World War II: Refugees/Displaced Persons


Figure 1.--Every World war II refugee has theor own storis to tell. Here we can only guess about the experiences of these unidentified children.

World War II created the greatest refugee problem in human history. The problem began before the actual fighting broke out. And by the end of the War, millions were dead and the survivors on the move all over Europe trying to retirn home, although for masny this was not possible. The problem was concentrated in Europe, but not entirely confined there. There were refugee problems after and during and after World War I. The numbers of refugees were significant, but the refugees and displacements help to create bitterness that led to much more extensive and brutal operations during World War II. The problem began with with the NAZI take over in Germany (1933). Political opponents fled Germany as did many Jews. The NAZI regime's focus on biological racism was to play a major role in the World War II refugee problem. Refugees from the fighting were a small pat of the overall refugeee problem. The NAZIs were determined to remake not only the political map of Europe, but also the ethnic map. And to do this they decided not only to create a colonial empire, but to use genocide. There were forced deportation, mass evacuation and displacement, perscecution based on ethnicity, mass killing, conscription for forced labor, anti-partisan operations, intra-ethnic violence, stategic bombing and evacuation from the cities. The NAZI approach to many refugee groups shifted toward genocide as the War progressed. There were refugee problems in most of the countries involved in World War II. And the boirder chasnges at the end of the War caused additional refugees. The refugee crisis in Europe, especially Germany, resulted after the War in the creation of an international refugee and human rights infrastructure which is the basis of how refugee problems are handeled today. We have focused on the problem od displaced children, but the overall refugee problem is important to understand. NAZI Germany was at the heart of the refugee problem, but the Soviet Union also played a major role. Other countries were involved in a variety of ways both in creating and attempting to assist refugees.

Dimensions

World War II created the greatest refugee problem in human history. The problem began before the actual fighting broke out. And by the end of the War, millions were dead and the survivors on the move all over Europe trying to retirn home, although for many this was not possible.

Definition

A refugee is traditionally seen as an individuasl who flees his home to escape conflict, persecution or natural disaster. NAZI, Soviet, and other regimes persecuted people on the basis of race, religion, nationality, social class, political orientation, and other reasons. This traditional concept does not, however, even begin to cover the World War II problem. A term adopted which is more comprehensive is displsaced persons. This includes the people confined in concebntation camps, labor camps, and POW camps. It thus seems to fit the World War II crisis berter than refugee. And ther were large numbers of people evavuated from the cities as a result of the bombing. All of these groups have to be considered to fully understand the World War II situation.

Regions

The problem was concentrated in Europe, but not entirely confined there.

World War I

There were refugee problems after and during and after World War I. The numbers of refugees were significant. The bestknown group were the Belgians, created by the Germans at the beginning if the War. Amother group wee the Serbs, in this case resulting from the Great Serbian Retreat. Both the Serbian Army and the civilins who accompanied them were in a desperate stte when theyvreached the Adritic coast. The most trahic group were the Armenians, many of whom were murdered in the Turkish Genocide. The refugees and displacements help to create bitterness that led to much more extensive and brutal operations during World War II. Many new states were created which as a consequence created large numbers of minority groups who found themselves disadvantaged in a variety of ways from education to job opportunities. This was especially the case in eastern and central Europe. Many of the new states initiasted land reform programs to turn oiver land to the majority group. Often adversely affected were German land owners. In many cases this was the iwbners of lasrge estates. But in Poland even small-scale farmers were adversely affected. Those dispossed are expelled were bitter and many had the opportunity to seek revenge.

Aggressor Nations


The Japanese


The Soviets


The NAZIs

The European refugee problem began with with the NAZI take over in Germany (1933). Political opponents fled Germany as did many Jews. Immigration becamne a major issue. The NAZI regime's focus on biological racism was to play a major role in the World War II refugee problem. Refugees from the fighting were a small pat of the overall refugeee problem. The NAZIs were determined to remake not only the political map of Europe, but also the ethnic map. And to do this they decided not only to create a colonial empire, but to use genocide. The World War II Holocaust except for a brief initial phase did not create refugees because the Germans began rounding them up and creating ghettoes or intenment capms where they where they were fed starvation rations until the killing began. The Holocaust against the Jews, however, was just part of the German plan. The Jews were to be killed right away. Their larger plan of reshaping the ethnic map of Europe would take more time. They wanted to turn the East into a vast German colonization zone of farming communities. The existing population was to be killed, deported beyond the Urals or enslaved. This would iof course create millions of rrfugees. In pursuit of their goal they developed the Hunger Plan and General Plan Ost. There was thuus no effort to assist non-German refugees. In fact, as they planned on killing or deporting millions in Eastern and Central Europe, starvation was seen as a usefulm way of pursuing their plans. Himmler wanted go proceed with Generalplan Ost right away, and began just that in Poland, creating a huge wave of refugees. Hitler ordered him to slow down the process as it was interfearing with preparations for Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Siviet UNion. The Germans did implement the Hunger Plan. The only people to be fed in the Eat were those working for the Germans to support the war effort. And rations were curtailed in the ocupied West.

Causes

There were many causes of the refugee/displaced person crisis during World War II. It was much more complicated than the standarsd refugee crisis of World War I where the refugees were primarily, but not exclusively people fleeing invading armies. The concept of displaced persons is much more appropriate as in World War II, civilians were targeted to a far greater degree than any conflict in modern history. There certainly were people fleeing invading armies, the traditional meaning of refugees. But there was a serious new problem in World War II--mechanized warfare. This meant that invading moved much more rapidly than the refugees and thus refugees were less able to evade the invaders. Another problem was the success of aggressor nations (NAZIs, Soviets, and Japanese) early in the War. This mean that potential refugees had no where to fleet to or were unable to flee. Tragically this was just the beginning of the World War II tragedy. Another cause of refugee movements in World War II was fear of aerial bombardment or the actual bombing. Here there was a mixture of refuges and evacuations, bluring the differnce between the two concepts. Other World War II phenomnon generted larhe numbers of refugees/displaced persons. Much of this would fll into the category ofwar cromes bd crimes against humanity. Here NAZIs and Japanese would be procecuted, the Siviets would not. These phenomnon included: forced deportation, mass evacuation and displacement, perscecution based on ethnicity, mass killing, conscription for forced labor, anti-partisan operations, intra-ethnic violence, stategic bombing and evacuation from the cities. The NAZI approach to many refugee groups shifted toward genocide as the War progressed. There were refugee problems in most of the countries involved in World War II. And the border changes at the end of the War caused additional refugees. Many of these causes have been widely studied. Others are little known today.


Figure 2.--World War II refugees as all refugees in war were in great danger. And the War created more refugees than ever before in history. In many cases there was no provision for food nd water. Often civil authorities were overwealmed. In the case of the Axis, heavy civilian casualties were of little concern or even an actual war aim. The younger children in particulsr danger. This photograph is unidentified, other than Europe during World War II.

Children

Children were involved in the refugee crisis in large numbers. And they were the most vulnerable refuf\gees. They were also a targeted group. World War II left large numbers of people homeless are far removed from their homeland. Millions of homes had been destroyed. Whole populations had been removed. The Soviets transported large numbers of people from the Baltic Republics to Siberia. Poles were moved west. Chechens and other peoles were also transported. The NAZIs of course targeted the Jews for death camps. Many Poles were transported from the areas of Poland incorporated into the Reich. The Germans brought millions to the Reich for slave labor labor. Many were young people without children, but some had children which were left behind. Many parents were killed in the bombing and shelling. Among the displaced were huge numbers of children. The children were of course the least likely to survive. If separated from their parents their chances were not good. Jewish children were among the first to be killed by the NAZIs because they had no economic value which could be exploited. One can not forget the images of the starving Jewish children in the Warsaw Getto whose parents had been killed and they were left alone. Even non-Jewish children were unlikely to survive without their parents. But many did survive and at the end of the war there were hundreds of thousands of displaced children. Adding to the human tragedy were millions of Germans streaming back to the Reich to avoid the Red Army. After the War German populations in Poland and other countries were forcibly transported to occupied Germany.

Countries

The World War II refugee/displaced persons problem is an emensley complicated topic involving a large numbers of people. NAZI Germany was at the heart of the refugee problem, but the Soviet Union also played a major role. Other countries were involved in a variety of ways both in creating, attempting to utilize the refugee issues, and efforts to assist refugees. Belgian refugees featured prominently in World War I discussions, but this time there were relatively few. There were large numbers of French refugees, but after there country surrendered to the Germans, most retuned home after a montyh or so of flight. The Germans created large numbers of refugees in Pland by deporting Jews and Poles from areas annexed in Western Poland. The Jews were first ghettoized and then murderd. The Poles were left to their own devices in the General Government, but syuffered greatrly because of the German Hunger Plan. The refugee problem was at first limited because the early German vicgtories were so overwealming and swift. People in these countries had little time to flee and no where to which to flee. The ensuing guerrilla war in Yugoslavia did create refugees. The Gernman invasion of the Soviet Union created huge numbers of refugees with which Soviet authorities had difficulty coping, largely because a substantial part of the contry's agricultural land was occupied by the Germans. The Soviets also created many refugees. Courtries varied greatly in how they addressed the refugee problem over time. After the German surrender, the orincipal refugee problem was getting the millions of people brought into the Reich for forced labor home. Poland had an esoecially severe problem as the Soviets deported large numbers of Poles in eastern Poland to western Poland. While the Germans created much of the problem, there were also large numbers of German refugees. Furst they were fleeing the advancing Red Army. Than after the War, the countries of Eastern and central Europe deported ethnic Germans.

Civilian Evacuations

Refugees connitates indivuduals fleeing invading armies. Sometimes they suceded in reacjing safety. Often they did not. There were also the more controlled movenent of civilians, commonly called evcuations. Here the civilians were moved by the Governments involved or received support and assistance from their governments. The best known evacuation wa the British evacuation of children and other endangered peoples from the cities to protect them from aerial bombing (1939-44). The French (1939), Germans (1942-44), and Japanese (1945) also evacuated children. A smaller evacuation, but very substantial in terms of a percentage of the popultion, was conducted by the Finns because of the Soviet invasion. The Soviets eventually evacuated children from Lenningrad. The Germans evacuated the ethnic Germans from the Baltics and nothwestern Romania (1939-40). The operation was known as 'Home to the Reich'. The Germans did not conduct organized evacuations in the areas as the Red Army approached later in the War because Hitler wanted a fight to the death and local NAZIs were afraid as being seen as defeatists.

American Relief Efforts

Food would play an important role in World War II as it did in World War I. People have to eat and without food, war economies grind to a hault. War impairs a country's ability to produce food. Men drafted to fight reuce the agricultural work force and war production reduces imports like farm mchinery nd fertilizer. And the success of Axis armies early in the War. The Germans seized France (1940) hich gave them access to Frnce's agricultural bounty. And their Barbarossa offensive in the East eized much of the Soviet Union's richest agricultural land (1941). And the Japanese did the same in China over a longer time frame. And the German U-boat campaign was launched to deny the British food and war supplies. There was only one country able to massivly increase food production to supply the gap in production crrated by the War. That was the United States. And hanks to the Boyal Navy nd U.S. Navy, food and other rlieft supplies got through to Britain and the Soviet Union. In World Wat I the Allies were unable to get dupplies through to Rusia in the quantities needed. In World Wwar II they suceeded. Tragically for Chin, the Jpanese seized all of Chin'sports, mking it impossible to get food through to Vhina until after he Jpnese surrnder. Food is not the only item needed for relief activities, but it is by far the most important.

American Government Relief

United States food aid saved millions of lives in World War I. There was a special effort placed on feeding children. The same mission of mercy also occurred in World War II. The enormous productivity of American farms allowed it not only to feeds its people, but also provide food to the armies of its allies as well as civilian populations. This began even before America entered the War. The American Lend Lease Program approved by Congess (March 1941) is best known for providing arms and military supplies to World War II allies. Lend Lease aid also included large quatities of food. Food shipments to Britain and the Soviets Union. American and Canadian food aid was vital in keeping Britain in the War. American food aid was also vital in assisting the Soviet Union which was near staevation after the Germabs seized much of the country's most productive agricultural land. Soviet agriculture was already weakened by Stalin's NKVD which he ordered to murder millions of Ukranian peasant farmers and their families before the War--many of the country's best farmers. Tragically it was not possible to get food aid to China because the Japanese controlled the ports. The American Army unlike the Axis armies brought its food with it.

Charitable Relief Organizations

The Allies, meaning primarily the United States, began organizing relief programs for the refugees created by the Axis aggressions even before entering the War. The United States had played a substntial role in World War I relief, saving million of lives. The same was the case during World War II. Two early American efforts were the Emergency Rescue Committee and the U.S. Committee for the Care of European Children. Once involved in the War, President Roosevelt began using the term United Nations. It was esentially the creation of Woodrow Wilson's League of Nations. Roosevely=t had been a strong supporter of Woson and the League. The League was so controversial and Roosevelt had such a know down drag out fight with the isolationists who hated the League that he came up with a new name and prepared for the creation of an actual organiation that would replace the LOeague. The primary United Nations orgaization to assist refugees was the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA). This agency was created before the United Nations itself. During and in the immediate post-War period, it was largely financed and supported by the United States. Food was a priority. The Axis as a matter of policy sought to deny food to trgeted populations. The Allies as a result attempte to supply desperate refuges with food. Here UNRRA played a major role.

Modern Refugee System

The refugee crisis in Europe, especially Germany, resulted after the War in the creation of an international refugee and human rights infrastructure which is the basis of how refugee problems are handeled today.

Sources

Greenfeld, Howard. After the Holocaust (Greenwillow Books/HarperCollins Publishers, 2001).







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Created: 12:49 AM 6/21/2009
Last updated: 2:27 PM 3/26/2017