Title: ‘A Paradoxical People’ – Britain’s Responses to Polish DPs, 1945-1951

Title: ‘A Paradoxical People’ – Britain’s Responses to Polish DPs, 1945-1951

Image Credit: Bocholt Camp: from the personal collection of a Polish DP who was resident in the camp

Displaced Persons (DPs) became the byword of the Second World War as millions of people, forcibly displaced from their homes and towns, were gathered and temporarily housed by the Allied armies as they advanced towards Berlin. Those who had been displaced from Poland throughout the war were amongst the most numerous DPs and proved to be a significant problem for the Allied forces as many refused to return to Poland.

While there were many groups deserving of refuge in the post-war world, the Poles were ultimately viewed as the group with the weakest basis for refusing to repatriate. Of the eastern European DPs, the Baltic DPs had been declared stateless as the Allies refused to acknowledge the USSR’s annexation of the Baltic states, while Ukrainian DPs, who often vehemently denounced Soviet or Polish citizenship, were accepted as a distinct group that could be in danger should they return to Ukraine (which now bore little resemblance to pre-war Ukraine). Poles, on the other hand, were simply perceived as trouble-makers who were refusing to repatriate due to economic greed and not from a fear of what awaited them.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is hardly surprising that so many Polish DPs who found themselves in Germany in 1945 refused to return to Poland – it was not their Poland. The Poland that existed in 1945 bore very little resemblance to the Poland that fought the Nazi invasion in 1939. Its borders had been shifted 150 miles westwards, placing many previously Polish areas in Soviet territory. The government-in-exile had been housed in London since the fall of France in 1940, yet on 5 June 1945 the Allies officially recognised the Soviet installed Tymczasowy Rząd Jedności Narodowej, the Polish Provisional Government of National Unity, as the leading government of Poland. Nazis and Soviets alike had murdered many of Poland’s elites, a fifth of its pre-war population had been killed, the Jewish community had been decimated, children were ripped from their families and placed with German ones, a process known as Germanisation, and Soviet-styled communism replaced the ideological framework of the government. Poland had changed more during the six years of warfare than it had over the previous century.

After the Nazi surrender, Germany was divided into four zones between Britain, the United States, France and the Soviet Union. The British received the industrial Ruhr area and most of north-west Germany, the epicentre of coal and steel production. As a consequence of the unprecedented population upheavals, DP camps had to be set up throughout the zones to house the millions of DPs found wandering through the ruins of Germany. In an attempt to suppress and avoid further violence the DPs were grouped into camps according to ethnicity and/or nationality. Within the British DP camps of Germany, a pervading sense of exasperation at a seemingly more permanent group of DPs became the dominant narrative. The relationship between the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration’s (UNRRA) welfare workers and British military officials caused additional strain as there was a distinct division between the civilians and the soldiers, particularly concerning the idea of ‘rehabilitation’. The civilian UNRRA and non-governmental organisation workers thought about all matters pertaining to the spiritual, mental and physical welfare of individuals, whereas the soldiers saw the ‘rehabilitation’ of individuals as the repatriation of Poles and the return of the ‘status-quo’. The result was a mental paralysis amongst the Polish DPs as they were restricted from resettling elsewhere and unwilling to return to Poland.

The current displacement of people has only recently surpassed the mass displacement that accompanied and followed the Second World War. Yet today we still hear the same rhetoric associated with DPs across the world, and particularly in Europe – all refugees are seeking economic gain, not safety, often coupled with questions asking why we should help, what does it have to do with us, while accusations are levelled at the refugees for travelling through other countries perceived to be ‘safe’. The Syrian refugee crisis has brought the seriousness of displacement to the doorstep of Europe, and Europe has responded by shutting them out. Just as the Allies put pressure on Poles to repatriate in 1945, European countries are pressuring governments to ‘repatriate’ the Syrian refugees – once again ignoring the spiritual, mental, and physical damage repatriation can cause to those fleeing from uncertainty and terror. At the same time, President Trump has increasingly used de-humanising rhetoric to disassociate those seeking refuge in America from Mexico, Honduras and further afield, actively ignoring America’s history as a country of immigration, the ‘melting-pot’ of nationalities upon which it has been built.

Although DPs have recently enjoyed a greater degree of visibility in the German culture of remembrance, perceptions of their enduring legacy are predominantly negative. Meanwhile, in Britain, little is known about the Polish DPs in Germany under British occupational control. The perception is largely that Poles were easily integrated into British society following the Second World War - however, this does not include the Poles who had been DPs in Germany between 1945 and 1951. The Polish legacy in Britain is dominated by the Polish Resettlement Act of 1947, which allowed for almost 150,000 Polish ex-army members, including many of their dependents, to start life anew in Britain. However, the situation within the German camps could not have been further divorced from this camaraderie shown to the ex-army Poles in the resettlement camps of Britain. My research examines the attitudes of British officials, in various guises working for various agencies, and the impact these attitudes had on the Polish DPs in the British zone of Germany – and, unfortunately, the recorded perceptions and treatment of Poles show striking similarities to modern day refugees.

The dominant narrative found within the confines of official memoranda between British departments from 1945 to 1951 is that the Poles in post-war Germany constituted nothing more than a nuisance or an embarrassment. The supposed ally Britain had gone to war for in the first place had firmly fallen out of favour by the autumn of 1945 as Poland’s claim to independence threatened the stability of European politics. Indeed, in an effort to stabilise post-war relations, Britain pursued a policy that was in direct opposition to the founding principles of the Atlantic Charter that had been held up by the Allies during the war as a blueprint for the post-war world.

In 1949, in all too familiar rhetoric that shows parallels with some western societies today, the Royal Commission on Population claimed that Britain could only welcome immigrants on a large scale into such a well-established society ‘if the immigrant were of Good Human Stock and were not prevented by their religion or race from intermarrying with the local population and becoming merged with it’. Poles who had been demobilised in Britain and resettled were deemed to be of ‘good human stock’ as they had proved their bravery on the battlefield - but what of the others, many of whom were ripped from their homes during terrifying łapanki (street round-ups) and forced to work in the Third Reich? The answer, according to the Allies, was repatriation – they were not fit for resettlement or attempted integration.

For the millions of displaced in 1945 and those displaced now, similarities outweigh differences. With the benefit of hindsight, taking the Polish DPs as an example, a concerted effort on the part of today’s host nations to understand the reasons for refugees’ displacement, and the reasons for their unwillingness to just ‘go home’, ought to be made. Margaret McNeill, a Quaker relief worker who worked throughout the post-war period with DPs, commented that the Poles were a ‘paradoxical people’, she had to make a concerted effort to understand that they were simply different: not lazy, not greedy, not inferior but different. She claimed that the Polish DPs represented the most tragic ‘paradox of a people who could never be happy in any country but their own, yet who stayed away’. For the Poles in the post-war DP camps of the British zone, the unwillingness of the British to understand cultural differences, to see people rather than statistics, and to uphold the promises made when Britain went to war for Poland, all accumulated into creating a more permanent group of DPs. The same need not happen again.

Further Reading

  • Davies, N., God’s Playground, a History of Poland: Volume II: 1795 to Present (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005)

  • Gatrell, P., The Making of the Modern Refugee (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)

  • Hilton, L. (2001), Prisoners of Peace: Rebuilding Community, Identity and Nationality in Displaced Persons Camps in Germany, 1945-1951. PhD Thesis. The Ohio State University.

  • Holian, A., Between National Socialism and Soviet Communism: Displaced Persons in Postwar Germany (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2011)

  • Jacobmeyer, W., Vom Zwangsarbeiter zum Heimatlosen Ausländer. Die Displaced Persons in Westdeutschland, 1945-1951 (Gӧttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1985)

  • Kochanski, H., The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in the Second World War (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2012)

  • Lembeck, A., Befreit, aber nicht in Freiheit: Displaced Persons in Emsland, 1945-1950 (Bremen: Temmen, 1997)

  • Łuczak, C., Polacy w Okupowanych Niemczech 1945-1949 (Poznań: Pracownia Serwisu Oprogramowania, 1993)

  • McNeill, M., By the Rivers of Babylon (London: Bannisdale Press, 1950)

  • Proudfoot, M. J., European Refugees, 1939-52. A Study in Forced Population Movement (Evanston: Northwest University Press, 1956)

  • Reinisch, J. & White, E., The Disentanglement of Populations: Migration, Expulsion and Displacement in postwar Europe, 1944-1949 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011)

  • Reinisch, J., “Internationalism in Relief: The Birth (and Death) of UNRRA”, Past and Present, Vol. 210, Supplement 6 (2011), pp. 258 – 289

  • Salvatici, S., ‘“Fighters Without Guns”: Humanitarianism and Military Action in the Aftermath of the Second World War’, European Review of History: Revue européenne d’histoire, DOI: 10.1080/13507486.2017.1374354 (2017)

  • Shephard, B., The Long Road Home: The Aftermath of the Second World War (London: Bodley Head, 2010)

  • K. Sword, ‘“Their Prospects will not be Bright”: British Responses to the Problem of the Polish “Recalcitrants” 1946-49’ Journal of Contemporary History, Vol 21., No.3 (Jul., 1986), pp 367-390

  • Wyman, M., DPs: Europe’s Displaced Persons, 1945-1951 (New York: Cornell University Press, 1989)



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