THE LAST MILLION: EUROPE’S DISPLACED PERSONS FROM WORLD WAR TO COLD WAR by David Nasaw

. ?????: ??????? ????? ??????? ????????? . between 1945 and 1950. Unknown 69 People in Grugliasco dp camp Stock Photo
(Post war DP Camp at Grugliasco)

Today we find that immigration reform and related issues like DACA and a southern border wall are at the forefront of our election debate aside from Covid-19.  Immigration has been a very controversial issue throughout American history and one of the most contentious involved what to do with the hundreds of thousands of displaced persons that were a result of Nazi racial policy and their conduct during World War II.  By the end of 1945 roughly one million displaced persons remained in Germany: Jews, Poles, Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, among other groups who refused to return to their home countries or had no homes to return to.  This group labeled the “Last Million” by author David Nasaw in his latest book, THE LAST MILLION: EUROPE’S DISPLACED PERSONS FROM WORLD WAR TO COLD WAR follows these individuals from three to five years as they lived in displaced person’s camps and temporary homelands in exile divided by their nationalities.  Nasaw’s effort is masterful as he offers a comprehensive study of this postwar displacement and statelessness.  Nasaw, twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in biography for his monographs on Andrew Carnegie and William Randolph Hearst, and a superb biography of Joseph P. Kennedy might just win the Pulitzer with his current effort.

Ernest Bevin : News Photo
(British Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin)

Nasaw’s narrative is accompanied by useful analysis concerning the plight, condition, and future hopes of the Displaced persons (DPs).  He delves into a myriad of aspects concerning the “Last Million,” including life inside the refugee camps ranging from issues like cultural nationalism to medical care.  Further, the politics and big power competition is on full display as are the domestic concerns of countries confronted with DPs issues.  Nasaw does an exceptional job of integrating the views of numerous historical experts like Tim Snyder, Valdis O. Lumans, Ytzkak Arad, Christopher Dieckmann and numerous others, documentary materials, the experiences of survivors,  memoirs and other writings of refugees.  Nasaw also produces documentary excerpts to allow the reader to get a feel for what the DPs were experiencing.  Nasaw’s use of personal histories of the DPs is an important contribution and forms an important background for the story he tells.  The depth of Nasaw’s research is reflected in the voluminous footnotes and extensive bibliography that he mines to support his conclusions

Nasaw pursues a chronological approach beginning with the end of World War II which one reporter described Germany as “history’s greatest hobo jungle” and another described the situation as “wars living wreckage – living, moving, pallid wreckage.”  This was the environment that over a million people found themselves following the war after close to four million people returned home. For Nasaw his monograph is the story of these displaced Eastern Europeans who once the war ended refused to go home or had no homes to return to.  “It is the story of their confinement in refugee camps for up to five years after the war ended.” 

In describing the plight of these displaced persons Nasaw develops a number of important themes that are fully explored and analyzed.  First, the “Last Million” saw their fate in the hands of the allies.  The United States and England believed that Eastern Europeans whose lands had been annexed or occupied by the Soviet Union had the right to delay or refuse repatriation and the international community had the duty to care for them.  This led to disagreements and confrontation with Moscow as Stalin wanted all displaced persons who originated from the Soviet Union and areas annexed before and during the war to be repatriated willingly or through force.  When thousands refused repatriation, Stalin tried to create havoc. 

This photo shows Chief of Staff General George C Marshall at his headquarters in the War Department located in the Washington office

General George Catlett Marshall Chief of staff of the United States at his desk in the war department circa 1942

(US Secretary of State George C. Marshall)

Second, after a year of trying to get people to return to the country of origin and the obstinate refusal of the “Last Million” to return home, the Americans and the British decided that repatriation having failed, they would have to be resettled in new homes and homelands outside Germany.  This would involve the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) and its replacement the International Relief Organization (IRO) whose mandate would become resettlement, not repatriation.  Many Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians and Ukrainians and almost all Jews refused to return home creating many issues; from dealing with the opposition of the Soviet Union, and the desire of Jews to go to Palestine despite England’s refusal to allow them to do so. This would result in numerous commissions to investigate the situation as well as domestic political machinations and pressure.

Third, IRO member nations accepted the resettlement of Protestants, Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox Christians, but refused to do so for the 200-250,000 Jews who remained trapped in camps in the American zone while pressure was put on England to allow them to settle in Palestine.  The British looked at the situation from a power politics lens seeking to mollify the Arabs, protect the oil, foil Soviet attempts to expand into the Middle East, and maintain as much of their empire as possible.

Fourth, President Harry Truman worked to pressure the British over Palestine and Congress to allow Jews and other refugees to enter the United States.  He would lose the battle on both counts as the British were bent on kowtowing to the Arabs and midwestern Republicans refused to alter the 1924 Johnson Act as they argued that Jews were associated with communism and Soviet agents would be smuggled into the United States if “the gates were opened.”  Truman would continue to push his agenda of allowing 100,000 Jews to enter Palestine, and eventually supported the partition of Palestine and the recognition of the state of Israel in May 1948 despite British pressure and caustic commentary.

Fifth, many refugees were former Nazis or collaborators, and it became difficult to separate them out from non-criminal elements.  By 1946 it was becoming increasingly clear that 10-30% of the Volksdeutsche (people whose language and culture had German origins but who did not hold German citizenship) in the camps were pro-Nazi and favored Germany over Russia.  Many of the Baltic people and Western Ukrainians had committed war crimes and now they were trying to blend in.  No matter who these people were, it was decided against forced repatriation.  Two other aspects were also at play; first the United States was in a race to allow former Nazis who had skill sets needed in the developing Cold War visa vie the Soviet Union; second, in the end thousands of former Nazis and their collaborators were allowed into the United States, Australia, England, Brazil and Argentina in part to offset labor shortages.

Harry S. Truman
(President Harry S. Truman)

Sixth, the role of the American military who were placed in charge of the refugee camps was exceedingly difficult.  A prime issue was how to treat the Holocaust survivors -should they be housed and dealt with separately from other refugees like the Volksdeutche  and others who were POWS and Germans returning home.  This provoked a great deal of debate internationally as Washington, and London finally decided that the experience of the Jews was such that they needed special treatment after the US Army refused to do so.

Lastly, the concept of anti-Semitism was rampant even after the war which pervades the narrative.  It was clear in US congressional debate over refugee legislation on the part of southern Democrats and northern senators like Republican Chapman Revercomb of West Virginia.  On June 25, 1948 President Truman signed the Displaced Persons Act which mostly excluded Jews.  It allowed thousands of Volksdeutsche into the United States, many of which were Nazi collaborators, ie; Waffen-SS members, Auxiliary Police that worked with the SS, etc.  In Poland violence against Jews killed 2000, the most devastating occurred in during the Kielce pogrom.  It can also be seen in the policies pursued by the US military and commentary by the likes of General George Patton, and some of the policies pursued by UNRRA, the IRO, and the British government.

Nasaw explores many important individuals, and issues, placing them in the correct historical context.  He devotes a great deal of space to the Palestine impasse highlighting his narrative with a description of the Harrison Report, the work of the IRO, the voyage of the Exodus 1947 and other aspects of this difficult situation.  Nasaw also spends a great deal of time explaining the goals of each country and ethnic group that is involved with the DPs.  It seems that each country and nationality and/or ethnic group had their own agenda that often conflicted with another country or organization which the author hashes out and tries to explain the ramifications for decisions that were reached.  The actions of the Soviet Union before the Nazis invaded is key for Nasaw as Moscow annexed the Baltic states which will become a major sticking point after the war.

[Aglasterhausen / United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA): children]
(UNRRA caring for Last Million’s children)

Nasaw does not add much to the horrors that the Jews experienced during the war.  Building upon the work of Nikolaus Wachsmann, Nasaw focuses on slave labor for the Nazi infrastructure.  Even as the war was coming to an end the Nazis rounded up thousands of concentration camp survivors and POWS to build a Nazi infrastructure underground and in the mountains to prolong the war and allow the development of new weapons.  This would result in working people to death through labor with the same result as extermination camps.

One of the strengths of Nasaw’s work is his ability to make sense out of this complex and bewildering moment.  As Adina Hoffman points out in her review in the September 15, 2020 New York Times Nasaw “clarifies without oversimplifying” and his ability to “maneuver with skill between the nitty-grittiest of diplomatic (and congressional, military, personal) details and the so-called Big Picture.”  The question remains how could such a situation evolve?  The answer is complicated and Nasaw does a remarkable job summing up events and decision-making in a scrupulous manner.  The book itself is one of the most important written on the topic and Nasaw’s flowing writing style makes it much easier for the reader to digest.

Open original Scanned Items
(Post WWII DP Camp)

THE CITY IN DARKNESS by Michael Russell

Male and female militia fighters march at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War in July of 1936.
(Militia fighters at the outset of the Spanish Civil War)

After reading Michael Russell’s first two renditions of his Stefan Gillespie series I must say I was hooked.  The third installment is entitled THE CITY IN DARKNESS and has reaffirmed my view that Russell has the unique ability to combine components of a thriller and spy novel in the context of historical fiction.  Russell easily captures the reader’s attention and thus far all of his books have been extremely satisfying.  The novel begins in 1932 as Stefan, his wife Maeve, and their three year old son, Tom are camping.  Maeve decides to take a swim and that is the last Stefan will ever see of her.  A childhood friend of Maeve sees her swimming in the lake and drowns her.  This scene fills in the gap from the first two novels as Stefan thought Maeve’s death was an accident, but Russell develops a plot line where Stefan comes across evidence that his wife’s death may have been murder.

The action immediately shifts to the Spanish Civil War circa 1937 as Francisco Franco and his forces are approaching Madrid in a final effort to destroy the Republican government.  Brigadier Frank Ryan, commander of the 15th International Brigade made up of 400 Englishmen and Irishmen are set to blunt Franco’s advance.  As his wont, Russell creates a multi-layered disparate set of sub plots that can never seem to have any commonality.  An IRA raid on the Magazine Fort in the Phoenix Park in 1939; the death of Stefan’s wife; events in the Spanish Civil War; the possibility that Stefan’s boss, Detective Superintendent Terry Gregory of the Special Branch might be in bed with the IRA; the actions of German Intelligence in trying to use Ireland against England; and the pending release of Frank Ryan from one of Franco’s prisons all are developed fully, but one wonders how they can all come together.  A hint, as usual they all do.

Adolf Hitler and Francisco Franco of Spain meet in Gare d'Hendaye in occupied France, October 1940 to discuss possible Stock Photo

(Adolf Hitler and General Francisco Franco)

Russell is extremely interested in atmospherics and everywhere that Stefan travels is fully explored.  The beauty of the Portuguese and Spanish countryside is on full display as are the streets of Lisbon, Madrid, Burgos, and Salamanca.  The comparison of the brightness of Christmas lights in Ireland in 1939 is juxtaposed to the darkness befalling Europe.  The damage caused by the civil war is evident when Stefan arrives in Madrid.  These and other descriptions provide a unique background for the novel.

THE CITY IN DARKNESS comes across as more of a spy novel than the first two installments in the series.  Ireland’s G2, the German Abwehr, and British MI5 all play an important role as Stefan’s assignments keep shifting as at first he was in charge of investigating the number of Irish men who left to fight for England against Germany, but after the murder of a post man he finds himself in a complex investigation which accidentally provides information for what really happened to his wife seven years earlier.

Apart from Frank Ryan who had ties to the IRA and fought against Franco’s army, a number of new characters are created that carry the novel.  .  Marie Duarte, Ryan’s partner.  Billy Byrnes, the post man who disappears.  Mikey Hagan, at fifteen fought in the Spanish Civil War whose life is saved by Ryan.  Jimmy Collins, the man who knows the truth concerning the murder of three women.  Simon Chillingham, a British diplomat turned spy.  Leo Kerney the Irish ambassador to Spain.  Florence Surtees, an artist who turns out to be someone completely different.  A number of German intelligence agents and a host of others.  Characters from the previous novels who reappear include Stefan’s parents and son, Katie O’Donnell, Stefan possible partner, Colonel Archer de Paor, head of Irish G2, Terry Gregory of Special Branch, and Stefan’s Garda partner, Dessie MacMahon.

(Lisbon was a spy center during WWII)

At times Stefan feels like a pawn in a game of chess between de Paor and Gregory.  As the novel evolves Stefan breaks away from his assigned tasks and strikes out on his own to accompany Ryan out of Spain once he is released, but more importantly to learn who was responsible for killing three women that include his wife Maeve.  The cruelty and death fostered by the Spanish Civil War is an important background to events as is the possible role of Ireland as a German ally against England as World War II has just begun.  Russell’s grasp of history is clear as he discusses the civil war and the role of Franco, as is his knowledge of the IRA and the politics that surround it.

Stefan is at a crossroads in his life as until he knew what happened to Maeve he could not move on.  He blames himself for accepting her death as an accident and he realized if he were to achieve closure, he would have to do it himself before he could develop a meaningful relationship with Kate.  The number of characters and the complexity of the story at times is hard to follow, but once you figure out where Russell is going with the plot it is engrossing and you wonder how it concludes.  Interestingly, the missing post man aspect of the story is drawn from the still unsolved true-life disappearance of postman Larry Griffin in the village of Stradbally on Christmas Day, 1929.

This is an ambitious novel that blends police procedures, a spy novel, and a historical mystery that is comparable to the writing of Alan Furst and John Lawton.  Obviously, I think a great deal of Russell’s approach to historical fiction as a thriller and I look forward to reading the next book in the series, A CITY OF LIES where Stefan finds himself on a dangerous mission in Berlin.

(The brutality of the Spanish Civil War)

THE ZHIVAGO AFFAIR: THE KREMLIN, THE CIA, AND THE BATTLE FOR A FORBIDDEN BOOK by Peter Finn and Petra Couvee

I remember years ago when I saw David Lean’s film “Dr. Zhivago,” leaving the theater with the name Lara rebounding in my psyche.  This led me to read the novel that just floored me.  Now so many years later I have read Peter Finn and Petra Couvee’s monograph THE ZHIVAGO AFFAIR: THE KREMLIN, THE CIA, AND THE BATTLE OVER A FORBIDDEN BOOK that choreographs Boris Pasternak’s journey from poetry to fiction, the Kremlin’s attempt to prevent its dissemination within and outside the Soviet Union, and the role of the CIA in trying to weaponize the novel as a vehicle in the Cold War.  The book itself appears professionally researched but there are a number of gaps, i.e., Pasternak’s experience during World War II is covered in a page or two, among others.  Overall, the book is well conceived, but I believe the authors could have done more with the topic.

The authors have written a segmented narrative which begins with a biographical profile of Pasternak including his professional relationships, marriages, affairs, which were many, and his poetic development.  They then move on to the evolution of Pasternak’s work from his poetry to his life’s work, DR. ZHIVAGO, a novel that he himself argued brought personal closure and satisfaction.  The authors offer an important dissection of the intellectual community under Joseph Stalin focusing on the purges and show trials of the 1930s which produced 24,138,799 books that were deemed “political damaging…and of no value to the Soviet reader” by the state censor resulting that these works were turned into pulp. World War II appears as an afterthought, but to their credit Finn and Couvee dissect the relationship between Stalin and Pasternak and explain why the novelist was able to survive while over 1500 of his compatriots perished.  They concluded it was because of his international status but more so by “Stalin’s interested observation of the poet’s unique and sometimes eccentric talent.”  Pasternak himself could never figure out why he survived.

(Olga Ivinskaya and Boris Pasternak)

An interesting aspect of the narrative revolves around the completion of the novel and its publication in the west.  Relying on communications between Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, a young Milanese publisher, and Pasternak; Feltrinelli and Soviet officials; the Kremlin and Pasternak; internal Kremlin debate, and other western sources the reader is presented with a reasonably clear picture as to how the book was published.  What emerges is a nasty campaign waged by the Kremlin to deny publication in the west despite the “cultural thaw” that evolved after the death of Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization  speech of February 20, 1956 (though the book states it was February 25th).

Another component of the narrative centers on the role of the CIA in publishing the novel and distributing it throughout Europe and the Soviet Union.  Finn and Couvee describe how the CIA was engaged in relentless global political warfare with the Kremlin throughout the 1950s.  To counter Soviet propaganda, and challenge Soviet influence the CIA believed in the power of ideas – news, art, music, and literature that could slowly erode the authority of the Soviet state and its influence in its Eastern European satellites.  The authors trace surreptitious CIA activity focusing on the dissemination of western materials to the Russian people through Radio Free Europe; the American Committee for Liberation; the Free Europe Committee and others.  The CIA purchased books and rights from numerous publishers and did its best to make them available throughout the Soviet bloc.  In 1956 it would create its own publishing company, the Bedford Publishing Company to translate Western literary works and publish them in Russian.  Further it became involved in obtaining an original of Pasternak’s manuscript, making it available inside Russia through the Brussel’s World’s Fair in 1958.  It is a fascinating story in that the novel would be distributed by the Vatican exhibit to 500 Russian visitors who would transport it home.  The program had the full support of the Eisenhower White House and by 1970 the Bedford Company would distribute over one million books to Russian readers.

TIME Magazine Cover: Boris Pasternak -- Dec. 15, 1958

Finn and Couvee correctly point out that Soviet authorities created their own “monster” because if they had allowed the novels publication inside the Soviet Union it would have probably attracted a small literary audience, but by pursuing a strategy of repression it fostered worldwide surreptitious distribution creating a massive readership.  The Kremlin’s pressure on Pasternak almost drove him to suicide as they even went as far as to deprive him of his Nobel Prize which was awarded more for his poetry than DR. ZHIVAGO.  After accepting the prize Pasternak was subjected to a coordinated attack by newspapers, magazines, and radio, a loss of friends and colleagues, overt surveillance by the KGB, resulting in his decision to decline the award.  The Soviet literary tradition was clear, literature could either serve the revolution or the perceived enemies of the state.  One of the authors best descriptions of literature under Stalin was “formulaic drek,” which in Yiddish means “shit.”

The authors do a wonderful job discussing the numerous characters that impacted Pasternak’s life.  Relationships with his lover Olga Ivinskaya, discussions with Stalin himself and other Soviet officials, the work of Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, the Dulles Brothers, and numerous others read like its own novel.  The authors take a story that has many moveable parts and turned into somewhat of an intellectual thriller which is hard for us to relate to under our system of government where it seems everything whether true or not can be published on social media.  If there is a tragic character it is Ivinskaya, who was harassed, tried, and imprisoned after Pasternak’s death. If the authorities failed to get Pasternak, they sought revenge against his lover who they accused of currency fraud and being the real author of DR. ZHIVAGO.  In the end DR. ZHIVAGO was not a great piece of literature and perhaps the authors should have spent more time evaluating the literary value of the novel as opposed to its propaganda value.

Boris Pasternak
(Boris Pasternak)

THE CITY OF STRANGERS by Michael Russell

(Rosalie Fairbanks, a guide to the New York World’s Fair, points to the theme of the exposition — the Trylon and Perisphere — in New York on February 22, 1939, after the entire sheath of scaffolding was removed for the first time.)

As war approached between England and Nazi Germany throughout the spring and summer of 1939 Ireland did its best to remain neutral.  The Irish government had its own issues as segments of the Irish Republican Army refused to accept the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 which created the Irish Free State in January 1922.  The result was a series of attacks by the IRA against England as well as the Irish Free State. The IRA’s goal was to try and undo the treaty and force the British out of Ireland for good creating a unified Ireland of Protestants and Catholics.  The role of the United States was ancillary as support for the IRA came from certain political factions and institutions as well as private citizens that resulted in the availability of weapons, munitions, and money for the IRA smuggled out of the United States.  The wild card in this process was the relationship of the IRA and Nazi Germany.  If war broke out between England and Nazi Germany, it would avail the IRA of the opportunity to conduct rear guard action against British interests to the benefit of the Hitlerite regime.  It is in this environment that Michael Russell’s sequel to THE CITY OF SHADOWS Detective Stefan Gillespie is placed in the untenable position of navigating the situation to carry out his mission for Irish military intelligence.

(BOAC Clipper Flying Boat)

Russell opens the second installment of his Stefan Gillespie series, THE CITY OF STRANGERS with a seven year old boy witnessing the revenge killing of his father by Free State soldiers who buried the body up to its neck in the sand at Pallas Strand.  As is his want, Russell leaves this introduction and moves on, however, the reader knows it is something significant that will turn up later in the novel.

Gillespie has enjoyed the last four years working on his parent’s farm in Kilranelagh with his nine year old son Tom.  He had given up working in Dublin, the reasons for which are explained in the CITY OF SHADOWS.  Gillespie is summoned by Dublin authorities to transport Owen Harris back from New York City for questioning as he is accused of brutally beating his mother to death and dumping her body into the sea.  What follows is a rather complex plot that at times even confuses Gillespie!

Russell has created a thriller that involves Nazis, the IRA, the NYPD, New York gangsters, Irish G2 (military intelligence and a host of interesting characters each with their own agenda.  Among those characters are Longie Zwillman, a Jewish New York gangster that seems to know everyone in the city; Dominic Carroll, the president of Clan na Gael in New York which hates Eamon de Valera, the president of the Free State –  in reality Carroll was a front for the IRA; Katie O’Donnell, Carroll’s sister-in-law; her sister Niamh Carroll, who is trying to escape from her husband, Captain Adam Phelan of the NYPD and his younger brother Michael also of the NYPD; Rudolph Katzmann, a German intelligence operative; Jimmy Palmer, a black trumpeter and taxi driver, gay actors, and a host of others.  A number of characters reappear from the earlier novel, chief of which is Captain John Cavendish, who enlists Gillespie into his web, in addition to Dessie MacMahon, Gillespie’s partner.  Historical figures abound including Father Charles Coughlin, the anti-Semitic pro-Nazi radio priest; Sean Russell, IRA Chief of Staff; Robert Montieth, one of Father Coughlin’s leaders in the Union of Social Justice; Duke Ellington, the band leader, and numerous others.

(Crowds march through the streets of Dublin to commerate the Easter Rising (1939). Getty Images. Image courtesy of the Independent.)

Russell has an excellent feel for New York City in 1939.  He paints a wonderful portrait of Harlem, jazz, the coming World’s Fair, the streets of Manhattan and the New York skyline, and the St. Patrick’s Day parade.   The reader feels as if they are in a time machine as he compares the wilds of County Wicklow with the buzz, glare, noise, and ambiance of the New York City, in addition to Gillespie’s flights on the flying boat from Dublin to New York and back.

As the plot unfolds Gillespie wonders how he went from trying to find an envelope containing IRA ciphers for Cavendish and take them back to Dublin with his prisoner to helping a gangster smuggle a wanted woman out of the United States, and trying to figure out how Katie O’Donnell fits in.  This is part of the beauty of Russell’s novels as disparate plots that appear unrelated seem to all come together, but over many chapters.  An escape for an IRA currier, the death of assorted characters, and an assassination plot of George VI are all key components of the novel.

Russell’s writing is clear, concise, always calm and never over-heated.  He also exhibits a strong command of history and knows how to maintain the interest of his readers.  His Gillespie series is an exciting and comfortable read and I look forward to the next book in the series, THE CITY IN DARKNESS where Gillespie wonders if his boss, Superintendent Terry Gregory, is working for the IRA.


(1939 World’s Fair, New York City)