When the war was over: European refugees after 1945

Historical context


The Second World War in Europe came to an end in May 1945.

When the fighting stopped, millions of civilians as well as soldiers and prisoners of war found themselves far from home. Civilians had fled in order to escape Nazi invasion, and others had been evacuated for their own safety.

Several million civilians had additionally been forced to leave their homes in occupied Europe and drafted into the Nazi war economy. The Allies made arrangements to enable civilians to return to their homes as soon as possible (different procedures applied to POWs).

The total number of civilians requiring repatriation at the end of the war stood at just over 11 million, 4.5 million of whom were in Soviet-controlled parts of Germany, Austria and Poland.

By the middle of the war the Allies already made plans to assist civilians who had fled the German advance. Following their invasion of occupied France in 1944, the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) not only engaged the retreating enemy forces but also confronted refugees. Similar considerations arose when Allied forces gained control of North Africa, Italy and the Balkans. Meanwhile on the Eastern front, large numbers of civilians and defeated soldiers moved westwards, trying to keep one step ahead of the Red Army as it advanced on Berlin.

Challenges of Peace: The Displaced Persons

The capitulation of the Third Reich in May 1945 led to the occupation of Germany and Austria by Britain, the USA, France and the Soviet Union.

Now the Allied armies became responsible for assisting more than six million forced labourers of varying nationality, including Ukrainian, Polish, French, Italian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Belarusian, Russian, and Yugoslav – most of them were farmers or industrial workers, but also professionally qualified people who were abruptly removed from their families and places of work. Freed from the need to work for the Nazi regime, these forced workers became known as Displaced Persons, or simply ‘DPs’.

The Allies expected that most of them would willingly accept repatriation. Between March and September 1945 around 10 million Europeans were repatriated, but at least 1.5 million Poles, Latvians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians and others resisted repatriation to countries that now fell within the Soviet sphere of influence. Some of them feared retribution for having connived at or supported German occupation during the war.

The relatively small proportion of European Jews who survived the Holocaust wished for the most part to leave Central and Eastern Europe at the earliest opportunity and to settle in Palestine, but in the meantime they too were the responsibility of the Allied forces of occupation.

German Refugees and Expellees

The end of the war added further elements to the equation. German civilians fled west to avoid retribution by Soviet soldiers. In addition, ethnic Germans were expelled from Poland and Czechoslovakia under the terms of the Allied agreements at Yalta and Potsdam.

The number of German refugees and expellees reached 4.2 million in January 1946, rising to 10 million a year later and reaching a total of 12.5 million by September 1950. They became the responsibility of local and regional governments in Germany. Germany itself needed to be rebuilt and to be helped to shake off the vestiges of Nazism.

As late as 1950, as a result of these momentous movements of people, around one in six of the population of West Germany and one in four of the population of East Germany were ‘expellees’ or refugees.

The Cold War and DP Resettlement

As the Cold War intensified, the Western Allies came round to the view that repatriation was no longer an attractive option. Many of the remaining DPs in Germany and Austria were whisked off to the UK, North America and Australia under various resettlement schemes (see Section 6: ‘Coming to Britain’).

Others were less fortunate: those with disability or a question-mark over their health, or with a criminal conviction (even for a petty crime), were left to languish in DP camps. They became known as the ‘hard core’. Since many families chose to stay together, a ‘black mark’ against one member had serious consequences.

From time to time the UN or private, non-governmental organisations attempted to resettle this hard core or to move them to better accommodation; the most notable such attempt took place during World Refugee Year in 1959-60. 

Department of History

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