The Legacy of Nazi Occupation: Patriotic Memory and National Recovery in Western Europe, 1945-1965

By Pieter Lagrou | Go to book overview

4
Displaced populations

At the end of the Second World War in Europe, the most difficult and urgent challenge facing the Allies was not material damage, but the human distress caused by the colossal mass migrations during seven years of warfare. More than eleven million Europeans were caught up in the territory of the former Third Reich, displaced by war and by the Nazi policies of population, labour and persecution. The total number for the entire European continent was some thirty million individuals, including eight million Soviet citizens and twelve million ethnic Germans.1 These migrations were an important factor in the strategic planning of the Allied advance across German territory, initially because this human mass could block the entire German road system. The Allied command decreed a 'standstill' wherever groups or individuals would be liberated by the Allied armies. Spontaneous repatriation, on foot or by any 'borrowed' means of transport, would only add to the chaos in the German transportation network, hinder military operations, spread the risks of epidemics and preclude any systematic sorting of repatriates. Governments of liberated countries were ordered to leave the central organisation of the repatriation operations to the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF). SHAEF in its turn delegated the humanitarian aspects of the 'displaced persons problem' to the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), founded in November 1943.

During the first months, from May to September 1945, progress was spectacular. An average of 33,000 people were repatriated each day from the western occupation zones, with peaks of more than 100,000 per day in late May and early June. Two million Soviet citizens and 1,500,000 French citizens accounted for more than 60 per cent of the displaced persons (DPs) in the western zone, followed by 900,000

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1
See Wolfgang Jacobmeyer, Vom Zwangsarbeiter zum heimatlosen Ausländer. Die Displaced Persons in Westdeutschland, 1945–1951 (Göttingen, 1985), particularly pp. 23–82, and Michael Marrus, The Unwanted. European Refugees in the Twentieth Century (Oxford, 1985), pp. 296–345.

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