World War I Refugees | Facing History & Ourselves

People without Papers

Learn about the refugee crisis that developed in the immediate aftermath of World War I.  
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At the end of World War I, the intense nationalism that had helped cause the war led a number of countries to force out ethnic minorities in order to achieve “ethnic purity” among their remaining inhabitants. (The members of an ethnic group share a cultural heritage, often associated with the place of its members’ birth or descent.) Such countries did this even though they had signed a treaty that guaranteed those minorities equal rights. For instance, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Turks that resided in Greece were forced by the Greek government to move to Turkey, while the Turkish government expelled hundreds of thousands of ethnic Greeks to Greece. In all, the two countries exchanged 1.5 million people. An additional 280,000 were similarly traded between Greece and Bulgaria. Nevertheless, those countries, like almost every other nation, still had large minority populations. And as empires crumbled and new nations were forming, many who were uprooted by the war or expelled from the country in which they had lived were left without a government willing to take them in. Almost everyone was painfully aware that the war had displaced millions of other people who were now essentially “stateless” and in desperate need of a place to live. Dorothy Thompson, an American journalist at the time, observed:

Since the end of [the Great War] some four million people have been compelled by political pressure to leave their homes. A whole nation of people, although they come from many nations, wanders the world, homeless except for refuges which may at any moment prove to be temporary. They are men and women who often have no passports; who, if they have money, cannot command it; who, though they have skills, are not allowed to use them. This migration—unprecedented in modern times, set loose by the World War and the revolutions in its wake—includes people of every race and every social class, every trade and every profession. 1

Where could these refugees settle? Their choices were limited, and even as they searched for new homes, their numbers rose sharply. Russia, which was in turmoil in the first few years after the war, is a good example of the problem.

Between 1917 and 1921, more than 2,000 pogroms (organized acts of violence, in this case against Jews) took place in Russia and neighboring countries in eastern Europe. As a result, more than 75,000 Jews were killed, even more were injured, and about half a million were desperate to find another place to live. Other minorities were in similar danger. In 1922, a commission on repatriation reported on a train that left Soviet territory and headed for Poland with 1,948 refugees on board, most of whom had been forced to leave their homes in Poland because of battles fought nearby during World War I and the subsequent war between Poland and Russia. Due to the wars, the border between Russia and Poland had shifted back and forth, and these Poles had ended up on Russia’s side of the line. When their train arrived in Poland, only 649 people had survived the trip. The rest died of “exhaustion, privation, and infectious diseases.” Historian Michael Marrus writes of that journey:

This train had come all the way from Kazan on the Volga, a distance of over 1,700 kilometers; the repatriates had traveled at a snail’s pace for three months, eating little but the scraps of black bread given to them by the Soviets. The dead were simply left unburied, thrown out at stations along the way. This description matches many others by travelers to the Soviet Union [at the time]. Trainloads of refugees crisscrossed the vast spaces of Russia, carrying starving fugitives from town to town, spreading malaria, cholera, and typhus from one end of the Soviet state to the other.  2

By 1921 the drama in Russia was reaching a climax. The civil war ended with the Communist-led Red Army’s victory over the White Army, which wanted to restore the monarchy. As a result, many White Russians fled the country, adding to the refugee crisis. That same year, Russia experienced a famine that killed 5 million people. Many of the survivors also left the country. Their plight was complicated when Lenin deprived them and all other Russian emigrants of citizenship. About 800,000 people suddenly found themselves stateless at a time when official papers mattered greatly.

Before the First World War, it was possible to travel almost anywhere in the world without a passport, visa, or other official papers. But wartime anxieties had led nations to enact laws requiring passports and other official documents that confirmed a person’s citizenship and his or her right to travel abroad. Those laws remained in effect long after the conflict ended, mainly because the fears that had prompted those laws remained long after the danger had passed. As a result, refugees needed papers. A representative of the International Red Cross, Edouard August Frick, came up with the idea of issuing an identity card that could serve as a passport. Frick called it the “Nansen passport” after Fridtjof Nansen, a Norwegian diplomat who led several humanitarian missions after the war to famine-stricken nations, including Russia. The idea took hold, and the new passports were issued by the League of Nations and recognized by more than 50 countries.

Many benefited from Nansen passports, but the refugee problem persisted. On August 17, 1920, the New York Times reported:

Leon Kaimaky [a commissioner of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) and] publisher of the Jewish Daily News of this city, returned recently from Europe, where he went, together with Jacob Massel, to bring about the reunion of Jewish families who were separated by the war. Mr. Kaimaky had been abroad since last February. . . . 3

In an article in the Jewish Daily News describing conditions in eastern Europe, Kaimaky declared that “if there were in existence a ship that could hold 3,000,000 human beings, the 3,000,000 Jews of Poland would board it and escape to America.”

Connection Questions

  1. Why do wars often create refugees? What factors during World War I led to so many people becoming refugees?
  2. What are the benefits of being a citizen of a country? What might be the consequences of being “stateless”?
  3. What are a nation’s responsibilities to “stateless” people? How can refugees become part of a nation’s universe of obligation?
  • 1Dorothy Thompson, Refugees: Anarchy or Organization? (New York: Random House, 1939), 1.
  • 2Michael R. Marrus, The Unwanted: European Refugees from the First World War Through the Cold War (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2002), 58.
  • 3“Plight of Poland's Jews Is Described,” New York Times, August 17, 1920.

How to Cite This Reading

Facing History & Ourselves, "People without Papers," last updated August 2, 2016.



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