Refugees and Repatriation in Latent History: An Introduction to the John Corsellis Archive
Title Image: ‘Psychological Problems of Displaced Persons’ A report prepared by John Corsellis for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, 1945
This coming year will see the opening of the John Corsellis archive, based
In 1943, Corsellis, an avowed conscientious objector, had volunteered for overseas service with the Friends Ambulance Unit; part of a broader international response to an escalating European refugee crisis, overseen by the recently established United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. Following secondments at camps for ‘Displaced Persons’ (DPs) in Egypt and northern Italy, Corsellis was posted to the British sector of Allied-occupied Austria where he worked among DPs fleeing war-torn Yugoslavia to the south. It was here that he bore witness to the events which form the crux of the archive’s historic focus: in May 1945, thousands of DPs – mainly former members of the Nazi-aligned, ‘Slovene Home Guard’ and their families – were forcibly repatriated back to Yugoslavia by the British military authorities. Many were to face summary execution at the hands of the victorious Communist forces in what was later dubbed the Kočevski Rog massacre in southeastern Slovenia. Although a minority of
According to Corsellis, his efforts to suppress the memory of these events induced a mental breakdown in the mid-1970s, precipitating his determination to raise historic awareness of the repatriations and the fates of Yugoslav DPs. By the late-1990s, these efforts had culminated in Slovenian Phoenix: a semi-biographical work on his wartime
The UEA School of History assumed custody of the collection in 2015 with the understanding that it would be organised into an archive to promote further research and integrate the story of the Yugoslav DPs into the wider field of refugee studies. The archive also covers a broad range of topics necessitating its compartmentalisation into specific thematic ‘series’. These include Corsellis’ book drafts; private papers on camp life; information on the repatriations; and later correspondence and interview transcripts with survivors who formed a Yugoslavian diaspora in Europe, North America and Argentina after 1945. Items of particular historical significance include a collection of identification cards distributed to
Researchers will also uncover fascinating insight into the often essentialist attitudes through which the DPs were perceived through an assortment of reports and memoranda produced by Corsellis and other camp staff.
Representing as much a record of identities forged through the collective trauma of forced migration, the archive offers a unique and vital resource for scholars of refugee history based at UEA, other institutions or independent researchers. The particularly extensive range of materials relating to the Yugoslavian diaspora, poses another interesting angle: how do those historically defined by the moniker of ‘refugees’ integrate themselves back into civil society, usually within the context of a foreign culture?
For those with interests outside the sphere of refugee history, the collection offers equally valuable insights concerning the development of international humanitarianism prior to the Cold War period. Historians of south-east Europe will also find the materials to be a valuable asset when examining the contentious legacy of the Yugoslav state project after 1945. Consideration of these questions may also serve to further establish explanations as to why events such as the 1945 repatriations have tended to remain dormant within broader historical narratives.
The archive’s contents
While the archive will be made open to researchers this summer, Corsellis’ publications provide a useful point of departure for those wishing to investigate its contents. Slovenian Phoenix may be accessed here, while copies of Slovenia 1945 are widely available online.
For more information about the Corsellis archive or to arrange a visit, please contact archivist Sam Foster samuel.Foster@uea.ac.uk