In War’s Wake: Europe’s Displaced Persons in the Postwar Order

Sheila Fitzpatrick writes:

‘The magnitude of the problem is such as to cause the heart to sink,’ a member of the Fabian Society wrote in 1943, contemplating the hordes of uprooted people who would need resettlement when the Second World War was over. The International Labour Organisation estimated that 30 million had been ‘transplanted or torn from their homes’ since the beginning of the war. When it ended the Allies found themselves coping with eight million displaced persons (DPs) in Germany alone. Their handling of the problem, together with the two UN relief organisations, UNRRA and its successor, the IRO, has to be accounted a great administrative success, despite the discovery at war’s end that a substantial minority of the DPs did not want to go home. Six to seven million were repatriated anyway, willingly or unwillingly, to their countries of prewar residence in Eastern Europe, including the Soviet Union, before the year was out. The large-scale epidemics that had been feared were avoided, as was mass starvation. The refugees’ material situation, once they were registered as DPs, was significantly better than that of the surrounding German population. The ‘last million’ DPs, who’d spent up to five years in DP camps throughout Germany, Austria and Italy, were finally dispatched out of Europe to new homes in distant places: North America, Latin America, Australia and Mandate Palestine.

(LRB 11 April 2013)