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Europe's Refugee Crisis Pales In Comparison To World War II Aftermath


In stories about the refugee crisis in Europe, it's commonly said that it's the worst the continent has seen since the end of World War II. Millions of Europeans were uprooted by the conflict. They were displaced, and they were called displaced persons - DPs. The allied armies shelter them in DP camps.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is what Europe's like now that the war is over and the Germans are beaten.

SIEGEL: This from a 1945 U.S. Army newsreel about that effort.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The migrants leave the roads and move into the open fields, where they gather in groups of their own nationality. Footsore and weary, they wait patiently, anxiously. This mother wonders where she's going to get milk for her baby. This woman wants to know if her little girl will have sleep in a ditch again tonight.

SIEGEL: Ben Shephard wrote about the DPs and their search for refuge in his book "The Long Road Home: The Aftermath Of The Second World War," and he joins us from Bristol in England. Welcome to the program.


SIEGEL: These days, we see images of exhausted refugees arriving in Europe - a million this year. It seems epic. How does that compare with the number of displaced persons at the end of World War II?

SHEPHARD: Well, at the end of World War II, there were some 11 million people in Germany alone who were foreigners. They were slave laborers. They were volunteer workers, prisoners of war and Holocaust survivors. The Germans who had lived in Eastern Europe were being expelled from Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary. Jews who'd been in the Soviet Union during the second World War were coming across into Western Germany, hoping to get to Palestine or to the United States.

And finally, it became apparent that of these 11 million people in Germany, about a million of them didn't want to go back home to Eastern Europe because they didn't want to live under the Soviets. So this was the making of the crisis in 1945.

SIEGEL: How long did these people remain in limbo, typically?

SHEPHARD: The whole thing went on for 15 years. It was a very long, slow process by which eventually, most of these people went not to Europe but to Canada, Australia and the United States and also South America.

SIEGEL: And in terms of acceptance by those countries, as you write in your book, the attitudes of the day were not the most liberal when it came to who was a desirable person to welcome into your country.

SHEPHARD: Oh, no. They had a very straightforward attitude in the 1940s. You wanted young, healthy men or women. You didn't really want dependents. You didn't want the elderly. And they were straightforward about their racial preferences. For example, British officialdom said quite straightforwardly, we like Baltic people because we find them racially compatible, and within a generation, they will have assimilated into our country. They work hard. They're clean. They're Protestant. They're Christian, whatever. And they - we'd rather have them than various other groups. So - and this is true in almost every country - that there's very explicit preference for one type of person or another.

SIEGEL: The agency that took care of the DPs was - it's interesting. UNRRA was a United Nations agency that actually preceded the creation of the United Nations. Explain that.

SHEPHARD: Yeah. Well, more or less, the moment the Second World War began, people who had experience with international relief began saying, we must get the aftermath right this time because the aftermath of the first World War had been worse than the war itself. More people are being - died of disease and starvation than on the battlefield. So they said this time, we've got to get it right, and this time, we must create an international organization, namely UNRRA, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration.

UNRRA was very successful when it finally got going, when I finally got into its stride. It was probably the most successful relief organization in history. The problem was before that, it committed a lot of mistakes. It alienated the military. It was renowned for bad - being badly managed.

SIEGEL: Well, having studied this subject and written about it, as you write at the outset, we tend to romanticize the second World War and see things as having been gotten right that time. How positive was the effort to resettle the displaced of Europe, and how badly bungled was it in the end?

SHEPHARD: Overall, I think it's surprisingly good, what happened. If you read this stuff, it's - you're astonished that people in '42, '43, '44 are starting to try and work up, what are the emotional effects of slave labor and of the concentration camps? They're trying to engage in a very ambitious process of psychological healing. The reality, when they tried to put this into practice, was it just wasn't possible. But a lot of stuff was possible, and they got a lot of the simple, basic physical stuff right. And they fed people, and people didn't die in vast quantities.

The other point you have to mention here is that the military, by this stage, had considerable expertise in simple treatments, simple drills - housing people, as you heard in the clip, dividing them by nationalities so that you could very quickly separate one nationality from another. They'd stop killing each other. You could send them home. So much of this was done by the military.

SIEGEL: The Army newsreel concludes with this sort of tribute to democratic values and altruism. I want to play you a little bit of what it says.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: For today, we realize that our half of the world, the American half, cannot remain well if the other half is sick. We realize that we must rehabilitate these displaced persons for our own interest and self-preservation as well as theirs.

SIEGEL: There's a fair amount of insight going into that little speech defending the action.

SHEPHARD: Yes, I think so. But I think that's the big difference between the American political leadership of this generation, the second World War, and after the first World War - that they, in your terms, stepped up to the plate. They recognized that they had to play an international role. They were prepared to do that. And thank God for Europe; they were prepared to play that role.

SIEGEL: As you've been watching the present-day refugee crisis unfold in Europe, what's the takeaway message that you wanted to scream at all Europeans about the wisdom of dealing with refugees?

SHEPHARD: Well, it's tempting to think that there are all sorts of lessons from World War II which should be applied today, but when you look at what happened in World - after World War II in some detail, you realize that actually, each country acted in its own self-interest, by and large, except for the United States, in some ways, and that most of the countries were fairly nationalistic in the way they went about this. And I don't think that's changed very much. I don't think it's realistic to expect there to be sort of common European values on this subject. For example, the Hungarians and the Italians, geographically, are in a completely different position from the British. Their traditions are different. Their culture is different. It's much, much more complicated, and as we know, the Syrian situation is hideously complicated.

SIEGEL: And not over. I mean, this was at the end of a war.

SHEPHARD: Indeed, indeed, indeed.

SIEGEL: Ben Shephard, thanks for talking with us.

SHEPHARD: OK. Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: Mr. Shepherd is the author of "The Long Road Home: The Aftermath Of The Second World War." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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