In 1936, the Nazi state created a massive military training site near Wildflecken, a tiny community in rural Bavaria. During the war, this base housed an industrial facility that drew forced laborers from all over conquered Europe. At war’s end, the base became Europe’s largest Displaced Persons camp, housing thousands of Polish refugees and German civilians fleeing Eastern Europe. As the Cold War intensified, the US Army occupied the base, removed the remaining refugees, and stayed until 1994. Strangers in the Wild Place tells the story of these tumultuous years through the eyes of these very different groups, who were forced to find ways to live together and form a functional society out of the ruins of Hitler’s Reich.
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About the Author
Adam R. Seipp is Associate Professor of History at Texas A&M University and author of The Ordeal of Peace: Demobilization and the Urban Experience in Britain and Germany, 1917-1921.
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Strangers in the Wild Place
Refugees, Americans, and a German Town, 1945â"1952
By Adam R. Seipp
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2013 Adam R. Seipp
All rights reserved.
The Wild Place, 1933–1945
On a summer day in 1937, a hunter pauses at the edge of a meadow halfway up to the summit of the Löserhag and looks behind him into the valley of the Sinn River. Yellow and blue flowers dapple the clearing in the bright sun. A few feet away, a narrow footpath plunges into the gloomy darkness of the great beech forests of the Franconian Rhön. The hunter looks down the slope to the valley floor toward the village of Wildflecken. With its tidy red roofs, the town of a few hundred souls nests in between two ranges of hills along a single railroad track that connects it to the world beyond.
But the hunter's home is changing as he watches. He can see the red brick bridge over the Brückenau road and the new square in the middle of town. Across the valley and up a hill, hundreds of workers put the last touches on rows of squat, narrow buildings. Soon there would be horses in the newly built stables and hundreds, then thousands, of soldiers living in the barracks. A new street connects the town and the base, paved with heavy white stones to accommodate the vast bulk of military vehicles that will soon rumble through the valley. Turning to the west, our hunter shakes his head when he sees farmhouses and villages sitting abandoned in neat clearings a few kilometers away. A year ago, those villages had been his neighbors. Then the German state ordered them abandoned to build the new troop training facility. As he shoulders his rifle and walks into the woods, he wonders to himself what all of this change will mean for his family and his town. Perhaps he suspects that Germany is on the road to another war, but he cannot know what that struggle will mean for this quiet valley.
Like so many places in Europe, the titanic conflicts of the 1940s transformed Wildflecken and the Sinn Valley. This rural area typified many of the ruptures and upheavals experienced across defeated Germany during and following the Third Reich. In the wake of the war, four groups lived in close proximity in and around the town. Local residents, DPs and the UNRRAfield workers sent to supervise them, American troops, and ethnic German refugees created a dense network of associations, compromises, and conflicts in the postwar period. Each group was a product of the war, its status determined or changed by the preparation for, initial successes of, and ultimate catastrophic failure of Hitler's war of conquest and racial imperialism in Europe.
This chapter will consider the paths that each of these groups followed to Wildflecken. In each case, the history and geography of the region played decisive roles in shaping the demography and the fate of the town and its people. Wildflecken spent much of its history in isolation and obscurity, tendencies that perversely helped to project it into the arena of international politics during the early Cold War. Its local history is not unlike thousands of other communities in rural Central Europe, for whom the tides of war and the boundary changes that followed meant new masters, new populations, and a precarious existence as border communities. If we are to understand the transformation of Wildflecken, we have to examine the history of the place itself, its role in the German war machine of the 1930s and 40s, events taking place in war-torn Central and Eastern Europe, and the politics of the victorious wartime alliance. While the history of Wildflecken is the history of a very small place, there is no question that this tiny community played an important part in the wider history of Germany, Europe, and the world.
The "unweaving" of multiethnic Europe reached its terrible zenith in dark years of the 1940s. In the shatter zone of Central and East Central Europe, Nazi and Soviet population policy, coupled with the violence of the war, produced an enormous wave of refugees, probably totaling about thirty million individuals. The experience of displacement, whether by act of war or state policy, was one of the central narratives of postwar period in Europe. However, accounts of forced population removal have tended to privilege the power of the state and to draw broad and undifferentiated groups of victims. Local history allows us todisaggregate categories of refugees, locals, and occupation troops and to move beyond contemporary legal categories to examine the interaction between refugee groups and between refugees and other participants in Germany's postwar history.
The postwar refugee crisis in Germany was a primarily a rural one, in that smaller communities that suffered less wartime damage were best able to accommodate vast numbers of the dispossessed. Three characteristics of Wildflecken and its war contributed to the dramatic transformation of the town and its people: its strategic location near the boundary of the American and Soviet occupation zones, the relative lack of wartime damage, and its role in the Nazi forced labor program.
Wildflecken is located in an isolated corner of the Bavarian district of Lower Franconia (Unterfranken). Lower Franconia is culturally very distinct from the other two districts that comprise Franconia (Franken), Upper and Middle Franconia. Franconia as a whole is dominated by Protestants, while Lower Franconia was, and remains, largely Catholic. In 1934, Catholics made up eighty-one percent of a population of about 800,000. Lower Franconia was also considerably less industrialized than its neighbors, particularly the large urban conglomeration around Nürnberg in Middle Franconia. The district capital at Würzburg was the only significant population center, with a population of around 100,000. Schweinfurt and Aschaffenburg were both about half that size. Nearly fifty-four percent of the population worked either in agriculture or forestry, about eight percent higher than the figure for Bavaria as a whole. In the north, Lower Franconia's land rises into the hills of the Rhön and Spessart. While lovely, these hills were unproductive country for agriculture and housed pockets of intransigent and desperate rural poverty well into the twentieth century.
The Rhön region around Wildflecken has been isolated and remote for much of its history. Despite various government-sponsored development plans during the first half of the twentieth century, life in the area remained difficult and the population largely impoverished. A few miles to the north lies the border between Bavaria and the neighboring German state of Hesse. To the northeast, visible from the heights of the Kreuzberg, is Thuringia and the pre-1990 border between East and West Germany. This region has long been a border zone, dating back to the rabbit warren of competing polities during the time of the Holy Roman Empire. The town and surrounding communities date from the early sixteenth century, when farmers from the Archbishopric of Würzburg settled the hilly frontier region near the boundary with the Prince-Bishop of Fulda. They did not secure permission to build these settlements, and early maps noted their presence with the descriptor "ein Wilder Flecken" or "unauthorized settlement." From its early history, the community was tied to its more famous neighbors Bad Brückenau and Bad Kissingen, both of which benefitted from their mineral baths and emerged as resort destinations in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Wildflecken's immediate neighbors were other tiny farm towns like Reussendorf, Dalherda, and Werberg. A lovely pilgrimage church sat in the middle of this nexus of towns, and narrow paths connected them between the fields and dense woods. In the seventeenth century, the Franciscans built an impressive monastery on the nearby Kreuzberg with spectacular views of the surrounding countryside.
Life in Wildflecken and neighboring towns proved difficult for the descendants of the first settlers. The weather in the Rhön is legendarily bad. In 1952, as the events described in this book threatened to displace these communities, a valedictory article in a nearby newspaper described local towns "frequently wrapped in weeklong fog. The first snows frequently fall before the harvest. Winter imposes its own strict discipline. Nevertheless, and perhaps because of it, the people of the Rhön love their Heimat." Somewhat more prosaically, several generations of German soldiers have passed along the doggerel "Lieber den Arsch voller Zecken als ein Tag in Wildflecken," which favorably compares the experience of ticks biting one's most sensitive areas to spending time in the Rhön. The area had few roads, terrible soil, and most farmers tried to scratch what they could from fields cut from deep forests that yielded little but more generations of poverty.
The nineteenth century changed the geopolitical order in Wildflecken. At the end of the Napoleonic Wars, many of the diffuse political entities in Franconia passed to Bavaria. Wildflecken now lay near the border between the Wittelsbach domains and Ducal Saxony. The consolidation of the Prusso-German Empire later in the century temporarily ended Wildflecken's long history as a border town. After 1871, it lay at the center of the German Reich. As the spa towns nearby prospered, the farm communities of the Sinn Valley declined. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Wildflecken had fewer than five hundred inhabitants. Werberg was slightly more than half as large, but its population declined by thirty percent in the decades before the Second World War. Most of those who left Werberg moved to urban centers in Germany, but thirty Werberger made their way to the United States. Part of the problem lay in the system of land tenancy in Lower Franconia, which was dominated by very small landholdings further reduced by a tradition of partible inheritance. In the early 1930s, almost twenty-five percent of farms in the region totaled five acres or less, more than double the Bavarian average. As a result, local farmers had a great deal of trouble competing with producers from outside the area.
Tourism brought a few non-locals to the region. A train line connected the town with Brückenau, now the administrative seat of the local rural county (Landkreis). This single track allowed a few hardy nature-enthusiasts to travel up the Sinn Valley. In winter, some came to ski in the rugged country around the Dammersfeld. Later this line brought a generation of soldiers and refugees into the Sinntal. Wildflecken merited a small mention in an 1883 Baedeker's handbook to southern Germany, which suggested that visitors hire a local guide to take them up to the monastery on the Kreuzberg.
The politics of this region reflected its religious and economic circumstances. Lower Franconian politics were dominated by the Bavarian People's Party (BVP), a center-right Catholic party with a tenacious hold on voters during the political turbulence of Weimar Germany. Until the two elections of 1932, the BVP polled around fifty percent of Lower Franconian votes in every election. While the electoral power of BVP was inescapable, it was also notable that the second most important group of voters came from the political left. Beginning in 1919, the Communists and Social Democrats taken as a block won the second highest number of votes across the district. The best numbers for the Communists came from the urban areas and from the desperately poor countryside of the Rhön and Spessart. Even in the relatively stable years at the end of the 1920s, when the republic's shifting politics produced something resembling a workable government, the Left did very well in northern Lower Franconia. In the state parliamentary elections in May 1928, the Communists won 5.3 percent of the vote in Landkreis Brückenau, the highest of any county in the district and well above the average in Bavaria (3.8 percent). Between them, the Communists and the Social Democrats consistently captured about twenty percent of the vote in the Rhön. The BVP was still the dominant party in the area, but the Rhön region clearly produced significant numbers of deeply disaffected voters who found Communism attractive. This electoral constellation was important for several reasons. First, both the region's political Catholicism and its support for the Left proved to be a significant impediment to the growth of new parties like the Nazis. Second, many rural voters who abandoned Communism during the Nazi period returned to it after the war, presenting a challenge to American and West German plans for the region. Finally, Catholicism later helped to bridge some of the divides between locals, foreign workers from Eastern Europe, and Catholic ethnic German expellees.
Nazism developed along very different lines in Lower Franconia than in the rest of the Franconian region. If Protestant Franconia was one of the great success stories of the party, Nazism faced an uphill battle in Lower Franconia. This was due in large part to the party's poor organization in the area, the durability of older political allegiances, and skepticism about particular aspects of the Nazi program. The local party boss (Gauleiter) and later district leader (Regierungspräsident) was Otto Hellmuth, a dentist from the Würzburg. Hellmuth was thirty-three when he became Gauleiter in 1928. He cut an eccentric figure as the face of Nazism in the district. He despised the Catholic Church, which put him at odds with much of the population. He famously named his daughter Gailana after the pagan princess responsible for the martyrdom of St. Kilian, the seventh-century "Apostle to the Franconians." Hellmuth was abrasive, pushy, and had trouble hiding his disdain for the religion of his constituents. He was also notably lazy and had little patience for the day-to-day operations of either the party or the district. Hellmuth initially did little to inspire confidence in his party bosses, one of whom suggested that the district had "one of the poorest organizations in the country." Hellmuth ascribed his misfortunes to the continued presence of church power. He described Lower Franconia, using the color associated with Catholic politics, as "the blackest district in Germany."
In the Bavarian parliamentary elections in 1928, the NSDAP received less than four percent of the vote and 1.7 percent in the county around Wildflecken. Even this does not accurately reflect the totality of Nazi electoral misfortune, since at least some of the voters in the county were vacationers from other parts of Germany where Nazi votes were stronger. Across the district, the party was disorganized and morale was low. In 1929, the party began a campaign to send speakers to rural areas to give speeches like "The Young Plan and the Farm Crisis." The scheme, and Nazi propaganda more generally, failed for four reasons. Nazi agrarian thinking focused on mid-sized family farms of ten to one hundred acres (Erbhofen), an ideal that clashed with the tiny and frequently divided agricultural properties of Lower Franconia. Second, there were simply not enough Nazis to run the campaign. Of 113 registered party speakers in Bavaria, only four lived in Lower Franconia. Third, the continued strength of the Communists in rural areas limited the Nazi appeal. Finally, the church mobilized against Nazism in the area. In September 1930, a Capuchin friar named Benedict Johannes told his rural congregation near Schweinfurt that the church would deny sacraments to members of the party. The resulting furor eventually brought in Munich's Cardinal Michael Faulhaber, who worked out a compromise. The party only began to make real inroads in the early 1930s after the failure of several agricultural banks and the deepening depression. One of the few subjects that did arouse popular passions, the Jewish issue, demonstrates some of the tensions at play in the district and its rural communities.
Excerpted from Strangers in the Wild Place by Adam R. Seipp. Copyright © 2013 Adam R. Seipp. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents
1. The Wild Place, 1933-1945
2. The Seigneurs of Wildflecken, 1945-1947
3. Keeping Refugees Occupied, 1945-1948
4. These People, 1947-1949
5. A Victory for Democracy, 1949-1952
What People are Saying About This
"This well-researched and well-documented... book will contribute to the growing literature of the refugee crisis throughout postwar Europe and the variety of populations gathered on Allied occupied German territory, and thereby forcefully challenge the myth that the conspicuous and anxiety-provoking presence of 'non-Germans' is a new 'problem' for Germany.... It demonstrates clearly... that it was the presence of foreign east European DPs as well as American occupiers that served to push the integration of ethnic German refugees into the young Federal Republic and to reconstitute in the wake of a catastrophic war a new and highly functional Volksgemeinschaft."