The Long Road Home: the Aftermath of the Second World War

The fate of the displaced and dispossessed inhabitants of Europe after war ended in 1945 has a power

When the Second World War ended, there were roughly 15 million displaced persons (DPs) in Europe who either did not want to or could not return to their country of origin. This well-researched, well-written and often moving book is their story. Largely based on the archives of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), but also incorporating the papers and memoirs of hundreds of DPs and the officials who looked after them, Ben Shephard's tale begins where most histories of the war end.

Polish Jews who were under threat of death even when they returned to reclaim their property after being released from concentration camps; Russian Cossacks in Yugoslavia who smashed windows to use the glass to commit suicide sooner than fall into the hands of Stalin and Tito; Germans who were ethnically cleansed from the Sudetenland and east Prussia; Jews who were refused entry into Palestine by the British: as the political tectonic plates shifted at the end of the war - especially after the Yalta Agreement of February 1945 - the chaos in Europe led to millions spending years in detention camp limbo, and many thousands falling into the vengeful grasp of Soviet communism.

The UNRRA was set up in part to avoid the tragedy that overtook Europe in the aftermath of the First World War, when hundreds of thousands died of disease and malnutrition across the Continent. It is a testament to Churchill's confidence in ultimate victory that the first significant meetings to discuss postwar relief took place in September 1941, when Britain was still losing the war. Once the Americans entered the conflict three months later, vast sums of money were earmarked for the relief operation. Shephard pays tribute to the architects of this effort, such as Fiorello LaGuardia, Sir Frederick Leith-Ross, William Arnold-Forster and Arthur Calwell, many of them unsung heroes whose humanitarian instincts were channelled into the vast bureaucratic effort required.

Overall, although it took years, with some DPs remaining displaced in the late 1940s, the UNRRA did a superb job. Inevitably, however, we tend to concentrate on the atrocities that continued to take place even after the German surrender. Hitler's baleful legacy lived on in the perhaps 40,000 German civilians who died during their expulsion from Czechoslovakia (and a far larger figure than that from Poland), or the 4,000 Soviet citizens repatriated from American soil back to the USSR, or the 351 Jewish concentration camp survivors who were murdered when they returned to their villages, or the 11 suicides when the US army attempted to take 399 Russians from Dachau to the Soviet Zone of Germany, or the middle-aged, widowed grandmother from Sorau in Brandenburg whose vagina was searched six times for jewellery, while her friend, the wife of a district judge, had the gold crowns of her teeth knocked out of her mouth.

This book is not for the faint-hearted. Shephard records unblinkingly the vengeance meted out to the Germans by Czechs who had themselves suffered appallingly during the six years of Nazi occupation, most notably in the martyred village of Lidice. As he writes:

The surrender of the Wehrmacht was followed by an orgy of violence, in which armed Czech fighters beat up, shot, humiliated and tortured Germans. Villages were burned to the ground; Germans hanged in trees and set alight, beaten to death and tortured . . . The violence of the Czech response took even the Russians by surprise. Indeed, putting aside the raping of women, the Germans found Russian soldiers to be much more humane and responsible than the native Czechs.

Very rarely can one imagine "putting aside" the issue of two million women being raped by the Red Army, but with the épuration of the German civilian population from eastern Europe, Shephard encourages us to do just that.

Churchill does not emerge too well from the story, telling Stalin at Yalta that "expulsion is the method which, so far as we have been able to see, will be the most satisfactory and lasting" and the Commons on 15 December 1944 that: "A clean sweep will be made. I am not alarmed at the prospect of the disentanglement of the population, nor am I alarmed by these large transferences, which are more possible than they were before through modern conditions."

With such large populations moving across borders and sectors that were still in the process of being drawn and redrawn, with groups of armed partisans keen to exact revenge wherever they could, and the reality of mass starvation a constant fear, the UNRRA coped valiantly. And in 1947 the British people took a cut in their rations in order to send food to Germany, about as altruistic an act as it is possible to imagine. That year, however, there were still more than a million DPs in Germany, Italy and Austria, the vast majority in the British and American sectors of Germany.

Having made no fewer than 800 speeches in favour of the League of Nations when running for vice-president in 1920, Franklin D Roosevelt was deeply committed to the UNRRA project, to which President Truman also stayed true after FDR's death in April 1945. Shephard is particularly good on the debates in the US, Britain, Canada, Australia and elsewhere over the number of DPs that each country should take.

British refusal to allow any large-scale immigration into Palestine, where Britain held the Mandate, even by Jews who had survived the Holocaust, resulted in a rise in the militant Zionism led by David Ben-Gurion, defeating the constitutionally minded variety personified by Chaim Weizmann. Ben-Gurion toured DP camps in Germany in October 1945, telling Jews that if Hitler had invaded Palestine "there could have been terrible destruction there, but what happened in Poland could not happen in Palestine. Every boy and every girl would have shot every German soldier." Far from being grossly insensitive, Ben-Gurion's was a message the DPs wanted to hear; in the words of his biographer Shabtai Teveth, "his special instinct told him that neither caresses nor compassion was expected of him, but the bearing of a torch that lit a vision of hope for all". While Britain and America were somewhat niggardly in the numbers of Jewish refugees they were willing to take, the anti-Semitic Stalin did nothing to stop the exodus of Jews from the USSR in this period, and the Warsaw government charged 1,000 zlotys for a one-way visa out of Poland.

In a thought-provoking introduction, Shephard argues that the immediate postwar issues concerning the fate of the Jews, the future of Poland, the boundaries of the Russian empire, Ukrainian nationalism, the viability of Yugo­slavia and so on are even more relevant to world affairs today than those that caused the Second World War in the first place. After reading this deeply impressive book, it is hard to disagree.

The Long Road Home: the Aftermath of the Second World War
Ben Shephard
Bodley Head, 496pp, £25


Andrew Roberts's "The Storm of War: a New History of the Second World War" is newly published in paperback by Penguin (£10.99)

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis