Thursday, August 18, 2011

What We're Reading: The Long Road Home

The Long Road Home: The Aftermath of the Second World War
by Ben Shephard

This is not an enjoyable book to read. The subject of this book--the fate of the six to eight million refugees or “displaced persons” living in western and central Europe in the years immediately after the war--is one that is rather depressing. But this may be a necessary and important book. It is a documentation of suffering that was not always heroic or ennobling and of a humanitarian response that was often ineffective and sometimes cynical. The providers of assistance were frequently more concerned with national self-interest than relief of the state and condition of those who suffered.

Most writing about major wars takes as its focus the politics, personalities, and battles. It may tell of sensational horrors related to the conflict, and it may tally the casualty count. Authors, however, seldom look at the terrible costs that linger, the destruction to economies and infrastructures, the mass dislocation of populations, the disease and famine that are so often prevalent in the chaos after a war ends, and the challenges of rebuilding political structures and governments. These are subjects that are muddled and frustrating. The pace of recovery is frequently slow and exasperating. Unlike the accounts of the actual conflict itself, the events are seldom discrete and decisive, their history is not action-packed, and the players are not readily depicted as heroic or glamorous. Americans have not suffered devastation in their own country in the major conflicts of the 20th century. They have never had to deal with the problems of the aftermath of war as intimately as Europeans whose countries were the battlefield. We have, perhaps, become a little more sensitive to the issue in recent years as we struggled with the prolonged attempt to rebuild Iraq. It may be that in the future our evaluation of the costs of war may be more foresighted and inclusive, that we may give greater consideration to the enormous cost of putting a defeated and devastated country back together again. Certainly Shephard’s book contains important lessons about these issues and the challenges of building international cooperation that are relevant for the 21st Century.

The crisis of displaced persons and refugees in Europe at the end of World War II was the result of a number of policy actions by the warring parties. Germany needed foreign workers to sustain its economy and war industry, and it recruited both volunteer labor from other countries and transported slave labor to Germany from conquered territories. This involved six to eight million people from Poland, the Ukraine, the Baltic countries, France, and Eastern Europe. The small remnant of Europe’s Jews who survived the Holocaust were part of the number of displaced persons, a number that grew with the addition of Russian and Polish Jews fleeing those countries in response to immediate postwar pogroms. The redrawing of national boundaries after the war resulted in still others being expelled from territories that used to belong to their country. For many of them, because of their politics or their wartime allegiances, repatriation was not an option, and they had to wait for immigration policies among the Allies to change before they eventually found new homelands. Shephard’s analysis of the role Jewish displaced persons played in the politics surrounding the establishment of Israel is one of the more interesting parts of his book.

While some prejudices linger, our attitudes about race have changed much in America in the last 60 years, and the terms of discussion concerning displaced persons and refugees in 1945 may seem shocking to many of us. In 1945, the idea of ranking various races and ethnicities as acceptable or desirable candidates for immigration was an acceptable subject of public discourse and consideration for developing public policy. This was part of the unfortunate legacy of the eugenics movement that found its most radical expression in the racism of Germany, but some of its major assumptions were accepted and prevalent throughout the western world. Polish and Jewish displaced persons were spoken of as inferior human “stock” and what were thought to be the more desirable races from the Baltic regions were spoken of in terms one might use to describe a prize heifer.

Perhaps the most difficult thing for a contemporary American to deal with in this book (and it was also a difficulty for American aid workers in 1945) is the notion of ethnicity, especially as it is tied to long-standing historical, national, cultural, and religious groups in Europe and what was formerly the Soviet Union. Americans find it especially difficult to comprehend the deep-seated and long-standing murderous antipathies that seem to have been so relevant to “old world” politics. The American experience has been one in which ethnicity has been malleable and adaptive rather than a fundamental and inflexible concept, an inalienable foundation of self-identity. Immigrant groups when they arrived in America were understood to belong to certain ethnic groups, and this was often a cause for discrimination and prejudice, but it seems to have always been a fundamental assumption of Americans that ethnic identifications eventually gave way in some degree to a sense of becoming “American,” that there was a shared tolerance that came with being an American, part of a new culture that almost seemed to require, with membership, moderation of the intensity of old-world religious, cultural and political differences.

It is difficult for Americans to sympathize with or have patience with the political problems that come from ethnic or religious divisions. And yet these are still found and still matter in much of the world and continue to be a frustrating barrier to solving humanitarian challenges. Perhaps the most memorable example of this intractability in The Long Road Home can be found in Shephard’s postscript. He follows the fate of Ukrainian displaced persons in their new home in Canada. In 1945 the complexities of Ukrainian politics and subgroups were legendary; the division between Eastern Ukrainians and Western Ukrainians was only the topical fissure of what were seemingly endless internecine divisions. And these were further complicated in Canada with differences between those Ukrainians who had settled earlier in the country and those who immigrated there after the war. One child of a émigré described going to a funeral at a Ukrainian cemetery where an eight foot high steel fence divided the cemetery between old-time Ukrainians and those who had arrived more recently, an iron curtain between the dead, as if death itself was not the Great Equalizer and the land of the dead was a place to be divided into as many nations as the ceaselessly bickering land of the living. It is a monument that explains why the road home was so long.

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