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The Long Road Home: The Aftermath of the Second World War

What became of 15 million displaced citizens at the end of World War II?

By Terry Hartle / March 10, 2011

The Long Road Home: The Aftermath of the Second World War By Ben Shephard Knopf Doubleday 512 pp.

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Long before World War II ended, Allied planners were deeply worried about the millions of European refugees or “displaced persons” who had been forced from their homes during the long conflict. The central concern was that a large number of homeless individuals might create a humanitarian nightmare, as had happened at the end of the World War I.

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Surprisingly, most histories of World War II and its aftermath devote little attention to this issue that consumed so much energy and attention at the time. Given that oversight, British historian Ben Shepard’s new book, The Long Road Home: The Aftermath of the Second World War, provides a welcome and much needed analysis of the refugee crisis in post-war Europe.

To cope with the expected challenge, the Allies had created the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) more than two years before the war ended. The goal was to mobilize teams of health care and social workers to provide needed services and to repatriate the refugees as quickly as possible. But recognizing the challenge and getting a timely start did not create a smoothly functioning organization. To the contrary, in almost every way, UNRRA was woefully unprepared for the task at hand when it was pressed into service. One aid worker summed up the situation by writing, “UNRRA (You Never Really Rehabilitate Anyone) is failing lamentably.”

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The problems are almost too numerous to mention: too few staff and poor training, little organizational leadership, shortages of essential supplies, ineffective field operations, inadequate finances and a reluctance by Allied governments to contribute to international undertakings with a humanitarian purpose (a problem that is still with us), a politically inexperienced director with anti-Semitic leanings, and a lack of discipline and security that created a thriving black market. After reading Sheppard’s description of UNRRA’s shortcomings, one is amazed that it ever accomplished anything.

Somewhat ironically, the most feared problem – a public health crisis – never occurred. It was largely avoided by a step that will shock today’s readers: refugees were liberally dusted with DDT, which proved to be an effective germ killer. Its impact on the long-term health of those treated is unknown but it can’t have been good.

There were plenty of unexpected problems. Food proved much scarcer than anticipated, a problem exacerbated by “the sheer hoggery of the American military.” To prevent the refugees from starving, the British government courageously imposed bread rationing on its civilians – something that had not been necessary during the war.

The biggest challenge however was that there were far more refuges than anticipated. Shephard estimates that roughly 15 million individuals needed to be resettled. They were a very diverse group – Poles, Latvians, Balts, Ukranians, Yugoslavs, Jewish concentration camp survivors, slave workers who had been forced to work in the Third Reich, and hundreds of thousands of Germans who had been expelled from conquered lands.

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