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Response to Review no. 725

I am grateful to Alexander Clarkson for his comments on Expelling the Germans and for having the opportunity to respond to them.

Clarkson makes two criticisms, both relating to the concluding paragraphs of the book. The first is that I do not adequately explain the transition from collective minority rights to a concept of individual human rights in the late 1940s; and second, that possible colonial continuities into the 1950s and beyond are not fully explored. Although both of these are points worth examining in their own right, they go well beyond the scope of the book, and I fear that the reviewer has fallen into the trap of criticising the author for not writing the book he would have liked to have seen written.

As I state in my introduction, Expelling the Germans is ‘partly a study of the concept of population transfer, and partly the study of the response to a postwar refugee crisis, taken as a whole it is a study of the relationship between the two’ (p. 9). The structure, content and argumentation of the book, even the publisher’s description, all point to a focus on the period between 1939 and 1947 and on how the British response to a specific postwar development – the German refugee crisis of 1945–46 – was shaped by an ambivalence towards the concept of ‘population transfer’ (the compulsory resettlement of national minorities, organized and regulated by inter-state treaty). Clarkson’s points, however, relate to an entirely different work, one that examines the long-term politico-cultural legacy of population displacement in postwar British public life. That wide-ranging book is still waiting to be written.

Clarkson’s points nevertheless highlight how fruitful this field is and how there is significant scope for further research on the longer-term legacies of postwar European population transfers.

No doubt owing to the 50th anniversary of the UN Universal Declaration, a sizeable body of work has recently been published on the postwar emergence of the doctrine of human rights. Much of the best work has focused on its rather humble and specifically European origins.(1) Historians are in general agreement that implicit in the new human rights doctrine was a rejection of the interwar minority rights regime.(2) Less attention has been paid, however, to the ways in which the notion of minority rights survived into the new era, in however limited a form. A good starting point for further research would be a study of the circumstances surrounding the drafting of the 1950 UN report on the League minority system.(3) The work of the UN Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities during the 1950s and 1960s also offers itself as a possible line of enquiry, though given that this committee managed to avoid discussing minorities for almost the entire first 20 years of its existence it might only provide a case study in inactivity.(4)

Clarkson is also right to point to the colonial connection. Yet there are two problems with this approach. First, it would be hard to determine the impact that direct experience of the postwar displacement in Europe had on the behaviour of British personnel in a colonial context, let alone to establish any causal link between the two. The fact that a British officer witnessed the humanitarian crisis in Germany and then in the colonies is a coincidence before it is of significance. What concrete evidence is there of colonial counter-insurgency operations of the 1950s being informed by the experience of the transfer of Germans from eastern Europe in the same way that planning for the latter was influenced by the Balkan population exchanges of the 1920s? The fact that a journalist, military officer or administrator had been previously stationed in Germany is not necessary of any consequence. Unless, of course, the point is to show up the double-standards, warped mentality and racism of the British colonial mindset whose ‘humanitarianism’ extended to the poor German refugee as a European but not to non-whites when it came to their displacement. But that would hardly be a ground-breaking revelation in itself, nor is it the issue at hand. A more suitable example in any case would be Palestine: a very British dilemma in the immediate postwar years and one that was closely tied up with the European minorities problem.

The second problem in exploring these colonial continuities is that the lumping together of all these coerced population movements under the label ‘population transfer’ generates one big conceptual mess. As far as causation, method and outcome are concerned, what are the parallels between the postwar displacement of Germans, and the colonial counter-insurgency operations that Clarkson loosely calls other ‘formsof population transfer’? Drawing superficial parallels between coerced population movements from widely divergent contexts robs ‘population transfer’ of analytical precision and historical meaning. Mid-20th–century schemes for population transfer were based on a particular set of assumptions about the European minorities problem. ‘Transfer’ was understood to denote a process distinct from other coerced movements of population and differentiated from them by its intended outcomes and its supposedly progressive methods. Surely, the starting point in the colonial context would be to ask if Templer and his advisers themselves conceived of the ‘fortified encampments’ as a ‘population transfer’, if not, why not, and to draw one’s inferences from that rather than working forward from a priori assumption of shared characteristics.

There is ample evidence, however, that the concept of ‘population transfer’ – as understood as a compulsory resettlement of national minorities, organized and regulated by inter-state treaty – did enjoy an afterlife in British official circles well into the postwar era. But, again, we need to return to the European context, and a partly British one, to find it. At the height of the Troubles in 1972, for example, the British Cabinet considered a paper which included the option of repartitioning the Province with large-scale ‘compulsory transfers of population’.(5) At the time, there were also separate calls in parliament from a small minority for a ‘radical solution’ along these lines. None of these suggestions were taken seriously. (Lord Annan, who had served in the Control Commission in Germany in 1945–46, dismissed them as ‘a terribly retrograde move and a reactionary solution’.(6)) The most that can be said about this episode is that having population transfer down as an ‘option’ is always a fairly accurate barometer of bureaucratic frustration and the failure to find a political solution to seemingly intractable inter-ethnic disputes, especially when the issue of partition is at stake. Indeed, when the 30-year rule catches up with the mid-1990s some intrepid journalist or academic researcher will no doubt find passing references penned by some harried and frustrated civil servant about the need for ‘bold solutions’ in the former Yugoslavia and for an internationally-supervised ‘population exchange’. It will prove nothing save that the exception proves the rule: that population transfer remains a mid-century solution to a predominantly mid-century European problem. That is not to say that the results of ethnic unmixing since the late 1940s have not been welcomed by British officials in so far as they have helped create stable mono-ethnic states. But that is confusing ends with means, as Clarkson does when he implies that British officials supported the de facto population exchanges in India in 1947. There is a huge difference between seeing political benefits in the outcome of ethnic unmixing, whether it be in India in 1947 or Bosnia in 1992, and actively engineering and overseeing the process. Since the late 1940s, no British civil servant or ranking politician would seriously have countenanced British involvement in the planning and organisation of a population transfer, however desirable its political outcomes might have seemed at the time.


  1. See the case study on René Cassin and the framing of the UN declaration in J. Winter, Dreams of Peace and Freedom: Utopian Moments in the 20th Century (New Haven, 2006), 99–120. On the European Convention on Human Rights, see T. Buchanan, ‘Human rights, the memory of war and the making of a “European” identity, 1945–75’ [forthcoming].Back to (1)
  2. See M. Mazower, ‘The strange triumph of human rights’, Historical Journal, 47 (2004), 379-98.Back to (2)
  3. See UN Economic and Social Council, Commission on Human Rights, Sixth Session, E/CN.4/367, ‘Study of the legal validity of the undertaking concerning minorities’, 7 April 1950. <Back to (3)
  4. The records of this Sub-Commission are held at the United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG) Archives, together with all the records of the former Commission on Human Rights.Back to (4)
  5. See The National Archives, London, PREM15/1010, Northern Ireland: Contingency Planning, Annex D – Possible Political Solutions, 23 July 1972.Back to (5)
  6. Hansard, HL Deb, 2 February 1972, vol 327, 874.Back to (6)