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  • In War's Wake: Europe's Displaced Persons in the Postwar Order by Gerard Daniel Cohen
  • Lynn Rapaport
In War's Wake: Europe's Displaced Persons in the Postwar Order, Gerard Daniel Cohen (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 248 pp., hardcover $34.95.

The Second World War left approximately eight million displaced persons (DPs) in Europe; these included former foreign workers, slave laborers, prisoners of war, and concentration camp inmates. Between spring and fall 1945, approximately six to seven million were repatriated, leaving about 1.2 million stateless. In 1946 the United Nations created the International Refugee Organization (IRO) to care for this “last million,” many of them Holocaust survivors or anti-Communist refugees living in DP camps from western Germany to Sicily. Daniel Cohen’s meticulously researched new volume focuses on the policies that emerged out of the practical and political dimensions of resettlement. Drawing on numerous archives, including documentation at the IRO, Cohen argues convincingly that creation of the IRO brought the European refugee problem to the center of the international stage. He analyzes the relationship of the postwar refugee crisis to the nascent human rights movement, governance of international migration, and the advent of the state of Israel. The entire story took place against the backdrop of the early Cold War. [End Page 129]

In War’s Wake is organized into six thematic chapters (plus introduction and epilogue). Chapter 1, “The Battle of the Refugees,” deals with the emerging chasm between the interests of the coalescing Western and Soviet blocs as reflected in radically different approaches toward various refugee groups. Cohen argues that the USSR and its satellites sought to exclude from the scope of international humanitarian aid their alleged political enemies—those not wishing to be repatriated. Differences between Western and Soviet definitions of wartime treason and collaboration found reflection in the February 12, 1946 U.N. General Assembly’s landmark resolution requiring the “surrender and punishment of war criminals, quislings, and traitors,” and encouraging the “voluntary” repatriation of DPs. At the same time, the resolution included the first international recognition of the right to asylum for those refusing repatriation (p. 26).

Chapter 2—“‘Who Is a Refugee?’”—describes the messy determination of DP status and the differentiation of economic refugees from victims of persecution as part of the process of determining who was eligible for aid. Though the notions of “refugee” and “migrant” had been intertwined during the interwar period, the IRO disentangled them after the war. In the early 1950s the newly established United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration reinforced the distinctions. In chapter 3, “Care and Maintenance,” Cohen traces the evolution of care and maintenance policies from 1945 to 1951 under the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) and the IRO. He shows how the League of Nations had coordinated the relief operations of private philanthropic organizations during the interwar period; and how, during the early postwar period, under heavy American influence, intergovernmental cooperation replaced that pattern via the UNRRA and the IRO. Postwar relief both democratized the organization of refugee welfare and widened the scope of humanitarian aid.

Chapter 4, “Displaced Persons in the ‘Human Rights Revolution,’” traces the shift in legal framings of statelessness after 1945, and how IRO advocacy for refugees and DPs before the U.N. contributed to the design of human rights law. From 1945 through 1950, landmark declarations and agreements such as the Charter of the United Nations (1945), the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948), the Fourth Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War (1949), and the European Convention on Human Rights (1950) shaped the basic architecture of postwar human rights, lending the latter unprecedented visibility in international politics. Concurrently, challenges in dealing with the DPs shifted the legal framing of statelessness from “the absence of nationality” to the notion of “fear of persecution” in a person’s country of origin.

A fascinating chapter 5, “Surplus Manpower, Surplus Population,” describes common Western European anxieties about “overpopulation” and consequent negative perceptions of the DPs. But Cohen argues...


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pp. 129-131
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