes.[xxviii]
  • 400,000: A 1974 report by the West German Federal Archive (Bundesarchiv) summarizing the “crimes and brutalities committed against Germans in the course of the expulsion” came to a “rough estimate” of 400,000 deaths during the expulsions. This figure included estimates of 100,000 deaths in camps and prisons, 200,000 deaths as a result of deportation to the USSR (based on German Red Cross estimates), and 100,000 deaths during the expulsions (based on eyewitness accounts and local community records; total figures extrapolated based on available local data).[xxix] 

Polish estimates: Polish historian Bernadetta Nitschke (2003) compiled the findings of Polish research on German deaths due to flight and resettlement. According to Nitschke, most Polish historians argue that the majority of deaths were sustained during wartime flight, forced labor in the USSR, and in the Soviet occupation zone in East Germany, rather than during the evacuations from post-war Poland. Nitschke herself relies on the figures presented by Rudiger Overmans and the German Church Service to argue that the total number of deaths in Poland is likely to have been ca. 400,000.[xxx]

Kamusella notes that “according to sketchy data,” 40,000 people perished in detention and forced labor camps between 1945-1947.[xxxi]

Expulsions and killings of Ukrainians and Jews: Estimated 6,000 killed.

The exact number of Ukrainians living in Poland after the end of the Second World War is disputed, with Polish sources citing ca. 650,000 Ukrainians and Ukrainians placing the number at over a million. Subtelny (2001) suggests that the number is likely to have been ca. 700,000.[xxxii] From October 1945 to June 1946, 481,000 Ukrainians were repatriated from Poland to Ukraine (Subtelny lists a number of 485,000).[xxxiii] In June–July 1947 alone ca. 141,000 Ukrainians were expelled as part of the “Vistula Action” military campaign.[xxxiv]

Subtelny describes how the Polish government’s initially voluntary resettlement program in the fall of 1945 and beginning of 1946 relatively quickly degenerated into forced deportations and violent expulsions. Newly established Polish police units threatened those Ukrainians who were unwilling to leave, destroying their property and even resorting to killings. At the same time, the Polish nationalist organization Armia Krajowa launched a brutal terror campaign against the Ukrainians, targeting and massacring entire villages. Local Polish villages and roving bandits partook in the violence.[xxxv] The conflict escalated when, beginning in spring 1945, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) that was fighting against Soviet occupation in Western Ukraine began sending units across the border to support the Ukrainians left in Poland and block further deportations. As a result, the Polish government dispatched additional troops.[xxxvi] Subtelny cites Szczesniak and Szota (1973), who count 4,670 Ukrainian civilian deaths and 582 Polish civilian deaths in the course of this conflict.[xxxvii] By August 1946, it was evident that the UPA was losing its struggle: the Polish government had already deported 482,107 Ukrainians, and the governments of Poland and Soviet Ukraine announced the completion of the transfers.[xxxviii]

In the general atmosphere of lawlessness of post-war Poland, numerous Jewish communities, already ravaged and severely reduced in numbers from the Holocaust,[xxxix] were also subjected to violent pogroms (e.g. in the cities of Krakow, Rzeszów and Kielce). The numbers killed in such incidents are not high compared to other post-war assaults on groups—most incidents in the tens, although in February 1946, the repatriation of 137,000 Jews from the USSR led to more than 1,000 Jews being killed in trains and on the roads.[xl] However, it must be noted that this violence was perpetrated against a group that barely survived the war at all, after facing Nazi German plans to annihilate the entire European Jewish population.


The most violent phase of expulsions ended following repeated protests by the Allied forces. After difficult negotiations in the fall of 1945, the British eventually reached a bilateral agreement with the new Polish authorities that set forth a detailed plan for the “orderly” and legal removal of the remaining Germans. This agreement was signed on 14 February 1946, and led to the expulsions being better organized and supervised. As a result, the British had the right to monitor compliance with regulations at certain control points – although the process continued to be disorganized and marked by violence.[xli]

Further, the goal of expelling the German population was largely met. The international community had recognized Poland’s new borders, and German minority living in Poland had been reduced to fraction of its original size. The mass transfers were thus halted in October 1947. Several thousand skilled workers were forced to remain in Poland and perform forced labor until the early 1950s.[xlii] In the immediate postwar period, almost all Polish communities supported the expulsions. By 1946, Polish cities and companies had become used to having a cheap German workforce to help with post-war reconstruction and industrialization. As a result, some employers even tried to delay the removal of German workers.[xliii]


We code this case as ending primarily through strategic shift, under the influence of moderating domestic and international actors. We also code for multiple victim groups.

However, given the ‘success’ of expulsions, we offer an alternative coding of ‘as planned.’

Works Cited

Archivalien und Ausgewählte Erlebnisberichte. 1989. Bonn: Bundesarchiv Koblenz & Kulturstiftung der Deutschen Vertriebenen.

de Zayas, Alfred M. 1977. Nemesis at Potsdam: The Expulsion of the Germans from the East (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press.

Jankowiak, Stanislaw. 2001. “‘Cleansing’ Poland of Germans: The Province of Pomerania, 1945-1949,” in Redrawing Nations: Ethnic Cleansing in East-Central Europe, 1944-1948, edited by Philipp Ther and Ana Siljak. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Kamusella, Tomasz. 2003. “Ethnic Cleansing in Upper Silesia: 1944-1951,” in Ethnic Cleansing in Twentieth Century Europe, edited by Steven Bela Vardy and T. Hunt Tooely. New York: Columbia University Press.

Kersten, Krystyna. 2001. “Forced Migration and the Transformation of Polish Society,” in Redrawing Nations: Ethnic Cleansing in East-Central Europe, 1944-1948, edited by Philipp Ther and Ana Siljak. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Merten, Ulrich . 2012. Forgotten Voices: The Expulsion of the Germans from Eastern Europe after World War II. London: Transaction Publishers.

Nitschke, Bernadetta. 2003. Vertreibung und Aussiedlung der deutschen Bevölkerung aus Polen 1945 bis 1949. München: Oldenbourg Verlag.

Overmans, Rűdiger . 1994. “Personelle Verluste der deutschen Bevölkerung durch Flucht und Vertreibung,” Dzieje Najnowsze Rocznik 26: 2, 51-65.

Potel, Jean Yves. 2010. “Chronology of Mass Violence in Poland, 1918-1948,” Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence, Sciences Po-Paris, 10 May. Available at: http://www.massviolence.org/Chronology-of-Mass-Violence-in-Poland-1918-1948.

Siebel-Achenbach, Sebastian. 1994. Lower Silesia from Nazi Germany to Communist Poland, 1942-1949. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan Press.

Spieler, Silke. 1974. ed. Vertreibung und Vertreibungsverbrechen 1945-1948. Bericht des Bundesarchivs vom 28. Mai

Statistisches Bundesamt. 1958. Die deutschen Vertreibungsverluste. Bevölkerungsbilanzen für die Deutschen Vertreibungsgebiete 1939/50. Stuttgart: Verlag W. Kohlhammer.

Subtelny, Orest. 2001. “The Fate of Poland’s Ukrainians, 1944-1947,” in Redrawing Nations: Ethnic Cleansing in East-Central Europe, 1944-1948, edited by Philipp Ther and Ana Siljak. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Ther, Philip. 2001.“A Century of Forced Migration: The Origins and Consequences of “Ethnic Cleansing,” in Redrawing Nations: Ethnic Cleansing in East-Central Europe, 1944-1948, edited by Philipp Ther and Ana Siljak. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Jewish Population in Europe in 1945.” Holocaust Encyclopedia. Available at: http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005687 Accessed January 6, 2017.


[i] Potel 2010.

[ii] Kersten 2001, 75.

[iii] Potel 2010.

[iv] Thomas Urban, Deutsche in Polen. Geschichte und Gegenwart einer Minderheit (Munich: C.H. Beck, 1993), 49, cited in Jankowiak 2001, 88.

[v] de Zayas 1977, 60; 72-73.

[vi] Kamusella 2003, 181.

[vii] Jankowiak 2001 88.

[viii] Jankowiak 2001, 87; and de Zayas 1977, 104.

[ix] Urban 1993, 55, cited in Kamusella 2003, 185.

[x] Jankowiak 2001, 89.

[xi] Kamusella 2003, 184-185.

[xii] Kamusella 2003, 183.

[xiii] Siebel-Achenbach 1994, 130.

[xiv] Jankowiak 2001, 89.

[xv] Kamusella 2003, 182; and Jankowiak 2001, 96.

[xvi] Merten 2012, 62.

[xvii] de Zayas 1977, 104.

[xviii] de Zayas 1977, 101; and Siebel-Achenbach 1994, 128-129.

[xix] Potel 2010

[xx] Ther 2001, 54.

[xxi] Ther 2001, 56; and Siebel-Achenbach 1994, 132.

[xxii] De Zayas 1977, 124-125.

[xxiii] De Zayas 1977, 126.

[xxiv] Siebel-Achenbach 1994, 127-128.

[xxv] Siebel-Achenbach 1994, 133.

[xxvi] Siebel-Achenbach 1994, 133.

[xxvii] Statistisches Bundesamt 1958.

[xxviii] Overmans 1994, 51-65.

[xxix] Spieler 1974. Archivalien und Ausgewählte Erlebnisberichte 1989.

[xxx] Nitschke 2003, 268-282.

[xxxi] P. Madajczyk, Przyłączenie Śląska Opolskiego do Polski, 1945-1948 (Warsaw, 1996), 244-294, cited in Kamusella 2003, 187.

[xxxii] Subtelny 2001, 156.

[xxxiii] Ther 2001, 56; and Subtelny 2001, 156.

[xxxiv] W. Sienkiewicz and G. Hryciuk, Wysiedlenia, Wypędzenia i Ucieczki 1930–1959. Atlas Ziem Polski (Warsaw: Demart, 2008): 214-215, cited in Potel, 2010.

[xxxv] Subtelny 2001, 159.

[xxxvi] Subtelny 2001, 159.

[xxxvii] Antoni Szczesniak and Wieslaw Szota, Droga do Nikad: Dzialalnosc Organizacji Ukrainiaskich Nacjionalistow I Jej Likwidacja w Polsce (Warsaw: Wydawn. Ministerstwa Obrony Narodowej, 1973), 421-432, cited in Subtelny 2001, 164.

[xxxviii] Subtelny 2001, 163.

[xxxix] The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum states: “In 1933, Poland had the largest Jewish population in Europe, numbering over three million. By 1950, the Jewish population of Poland was reduced to about 45,000.”

[xl] Sienkiewicz and Hryciuk, 144; and B. Szajnok, “Polacy I Żydzi lipiec 1944-1946” and “Spory o Pogrom Kielecki,” in Łukasz Kaminski and Jan Zaryn (eds), Wokół Pogromu Kieleckiego (Warsaw: IPN, 2006), 9-24 and 111-130. Both cited in Potel 2010.

[xli] Jankowiak 2001, 93.

[xlii] Sienkiewicz and Hryciuk, 188, cited in Potel 2010.

[xliii] Jankowiak 2001, 100-101.

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