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
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)