Keith Lowe, author of Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II, when asked by the website Five Books about his five favorite books on the aftermath of World War II included Ben Shephard’s The Long Road Home: The Aftermath of the Second World War on his list. So, with a recommendation like that, no wonder I enjoyed The Long Road Home so much it’s winding up on my year-end Best Nonfiction List. Once again, like so many others I discovered this great book through my public library.
Published in 2011, The Long Road Home, much like Savage Continent is a detailed look at Europe in the aftermath of World War II, but with a particular focus. Specifically, it’s the story of the millions of displaced persons who found themselves in Germany at the end of the war. Stranded in war-ravaged Germany with meager resources and staring at an uncertain or even grim future, never before had the world been confronted with such an insurmountable problem.
At war’s end Germany was home to countless camps and temporary settlements full of people from across Europe. Some were former slave laborers or prisoners of war and couldn’t wait to go home. Some were originally from Soviet Ukraine or the Baltic Republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia and had no desire to live once again under direct Soviet Rule. (Complicating matters, some had collaborated with the occupying Germans and knew returning to their former homeland would be a death sentence.) Some were Poles from Eastern Poland, which now belonged to the USSR and weren’t welcome anymore in their old towns and villages. There were Croatians from Yugoslavia who had backed the Germans during the war and knew the victorious Communists would kill them upon their return. Jews who had survived the Holocaust were in the camps as well, afraid to return to their countries of origin lest they live under Soviet rule or deal or worse, deal with their anti-Semitic neighbors. Lastly, ethnic Germans were streaming into the country after being forcibly ejected from Poland and Czechoslovakia. It was complex, polyglot mess on a grand scale.
Even though the camps weren’t entirely emptied until the 1950s there were no mass repatriations, save for the ex POWs and slave laborers. Most, if not all the Jews left for the US or Palestine, which by 1948 became Israel. At first, the Western Allies were hesitant to accept displaced persons from the Soviet Union, since doing so would anger the Communists. But as time passed and relations between East and West deteriorated, post-war labor shortages in Great Britain, Canada, Australia and the US created a strong demand for potential workers and their families from places like Ukraine and the Baltic states. (Canada, with its sizable Ukrainian community was a prime destination for those from that part of the USSR. Thanks to their pre-war relatively high standard of living a number of Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians were educated professionals and many of them and their families wound up in Great Britain.) Eventually, Germany was able to absorb the expelled ethnic Germans.
Like I said at the beginning The Long Road Home is an outstanding book. It’s also the perfect follow-up read to Savage Continent. I have no problem recommending it.