After the German surrender in May 1945, World War II ended in Europe. Its most immediate legacies were death, devastation, and misery. The scale and speed of the conflict had been unprecedented: the war ended up killing at least 19 million non-combatant civilians in Europe.1 Of those, 6 million were Jews, a full two-thirds of the pre-war Jewish population of Europe. For all those who remained, Jews and non-Jews, the end of the war did not bring an end to their problems. Historian Doris Bergen explains:

The arrival of allied forces and the collapse of Nazi Germany were not miracles that could undo or even stop the spirals of violence and misery unleashed by years of brutality . . . Whether they had been victims, perpetrators, or bystanders in Nazi barbarity—and many Europeans had reason to count themselves in more than one of those categories—people faced the challenge of building lives for themselves and what was left of their families and communities with scarce resources and restricted freedom, and in a climate of distrust and grief.2

The victorious Allies were faced with difficult decisions. How would they treat Germany and other defeated Axis powers? What would they do about the millions of people displaced by the war who were now homeless and often starving? Would it be possible to rebuild peace and stability in Europe? In August 1945, the Allies issued a communiqué that said:

It is not the intention of the Allies to destroy or enslave the German people. It is the intention of the Allies that the German people be given the opportunity to prepare for the eventual reconstruction of their life on a democratic and peaceful basis. If their own efforts are steadily directed to this end, it will be possible for them in due course to take their place among the free and peaceful people of the world.3

The Allies were determined to destroy what remained of the Nazi Party and to hold its leaders accountable for their crimes (see Chapter 10, Judgment and Justice). Germany would be disarmed, its boundaries redrawn, and the country divided into four “zones of occupation.” Each zone would be governed by one of the Allied powers: the United States, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. At meetings between Allied leaders in 1945, they expressed a desire to restore democracy in Germany.4 But the work of reconstruction in Europe would only become more complicated as the democratic western Allies and the communist Soviet Union competed for influence on the continent and their rivalries later hardened into what became known as the Cold War.

As the Allies made their plans, more than 10 million Europeans were on the move. Doris Bergen writes, “World War II sparked the movement of the largest number of people in the shortest period of time that the world had ever known. Refugees, fugitives, displaced persons, deportees, and expellees jammed the roadways and waterways of Europe and spilled over into Central Asia and the Americas.”5

As soon as the war ended, the Allies tried to send all of those displaced persons (DPs) home as quickly as possible. Each of the Allied nations took responsibility for displaced persons in their own sector of Germany. Until transportation became available, they set up emergency centers to provide food, shelter, and medical care for the refugees. The project was extraordinarily successful: millions of people were home within weeks of the war’s end. Yet despite the Allies’ efforts, about 1.5 million DPs were still in emergency centers six months after the war. 

How the Allies treated DPs depended on the DPs’ nationalities. Displaced persons from Allied nations received better treatment than those from Germany, Hungary, and other Axis nations. To many officials at the time, that policy seemed fair. To many Jews and other victims of the Nazis, it did not. It meant, for example, that German Jews recently liberated from concentration camps were treated as enemy aliens, not as survivors of an atrocity.

In February 1946, former American First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited displaced-persons camps in Germany. In her weekly newspaper column, she described some of what she saw:

There is a feeling of desperation and sorrow in this camp which seems beyond expression. An old woman knelt on the ground, grasping my knees. I lifted her up, but could not speak. What could one say at the end of a life which had brought her such complete despair? 6

You can measure the extent of damage done to cities, you can restore water supplies, gas and electricity, and you can rebuild the buildings needed to establish a military government. But how to gauge what has happened to human beings—that is incalculable.7

These survivors often had already lost during the war years not only their homes and belongings but also much of what gave them their identity—their families, their physical appearance, their liberties, and their hopes. Displaced-persons camps were overcrowded and heavily guarded. Some were located in what had been Nazi concentration camps. Allied soldiers who managed DP camps were often bewildered or angered by the way Jewish survivors acted. Why did they sometimes fight for a loaf of bread or hoard food even when plenty was available? Why did some refuse to take showers or undergo de-lousing when other DPs did so without a fuss? The soldiers did not understand what was different about the Jewish DPs and how these survivors had been shaped by their experiences in Nazi camps. After hearing reports of poor camp conditions, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Allied military commander in Germany, agreed to create separate camps for Jewish DPs and to let Jewish relief agencies enter the camps so that they could work directly with survivors.

Many Jewish survivors tried to return to their pre-war homes and found that they were not welcome. Historian Tony Judt writes,

After years of anti-Semitic propaganda, local populations everywhere were not only disposed to blame ‘Jews’ in the abstract for their own suffering but were distinctly sorry to see the return of men and women whose jobs, possessions and apartments they had purloined. In the 4th arrondissement of Paris, on April 19, 1945, hundreds of people demonstrated in protest when a returning Jewish deportee tried to claim his (occupied) apartment. Before it was dispersed, the demonstration degenerated into a near-riot, the crowd screaming [France for the French!].8

The difficulty, even danger, of staying in Europe convinced many Jewish survivors to emigrate abroad. When they were able to obtain visas, they went to the United States, Latin America, South Africa, and to Jewish communities in Palestine. (The state of Israel was not established until 1948.)

The millions of displaced people within Europe also included Germans who had been settlers in lands conquered by the Third Reich during the war. As Nazi Germany claimed “Lebensraum,” these settlers had taken over homes, land, and possessions from local people (see reading, Colonizing Poland in Chapter 8). After the war, millions of German settlers were forcibly, even violently, expelled and sent back to Germany. Other ethnic Germans, whose families had lived in border regions like the Sudetenland for generations, also fled or were expelled. Allied opinion was divided about these expulsions. Joseph Stalin of the USSR saw them as a form of justice for Germany’s crimes. Some British and American leaders were worried by the violence and the hardship caused by the expulsions, but they also feared that pent-up anger would lead to even greater violence against the settlers if they were not sent back to Germany. Leaders like Winston Churchill believed that the “mixture of populations” could cause “endless trouble.”9 Eventually, the German populations in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Yugoslavia had been expelled and returned to occupied Germany.

Citations

  • 1 : Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (New York: Penguin Press, 2005), 18.
  • 2 : Doris L. Bergen, War and Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), 224.
  • 3 : “Joint Report with Allied Leaders on the Potsdam Conference” (August 2, 1945), Harry S. Truman Library & Museum, accessed June 1, 2016.
  • 4 : “Berlin Potsdam Conference, 1945,” American Experience: Truman (PBS website), accessed July 11, 2016.
  • 5 : Doris L. Bergen, War and Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), 224.
  • 6 : Eleanor Roosevelt, “February 16, 1946,” My Day, The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers digital edition, George Washington University, accessed June 1, 2016.
  • 7 : Eleanor Roosevelt, “February 18, 1946,” My Day, The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers digital edition, George Washington University, accessed June 1, 2016.
  • 8 : Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (New York: Penguin Press, 2005), 804–05.
  • 9Parliamentary Debates, Commons, 5th ser., vol. 406, col. 1483–4 (December 15, 1944), quoted in R. M. Douglas, Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012), 85.

Connection Questions

  1. What were some of the challenges facing the Allies at the end of World War II? What were some of the challenges faced by Jews and other survivors? What were some challenges facing Germans who had been defeated?
  2. Who is responsible for refugees after a war?
  3. What did Jewish survivors experience in the DP camps? Why was it important for authorities to recognize how these survivors’ experiences differed from those of other people who had been displaced during the war?
  4. What do you think about the expulsions of Germans from other European countries after the war? Were these expulsions a way of punishing Germans? A violation of rights? A necessary safety measure?

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