A look back at the forgotten refugee crisis in Europe

“Your name and possibly your date of birth were recorded, and suddenly you became someone – a refugee with an identity card “A”, and you could apply for a certain level of support. Registering here in Friedland was the chance to start a new life, a real life in peace.”

This is how Annelie Keil, an ethnic German whose family was expelled from Poland, described her arrival to the Friedland transit camp, in the flatlands of Lower Saxony in 1945. Nowadays, Friedland camp houses other, yet not-so-different occupants: it shelters over 800 people from Syria, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and other war-torn countries.

The camp was established at the end of WWII as a temporary shelter and registration point for German refugees from the east, as well as for forced laborers, prisoners of war, and survivors of the Nazi concentration camps. Friedland thus stood on the frontlines of one of the largest population movements in human history: Between 1944 and 1951, 20 million Europeans, including 12 million ethnic Germans and 5 million ethnic Poles, were expelled, resettled, or fled their homes. This is in addition to six million Jews who were murdered by Nazi Germany during the war. These population transfers rivaled in scale the three centuries of the transatlantic slave trade and fundamentally transformed the ethnic and religious map of the continent.

Sanctioned at the 1945 Potsdam Conference as a solution to the “problem” of ethnic minorities in heterogeneous states, the population movements wound up diversifying local communities in the short run. As historian Gregory Thum observes in his book about Wrocław (Breslau): “Not until the individual groups were suddenly thrown together in the western territories did it become evident that Poland had been a multiethnic state all along” (180). In Germany, the disgruntled native population viewed refugees as a “foreign rabble” and culturally inferior.[1] While most refugees came from eastern territories of the former Reich, 43% were Volksdeutsche, who had for many generations lived as minorities in foreign states and experienced a culture shock in postwar Germany.

Post-WWII displacement dwarfs contemporary refugee movements in Europe (just 4.2 million people sought asylum in the EU in 2015-2020). Like today’s refugee movements, postwar migrations aroused fears about intergroup conflict, insufficient resources, and refugee radicalization. In 1949, the State Commissioner for Refugees in German Bavaria warned that the refugees could become “a constant source of danger and discontent.”[2] Ann McCormick of the New York Times wrote in 1951: “Resented and resentful, they crowd in on the overcrowded, always wanting to ‘go home’ and thus a constant stimulus to the ‘irredentism’ that has caused so many wars.”

Now that the dust has settled, we see that these concerns were largely unfounded. I explain why by reviewing several recent studies on the legacies of displacement in post-WWII Europe. As Vicky Fouka argued in an earlier post, immigration is one of many domains in which history can inform public policy.

I start with my own research on Poland, the only state to both gain and lose territory in 1945. As a result of the decisions at the Potsdam Conference, the country’s international borders were moved 150 miles to the west (see map). The Soviet Union annexed Poland’s eastern borderlands (Kresy), and the country received parts of Germany east of the Oder-Neisse line as well as the region of the Free State of Danzig in compensation. The redrawing of borders uprooted approximately eight million ethnic Germans, who made up 90% of the population in Germany’s eastern provinces. It also displaced approximately two million Polish citizens, whose homes were suddenly located in the newly created Lithuanian, Belarusian, and Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republics. The need to repopulate territories Poland acquired from Germany also led to voluntary migration of some three million migrants from central Poland and western Europe into this region.

Postwar changes in the borders of Poland and Germany

One third of contemporary Poland, equivalent to 39,000 square miles, roughly the size of Kentucky, thus experienced a nearly complete turnover of population in a span of just a few years. The postwar residents of these so-called  “Recovered Territories” were extremely heterogeneous. As Thum observes, migrants “may all have considered themselves Poles, but often they had little in common. They dressed differently, spoke different dialects, thought differently, and behaved differently” (178).

In a 2019 APSR article, I compare economic performance of homogeneous and heterogeneous resettled communities before and after Poland’s transition to a free market economy. I use the fact that arbitrary resettlement procedures resulted in various levels of heterogeneity in migrants’ origins. While assignment was not random, it was largely exogenous to local economic conditions and migrants’ own preferences. I find that no significant differences existed between communities with different migration histories in the 1980s, at least as far as the per capita number of TVs, radios, and shops are concerned. However, in the 1990s communities settled by more diverse migrant population registered higher incomes and entrepreneurship rates than more homogeneous resettled communities.

These findings challenge the conventional wisdom in the social sciences that cultural diversity comes with economic and social costs. They suggest that in the long run diversity can be beneficial for productivity and growth, particularly in states with high-quality formal institutions. Scholars made similar conclusions about the long-run benefits of migration-induced diversity in other settings, including the United States (see more in Vicky Fouka’s post). In the Polish context, the transformation of the territory repopulated, in part, by forced migrants from less developed regions, from the Wild West with staggering crime rates into one of the more developed and liberal parts of the country is particularly remarkable.

The diversity of the migrant population in the formerly German territories in 1948

In a 2020 AER article, Sascha Becker and coauthors compare the descendants of different migrants settled in the territory Poland acquired from Germany.  They find higher education levels among the descendants of forced migrants from the eastern territories annexed by the Soviet Union (Kresy) than among the descendants of voluntary migrants from Central Poland in the same region. Experiencing the trauma of forced migration thus leads to increased investment in human capital, a mobile asset. The authors draw on survey evidence to demonstrate that the descendants of forced migrants value material goods less and have higher educational hopes for their children.

The research design in Becker et al. (2020) hinges on the assumption that forced and voluntary migrants were comparable with respect to language, culture, and human capital prior to migration. This is true to some extent: forced and voluntary migrants were all Polish citizens and predominantly Roman Catholic. At the same time, voluntary migrants were a select group attracted to economic opportunities in the west.  In 1945, the Central Committee for Resettlement used slogans like the following: “Peasants! You no longer have to emigrate [from Poland]. You want bread – in the West there is bread. You want land – in the West there is land. Let’s harvest the sown fields to fill our barns and granaries.” Many landless peasants took advantage of a prepaid trip to the west in order to acquire private land. Historian Tomasz Blusiewicz investigates the motives of the first pioneers, drawing on their diaries, memoirs and correspondence. For the “landless and poor” moving west represented material advancement, so it is possible that voluntary migrants started out with lower human capital than forced migrants.

Becker et al. are cognizant of these challenges and conduct several robustness checks. Ideally, one would compare human capital and other characteristics of forced and voluntary migrants in western Poland in the 1940s, but such data do not exist. Instead, the authors show that literacy rates in the regions from which forced and voluntary migrants originated were comparable before WWII. They also demonstrate that the descendants of voluntary migrants are on average more educated than the population in their counties of origin or the descendants of the native population in formerly German territories.

The authors’ conclusion, that three generations later both voluntary and forced migrants are more educated than the native population, suggests migration can increase long-run human capital. Qualitative accounts from first-generation migrants also emphasize the unprecedented social mobility and material advancement in Western Poland. As Helena Wróblewska, forced migrants from the territory that is now in Belarus, recalled in a memoir, “People were worth their weight in gold. Everyone was hired wherever they wanted.”[3]

Greater incentives to invest in education in the aftermath of displacement were observed in research on refugees in West Germany. In a 2013 article, Bauer, Braun and Kvasnicka find that children of German refugees acquired more human capital than the children of the native population, likely due to the loss of family wealth, businesses, and farms. In a different study, Sebastian Braun and Michael Kvasnicka find that the influx of refugees accelerated transition away from agriculture and increased output per worker. The refugees had lower costs of switching from one job to another, so they were more responsive to differences in economic opportunities across sectors and localities than the native population.

It is important to note that the refugees in post-war Germany and Poland had little agency in deciding whether to move and where to settle, and the extent of wartime destruction and the resulting housing availability determined how many refugees were assigned to specific localities. Strict restrictions on geographic mobility were initially in place, reducing concerns that refugees sorted into more economically developed areas. These features make forced migration in post-war Europe a fascinating empirical case for social scientists.

Distribution of refugees and expellees in West Germany in 1950.

Did the influx of impoverished migrants erode the German welfare state? In 1952, Germany passed the Equalization of Burdens Law (Lastenausgleich), which imposed a 50% federal tax on property and business assets to support to compensate the refugees and other German citizens for the loss of their property and to finance loans that would facilitate economic integration. Fears of expellee radicalization thus facilitated redistribution on a massive scale.

Arnaud Chevalier and coathors examine local taxes and spending in cities affected by the influx of German expellees. To get around concerns about refugees sorting into more generous municipalities, they use a difference-in-differences approach and instrument refugee share with distance to the districts from which Germans were expelled. They find municipal governments responded to this migration shock with selective and persistent tax raises as well as shifts in spending. They also find that in 2000s Germans who live in cities that received more refugees support a stronger role of the state in alleviating financial insecurity in case of unemployment, sickness, or old age.

This finding is particularly intriguing in light of the evidence that high rates of immigration reduce natives’ support for lower taxes and spending. Why do we see expanded welfare provision in Germany? No, not due to the increase in national solidarity in the aftermath of the war and expulsions. A survey in the US zone of Baden-Württemberg indicates that just 49% of the indigenous population saw the expellees as German citizens in 1946.[4] Irrespective of where they came from, the refugees were scolded as Russians, Poles, Gypsies, or other undesirables. It seems that the decisive factor was that migrants could vote and exerted considerable influence on local politics. As citizens, they also had access to social welfare. Chevalier et al. show that both taxes and welfare spending were higher in cities where the expellee party (The Block of Expellees and Dispossessed Persons, BHE) won more support and where other parties nominated refugees as candidates.

To be sure, refugee integration in both Poland and Germany was far from smooth. The assignment of refugees to rural areas, where more housing was available but jobs were scarce, may have been particularly detrimental to their economic integration. Analysis of the German Microcensus indicates that a quarter century after displacement refugees still had lower incomes and greater unemployment rates than the natives (one exception is agricultural workers, who register higher incomes after transition to non-agricultural employment). Anil Menon shows in a working paper that tensions with natives contributed to the emergence of a strong refugee identity and that the radical right won more votes in communities that had received higher refugee inflows.

Still, the biggest takeaway from this research is that under the right conditions, mass migration – whether forced or voluntary – benefits for the host society in the long run. The refugees in postwar Europe differ from the current asylum seekers, who originate predominately from war-torn countries in the Middle East. These contemporary migrants are not seen as co-ethnics and do not acquire citizenship upon arrival. Accordingly, they face greater social, political, linguistic and religious barriers to assimilation. On the other hand, European states are in a much better position to accommodate refugees today than they were in the aftermath of the destructive war. At the very least, the experience of displacement by millions of Europeans should make them more empathetic to the struggles of other asylum seekers. And indeed, new research by Elias Dinas, Vasiliki Fouka and Alan Schläpfer suggests that remembering one’s forcibly displaced ancestors makes Europeans more sympathetic to the plight of other refugees.

[1] Andreas Kossert. 2008. Kalte Heimat: Die Geschichte der deutschen Vertriebenen nach 1945. Munich: Siedler Verlag.

[2] Connor, Ian D. 1986. “The Bavarian Government and the Refugee Problem 1945-50.” European History Quarterly 16: 131-53.

[3] Isanski, Jakub. 2017. “Pamiętnik Heleny Wróblewskiej, mieszkanki Ziem Zachodnich.” Rocznik Ziem Zachodnich 1: 573-95.

[4] Merritt, Anna J. and Richard L. Merritt, eds. 1970. Public Opinion in Occupied Germany. The OMGUS Surveys, 1945-1949. London, Urbana, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, p. 20.


  • Volha Charnysh

    Charnysh is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She studies political attitudes and behavior in culturally diverse societies using micro-level historical data. She is particularly interested in the legacies of displacement, repression, and genocide. Her regional focus is Europe and Eurasia. She is currently working on a book about the enduring political and economic consequences of one of the largest episodes of forced migration in history: post-WWII population transfers in Central and Eastern Europe. Her work has been published or is forthcoming at the American Political Science Review, Comparative Political Studies, British Journal of Political Science, and European Journal of International Relations. Charnysh received a PhD in Government from Harvard University in 2017.

4 thoughts on “A look back at the forgotten refugee crisis in Europe

  1. The maps in this post are fascinating. A fellow who worked at my former company’s German branch once hosted me at his home in Fulda, and introduced me to his parents, who had been relocated from the Sudetenland. Sure enough, Fulda’s part of Hesse shows up light blue.

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