Skip to content

The long road home: book review

2 August 2012

The Long Road Home: The Aftermath of the Second World WarThe Long Road Home: The Aftermath of the Second World War by Ben Shephard

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Occasionally one comes across a book that explains some things that one has always wondered about, and this is one of them. I’ve read several histories overing the period of the Second World War, and even did a History Honours paper on modern Germany, which covered that period. but there were some things that I never understood, and this book has helped to explain some of them.

The things that I find most interesting in history are transitions: from peace to war, or from war to peace; transitions such as revolutions, and other things that make big changes in people’s lives. And I want to know how these changes affected people. This book deals with one such period: the end of the Second World War in Europe.

I knew, from reading other history books, that one of the problems facing the victorious Allies after the surrender of Nazi Germany was that of Displaced Persons, or DPs as they were known. But it was never really clear who these people were, or what were the problems they posed. Why couldn’t they just go home once the fighting was over?

It was not until I read this book that I realised that there was a difference between DPs and refugees, and just what constituted the problem. I thought that Displaced Persons included anyone who was left far from home when the fighting ended, including refugees, prisoners of war, and people who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when the war started, like “enemy aliens”.

But it appears that in the minds of the Allied administrators DPs were a particular class of persons, people who were brought to Germany during the war, voluntarily or forcibly, as labourers.

As the war expanded, with the successive German invasions of Poland, Norway, the Low Countries, France, the Balkans and the USSR, so more and more Germans were conscripted for miliary service, leaving labour shortages in the farms and factories in Germany. To alleviate this shortage, the Nazi government recruited or conscripted labourers from the occupied territories to keep production going. Apart from a few volunteers from places like France, most were in fact slave labourers.

In an ideal world, once the war ended the demobilised soldiers would go back to their old jobs and the labourers would go home. But the old jobs were sometimes no longer there, because the factories had been bombed, and the transport infrastructure likewise. Also, once the war ended the last thing most of the forced labourers wanted to do was to continue working for the Germans.

The Allies had foreseen some of this, and had set up the United Nations Rehabilitation and Relief Administration (UNRRA) to deal with it once the war ended, but bureaucratic bungling and ineffective leadership meant that took a long time to work effectively. UNRRA was also dependent on the miliary authorities in the four different occupation zones for such things as transport, and the miliary authorities had other priorities, so urgently needed food and medical supplies often took a long time to arrive.

Camps were set up for DPs, to provide food and shelter until they could be sent home, but they were of many different nationalities, and some of the more nationalistically-minded of them demanded to be housed in separate camps, and nationalities were disputed. For example, at the end of the war, Poland had moved westwards, and DPs who had been born in Poland before the war found that their homes were now part of the USSR, and the USSR claimed them as its citizens, and they did not want to return home.

Jews and Ukrainians demanded to be treated as separate nationalities, and to live in separate camps, though at that time there were no separate states for those nationalities. Zionists from Palestine visited the Jewish DP camps, and persuaded most of the inmates to demand that they be “repatriated” to Palestine, something which the British, in their zone, were reluctant to encourage, because since the First World War they had governed Palestine under a League of Nations mandate, and the Arab population there were opposed to more Jewish immigration.

Many of the DPs from Eastern Europe, which was now under Soviet control, had no desire to go back home, and many wanted to go to America, which had seen hardly any fighting in its own territory during the war. Because of the westward movement of Poland, many Germans were expelled from western Poland (which before the war had been eastern Germany), and this aggravated the problems. Immediately after the end of the war there were outbreaks of diseases like typhus in the DP camps, though newly-invented drugs and insecticides, like penicillin and DDT, helped to control them.

One of the biggest problems was feeding the population of the camps, and indeed the population generally, was the problem of feeding them. One of the things that had puzzled me in the past was why in Britain, there was no bread rationing during the war, such rationing was introduced in 1946, and food rationing in Britain was more severe immediately after the war than it was during the war. This book provides an explanation of that too.

The influx of yet more refugees placed an intolerable burden on the British Zone. Only 17 per cent of those who had entered the zone by 15 June 1946 were adult males, and only 60 per cent of those were fit for work. The arrival of 750,000 economically unproductive expellees aggravated the food, housing and public health situation. In late 1948 there would be 243 people per square kilometre in the zone, compared with 167 in the American and 131 in the French; it was estimated that, if you reckoned on one person per room, the British Zone was short of 6.5 million rooms. The situation was at its worst in Schleswig-Holstein, where 120,000 people were still living in camps.

To feed the extra mouths, the British authorities made desperate efforts to raise food production and make the zone more self-supporting. They had some 650,000 acres of grassland ploughed up — top produce, it was hoped, a 10 per cent increase in the grain harvest and and a 75 per cent increase in potatoes. They tried to persuade farmers to slaughter their livestock hers, so as to provide meat and reduce the demand on arable pasture and on feedstuffs. They forbade the growing of luxury crops; cut the amount of grain allowed for brewing; encouraged the cultivation of vegetables in town gardens and allotments; did what they could to compel farmers to bring their produce to market.

But this policy was only partially successful. The farmers of northern Germany, who were by long tradition animal husbandmen and not cereal growers, resisted attempt to change their ways; there wasn’t the staff to enforce the changes. Food production was further handicapped by shortages of seed, fertilisers and equipment. British policy fell between two stools, providing neither effective coercion nor effective incentives.

It was clear that clear that considerable imports would continue to be necessary for several years. The British would have to juggle the needs of the Germans against those of their own population — whose bread was rationed in 1946 — and other regions of the world, such as India (Shephard 2011:246)

Another interesting facet of the food problem lay far from Europe, in America:

On the face of it there should not have been a food problem at all after the war. More than enough was produced in the western hemisphere — and in particular, in the United States — to feed the starving Europeans, and probably the starving Asians as well. The war years had seen a second agricultural revolution in the United States, as a severe labour shortage led to the systematic application of mechanisation and fertilisers which transformed the productivity of the land. By 1946 American agriculture was producing a third more food and fibre than before the war, and with much less labour.

However, Americans now wanted to eat more meat, and it paid their farmers to feed their cereals to the livestock needed to produce that meat, rather than to human beings. For the first time in history, high meat consumption in one major country would distort agricultural output all over the world.

However, the roots of the problem went back further than that. The people who ran US agriculture were mindful of the huge surpluses in the 1930s, when overproduction had destroyed farm prices: their main objective was to avoid any repetition of that nightmare. At the end of 1944 the United States War Food Administration had decoded from a few shreds of doubtful evidence that Europe was not going to starve when the war ended. Accordingly — and against the advice of Herbert Lehman — it took steps to avoid overproduction, by reining in farm output, relaxing rationing controls so that American civilians could eat up existing food stocks and stopping all stockpiling for relief. The object of this “bare shelves” policy, says historian Allen J. Matusow, “was to come as close as possible to see that the last GI potato, the last GI pat of butter and last GI slice of bread was eaten just as the last shot was fired”. Its potentially disastrous effects of European relief were soon apparent and by the spring of 1945 public figures such as Herbert Hoover were warning of the perils ahead. Yet it was almost a year before decisive action was taken, partly thanks to Lehman’s ineffectiveness in Washington, and partly due to the different priorities of the Truman administration, and its Secretary of Agriculture, Clinton P. Anderson, who was determined to put the interests of the American consumer before those of relief.

Which is where meat comes in. If there is a villain in this story, it is the sheer hoggery of the American military, which insisted on annually requisitioning 430 pounds of meat per soldier, thus taking up a fair amount of the available livestock and diverting grain production away from human consumption. However, in wartime meat had been rationed for the American domestic consumer; with the coming of peace, and Americans now eating considerably better than in the 1930s, there was huge pressure on Washington to remove the rationing, while the incentive to American farmers to sell their cereals for animal rather than human consumption remained strong. In November 1945, the Truman administration removed all rationing from meat, oil and fats (Shephard 2011:251).

Reading about the problems faced by UNRRA, and especially the bureaucratic bunglings described in the first few chapters of the book, also helps me to understand some of the failures of transformation in South Africa. In both cases, the planners underestimated the hugeness of the task. And as in South Africa, where so much of the money earmarked for development is siphoned off into the bottomless pit of corruption, so in post-War Europe, much disappeared in a similar fashion, and also into the black market.

What I liked about this book was that it did not just describe things in terms of bald statistics and policies and minutes of meetings, but also tells the human story of the people in the camps, and what life was like for them, and it uses not only official sources, but diaries, letters and personal accounts written by military officers, UNRRA officials, and DPs themselves. This gives a fuller and more human picture.

View all my reviews

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: