The challenge to the post-war state: Belgium
and the Netherlands
The sheer scale of the repatriation, its implications for social conditions in the economic reconstruction and its repercussions on the self-image of nations humiliated by an exodus that they had been unable to prevent turned it into a central political challenge. It constituted a test case for the post-war regimes — their organisational abilities, their efficiency and their inventiveness. It enabled governments that promised and projected a new welfare state, that studied Beveridge and domestic variants of plans for social security, to demonstrate the capacity of the state to take care of great numbers of destitute citizens. It magnified the problems of rationing and distribution. It presented the opportunity to experiment extensively with new technologies, most often put at their disposal by the Allies, in matters as varied as disease prevention (DDT, first used on a large scale by the Allies during the typhus epidemic in Naples in 1943) or transport (the air transport of ordinary citizens from Germany had a most spectacular effect, which repatriation officials were quick to exploit through a careful mise en scène).
It also created huge opportunities for political recruitment. The repatriates were politically virgin, cut off from political developments in their homeland since their departure — 1940 for the French prisoners of war, many of whom still lingered in the mental atmosphere of the first months of the Vichy regime at the time of their return; 1943–4 for most labour conscripts. They were unfamiliar with the emergence of a large resistance movement and massive public adherence to the Allied cause and to the governments-in-exile that took place after they left for Germany. They had lived in relative political isolation, whatever the claims by resistance movements of all kinds as to the influence of their propaganda amongst their fellow citizens in Germany. In any case, after the Allied landing and the ensuing liberation of France, Belgium and part of the Netherlands, their isolation was complete and they were cut off from the tumultuous start of post-war political life in their countries. Every repatriate moreover represented a whole string of relatives, neighbours, colleagues and friends, whose political sympathies might be