Tracing the postwar impact of displaced persons
World War II has now been studied from almost every conceivable angle. Books about the conflict could fill several libraries, and the last decade alone has seen much fine work on the war’s origins, the rise of the Third Reich, the Holocaust, D-Day, and the death throes of the Nazi and Japanese regimes. But what happened after the shooting stopped?
In “The Long Road Home,’’ Ben Shephard looks at what followed the peace. The subtitle of his book is a little misleading — it should be “The Aftermath of the Second World War in Europe.’’ If the Allies were justly relieved when V-E Day was proclaimed in May 1945, they confronted a series of crises. Much of Europe was reduced to rubble, and the continent’s economy lay in tatters. Millions of refugees — among them Jews, Poles, Slavs, and Balts — who survived German concentration and slave labor camps were desperate for food and medical attention. “Half the nationalities of Europe are on the march,’’ observed one journalist.
The transformation of Europe’s wreckage did much to shape the world we live in now, Shephard writes: “The state of Israel, the transformation of US immigration policy, the ending of the homogenous Anglo-Saxon societies of Britain, Canada, and Australia, and the creation of a new framework of international law, under which individuals as well as nations have rights, are all legacies of this time.’’
Well before victory, the Allies began grappling with the logistics of humanitarian aid. As US and British forces fought their way up the Italian peninsula, they ministered to civilian populations. In 1943, the United Nations, with American backing, founded the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. It got off to a rough start. Critics derided it as a talking shop (there was some merit to the charge), and the military viewed the organization with suspicion, if not contempt. The majority of Shephard’s account concerns the fate of “displaced persons’’ (DPs) — “the central defining construct of postwar aid.’’ (As Shephard reminds us, the extent of the Holocaust had not been fully uncovered in 1945; the Allies had only a dim sense about the Nazi genocide, and based their mission on “the model of displacement.’’)
What unfolded from 1945-1950 was intensely political, caught up in Cold War intrigue and the founding of the state of Israel. Shephard covers the period with care, though his book can be plodding. He quotes numerous aid workers, whose testimony is often shocking in its rawness — one British woman wrote this about the liberated Jews she encountered: “Some were walking skeletons, most had hollow cheeks, and large, black, expressionless eyes, which stared and stared and saw nothing.’’
Most displaced persons were concentrated in Germany, which the Allies had divided into zones. By 1946, there were some 160,000 Jews in the American zone; many did not wish to return to Eastern Europe, and Truman pressed the British to allow some 100,000 Jews into Palestine, where thousands immigrated, often illegally.
As Shephard shows, the DP issue had global implications and not only in the Near East. Many non-Jewish displaced persons — Poles, Balts, Ukrainians, some of whom had collaborated with Germany — were reluctant to return to communist-dominated Eastern Europe. They made their way to jobs in Belgium and Great Britain; others journeyed as far as Australia. The United States was a popular choice, but anti-immigrant sentiment delayed the arrival of significant numbers of DPs. In the end, the United States took some 380,000 of them.
In “The Long Road Home,’’ Ben Shephard tells a vastly complicated story with tact and an attention to detail. Victory in Europe was hard won, but it was only the beginning.
Matthew Price, a regular contributor to the Globe, can be reached at email@example.com.