Cultural Nationalism in Exile: The Case of Polish and Latvian Displaced Persons

By Hilton, Laura | The Historian, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Cultural Nationalism in Exile: The Case of Polish and Latvian Displaced Persons


Hilton, Laura, The Historian


INTRODUCTION

ONE OF THE KEY issues of the immediate postwar period in Europe was the fate of millions of displaced persons (DPs) left in Germany, Austria, and Italy. In May 1945, Allied military officials estimated there were 10-12 million DPs in Germany, 4.25 million of whom were in the U.S. zone. (1) Some had been forced or slave laborers; others were concentration-camp inmates. There were also former POWs and those who had collaborated with the Third Reich, through service in its military or as voluntary civilian labor. The U.S. military, with the assistance of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), swiftly repatriated more than three million DPs from its zone, mostly to Western Europe and the USSR. However, by October of 1945, an estimated 474,000 DPs remained. Two hundred twenty-four thousand of them represented a new challenge, because they had actively claimed nonrepatriable status, which constituted a refusal to return to their countries of origin. Of these, about 100,000 (45 percent) were Polish, 39,000 (17 percent) were Latvian, 28,500 (13 percent) were Lithuanian, and 14,000 (6 percent) were Estonian. (2) Their reasons for refusing repatriation ranged from fears of political or religious persecution to uncertainty about economic stability and outright refutation of Soviet-dominated governments.

Poles and Latvians constituted some two-thirds of the nonrepatriable DPs remaining in the U.S. zone in late 1945. Examining their experiences adds important insights to the emerging scholarship of the postwar period. DPs remain an understudied element of the historical literature of this period. Several recent works on DPs have centered on the experiences of one ethnic group, but they tend to examine it in isolation from the larger DP experience. (3) A second approach to DP history has been to focus on a particular region or metropolitan area, but while these studies dig deeper on the local level, they often rail to connect to the larger historical context. (4) A related newer field is refugee history, with its examinations of the aftermath of both World Wars and the nature of the governmental and nongovernmental responses to refugees' need.s However, as historian Peter Gatrell explains, the ways in which DPs themselves saw displacement and how they reacted to it remain understudied. (6) Comparing the experiences of Poles and Latvians and exploring differences in their treatment and perception by outside observers can address all of these gaps and open a new avenue of exploration by analyzing how these two groups built cultural nationalism. Within this context, the questions of how much agency DPs had, how they exercised it, and to what larger ends are pivotal elements.

For DPs in camps, fostering cultural nationalism served multiple aims. For this study, cultural nationalism refers to the process of creating strong, common bonds through education, literature, art, language, folk traditions, religion, and history. (7) It built community, despite varied social, economic, educational, and political backgrounds. Cultural nationalism served as a mechanism of self-portrayal to the larger world, particularly toward the Western countries to which many hoped to immigrate. It allowed DPs to present a positive, unified image of themselves that emphasized their strong commitment to democracy and Christianity and their rejection of Communism, which firmly established them as ideal potential immigrants. (8) Cultural nationalism also formed the basis of their respective "exile missions." Embedded within it was an idealized memory of their country's past that became a foundation for decrying the present, Communist form and envisioning the nation's future. Within these camps, DPs honed this sense of mission, defining what it meant to be a "true" Pole or Latvian. (9) It was also reinforced through interaction with their respective diasporas, occupation forces, and UNRRA. (10)

DPs' cultural nationalism provided them with both purpose and agency, to act within the world of political nations from which they were displaced. …

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