Many more Germans were displaced in 1945 than Indians during partition

Plus: before the TED talks, there was Radio 4

8 November 2014

9:00 AM

8 November 2014

9:00 AM

What Radio 3 needs is a musical version of Neil MacGregor. The director of the British Museum and now a stalwart of Radio 4 is an intellectual powerhouse but his talks on radio are so clear, so crisp, so deceptively easy to follow that he draws you in and makes you feel that you too can understand the world in the way he does, with his enormously broad vision and his deep understanding of the way things connect.

His latest series, Germany: Memories of a Nation, has for five weeks now been giving us these wonderful bite-sized insights into the history of that still-young country, taking a particular object and then using the image, with all the different meanings it might contain, to examine an aspect of German history, sometimes in a national, political sense but just as often from the point of view of the individual and their human story. Last week for instance one episode was devoted to the words blazoned across the entrance to the Buchenwald concentration camp from 1937 until 1945, using them as a jumping-off point to discuss the extermination policies of the Nazis.

‘Jedem das Seine’ (or ‘To each what they are due’) could only be read by those who were inside the camp and had watched the gates being closed behind them, MacGregor explains, as he walks through the gates on a sunny day filled with birdsong, closing them with an audible clunk and looking back. ‘What began here in cruelty and injustice in 1937 led to the destruction of cities …and the killing of millions.’ The dissonance between this now-peaceful setting and the reality of the blood that lies beneath the earth was palpable. ‘No words can carry adequately such brutality and such suffering,’ says MacGregor. ‘There can only be silence.’ And there is silence, seconds of it, an emptiness of sound that chillingly echoes the emptiness of place.

MacGregor has such an understanding of radio as a medium, pacing his words with a deliberation that ensures he extracts from them their fullest meaning, and recognising that sometimes silence is the best way to convey what he wants us to see in our mind’s eye, to hear and to comprehend. Of the words, he reminds us that Elie Wiesel and Bruno Bettelheim would have seen them every day as they walked back into the camp after a day of hard labour. You could read them simply as a threat, a ghastly warning. They were, though, once ‘noble’ words: Luther quoted them and Bach set them to music as a cantata. The sign itself was designed by a camp inmate with an aesthetic skill, elegant and bold in a ‘beautiful, dancing font’. ‘How can these different components of the German story come together?’ MacGregor asks of us, as a challenge almost, a warning that we, too, are going to have to think things through, to explore their full significance.

This series of 15-minute talks (produced by Paul Kobrak and now available to listen to when you have time) has not been arranged chronologically but has sought to create a tapestry of knowledge, of understanding, encouraging us to think about what the world looks like for a nation of such recent origin, whose frontiers have fluctuated so wildly throughout the centuries. Monday’s episode was dedicated to a rough-hewn handcart now in the German Historical Museum in Berlin. It was dragged from Pomerania into what we now think of as Germany at the end of 1945, piled high with bedding, clothes and food, by one of the 14 million Germans who were displaced and forcibly resettled at the end of the war, leaving their homes and most of their belongings behind them. Fourteen million! MacGregor knows how to make a dramatic impact with a single object. That number is many more, he says, than were resettled after partition in India; here, in the heart of Europe, less than 70 years ago.

The 15-minute one-off essay has always been a mainstay of the Radio 3 schedule since its earliest days as the Third Programme (and long before the now-fashionable TED talks on the internet). Radio 4, too, now has its Four Thought slot, a ‘thought-provoking’ talk before an audience in which the speaker is invited to air their passion. On Wednesday we were given an inspiring quarter of an hour by Claire Collingwood, an award-winning dancer who since she was 14 has been unable to stand without crutches (she suffers from osteoporosis). At first, she explained, she thought they would only be temporary. She ‘wanted to be fixed’. In 2005, though, she experienced ‘an epiphany’ after meeting a choreographer who suggested to her that she could use the upper-body strength she had acquired to create unusual dance movements. It became obvious that her hard-won abilities enabled her to move in ways the superfit able-bodied dancers could not match, creating performances that were very different but just as compelling. Why, she asks now, would she not want to be disabled?

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • edithgrove

    Neil McGregor or ‘oh no not him again’, first 100 objects, smart words to replace looking and now Germany, a banality that seems precise, incisive and above all intelligent but is the sieve through which history passes.

  • Kennybhoy

    “Many more Germans were displaced in 1945 than Indians during partition”

    And many more than were displaced by the foundation of Israel…

    • Richard

      And of course Greeks from Turkey.

  • mikewaller

    If you wholeheartedly support a genocidal maniac whose imperial ambitions visited massive pain and suffering on hundreds of millions of people, you can expect to pay a heavy price if ultimately things do not go your way. This is not a formulation that fits easily with the victims of Indian partition or the creation of the state of Israel.

    • Bill_der_Berg

      The expulsions, which were regarded by George Orwell as a great crime, were not without their complications for the allies. To quote from an article in the Huffington Post.

      “Not only was the treatment of the expellees in defiance of the principles for which the Second World War had professedly been fought, it created numerous and persistent legal complications. At the Nuremberg trials, for example, the Allies were trying the surviving Nazi leaders on charges of carrying out “deportation and other inhumane acts” against civilian populations at the same moment as, less than a hundred miles away, they were engaging in large-scale forced removals of their own.

      Similar problems arose with the UN’s 1948 Genocide Convention, the first draft of which outlawed the “forced and systematic exile of individuals representing the culture of a group.” This provision was deleted from the final version at the insistence of the U.S. delegate, who pointed out that it “might be interpreted as embracing forced transfers of minority groups such as have already been carried out by members of the United Nations.”

      • mikewaller

        I don’t disagree but as with the terrible treatment of the rest of Eastern Europe, what was the West supposed to do? We needed the Soviet Union to defeat Nazi Germany and that was the blood price. Short of moving straight into WW3 what was the option? Accounts I have read from US/British military personnel make clear they thought they would be on a hiding to nothing if they took on the Russians so they had no inclination whatsoever to do so.

        • Bill_der_Berg

          I may have misunderstood your first post, but it seemed that you were arguing that the atrocities visited upon the Germans were morally justified. To say that they were unavoidable, is probably right, but that’s a different argument.

          I do think that too little is known about the expulsions, and that anything that helps to counter the ignorance should be welcomed.

          • mikewaller

            Morally justified is indeed further than I would want to go. However, I can still see a clear distinction between a Muslim who had lived peacefully in India all his life and who was driven out – or worse – during partition and the fate of the Sudeten Germans whose contribution to their own misfortunes is made clear from the following extracted from a BBC website:

            In March 1938, Hitler ordered Henlein to create a crisis in the country. The Sudeten Germans made increasingly bold demands from the government. When the demands could not be met they insisted that they were being persecuted.

            In April 1938, Henlein announced his Karlsbad Programme for Sudeten self-government, and organised civil unrest.

            In May 1938, Hitler moved his armies to the Czech border to intimidate the Czechoslovakian President, Benes. In response, Benes mobilised the Czech army into positions along the border.

            In July 1938, Hitler promised Britain’s Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, that he would not invade Czechoslovakia if he were given control of the Sudetenland.

            In September 1938, Hitler made an inflammatory speech against the Czechoslovakian President, Benes, at a Nazi rally at Nuremberg.

            On the 12 September, the Sudeten Germans rioted and martial law was declared in Czechoslovakia.

          • Bill_der_Berg

            The Poles and Hungarians annexed parts of Czechoslovakia around the same time as the Germans (perhaps even a bit earlier). Were they as morally reprehensible as (or worse than) the Sudetenlander. The Poles blame skulduggery by the Czechs after the First World War.

            As for your Indian, he was undoubtedly innocent. We must hope that he was not among the three million who perished because of the UK’s wartime food policies.

          • mikewaller

            The victims of the great famine in India are in very much the same category as the millions who suffered under Soviet rule in Eastern Europe: innocent victims of realpolitiks in time of war. Another example would be the South Londoner who took the full brunt of the V1 attacks because “the greater good” argued for misleading the German as to where their missiles were actually falling.

            In the case of the Indian famine,Britain was in a life or death struggle with two very powerful opponents and behaved very much less than well in very many instances to further its chances of victory. In 1943 the Japanese were still rampant in most theatres and the atomic bomb just an idea in the heads of scientists, I thank God that I was not involved in deciding whether the war effort should be significantly weakened to deal effectively with a massive famine. Given how late in the day the Japanese were stopped at Imphal right on the border of India, it cannot have been an easy choice to make.

          • Bill_der_Berg

            Lizzie Collingham wrote about the Indian Famine in her book ‘The Taste of War: World War Two and the Battle for Food”. Her conclusion was that the roots of the problem was mismanagement by colonial government officials, not all of them British. However, the British government could have averted or eased the situation if they had regarded Indian lives as being as important as European ones.

            The book is by no means an anti-British diatribe. The author makes it quite clear that the Germans and Japanese were far more ruthless in exploiting the foreign lands under their control.

  • Bill_der_Berg

    The Imperial War Museum gives a figure of ‘up to 1 million’ for the number of deaths occurring on both sides during the partition of India. The figure for the expulsion of Germans range from 500,000 and 2.2 million.