- Landscapes of the Uprooted: Displacement in Postwar Europe
In the ruined landscapes of post-1945 Central Europe, the refugee was both an iconic and a ubiquitous figure. The great Polish writer Tadeusz Borowski, an Auschwitz survivor who lived after liberation in a Displaced Persons (DP) camp in Munich, described postwar Germany in hindsight as “swarming with starved, frightened, suspicious, stupefied hordes of people who did not know where to turn and who were driven from town to town, from camp to camp, from barracks to barracks by young American boys, equally stupefied and equally shocked by what they had found in Europe.”1
One among the “stupefied hordes” was Pablo D., probably a Republican veteran of the Spanish Civil War who fled to France and fell into German hands after 1940. Pablo was imprisoned at Mauthausen and, after the war, lived for several years with his Polish wife and child in the massive DP camp complex at Wildflecken in Lower Franconia. There, Pablo perfected an art known to many whose lives had been interrupted by the war: He became highly flexible in his identity. At various times he claimed to be Polish, Spanish, or Portuguese, always leaving just enough doubt that officials charged with “screening” DPs for national origin were unable to rule conclusively on his case. Ultimately his strategy worked. As the Cold War deepened and the Western Allies grew more concerned with stability in the semi-sovereign Federal Republic of Germany than with ethnic identity, his professed anticommunism trumped the veracity of biographical details. Pablo and his family migrated to the United States in the early 1950s.2 Pablo’s story highlights the complexities of the multiple and entangled refugee crises that shaped Europe’s path from the interwar period through the early Cold War.
In many ways, Europe’s history during the first half of the twentieth century was one of refugees. The First World War caused enormous population displacement across the fronts, while the consequences of revolutions and imperial collapse following 1917 generated waves of migration that reshaped European populations and international law.3 In the 1930s, the rise of ultra-nationalist movements—particularly Nazism—and the Spanish Civil War created new vectors of displacement.4 The Second World War left more than 30 million people homeless or away from their place of residence, with many undergoing multiple experiences of flight and exile. German efforts to create a racial utopia, focused on the radical reordering of populations and the exterminatory campaigns of the Holocaust, lay at the dark heart of this broad experience of dispossession.5 In the wake of three decades of conflict, successive efforts to sort out the refugee problem helped to create the modern field of humanitarian work.6 This period of overlapping experiences of flight and resettlement did not really end until at least the middle of the 1950s, when the Cold War froze large-scale movement from East to West and created incentives for states to seek durable accommodation for those who had left their homes during the previous two decades.7 [End Page 1]
Starting in the 1980s and following the collapse of communism, the topic of migration has witnessed an explosion of scholarly interest. Today, we have access to a wide range of scholarly research about the experiences of distinct refugee groups, the traumas of exile and displacement, and the myriad questions of “homecoming” that refugees encountered.8 This literature has been particularly rich with regard to the Jewish experience.9 The opening of the International Tracing Service (ITS) Archives in 2007 and the availability of tens of thousands of digitized survivor testimonies in collections such as the Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive and Zwangsarbeit 1939–1945 have opened new methodological approaches to the study of war’s victims.10
Half a century has passed since some of the pioneering histories of the international organizations tasked with managing Europe’s refugees in the period after 1945 were published. Today a new generation is reevaluating the histories of these important institutions.11 A series of major conferences in London has drawn several hundred scholars to discuss new work on the...