Europe immediately after World War II was a chaos of destroyed cities and towns with some completely eradicated. It was a mass of millions of displaced people, the majority with no home to return to, that converged on a Germany that had forced a war of aggression upon the European continent and around the world, and a Germany that in the end was forced to surrender in defeat.
These wandering millions who took to the roads in the midst of this devastation, adding to the unprecedented chaos, were known to the Allies as Displaced Persons. The DPs, as they were called, came from all walks of life. They were men and women, children and the elderly. They were the Jewish concentration camp survivors and former slave laborers for the Nazis. They were German soldiers heading home after a long and grueling war that ended in humiliation. They were Nazi collaborators and war criminals trying to hide their identity among the masses.
These are the people that are the focus of David Nasaw's book, "The Last Million: Europe's Displaced Persons from World War II to Cold War."
In an attempt to relieve the influx of people crossing Germany's borders, the Allied military in the occupied zones, with the exception of the Soviets, set up DP or Displaced Persons camps to house, feed and clothe them, as well as to see to their medical care. Yet, the Allies remained sharply divided over what to do with these war refugees, the majority of whom refused to be repatriated to their country of origin, particularly to Russia and Soviet-occupied territories.
Nasaw sheds light on the little known history of the Nazi collaborators and war criminals — concentration camp guards, informers — who used the DP camps for the purposes of anonymity or melting among the refugees under an assumed identity.
For the Jewish survivors of the recent Holocaust, it was intolerable to remain in exile in Germany, the very country that had nearly annihilated them. Nasaw researches in great detail the political climate of the times in which the U.S. government obstructed Jewish immigration to America, Britain's refusal to open up Palestine to the survivors and the countries of Europe that held fiercely to their anti-Semitism, threatening the few remaining survivors who attempted to return to their original homelands.
It was a dilemma that would have far-reaching consequences the world over. It became a tremendous international crisis, a burden nobody wanted, and stoked the flames of the Cold War.
Nasaw's story of post-war displacement of a people who no longer had a home or a country they could or would return to is the story of a people who crossed the border between a broken past and an unknowable future.
Kimberly Bolton is a circulation clerk with the Missouri River Regional Library.