Reasons for Not Going Back

Sheila Fitzpatrick

  • In War’s Wake: Europe’s Displaced Persons in the Postwar Order by Gerard Daniel Cohen
    Oxford, 237 pp, £22.50, December 2012, ISBN 978 0 19 539968 4

‘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.

People had various motives for refusing repatriation, reflecting the different situations that had displaced them from their countries of origin. A relatively small cohort of Jewish survivors of the Nazi concentration camps was soon joined by a much larger group of Jewish ‘infiltrees’: refugees from Eastern Europe, the majority former Polish citizens who had survived the war in the Soviet Union, then been repatriated to Poland, but soon fled westward because of the anti-semitism and material privation they found there. No attempt was made to repatriate Jews from Central Europe to their countries of origin: it was acknowledged from the beginning by all the Allies, including the Soviet Union, that some other solution would have to be found. Of a total of about a quarter of a million Jewish DPs, a sizeable group were (or became) Zionists and ended up in Israel, the foundation of which in 1948 was not unconnected with the need to find them a home.

Poles formed the largest DP cohort, numbering about 400,000. The government wanted their nationals back (except for the Jews), but as it became clearer that Poland was going to be a Soviet satellite, the DPs became increasingly unwilling to return. Reports of chaos and poverty at home, compared with the relatively benign conditions in the DP camps, didn’t help. The Baltics presented another problem. These three little states, independent in the interwar years, occupied successively by the Soviet Union and the Reich during the war, were now part of the Soviet Union. The great majority of Baltic DPs were strongly anti-Communist and didn’t recognise the Soviet Union as a patria; many had left voluntarily with or in the wake of the retreating German forces in 1944. Although the Soviet Union regarded the Balts as its citizens, it was prepared to acquiesce in the Allies’ decision in 1945 not to repatriate them. It was a different story with the Ukrainians who found themselves in Germany at the end of the war, some because they’d volunteered or been conscripted for labour in Germany during the war; some because they’d been captured as Red Army soldiers and held as prisoners of war; some because they’d fled from occupied Soviet territory with the retreating Germans. To complicate matters, some of the Ukrainians came from regions that had been part of Poland before the war but were now part of the Soviet Union; others had been Soviet citizens before the war but were eager to conceal the fact for fear of forcible repatriation. The Soviets wanted ‘their’ Ukrainians back; the Poles did not.

Nobody wanted to admit to having been a Soviet citizen before the war, initially out of fear of forced repatriation, and subsequently because ‘Communist’ connections were no recommendation for the selection committees from the United States and other countries which in the late 1940s were deciding the DPs’ future. Relatively few DPs admitted to being Russian, and those who did would generally claim to belong to the post-Revolutionary contingent of Russian émigrés in Prague or Belgrade. We will never know how many former Soviet citizens there were among the DPs because forged identity documents were rife, and nationality was often established simply on the basis of an individual’s own statement. If a Russian or Ukrainian claimed to be Polish, gave a Polish birthplace and could manage a few words in the language (easy for Ukrainians, not too hard even for Russians), how was a harassed IRO official from the Midwest to know the difference?

The Soviet Union was the problem in other ways as well. DPs were initially understood to be people displaced and/or persecuted by the Third Reich in the course of the Nazis’ wartime rampage through Europe. The category specifically excluded German Aussiedler expelled from various East European countries immediately after the war: these constituted a group of refugees in postwar Germany at least as numerous as the ‘victims of Nazi Germany’ under Allied protection. One might have expected that most DPs would want to go home after being liberated, as had been the case with the millions of refugees and prisoners of war looked after by Nansen’s International Office for Refugees after the First World War. In 1918, for a few groups like Russians fleeing the Revolution and Armenians fleeing the Turks, the problem was that their country of origin didn’t want them back and had taken away their citizenship, leaving them stateless. After the Second World War, DPs usually had states that claimed them but the DPs themselves wanted nothing to do with them. Objection to return on the DPs’ part was understood as an objection to Communism, which was generally true enough, though not the whole story, since economic factors were also very much in play: any comparison of living standards was much to the East’s disadvantage. This meant that the DPs were increasingly understood as being ‘victims of Communism’, rather than the ‘victims of Nazism’ they had been at the start.

As Gerard Daniel Cohen persuasively argues, Allied recognition of the DPs’ objections to returning, and the prevailing sense of a profound difference between the ‘democratic’ Allies and the Soviet bloc, were important factors in the development of the Cold War. The forced repatriations of POWs in the early postwar months, marked by anguished protests and suicides, were traumatic for the Allies. The executions and large-scale arrests that followed on the other side of the border, led first the United States and then Britain to desist from mass repatriation to the Soviet Union. A vivid impression of the horror of living in the USSR formed in the minds of the Allies; and Soviet ranting about ‘quislings’ and war criminals in the DP camps refusing to go home out of fear of just punishment did little to dispel it. From the Soviet standpoint, the only DPs who had an acceptable reason to refuse repatriation were Jews and Spanish Republicans: all the rest could safely be assumed to be traitors. The question of the Soviet Union’s unpopularity with its citizens was no doubt more complicated than it appeared to many Western observers at the time. As the Harvard Interview Project on the Soviet Social System (conducted largely among DPs in Germany and former DPs in New York in the early 1950s) showed, many Soviet refugees expressed a fairly high level of approval for Soviet institutions and, on close questioning, explained that their involuntary wartime status as prisoners of war or non-resistant civilians under German occupation had made their future as Soviet citizens unviable. A number of DPs told American interviewers that but for such a black mark, whose dire consequences were clear to any Soviet citizen, they would probably not have wanted to leave. But contemporary observers, however well-intentioned, couldn’t be expected to pick up these nuances. Even Eleanor Roosevelt, a US representative at the UN in 1945, who could scarcely be accused of dyed-in-the-wool anti-Communism, was appalled by the Soviet stance on DPs and repatriation, and sparred repeatedly in the General Assembly with the Soviet representative Andrey Vyshinsky (he’d been the state prosecutor in the Moscow show trials of the late 1930s).

Cohen’s main archival source is the IRO in Paris, which he rather surprisingly claims has ‘never before [been] comprehensively used’ in scholarly studies, along with UN publications and US government documents, and it’s a pity that on many issues the Soviet side remains as opaque to him as it was to Western diplomats and aid officials at the time. His subject is Allied understanding and handling of the DP problem and how it shaped the postwar international order; and perhaps, given the minority status and ineptitude of the Soviets on the international scene at this point, that really is most of the story. Although the case he makes is convincing – negotiations over the DPs probably did set the template for subsequent Cold War confrontations – I wonder whether a parallel and complementary story couldn’t be told, by someone capable of mining Soviet and Polish archives.

When the Soviet Union withdrew from the IRO immediately after its foundation in 1946, essentially because of American dominance of the organisation and its stand against forcible repatriation of DPs, it was a parting of the ways that reflected and exacerbated growing Cold War tensions. ‘Displaced persons’ were originally defined as ‘civilians forcibly uprooted by the war outside of their country of origin’. But as anti-Communism trumped anti-Fascism in Allied thinking about the DPs, this definition gave way to one that was much more politically charged. DPs came to be seen as political refugees whose ‘valid objections’ to repatriation included ‘persecution, or fear based on reasonable grounds of persecution because of race, religion, nationality or political opinion’. With the exception of Jewish refugees, who were not cross-examined on their political attitudes, late applicants for DP status (for example, the contingent coming out of Czechoslovakia in 1948 after the establishment of a Communist government there) needed to demonstrate political motives for flight to gain acceptance: purely economic ones were not enough. On the Allied side, DPs were coming to be seen as a democratic freedom-fighting community whose hatred of Communism was based on first-hand experience, a prototype for the Hungarian freedom fighters of the next decade. On the Soviet side, by contrast, the DPs (except for the Jews and Spanish Republicans) were a bunch of willing collaborators and war criminals, a judgment at least partly shared by many on the international left. The Soviets clashed with the Allies on the interpretation of Latvian or Ukrainian service in the Waffen-SS, the Latvian Legion and the HIWIs (voluntary assistants to the Germans during wartime occupation of Soviet territory). The Soviet Union regarded such activities as ipso facto proof of pro-German and pro-Nazi attitudes, and UNRRA took the same line. The IRO adopted the US position (partly a result of domestic lobbying by Baltic and Ukrainian groups) that these were not automatic grounds for exclusion from DP status.

The evolving politicisation of the DP was manifest in the repeated ‘screenings’ that DPs went through, organised first by the occupation forces and UNRRA and later by the IRO. A rare example of ‘epuration on a supranational scale’, the screenings struck fear into the DPs’ hearts – epithets like ‘American-Gestapo’ circulated in the camps. Initially aimed at expelling war criminals and collaborators, with Balts and Ukrainians under particular scrutiny by Allied military and counter-intelligence, the screening gradually shifted its focus to the matter of whether or not DPs had a ‘democratic’ (anti-Communist) profile; the aim was also to weed out ethnic Germans, economic refugees and ‘high-profile collaborators’. Simon Wiesenthal, a Jewish survivor of the concentration camps and a leading Nazi hunter from the late 1940s on, considered the IRO ‘outrageously lenient’ in its attitude to suspected war criminals. By 1950, as Cohen points out, ‘refugees deemed “impostors” and “security threats” in the days of UNRRA were offered the chance to emigrate to Australia or the North American continent.’

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On human rights, as on the refugee repatriation issue, the Soviets found themselves more and more on the defensive. The aftermath of World War Two saw a remarkable burgeoning of humanitarian concern about rights, enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which included ‘the right of anyone to leave any country’ (Article 13) and ‘the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution’ (Article 14). The DP issue set the parameters of discussion, Cohen argues, starting with what he calls ‘the first human rights resolution ever adopted by the United Nations General Assembly’: the prohibition, in February 1946, of forcible repatriation of DPs. Initially, human rights had been a shared concern of the Western Allies and the Soviet Union; indeed, the Soviet Union saw itself as occupying the moral high ground because of the guarantees in its own 1936 Constitution, while the West was tarred by racial discrimination in the United States and colonialism in Europe. The Cold War changed that. Human rights were increasingly defined in liberal-individualist terms – furthering ‘the rights of man, not the rights of governments’, as Eleanor Roosevelt expressed it. The ‘social rights’ to work and welfare that the Soviets boasted of were not included. The Soviets never quite understood how they had been so wrongfooted on an issue they considered their own; but they continued to be spectacularly outmanoeuvred by the West on this issue throughout the Cold War, up to and beyond the Helsinki Accords of the 1970s.

Cohen argues that the DP question played a large part in the framing of Jewish nationhood. By 1948 a quarter of a million Jewish DPs – 60 per cent of them Polish Jews repatriated from the USSR – had congregated in the American Zone in Germany, since the British wouldn’t accept the new arrivals from Eastern Europe in the areas they controlled. At first, the international and Allied military authorities hadn’t wanted to recognise Jews as a distinct category of DPs, partly because their numbers were small before the arrival of the ‘infiltrees’ and partly because they found that approach repugnant in the light of Nazi racial segregation. The Jewish DPs themselves demanded separate recognition and housing, however, and after the Harrison Report of August 1945, so did the Americans on their behalf. ‘Contrary to the collective invisibility and silence of Holocaust survivors elsewhere in Europe,’ Cohen writes, ‘Jewish DPs loudly asserted their identity in front of military authorities, German civilians, welfare professionals and a cohort of journalists and foreign dignitaries.’ Many Jewish DPs wanted to be resettled in Mandate Palestine, and the Americans were sympathetic to that too, despite British reservations. Even before the foundation of the state of Israel, the IRO had sent six thousand Jewish DPs to Palestine. Operations were temporarily suspended after Israel’s formal establishment in May 1948 because of the Arab-Israeli conflict, but resumed in 1949, when the IRO paid ‘Joint’ (the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee) and the Jewish Agency for Palestine $10 million to move 120,000 Jewish DPs to Palestine. The total number of Jewish DPs under IRO jurisdiction who ultimately settled in Israel was 132,000. ‘Without the visible presence of Holocaust survivors in the DP camps of Germany, Austria and Italy,’ Cohen writes, ‘Jewish statehood may simply never have been achieved.’

The Soviet Union too had supported the creation of the state of Israel, and, along with other Soviet-bloc countries including Poland, firmly defended the Jewish cause at the UN: ‘for the USSR and its first satellites, Jews … constituted a special case among the displaced persons and deserved more than others to be granted international status.’ Cohen calls this ‘a unique brand of anti-Fascist philosemitism’ that paralleled the pro-Jewish policies of the United States in the wake of the Harrison Report. Philosemitism in the international arena co-existed oddly with postwar upsurges of domestic anti-semitism in Poland and the USSR. For both nations, Cohen argues, the Jewish DPs ‘represented a separate nationality: extraneous to ethnicised Soviet and Polish polities yet compassionately presented as a collectivity deserving of national rights elsewhere’.

The fate of the Palestinians, in Cohen’s account, falls under the heading of collateral damage. Formally neutral in the Arab-Israeli conflict, the IRO was criticised for de facto support of the Israeli side and indifference to the fate of Palestinian refugees: in May 1949, the Lebanese representative to the UN charged that ‘by supporting a policy of clearing out a whole area, thereby creating displaced persons in order to settle other persons there, the IRO was partly responsible for the fate of the Arab refugees from Palestine.’ There was some dispute about whether the IRO’s mandate was truly international or essentially European, but the latter view prevailed: its job was purely to clean up the mess left by the Second World War. The IRO officially closed up shop in 1952, after the majority of DPs had been resettled, leaving the West German government to cope with the remnant of the old and sick for whom no placement had been found. Although the IRO gave some humanitarian aid to Palestinian refugees, it never formally categorised the Palestinians as DPs covered by its mandate. So although the Palestinian diaspora later ‘forged its own extraterritorial identity within the confines of United Nations refugee camps’, just as the Jewish DPs had done in 1945-48, ‘what Palestinians did not obtain from the refugee protection system was similar recognition as a non-territorial nation.’ If ‘reterritorialisation of the Jews’ was one of the signal triumphs of the humanitarian refugee regime in postwar Europe, Cohen concludes, it was ‘sadly accompanied by the deterritorialisation of another people’.