Too often the history of warfare ends with an armistice and peace treaty. Ben Shepherd continues the story of World War II into the early 1950s. His The Long Road Home is about the millions of individuals of all ages and nationalities who were forced to live for years after the war in German Displaced Persons camps.
There is no certainty of the numbers; estimates range from eleven to twenty million. DPs included “guest” workers brought to Germany to work on farms and in factories to help solve a severe labor shortage during the war. Some had volunteered; most guest workers were conscripted. Displaced Persons also included prisoners of war – British, American, and millions of Russian soldiers. The numbers of Russian POWs had been thinned by starvation.
Add to that the millions Volksdeutschen living outside the 1939 borders of the Reich that fled the advancing Russian army in 1944. They left territories lost to the new Poland, the Sudeten lands of Czechoslovakia, the Volga region, and East Prussia.
Despite the destruction of millions of European Jewry, a remnant had somehow survived the concentration camps. Others had spent the war in hiding or joined partisan groups. The largest population was the Jews who had left eastern Poland in advance of the German army in 1941. After the war they had returned from Russia to their homes in Poland, only to confront a virulent Polish anti-Semitism, and exited yet again, this time to the British and American occupation zones. In 1947 there were more Jews in Displaced Person camps than there had been in 1945.
The British, confident of their ultimate victory, began planning for the relief of central Europe in the winter of 1942. Despite this early planning, Ben Shepherd’s The Long Road Home contends that very little went right. Hence ad hoc arrangements dominated post-war relief and rehabilitation.
Initially the Soviet Union was part of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA.) But disagreements soon developed over how to treat Displaced Persons who did not wish to return to their homes. Many Balts – Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians – had become Soviet citizens after the Russian occupation in 1939. They were strongly anti-Soviet. The same was often true of Poles from the eastern regions handed over to the Ukraine in the Potsdam Agreement.
Then there were those Russian prisoners of war so badly treated by the Germans. Sheppard points out that after Russia’s defeat of Finland in 1940, Russian soldiers returned by Finland were often executed upon arrival in Russia. A good number of Ukrainians had actually served in the German Wehrmacht and SS; their return meant Siberia or execution.
Sheppard suggests an interesting idea. The origin of the Cold War that would cloud east-west relations after the war is often traced to a memo written by George Kennan, an American diplomat stationed in Moscow. Or alternatively to Winston Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech in Missouri in 1947. Sheppard sees the split with the Soviet Union as having originated in these mounting differences over the DPs.
In the early months after the war the military and then civilians who administered the camps looked the other way when these Displaced Persons took their fury out on the Germans. Tit for tat! But by 1947 Britain and the U.S. were beginning to understand that central Europe was not recovering and that German recovery was essential to that process. The lawlessness was brought under control, and the U.S. began to think beyond relief to recovery. Then too, we were beginning to look around for Cold-War allies. Hence the European Recovery Program or the Marshall Plan.
What to do about the Displaced Persons who could not, would not, return to their original homes for whatever reason? Initially the U.S. was no help. We had passed immigration laws in the 1920s with strict quotas that limited our willingness to take refugees from the Displaced Persons camps. They were not often in the best shape physically and mentally. Ultimately we did our share, admitting 400,000 and later granting entry another 55,000 to Volksdeutschen.
I haven’t begun to capture the excellence of this book. Those readers who enjoy military history and particularly the history of World War II should by all means read this ‘final chapter’ of that war.