All wars uproot populations and displace those whose homes have become battlefields. World War II in Europe saw the deliberate deportation of native populations from their homes, as the Nazis made room for Germans to settle the good lands occupied, until that point, by the 'inferior' races of Poles, Slavs, Balts, Russians, and so on. Most of these evacuated peoples were put into camps or used as slave labour, but many, escaping the clutches of the Germans, lived desperately as outlaws or resistance fighters in the forests and marshes.
As the Germans began to be thrust back to their original borders, the liberated peoples found themselves in no better a situation, for the liberating Red Army was as brutal as the Nazis had been, raping, looting and burning their way towards Berlin. Those who could flee from the path of the Soviet advance did so, mingling in vast armies that sought safety, shelter, food and protection, and sometimes taking these by force from less mobile victims of war.
The people from the eastern European countries who had been removed from their homes found, as the war drew to its close, that they had no homes to return to, either because these had been destroyed, or because they were in the hands of the Soviets. These displaced peoples usually tried to head west, where the Allies were advancing, in hopes of being fed and sheltered. Too often they were seized by the Red Army, but those who did escape to Allied-held Europe found themselves put in displaced persons camps.
At first these camps were refuges, but as the war was ending the Allies, including Russia, began to consider how to deal with the millions of homeless people on their hands. At various political conferences, such as Yalta, where Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt met to jockey for post-war advantage, these displaced populations were used as bargaining chips. The western governments were not eager to assume responsibility, and it seemed useful and fair to agree to Stalin's demand that native populations be returned to their countries. After the war ended these people were, by and large, returned, and for those from countries now held by the Russians, return could mean death.
The Germans who had taken over captured land in the invaded countries fled from the advancing Russian army, along with those, originally from Germany, who had emigrated decades earlier to these countries. However, there was no place in Germany for them to return, and the dangers of the war zone prevented many of them from reaching their erstwhile native soil. As the western Allies drew ever nearer to the Red Army, these displaced Germans fled west away from the Russians, who usually slaughtered or enslaved them, towards the American, British and other Allied forces. By the end of the war the Allies had to deal with a huge German population that was both the enemy and totally dependent. Many organisations assisted in the repatriation of the Germans. Those returned to the Soviet-held part of Germany were placed precisely the position from which they had feared.
The liberation by the Allies of prisoner of war camps on German soil meant the return home of thousands of American, British and other POWs, but it also meant the release of hundreds of thousands of Russian soldiers. Many of these Russian POWs had been forced to serve as slave labour or even as soldiers for the Germans, and they were not eager to be repatriated to Russia, for they knew what lay in store for them.
Stalin considered any Russian who had been captured, let alone any who had worked for the German army, to be traitors. Almost all of the Russian soldiers repatriated by the western Allies were sent to gulags in Siberia or shot. Even when the Allies (particularly the British) knew that repatriation meant death, they continued to return Russian POWs to Soviet hands, because it was more important to appease Stalin than to avoid atrocities.
The fate of the Cossacks, in particular, is a special shame on the Allied honour. The Cossacks were longstanding enemies of the Soviets. When war came, they fought with the Nazis against the Red Army, on the grounds that one's enemy's enemy is one's friend. At the end of the war the Russians demanded that all Cossack prisoners of war be turned over to them. Despite the fact that the British (who were in control of most of the Cossack POW camps) knew this would mean the slaughter of the Cossacks, they did hand them over, and the Cossacks were massacred.
The general problem of displaced persons lasted until the early 1950s. The western Allies organised many relief efforts, such as those by the Red Cross and the Society of Friends (Quakers). One of the first acts of the young United Nations was to set up UNRRA: United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency.
This was largely funded by the United States, and provided food, medical attention, shelter, psychological support, and the resettling of many hundreds of thousands of refugees, including finding new homes for the thousands of orphans in their care.
Countries which had, before the war, restricted their immigration (for instance, Canada took in a scant 5000 of the Jews who escaped Germany in the 1930s) now opened their hearts a little wider. Argentina took a disproportionate number, to its credit. The flood of displaced persons, after the passing of the Displaced Persons Act in 1948, was the last European influx the United States was to experience. The next time it received desperate thousands, it was as a result of troubles (Cuba, Viet Nam) of its own making.
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