CS: Ethnic Cleansing and East European History

Timothy Olin's picture

The wars of the Yugoslav succession brought the term “ethnic cleansing” into popular use, as newspaper and television accounts of massacres suggested both unprecedented violence and timeless motives. Whereas “genocide” is a term of international law with entirely negative connotations, “ethnic cleansing” is used by cleansers themselves, and is sometimes taken to convey a positive outcome. The term “ethnic cleansing” dates back at least to the Second World War. The thing is at least as old as the First World War, and perhaps older. Perhaps the Yugoslavia of the 1990s was not so exceptional? Perhaps recent events suggest a deeper pattern?

This course treats ethnic cleansing as a central part of the history of twentieth-century Eastern Europe. To do so, it must treat a few events which are not conventionally seen as part of East European history. The course begins with the First World War, which brought the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Armenians in Turkey, and ended with forced population exchanges of Greeks and Turks. These events, important in and of themselves, also set precedents, which were recalled during and after the Second World War. The course will also introduce the Ukrainian famine and the Soviet deportations of the 1930s. These too, besides their intrinsic importance, were a link between the First and Second World Wars, and prefigured what would happen when Soviet power came west in 1939 and 1944.

Soviet policy appears to have been influenced by contact with Nazi Germany. This is one of many reasons a course on East European ethnic cleansing must consider the Final Solution. The Holocaust was far more than an ethnic cleansing, since it was designed to exterminate an entire people rather than remove a certain population from a certain territory. Nevertheless, it was preceded by other projects, which look far more like ethnic cleansing: the deportation of populations to make Lebensraum for Germans. The Final Solution itself was largely implemented in Eastern Europe, before the eyes (and sometimes with the help) of East Europeans. In certain cases, the Holocaust was integrally connected to ethnic cleansings during and after the war.

One of these episodes was the cleansing of Poles from Volhynia and Galicia (today western Ukraine) in 1943 and 1944. This was the purification of a large swath of territory by a partisan army backed by no state. The course treats those events, as well as the cleansing of Ukrainians within Poland that followed. These were organized by communist states. The course’s final wartime subject is the expulsion of millions of Germans from Czechoslovakia and Poland, which contributed to the creation of European national states familiar to us. This was a pan-European project endorsed by the Western Allies, the Soviet Union, and leading East European politicians. With all this in mind, we shall return to contemporary Yugoslavia in the final week of class.