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.
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.”
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.
Another enormous problem was that many refugees, especially those from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, had no desire to be repatriated because they feared – often with good reason – the consequences once they arrived. And at least some of them preferred death to repatriation: “Americans,” notes Shephard, “found it incomprehensible when Soviet refugees targeted for extradition bit each other’s jugular veins rather than submit to repatriation.” Before long, “forced repatriation" was ended – something that exacerbated tensions between the Soviet Union (which wanted all its “citizens” returned immediately) and the West and prolonged the refugee crisis. As late as 1947, there were still more than a million people in the camps.
A central theme running through the story is the Holocaust. While a refugee crisis was expected, the allies were genuinely unprepared for the industrialized genocide they discovered at the concentration camps. The relatively small number of Jews who survived the camps always had far more complex health and psychological needs than other refugees and the question of resettling them was much more intractable. After much debate and controversy, many would immigrate to Israel. However, Shephard makes clear that their treatment – in the camps, in transit to their new home, and after arrival in Israel – left much to be desired.
Shephard tells the story of this complex and often overlooked aspect of the post-World War II era clearly and effectively. His research is exhaustive and draws equally on official documents and personal accounts such as memoirs and oral histories. The result is a compelling volume that combines the experiences of those who organized and provided the relief efforts and those who received them. This is a complex story, but Sheppard tells it thoroughly and effectively.
Readers will be alternatively amazed, horrified, shocked and, occasionally, inspired.
Given the enormity of the postwar refugee problem, one question that remains is why this important episode is so little recognized or discussed today. The answer is two-fold. First, issues from the immediate postwar period fall into a small space between two of the major tectonic plates of the 20th century: World War II and the Cold War. And second, over time, as the horror and magnitude of the Holocaust grew in public consciousness, attention to the refugee crisis receded from memory. Thanks to Sheppard’s important and valuable book, this important chapter of recent history will now receive more attention and analysis.
Terry Hartle is senior vice president of government relations for the American Council on Education.