by Sean Eedy
In the current climate surrounding the refugee crisis in Europe, the European Union is struggling not only with the relocation of these refugees, but also with feeding and housing these refugees and who should pay for it all. At the moment, Germany seems to be the preferred destination of the majority of these refugees and, given the relative economic strength of Germany in Europe and their leading position in EU affairs and institutions, this may perhaps be the most tenable situation. Germany has a system in place to resettle these refugees across the state in proportion to the ability of each Laend to sustain them, but this will become taxing on even the strongest economy and requires the aid of supranational institutions and NGOs. This migrant crisis and the accompanying stresses on German infrastructure have since sparked resurgence in Neo-Nazi activity even before the November 2015 attacks in Paris and Beirut.
However, following the Second World War, Germans themselves were the refugees both in their own country as millions of Reichsdeutsche (Germans from the Reich proper) resettled in Eastern Europe by conquering Wehrmacht and the Volksdeutsch (ethnic Germans) who had lived in Eastern Europe for generations were forcibly relocated within the shrunken borders of divided Germany. As German refugees filled the concentration camps once occupied by racial and political enemies of the Nazi state and the war-time Allies were unable to maintain supply levels to defeated and occupied Germany, thousands of these refugees found their way to Canada. Then, as now, these refugees were met with hostility by ultra conservative elements that drew little or no distinction between the refugees themselves and the Nazi party members and Wehrmacht soldiers whose legacy those refugees fled. Even when Bundeswehr units arrived in Canada for military exercises at the invitation of the Canadian Armed Forces in 1965, protestors returned to the tropes of Nazism calling the soldiers a threat to world peace as these “jack boots” are “our enemies behind their high wall planning…their third war on civilization.” Not only did these statements blame potential innocents for the actions of others, but they also conflated East and West Germans, painting all Germans as opponents in the continuing Cold War.
Initially settling in Winnipeg and Montreal, these refugees, according to German Studies scholar Matthias Zimmer, had the clearest notion of what it meant to be German having lived through the worst parts of recent German history. At the same time, immigration was an opportunity to escape the problematic nature of German identity in postwar Europe. Large numbers of these immigrants found themselves joining local Diaspora groups when faced with a Canadian culture that proved openly hostile to the continuation of their German identifications. These organizations fostered immigration and the preservation of German cultural heritage while promoting the Canadianization of its membership and the support of Canadian charitable organizations.
In correspondence and newsletters from the late 1940s, these Diaspora community organizations reported on the activities of the Canadian Society for German Relief, a charitable organization incorporated by the nationally based German-Canadian Society and based out of Kitchener, Ontario. This organization engaged with the narrative of German victimization and privation as a result of the recent war in Europe while conscious of the associations drawn between German refugees both in Europe and Canada and their perceived attachments to Nazism and participation in that same war. Superficially at least, the Canadian Society for German Relief effaced the involvement of these Diaspora organizations in order to avoid the criticisms leveled against these refugees as being enemies of the Canadian people only a few years earlier. This national charity supplied orphanages in Hamburg and Cologne with shoes, clothing, and essential foodstuffs to make up for the shortcomings of Allied occupation policy and distribution networks. By 1949, the provided aid and resources allowed Germans in the newly founded western Federal Republic to open new children’s and nursing care beds and facilities to make up for those lost to the Soviet Zone of Occupation (SBZ), later the German Democratic Republic, and Soviet war reparation policies. As it was understood that the eastern areas of Germany were still much worse off than the rest of Europe due to both war and the subsequent Soviet occupation, the Canadian relief organizations purchased quantities of Caritas food parcels for distribution to families with children living in cities in the SBZ.
This is, of course, part of a larger conversation and historical trends. Given the recent memory of the Second World War, it was difficult, if not impossible, for Allied governments to justify supplying occupied Germany with resources equal to those at home. Although humanitarian concerns would appear to outweigh politics, this is not always the reality and often Diaspora groups contribute more aid than NGOs and foreign governments are themselves able. As such, aid provided by the Canadian Society and other Diaspora groups helped rebuild German infrastructure, providing otherwise unavailable assistance to those groups who could not or would not have access to Allied supply networks or the expanding Black Market.
Targeting children as victims of Nazism in their efforts, these relief organizations and Diaspora groups juxtaposed German victimization against the perceived correlation between German refugees and Nazism. This was part of the organization’s larger goals of rehabilitating German identity both in Europe and in those Diaspora communities. The charter of the German Benevolent Society of Montreal strongly suggested Canadian citizenship for those members who attained permanent residency status in order to properly represent Canadian society within the German speaking community. The Society’s participation with aid programs both inside and out of Canada played to and adopted Canadian and broader western liberal democratic notions of humanitarianism. This made the Society’s German heritage inconspicuous through acceptance of western and Canadian ideals, transforming its membership base from Germans or even from hyphenated Germans to full Canadian identification. Similarly, aid programs sponsored by these Diaspora groups were not intended to help those Germans perceived to be former enemies fo those same western humanitarian beliefs. Rather, they addressed the needs of that group of Germans most obviously victimized not only by the Nazi regime, but by war more generally.
This does not suggest that the current refugee crisis will somehow fix itself or that Syrian or Eastern European Diaspora groups will or even should step up to cover the mounting costs involved. While there is historical precedent for Diaspora groups to sometimes provide more aid than international NGOs or governments, this should not be expected in this or any similar situation. What this should provide, however, is a reminder that refugees are not the villains here. This should not need to be said, but somehow still does. German refugees were not the Nazi party members responsible for the atrocities of the Second World War. Refugees now are not the soldiers from the conflict in Syria or the extremists conducting acts of global terrorism. German refugees helped rebuild their homeland after the fighting stopped and at a time when the Allied occupiers could not justify additional aid. This is something the global community needs to remember. We need to remember that these refugees, now as then, are victims and need our help and our compassion. These attitudes of hate and isolationism only prove how close the memories of Nazism, genocide, and the Holocaust remain and how the attitudes of German fasicsm linger despite western society’s claims and pretensions toward civility and civilization. Not only is this true of the recent resurgence of Neo-Nazi activity in Germany, but among many of the more vocal elements of the western societies that fought against those attitudes. Western civilization needs to remember before returning to one of the darkest times in human history as a “justified” response to the threat of terror.
Sean Eedy is a Phd Candidate in the Department of History at Carleton University.