The Long Road Home: The Aftermath of the Second World War

  • Ben Shephard
  • Alfred A. Knopf
  • 496 pp.

A fascinating look at the postwar diaspora in which millions of displaced persons were resettled.

Reviewed by Richard Breitman

In May 1945, millions of citizens of many countries ended up unwillingly amidst the ruins of Nazi Germany or on the move toward Germany. Some were forced laborers, some POWs, some survivors of concentration camps; some were collaborators with the Germans, some refugees from the east. Many from Eastern Europe had little desire to return to the Soviet Union or to new Eastern European governments now under heavy Soviet influence. The experiences of Jews who survived the Holocaust or who fled from Eastern Europe diverged from the ordeals of all others in the magnitude of horrors they had witnessed and escaped. Were they to be treated separately as Jews or lumped together with others from their countries of origin?  When setting up displaced persons (DP) camps in occupied Germany, Allied authorities had to decide how to treat this disparate lot.

In The Long Road Home: The Aftermath of the Second World War, British author and filmmaker Ben Shephard vividly describes an overshadowed chapter in the history of World War II.  Drawing on diaries, letters, memoirs, speeches, interviews and records of government agencies and non-governmental organizations, Shephard recreates the history of temporary care, repatriation, and resettlement of DPs based in Germany. The project began in its planning stage as early as 1940, when the Allies had only a hope of victory; the process did not end until the early 1950s.  In recounting this history, Shephard manages to integrate the experiences of major military and political figures with that of ordinary residents of the camps, deftly weaving quotations from his sources into his narrative.

In his introduction, Shephard accurately identifies numerous obstacles to a study of DPs after World War II. The historian has to know the recent history of, and political divisions within, many nations and nationalities. The Allies themselves had conflicting priorities and divergent attitudes toward DPs as the Cold War developed. The subject of displaced persons also blends gradually into the broader history of Europe and refugee/immigration policies of countries outside Europe after World War II and is difficult to manage as a separate topic. Finally, even though the experiences of the displaced involved human tragedies and hard-won personal successes, most of the available sources come from agencies or individuals who dealt with DP policies and problems and therefore underplay the personal experiences of DPs.

Shephard has nonetheless produced a highly readable, solid study. After a chapter on Nazi use of foreign laborers, Shephard traces the inadequacy of Western relief during the occupation of Germany. Despite wartime advance planning, American and British officials lacked understanding of the scope of the task. Political authorities lacked interest in relief relative to  other political and military problems. When more than two million liberated displaced persons materialized in Germany within weeks after the war in Europe ended, at a time when Allied authorities were still focused on security, the result was chaos. Poor conditions inside the camps — shortages of food and medicine — reflected the ravaged condition of Europe as a whole. Furthermore, leadership problems and administrative weaknesses within the military and the relief and refuge organizations compounded resource constraints within Allied countries. Still, Shephard portrays plenty of dedicated and idealistic officials, relief workers and DP representatives who dealt constructively with massive problems under difficult and confusing circumstances.

The Long Road Home integrates so much so well that it is easy to overlook problems. The bulk of Shephard’s archival research seems to come from British sources and reflects British perspectives, which have some biases, especially in cases of conflict with U.S. officials. He also relies on a selection of secondary sources for a wide range of less than central issues. Some of his trusted secondary sources are controversial. Peter Novick, who has argued that the concept “Holocaust” was a later construction, brought about partly by American Jews in search of a historical-political identity, is one. Other descriptions and judgments, such as the short account of the case of John Demjanjuk, a guard at the Sobibor extermination camp, are badly off.

In general, postwar activities of Nazi collaborators are underplayed — and oddly selective.  Nor does Shephard deal much with the positive and negative roles of the Red Cross or the International Tracing Service. Some descriptions of American political culture will not withstand close scrutiny. For example, despite Harry Truman’s crucial support for the establishment of the state of Israel, Shephard quotes one intemperate Truman diary entry about the selfishness of Jews — and then suggests that Truman was a “country-club anti-Semite.”

On the other hand, Shephard neatly connects DP problems with Allied problems in Germany —   particularly how to handle those Germans and ethnic Germans expelled from east-central Europe, who were not considered DPs. He presents a very nuanced treatment of Britain’s shift from economic warfare against Germany to new perspectives based on humanitarian sentiments and Cold War politics. Britain, however, fought against a shift of policy regarding Palestine and the movement of Jewish DPs to Palestine as a solution; the United States quietly supported emigration to Palestine, and did so more openly after a compromise proposed by an Anglo-American Committee on Inquiry. The committee recommended the division of Palestine into Jewish and Arab components and the immigration of 150,000 Jews. British rejection of this compromise ultimately doomed the British mandate in Palestine.

By 1951, more than one million DPs had left their homeland for settlement in different parts of the world. Most went on to productive lives, but their experiences marked them indelibly.Agate Nesaulem, a Latvian whose father was a Lutheran minister, ended up in America but missed the community of people with shared experiences she found in DP camps. Rachel and Marcus Berger entered a DP camp in Germany after escaping from pogroms in postwar Poland; they later emigrated to America. Marcus ended up with an unpleasant job and a never-ending hope of finding relatives lost in the Holocaust. Their son, however, became a reporter for the New York Times and wrote a memoir about growing up in America after the Holocaust. Individual stories like these, some heartening, some not, fill out the last portion of Ben Shephard’s fine book.

Richard Breitman, professor of history at American University, has written about modern Germany, the Holocaust and American refugee policy. He is currently working on a book about Franklin Roosevelt and the Jews.


BUY THE BOOK from Politics & Prose



comments powered by Disqus