Halpern on Nasaw, 'The Last Million: Europe's Displaced Persons from World War to Cold War'

Author: 
David Nasaw
Reviewer: 
Sara Halpern

David Nasaw. The Last Million: Europe's Displaced Persons from World War to Cold War. New York: Penguin Press, 2020. 672 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-59420-673-3

Reviewed by Sara Halpern (St. Olaf College) Published on H-War (December, 2021) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=56043

After two decades of publications and conferences on Europe’s humanitarian and refugee crises in the immediate post-World War II period, we finally have a synthesis: David Nasaw’s The Last Million: Europe’s Displaced Persons from World War to Cold War. As a US political historian, Nasaw’s efforts are remarkable. Not only has he tamed the vast English-language literature, he has also presented a kaleidoscopic view of the lives of displaced persons (DPs), social workers, and bureaucrats in Germany, the United States, Britain, and, to some extent, the USSR. These approaches lead to his argument that the politics of national security interests superseded the basic needs of “the Last Million” as the world shifted from World War II to the Cold War. “The Last Million” was comprised of Jews, Poles, Ukrainians, Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians who were displaced by Nazi and Soviet regimes and resistant to repatriation, or returning to their former homelands. They spread across Germany, Austria, and Italy. Ninety percent of the Last Million lived in Germany, the geographical focus of this book.

In his narrative, Nasaw stresses the struggles, or perhaps, more bluntly, failures, of the US to unconditionally prioritize humanitarian principles, actions that would be repeated in Vietnam in 1975 and Afghanistan now (as this review is being written). He gestures to the multiple ways that Americans were complicit in prolonging and complicating the process of sending relief and visas to the Last Million. The government was determined to utilize its new hegemonic status to influence and coerce other states, including Britain, to accept its vision: to preserve liberal democracy after fascism’s defeat and in the face of the rising global communist threat, the US should admit as many anticommunists (including former Nazi collaborators who lied about their whereabouts in the USSR and identities) as possible to bolster its own national security. At the same time, President Truman pushed for Jewish immigration into Palestine, then under the British Mandate, as a means of limiting the Soviet influence in the region.

Meanwhile, the DPs lived in the camps. Once food, medical care, and clothes came, the DPs built a world of their own with schools, cultural centers, political campaigns and elections, and historical commissions. These institutions offered some sense of normalcy after the chaos of war. They developed in a context of uncertainty, as the DPs did not know when they would be able to leave. Ultimately, many DPs stayed more than three years. The Last Million refused repatriation and desired to resettle in the New World, which typically included the US, Canada, Australia, and, to a lesser extent, Latin America. Despite these wishes, Nasaw demonstrates how those countries and their constituents were unwilling to welcome victims of Nazism, though they also viewed them as possible Soviet agents, especially Jews and Poles.

The Last Million’s synthesis of disparate studies allows common threads to emerge within chapters. Themes of survival during the war; politics of victimhood; resurging and competing ideas of nationalism between the DPs; tensions over political agency between DPs and military governments, and social and cultural reconstruction in the camps make their appearances. As he touches on those themes, Nasaw carefully balances his attention to different groups according to religion, ethnicity, and nationality. This helpfully puts Balts, Ukrainians, Poles, and Jews side by side in different processes of transition from war to peace.

Nasaw divides the book into six parts, organized chronologically. Part 1, aptly titled “Into Germany,” opens with stories of the many ways the DPs had arrived in Germany. This section aims to challenge popular assumptions that the Nazis forcibly brought people in through death marches from concentration camps in Poland. In fact, many of the non-Jews were recruited or forced laborers from Poland and the USSR, some of them since 1941. Each chapter, focused on specific groups, sets the foundation for subsequent chapters that deal with their lives in the DP camps and pathways to emigration. For example, Nasaw presents a complex picture of the Balts that would later explain the many lies that they had to tell immigration authorities about their relationships with the Germans and the Soviets. Estonians, Lithuanians, and Latvians viewed the Germans as liberators of the Soviet oppression and accepted assistance from them in their flight from the advancing Red Army. While the Nazi racial hierarchy indeed categorized the Balts as Slavs, the mere fact that the Germans willingly contributed to the Balts’ flight to Germany suggests that it differentiated among members within the group. In this case, as part 1 shows as whole, the Balts were more racially valuable than Ukrainians and Poles and thus not treated as forced laborers.

In part 2 (“The Plight of the Jews Strikingly Different”), Nasaw focuses on the true victims of the Nazi regime: the Jews. Since this is a generally well-trodden ground in scholarship but necessary to keep the story stitched, he moves quickly to part 3, “The Last Million in Germany.” Here, politics and victimhood take shape, serving as the basis for subsequent chapters. This rich section takes readers on a tour of the many international and German battlegrounds. The US, Britain, and the USSR struggled to come to consensus in setting up the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) with the goal of repatriating DPs, in particular those from the USSR. The Allied military worked to root out Nazi war criminals and collaborators, but those being investigated used lies and deception to claim that they had been forcibly displaced by the Nazis and had no Nazi sympathies in order to obtain papers granting them access to UNRRA resources.

This section certainly could not be complete without any discussion of the Anglo-American Commission and Jewish DPs. It is surprisingly and interestingly complemented by discussions of the UNRRA and the Polish government’s efforts to bring back non-Jewish Poles. Non-Jewish Poles resisted repatriation; Jewish Poles resisted through illegal immigration to Palestine.

Inside the German arena, the DPs exercised their agency in their negotiations with the Allied military governments and the UNRRA over repatriation, appropriate expressions of nationalism, and representation in DP affairs. This is another point where Nasaw’s synthetic approach offers food for thought. While scholars have long commented on Zionists’ clashes with the British authorities, Nasaw suggests that such interactions were not as vitriolic as those between Eastern Europeans and the US and British military governments.

In part 4, “Resettlement,” Nasaw chronicles how the humanitarian principles of the United Nations were defeated by the utilitarianism and antisemitism employed by countries agreeing to accept Europe’s displaced. The biggest losers in these schemes were the International Refugee Organization (IRO), UNRRA’s successor, and DPs. Nasaw offers a poignant quote from a Quaker relief worker’s memoir: “’The whole proceedings smacked of the slave-market. What was wanted was a strong healthy labour [sic]. Volunteers who were underweight would not be considered, we were told, with unconscious irony. Brawn was required, not brain; and education was at a discount…. It was all so different from the mass emigration which the DPs and we ourselves had creamed of” (p. 337). In addition to these criteria, discrimination against Jews still pervaded; the ability to do manual labor, particularly agriculture was strongly preferred by the recruiters and many Jews had no experience. By this point, young Jewish survivors had formed new families and begun to develop skills that had been interrupted by the war. At the same time, they continued to deal with the deep traumas of the war. In some ways, these selection criteria were not of major concern to those still strongly preferring to resettle in Palestine. The latter remained the thorn in the side of the British. The British finally handed over Palestine to the United Nations in November 1947, setting the stage for a potential civil war in the territory. In what is somewhat a sideshow in the grand narrative, Nasaw uses this opportunity to express his sympathetic views on the Arab-Israeli War by recounting the forced displacement of Arabs. In doing so, he is able to highlight the growing helplessness of the international community regarding the stagnating situation in the DP camps; the Arab-Israeli War was displacing Palestinian Arabs as well, adding to the global refugee crisis.

With the Jews now able to immigrate to the new Jewish State en masse in 1948-49, Nasaw shifts his attention to his strongest subject, US politics, in part 5, “America’s Fair Share.” Though historians are familiar with books that have offered different perspectives on the immigration reforms in the US leading to the Displaced Persons Act of 1948 and its amended version in 1950, Nasaw’s clear and effective story-telling makes this narrative accessible and refreshing. Instead of burrowing into details of draft bills and congressional debates, Nasaw profiles the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on immigration, Senator Chapman Revercomb, and his efforts to keep immigration restricted. In opening “America’s Fair Share,” Nasaw effectively spotlights Revercomb’s political calculation in regard to bringing the bill from the Judiciary Committee to the Senate. Revercomb purposely asked for the bill to be delayed until after his primary election in West Virginia. This would then leave just a month for a debate before Congress adjourned for the summer. While the DP bill garnered anger inside in the US, readers will find the DPs’ responses in Europe intriguing. The DPs had few, if any, emotions to share. The immigration criteria were still beyond their reach and fabrication of their backgrounds became necessary once again to gain entry, as it had been to obtain papers for UNRRA aid.

Not all DPs needed to lie, however. Nasaw reveals a sinister side: the CIA’s active recruitment of former Nazi war criminals and collaborators for intelligence work against the USSR. The State Department, which housed the Visa Division, quietly issued visas for national security interests to such persons, who could cut to the front of the line. By showcasing this evidence, Nasaw makes clear that the United States prioritized national security over economic utilitarianism, which many other countries such as Belgium, Australia, and Canada favored.

As the Cold War took hold, any considerations of World War II experience and Nazi past became irrelevant. Yet the US’ decisions concerning immigration in the late 1940s and early 1950s would come to haunt the government. Part 4’s coverage of the latter half of the twentieth century challenges commonly accepted end dates for the history of DPs (1948, 1949, 1953, and 1957). This shift offers a pause for experienced students of DP history. Some scholars have declared that the Holocaust has never ended because of memory and trauma, but Nasaw presents a different spin on this argument with his focus on war criminals and collaborators. With the Nazis living as free men in the US and elsewhere, the Holocaust could not end without bringing them to justice. Nasaw offers perhaps a first dive into the history of the Office of Special Investigations (OSI), which had one mission: to bring all evidence to light to prosecute known Nazi criminals in the US. This emphasis—national security over humanitarianism and utilitarianism—effectively strengthens Nasaw’s pleas for a more humane approach to handling ordinary refugees seeking safety in the US from harm.

A tour de force is not without issues, although it is difficult to imagine how Nasaw could offer a more streamlined narrative flow within the chapters. Readers might find section headers based on places and years and paragraphs jarring. In addition, a master of identifying poignant quotes, Nasaw sometimes shares far more than enough through long blocks of quotes (especially from Jewish sources in chapter 20, which left this reader wondering about non-Jewish responses to the passage of the DP Act of 1948). The strength of the conclusion hardly matches that of the preceding pages, especially the introduction, particularly given Nasaw’s deep concerns about today’s refugee and humanitarian crises occurring at the US’s southern border and how the US appears to be repeating history.

Those stylistic issues aside, a synthesis can uncover areas for further research. Among the most compelling stories are those of the Baltic DPs recruited to work in the US South as sharecroppers, CIA informants, and Polish advocacy for Polish DPs in the UNRRA. The Last Million’s Anglocentric focus leaves questions about Latin America’s role in the DP situation, particularly in context of (racist) selection criteria for immigration.

The Last Million is a necessary read. It introduces first-time students to the topsy-turvy world of the displaced, searching for safety during the prolonged transition from war to uneasy peace. Its comparative perspective humbles advanced scholars, who have tended to focus on one demographic group of DPs. It provides lessons for military planners on the importance of thoughtful exit strategies and meaningful engagement with humanitarian aid workers trying to work with traumatized displaced civilians. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, The Last Million offers a closure to many descendants of DPs who may still have many questions about their relatives’ experiences between the end of the Nazi regime and the arrival to their new homes, which were just as traumatizing as the war and genocide itself.

Citation: Sara Halpern. Review of Nasaw, David, The Last Million: Europe's Displaced Persons from World War to Cold War. H-War, H-Net Reviews. December, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56043

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