World War II did not end on V-E and V-J Days. Hostilities ceased on those days but the war churned up so many lives that it would take more than a decade to find new homes for the more than a million displaced persons in David Nasaw’s new book, The Last Million. Nasaw chronicles the struggles and political wrangling over what happened to people who, after the war, had no homes to go return to or couldn’t go home because of violent antisemitism or the growing strength of the Soviet Union in the Eastern Bloc or who would face prosecution for war crimes and collaboration in their nation of origin. This thoroughly researched book covers everything from just before the end of the war to when the last displaced persons camp in 1957.
After the war, Germany saw waves of people coming in from concentration camps and from newly Communist countries stretching from Estonia to Ukraine. Among these displaced people were liberated Jews, people who couldn’t return because of the Soviet Union, expelled Volksdeutsche, and people running from allied justice. Nasaw bounced back and forth from each of these groups as the Allies wrangle over their fates. Nasaw’s account—fully documented with quotes from Allied personnel and politicians and DPs—reveals a series of almost insurmountable problems that kept DPs in the camps for far to long.
The biggest problem is widespread antisemitism. After the war, no one wanted to take in Jewish DPs. Although the Allies would house, feed, and treat the medical ailments of the displaced persons, none of the Allied leaders seemed willing to able to bring Jewish people into their countries. American President Truman knew that Congress wouldn’t change immigration laws to allow Jews or people from now Communist countries in. Prime Minister Attlee’s government was later willing to cherry-pick non-Jewish DPs to do jobs Britons didn’t want to do. Jewish people often couldn’t go back to their homes. Not only were their communities obliterated, but they faced new pogroms by people who were happy to have seen the Jews gone forever.
The next big problem faced by Jewish DPs was the question of Palestine. Attlee had to walk a tight rope between keeping peace with Arabs in Palestine by limiting Jewish immigration as much as possible and Allied pressure to send Jewish people there. Many (but not all) surviving Jewish people wanted to go to Palestine to create a Jewish state, but Palestine was already inhabited by people whose families had been there for generations.
Lastly, Volksdeutsche, former SS soldiers, former concentration camp guards, and others who had committed or been involved in war crimes destroyed their documents or lied about where they’d been during the war to hid under the cover of being a displaced person so that they wouldn’t face summary justice if they’d gone home. It infuriated me to see that so many of these people slipped through the screening process and have their visas approved for the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and other countries.
Nasaw’s The Last Million contains so much more than what I’ve written here. My summary certainly doesn’t capture Nasaw’s gift with research and use of quotes to bring personalities to the page. I found myself shocked, saddened, cheered, and frustrated by the events recounted in The Last Million. I also feel like Nasaw gave me a graduate course in the history of displaced people. This book is among the best nonfiction I have ever read.