Apotheosis of Hypocrisy: The Ethnic- Germans
and the Yugoslav Diplomacy following WWII
Zoran Janjetovic, PhD
Institute for More Recent History of Serbia, Belgrade
This paper discusses the diplomatic events relating to the expulsion of the Ethnic German citizens of Yugoslavia, following World War II. It is adapted from a chapter in the book Between Hitler and Tito, the Disappearance of the Ethnic Germans from the Vojvodina, which deals with the history of this expulsion. The study of the diplomatic issues was intended to be more comprehensive but since the author waited in vain for 15 months to be granted permission to do research in the Diplomatic Archive of the Yugoslav Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and was finally refused with an explanation that the problem of the ethnic Germans of Yugoslavia is still a political issue, he had no choice but to proceed with the scarce material at his disposal. How ticklish the matter still is for some circles in Yugoslavia is shown also by the author’s other experience with the Yugoslav Foreign Ministry. In autumn 1997 the Ministry failed to give its approval to the Yugoslav Embassy in Bonn to issue the author a letter of introduction necessary for researching in the Political Archives of the German Foreign Ministry. Thankfully the German authorities gave lie to the deep-rooted stereotype of Teutonic priggishness by enabling the author to carry out his research without the necessary letter of introduction.
The problem of the Ethnic-Germans, or Volksdeutsche, was but one of the points of contention between Yugoslavia and the Western Allies at the time following WWII. It must be viewed in the context of the incipient Cold War just beginning, with Yugoslavia becoming daily the most prominent Soviet satellite, and also the desire of the communist Yugoslav authorities to rid their country of its ethnic-German minority – according to their view – compromised during the war.
In order to achieve their goal the communist authorities began expelling the interned Volksdeutsche in October of 1945. A considerable part of the first expellees were not from the Vojvodina, but from Slovenia and Croatia. The British readily protested this action. The Allied Council in Vienna also decided on 10 November 1945 to protest the Yugoslav, Hungarian and Czechoslovak expulsion of the Volksdeutsche to Austria. The Yugoslav government replied on 11 December: Yugoslavia was not expelling Ethnic-Germans, but it would accept those trying to return. The Yugoslav authorities believed their wish was in accordance with the intentions of the Allies expressed in the Potsdam decisions, which foresaw “resettlement” of the Volksdeutsche from Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia. In January 1946 the American diplomacy did not share this view. However, they were willing to take the Yugoslav demand into consideration if the Yugoslavs would cease their wildcat expulsions. These expulsions were duly stopped in order to increase the chances of the Yugoslav demands being met.
On 16 January 1946 the Yugoslav Ministry of Foreign Affairs handed a note to the British, American, Soviet and French representatives which restated the Yugoslav government’s decision to resettle the remaining Ethnic-Germans in Germany. The Potsdam Protocol was again cited as a proof of the concordance of the Yugoslav and Allied intentions. The Yugoslav government hoped the four allied governments would support their demand. Furthermore, the Yugoslav authorities asked for “their” Volksdeutsche to be resettled first. The reasons given for this were:
- The worst crimes committed by the Ethnic-Germans were in Yugoslavia, so rancor against them was great throughout the country and the government had to make allowances for that.
- The Volksdeutsche who were still in the country were comparatively few, so the technical problem of their expulsion could be easily solved.
This note was shelved with the explanation that Yugoslavia had never been mentioned in the Potsdam Protocol. Therefore the Yugoslav government repeated their demand in June 1946, reiterating reasons given in their note of 16 January.
The world public became aware of the conditions of the Yugoslav Germans through the Vatican channels only in spring 1946, after professor Hans Grieser escaped from the camp in Novi Sad.
By the time his charges became known the U.S. State Department accused the Yugoslav government of keeping American citizens in concentration camps. On 24 July 1946 the American press published accusations that Tito’s regime was holding between 500 and 2500 Americans, denying them all rights and especially the right to leave the country. In several American diplomatic notes the Yugoslav authorities were accused of keeping people with American citizenship, whose guilt could not be proven, in concentration camps under conditions worse than those during the war. The Yugoslav authorities responded that there were only ten cases of dual citizenship, eight of which had been cleared with the American Embassy. The remaining two inmates were not recognized as American subjects.
On 29 August the American Embassy submitted a list of claimants to American citizenship. The Yugoslav authorities agreed to look into the matter and to inform the State Department of their position regarding the Volksdeutsche and dual citizenship in general, resolutely denying the American charges. They accused the Americans of using the Volksdeutsche as yet another issue in an inimical campaign against Yugoslavia.
The American Embassy asked for ten Swabians to be released from the camps so they could be registered as asking for the American citizenship at the Embassy. However, the Embassy could not confirm that they were American citizens, so they could not be set free from the concentration camps. The Yugoslav authorities proposed either that forms be sent to the camps for the Volksdeutsche to fill out, or else that the Embassy take all ten dubious Volksdeutsche out of the country.
The American Embassy refused both proposals, but it did submit a list of some 500 claimants to American citizenship. The Yugoslav Foreign Ministry informed the Embassy that only the Yugoslavs are empowered to determine the citizenship of the interned Volksdeutsche. However, the Yugoslavs were willing to release all those Swabians whom the Embassy recognized as American citizens, provided that they would take them out of the country. This underscores how keen the communist leaders were to get rid of the Volksdeutsche; it was not important who they were or if they were guilty – it was only important to send them away.
The note the American ambassador delivered on 18 October 1946 claimed that the inmates had been “used for slave work, manhandled and persecuted” or even “deported to Russia”. Such treatment was condemned as contrary to international law. The accusations were rejected the same evening by the Yugoslav charge d’affaires in Washington. As for the 110,000 odd interned Ethnic-Germans, he said that his government had repeatedly asked of the Allied Control Council in Berlin and the American Embassy to have these people resettled in Germany, in keeping with the Potsdam Protocol, but received no reply.
The next day the squabble was taken up by the New York Times. The official Yugoslav communist organ, Borba, spurred on by all this and Ambassador Patterson’s protests during his visit to Tito, replied four days later in an article The “Volksdeutsche” from the SS-Division “Prinz Eugen” and the Kulturbund – protégés of the American Diplomacy. The article describes the American diplomatic pressure on Yugoslavia, explaining it as the reason for the American interest in the Volksdeutsche whose citizenship not even the Embassy would confirm.
According to Borba, the American Embassy demanded the release of all persons who yet had to ask for the American citizenship. But, since the Embassy had not accepted the obligation to repatriate them, this requirement was not fulfilled. The American representatives were prevented from visiting the camps and ascertaining who had the American citizenship or who had the right to claim it, because that would infringe on Yugoslav sovereignty. The author of the article claimed that some, Volksdeutsche, accused of being Nazis, had been released and left the country on American Embassy’s intervention.
The article featured several official dogmas of Yugoslav propaganda of the time. According to them, declaring oneself German during the war was proclaimed a criminal offence after the communist takeover, although there was no reason for a person who had declared himself German before the war, to cease declaring himself as such during the war. The new doctrine smelled much more like Nazi racial ideology than like communist internationalism. Contrary to the oft-repeated assertion by Yugoslav politicians, journalists, historians and even legal experts, by declaring oneself German, one did not automatically become a German subject. This was a stock-in-trade of the communist propaganda, reiterated in the quoted article too. In fact, not even joining some of the Reich German military units brought with it, as a matter of course, the dubious boon of German citizenship. These falsehoods were necessary in order to denigrate the whole Volksdeutsche national minority and to justify the claim for their resettlement, i.e. expulsion.
However, unwittingly, the author of the Borba article admitted that the official Yugoslav position was a fake. By reading between the lines, one can conclude that not only were the majority of the Ethnic-Germans innocent, but that the guilty were few. Only several individuals were named as criminals, but next to nothing was said of their putative crimes. The Yugoslav government’s inconsistency was further evinced by the stated fact that some people had already been released and left the country. If all the Volksdeutsche were guilty, how was it possible to let the criminals go only because they could prove they had been American citizens? This was indeed not possible, since the Yugoslav authorities did not discriminate against the war criminals on the basis of their citizenship.
That the vast of majority of the Volksdeutsche interned in concentration camps were not criminals is also implicit in the refusal of the commission of the Yugoslav Interior Ministry at the negotiations with the Hungarians in Budapest on 8 July 1946 to permit access to Yugoslavia by the Ethnic-German repatriates, except for the war criminals. The Yugoslav delegation (falsely) claimed the refugees had forfeited their Yugoslav citizenship.
More or less the same arguments for public consumption presented in the article in Borba, appeared in a Yugoslav government’s memo released on the same day the article appeared. In the memo the Ethnic-Germans were not only falsely accused of becoming German subjects, but also of setting up the “Prinz Eugen” Division (sic!) which had been proclaimed a criminal organization at the Nuremberg trials. Since the Americans kept espousing the cause of the Volksdeutsche, the Yugoslav authorities declared themselves willing to set free all those to whom the American Embassy would give an American passport. On 12 October 1946, Eighty-six Ethnic-Germans indeed left the country. Therefore, the Yugoslav foreign ministry expressed its surprise at the American note of 18 October and Ambassador Patterson’s statement to the press on 20 October in which he said that “nowhere in Europe so horrible camps existed as in Yugoslavia”.
Kos, the chief of the Press Department of the Yugoslav Foreign Ministry, repudiated these charges and repeated his government’s willingness to set free and to issue visas to all the Volksdeutsche for whom the American Embassy would provide passports. In his words, “only the Ethnic-Germans, the accomplices and abettors of the war criminals were interned pending their resettlement”. Unwittingly he too made a distinction between the Volksdeutsche on the one hand, and the war criminals and their accomplices on the other. At the same time, he caustically pointed out, that in Yugoslavia, unlike the United States, slavery was never practiced.
A member of the American Embassy tried to gloss over the note of 18 October statement pleading bad timing; allegedly it was published in Washington on 16 October, at the time Yugoslav government’s cooperatives was still not known there. Patterson’s statement purportedly concerned the time Yugoslav helpfulness was still not proved. The Yugoslav Foreign Ministry repudiated this, claiming that the American government learned of the Yugoslav attitude already on 26 September, whereas the freed Volksdeutsche left on 12 October. The American behavior was described as a political maneuver aimed at denigrating Yugoslavia exactly at the time the just Yugoslav claims were being advanced in Paris and in New York. The Yugoslav powers-that-be were quite aware that these attacks against Yugoslavia were indirectly aimed against the Soviet Union and also served as a trial balloon to see how far one could go with such attacks.
The official Yugoslav newspaper, Borba, commented on the furor the Americans started over the American Volksdeutsche once again on 28 October, stating more or less the same facts in order to prove that no concentration camps existed in Yugoslavia. To carry out his point, the author repeats the contradiction, claiming some of the released had been Nazis as Germans, and would continue to be that as “Americans”.
Again it is plain to see that the Communist authorities were not interested in separating the innocent from the guilty and in punishing the latter, but only in getting rid of as many Volksdeutsche as possible. At the same time the American diplomacy was hypocritically espousing the Ethnic-Germans’ cause, it was not willing to facilitate their departure for the USA. American accusations were even more hypocritical if one remembers the fate of the Japanese-Americans, who had also been interned in concentration camps after the disaster in Pearl Harbor, and some of whom were still not free by 1946. The Yugoslav Ethnic-Germans were merely utilized as pawns of American diplomacy, just as they had once been used by Germany’ s.
The Yugoslav authorities were urgent in their demands to have the remaining Volksdeutsche resettled to Germany. The Yugoslav delegate at the conference of the deputy- foreign ministers in London that was preparing the peace treaty with Germany, Dr. Mladen Ivekovic, submitted a memo on 28 January 1947 in which the demand that 110,000 Ethnic-Germans be resettled in Germany. As for the Volksdeutsche with American citizenship, the problem was still on the agenda. On 13 February 1947 at the meeting between the Yugoslav ambassador to Washington, Sava Kosanovic, who, as the minister for agrarian reform had been one of the worst German-baiters among the Yugoslav top-brass, and the American undersecretary Barbour, the Chief of the Division of Southern European Affairs. Kosanovic claimed that all such Volksdeutsche were helping the Nazis, and were consequently bad Americans. In other words, he admitted that there were persons of American citizenship still languishing in concentration camps. As for Barbour, he stated that the American lists did not prove the Yugoslav allegations. A larger number of the American Volksdeutsche could be set free only after the relations between the two countries improved in mid-1947.
The question of the Volksdeutsche had a high priority in foreign policy of Yugoslavia. The desire of the Yugoslavs was to get rid of all the remaining Ethnic-Germans and considerable diplomatic effort was devoted to this goal. However, the results were meager. It seems that same agreements were reached with the British and the Soviet authorities in Austria, but little is known about them. In any case, it seems they were never put to practice. In the end, a general permission to resettle the surviving Ethnic-Germans was never granted. The reasons could be divided as formal and real ones. Among the formal ones, the most important was that Yugoslavia had not been mentioned in the Potsdam Protocol. As for the real ones, two were decisive: first, the Western Allies had already more refugees than they could handle; second, being a Soviet satellite, Yugoslavia was not very likely to be treated with consideration by the Western powers. This was best shown by the attitude of the United States.
The American diplomats kept shedding crocodile tears over the Volksdeutsche, slaving in concentration camps, but did little to help them. There is no doubt that their concern for the Ethnic-Germans with alleged American citizenship was primarily part of the pressure that was being put on Yugoslavia and only secondarily an expression of genuine interest in American citizens. The Yugoslav authorities were willing to let all the Volksdeutsche go and to forget about all of them being war criminals, only if the four Powers would accept them. Since nothing came of it, the Ethnic-Germans had to continue dying in the concentration camps, except for those who managed to escape across the border.
The concentration camps for Ethnic-Germans were disbanded in the spring of 1948. By then, some 50.000 Volksdeutsche had died in them. When the legal emigration of the surviving Volksdeutsche finally began in 1950, it came about not as a result of a diplomatic action, but by agreement reached between the Yugoslav Red Cross and the International Red Cross. At first, priority was given to separated family members. However, by that time, forcing the Volksdeutsche out was no longer the official policy. Quite the contrary: the Yugoslav authorities were delaying giving permission for emigration, hypocritically excusing this by the fact that the Ethnic-Germans who were leaving the country would lose all citizenship, which was at variance with the General Declaration of Human Rights, of which Yugoslavia was a signatory.
This cynical explanation was dropped only in 1951 when the Yugoslav authorities consented to treat the departing Ethnic-Germans as the citizens of the Federal Republic of Germany. After that the emigration proceeded apace. In 1954 the Protocol on mutual notification of the naturalization of the citizens of the Federal People ‘s Republic of Yugoslavia and the citizens of the Federal Republic of Germany was signed. At first the emigrants had to pay a fee for release from the Yugoslav citizenship. Many had to save for years to afford the pleasure of leaving their mother-country, that had treated them so step-motherly.
The Volksdeutsche of Yugoslavia have never been masters of their own destiny. Powers-that-be of several countries and their diplomacies were just playing their power games with them: first Germany, then Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, and finally even the United States…