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.
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.
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.
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.
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.