Reviewed by: David Stafford
Author: Ben Shephard
Publisher: Bodley Head
Price (RRP): £25
The Second World War’s most urgent legacy in Europe was a massive refugee crisis. When the armies returned home there remained over a million people in Germany, Austria and Italy who had no desire to return home. These were the ‘displaced persons,’ or DPs, and what to do with them proved a major headache for the victor powers.
For the individuals concerned it was often a nightmare. Additionally, there were several million refugee Germans who either fled westwards ahead of the advancing Red Army or were expelled from their homelands in Poland and Czechoslovakia in probably the largest officially sanctioned ethnic cleansing campaign in history. Some of this had been anticipated by Allied wartime planners, who prepared for the DPs – many of them slave labourers deported to Germany by the Nazis – by creating the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA). Its story, how it grappled with the aftermath of the war, and what this meant for the DPs and the refugees, forms the core of Ben Shephard’s fascinating book.
The answer to the DP problem seemed at first sight simple: house them in temporary camps, feed and look after them, and then quickly send them home. For many of them, mostly from countries such as France, Belgium and Holland, this is exactly what happened. But what of the Poles, Ukrainians, Balts and others whose countries had fallen under communist rule? Some were eager to return, but most were not. Forcible repatriation was briefly tried but quickly abandoned. So they were stranded in the camps for months, even years.
Compounding the problem was the fate of the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. It took considerable time for UNRRA and the military authorities to grasp the full horror of what they had experienced and accept them as a separate category requiring special care. Particularly traumatised, and with no home of any sort to return to, they provided fertile ground for Zionism. Here Shephard skilfully weaves the story into that of the other armies of DPs as an integral part of the aftermath of war. For many of the Jews, the ‘long road home’ was to lead to Palestine. Why, and how, is richly told.
UNRRA itself was an often dysfunctional bureaucratic behemoth, and the author tells its story, along with that of its leading personalities, with a deft touch. Its first head, Herbert Lehman, came from the now recently collapsed Lehman Brothers investment bank, and was a protégé of President Roosevelt. Later, he was succeeded by the mercurial Mayor of New York city, Fiorello La Guardia, also a political appointee. Most of the agency’s front-line workers were industrious idealists but were often managed by mediocrities. They all struggled to relate to the military authorities on whom they were heavily dependent. In the end, the agency was replaced by the International Refugee Organisation (IRO) and the DPs, now pawns in the wider Cold War, were taken in as immigrants by countries such as Canada, the United States, and Britain.
Shephard enlivens his story with the sometimes tragic and always moving stories of individuals who experienced the camps and made new lives in distant, strange, and sometimes unwelcoming homelands. It might all appear like an old story now. But problems of resettlement and compensation remain, and what to do with refugees and the homeless is as live a question now as then. This is a timely reminder of how the world grappled with the problem a mere two generations ago.
Dr David Stafford is the author of Ten Days to D-Day (Little Brown, 2003) and Endgame 1945: Victory, Retribution, Liberation (Abacus, 2008)