Refugees and Repatriation in Latent History: An Introduction to the John Corsellis Archive

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 the University of East Anglia’s School of History. The archive promises to shed new light onto an episode of early twentieth century refugee history that, until recently, has remained virtually unknown in Western historiography.

‘What they have been through’ in Corsellis’ report ‘Psychological Problems of Displaced Persons’

‘What they have been through’ in Corsellis’ report ‘Psychological Problems of Displaced Persons’

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 DPs managed to evade or survive the repatriations, Communist violence against this refugee population was considerable, yet remains largely absent from the  historiography of the Second World War’s humanitarian consequences.     

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 experiences however, limited interest resulted in it failing to reach publication. By contrast, Slovenia 1945, a second book co-authored with the Reuters journalist Marcus Ferrar, was published in 2005 to critical acclaim. Corsellis and Ferrar also solicited an apology from the British government over Britain’s involvement in the repatriations. Any such response remained elusive until 2010 when the Foreign Office Minister David Lidington offered a formal ‘expression of regret’ during a Foreign Office videocast.

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 DPs from 1944 to 1945.

Refugee identification card: Marija Zalaznik, typist in administration, aged 22, Slovenian

Refugee identification card: Marija Zalaznik, typist in administration, aged 22, Slovenian

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.

‘Certain characteristics of displaced persons’ in Corsellis’ report ‘Psychological Problems of Displaced Persons’

‘Certain characteristics of displaced persons’ in Corsellis’ report ‘Psychological Problems of Displaced Persons’

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?

‘Displaced children’ in Corsellis’ report ‘Psychological Problems of Displaced Persons’

‘Displaced children’ in Corsellis’ report ‘Psychological Problems of Displaced Persons’

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.  

Refugee History Editor Kate Ferguson using the Corsellis archive

Refugee History Editor Kate Ferguson using the Corsellis archive

The archive’s contents presents researchers with an under-examined case study that highlights the shifting dynamics of international political and ethical attitudes during a transient phase in international history. Furthermore, a readily accessible archival collection within the School of History, will offer UEA’s undergraduate students the opportunity to develop advanced study and research skills often restricted to those engaged in postgraduate research.

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

 

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