The Last Million by David Nasaw
At the end of World War II, Europe lay in ashes, cities and infrastructure wrecked, countries occupied by foreign armies and provisional governments. The populations were homeless and starving, and there was also a flood of human wreckage, millions of refugees far from home. Even with the end of fighting, there was a vast humanitarian crisis.
During the war, large numbers of people were displaced voluntarily or involuntarily. Some were in fighting forces or followed fighting forces through advance and retreat. Others fled the fighting as it ebbed and flowed. And many were taken prisoner or conscripted as slave labor, moved far from home. And, of course, millions were consigned to death camps.
At the end of hostilities, the occupying armies found themselves in charge of these millions. Millions were returned home, when possible. POWs and many citizens were returned to their countries, though not all wished to return to the post war regimes in the East.
As post war politics set in, populations continued to move. Ethnic Germans were booted out of Poland and other neighboring countries. Many Poles and others fled West as Communist regimes took hold.
Jews liberated from the camps and ghettos were in desperate condition. They also would not and could not be asked to return to the countries that killed so many. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were in Germany, but they surely could not live there permanently.
It was a huge, unholy mess.
The occupying British and American armies established camps for these millions of DPs, offering safety and care. But this could not be a permanent solution. The DPs had to go somewhere.
“The Last Million” is the story of the struggles to resettle these people, especially the difficulty resettling the last, hardest cases. It’s a messy story, the beginning of the Cold War politics, and perennial American and British xenophobia and racism.
One of the big problems is that not all DPs had the same story. The Jews were there because they had been rescued from the Holocaust, and had nowhere else to go. Thousands of Poles, and others from Russian occupied areas did not want to return to the communist states. In many cases, these DPs had collaborated with the Germans, and rightly feared punishment if they returned to communist countries. And, indeed, there were war criminals among the easterners, especially the Balts, Ukrainians, and returned ethnic Germans.
The initial policy of segregating by pre-war nationality had the horrible effect of forcing Jews to live in camps dominated by people who persecuted and murdered them during the war. In any case, the traumatized and shattered Jewish DPs needed special care to even survive. So separate camps for and run by Jews were established.
But these camps in the middle of a wasted Germany could not be kept for long. The DPs had to be settled somewhere.
Looking at it from today, it seems remarkable that these problems were resolved in a relatively few years. These days we leave entire populations in camps for decades, generations, and routinely deny and evade responsibility for the consequences of our wars. Hell, we use refugees as political pawns and weapons of war.
But the post war solution wasn’t easy or pretty.
Some DPs were imported to be essentially slave labor in the UK, Canada, Australia, and other places. Many of the pro-Nazi groups, including war criminals, were allowed into the US, UK, and elsewhere—while Jewish DPs languished in camps.
In America, ugly bigotry rose. Attempts to help Jewish survivors were blocked in Congress, and pro-Jewish lobbying was attacked as “anti-Christian discrimination”. Jews were slandered as communist agents, while actual Nazi war criminals skated free as “reliably anti-communist”. And so on.
Worst of all, the situation in the 40s and 50s set the standard, such as it is, for today’s treatments refugees.
“It is near impossible to overemphasize the degree to which the IRO and the recruiting nations, in stressing utilitarian and political over humanitarian rationale, paved the path the developed world would follow when confronted by similar refugee crises in the second half of the twentieth and the first quarter of the twenty-first centuries.” (p. 358)
Soon enough, the big power politics evolved to the Cold War. DPs from the East harbored dreams of returning to liberate their homes from the hated Russians became soldiers and pawns in the new great game. The CIA recruited and exploited DPs, often overlooking wartime collaboration or worse.
And then there was Israel….
With hundreds of thousands of Jews stuck in DP camps and no country willing to take them in, pressure grew to emigrate to Palestine. For Jewish DPs, a new state of their own was the only hope for safety, let alone self-determination or a good life. For the US, Palestine became a convenient solution to empty the camps and get the DPs off our hands.
But the UK held the mandate in Palestine, and was already in a multi-sided war with the Arabs and Jews there. They blocked immigration and turned back Jewish migrants, even in defiance of the US. It was a nasty business all the way around.
Soon enough, though, the (bankrupt) UK walked away, leaving toothless UN supervision, open warfare, and mass migration from European DP camps (financed and organized with a lot of help form US Jews) to the newly declared state of Israel. The rest is history, and the fires of this conflict are still burning today. Israel is a safe home for Jews who have come from everywhere. But the cost has been and continues to be awful. The pain has never ended, it has just shifted around.
It is very important for people to understand this pivotal time in history, which still reverberates today.
I admit that I had hoped that this period might offer ideas for how to deal with today’s mass migrations. Of course, it did not. The US and the world hasn’t really changed, even after 70 some years and a lot of water under the bridge. If anything, it has become a worse place for refugees and victims of war.
- David Nasaw, The Last Million: Europe’s Displaced Persons fro World War to Cold War, New York, Penguin Press, 2020.
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