N. Hagen u.a. (Hrsg.): Displaced Persons-Forschung in Deutschland und Österreich

Displaced Persons-Forschung in Deutschland und Österreich. Eine Bestandsaufnahme zu Beginn des 21. Jahrhunderts

Hagen, Nikolaus; Nesselrodt, Markus; Strobl, Philipp; Velke-Schmidt, Marcus
DigiOst (14)
Berlin 2022: Frank & Timme
Anzahl Seiten
366 S.
€ 59,80
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Anna Holian, School of Historical, Philosophical & Religious Studies, Arizona State University

The term “displaced person” (DP) was coined by the Allies during the Second World War to describe people displaced from their home countries “by reason of the war.”1 In theory, the term encompassed all groups of displaced Europeans, including Germans who fled or were expelled from their homes in East-Central Europe at war’s end. In practice, however, it came to apply only to those displaced populations who qualified for Allied and United Nations assistance, with the members of “enemy” (e.g., Germany, Austria) and “ex-enemy” (e.g., Rumania, Bulgaria) countries for the most part excluded (an exception was made for Jews and other former persecuted persons). In particular, the term came to be synonymous with those displaced East-Central Europeans who, for one reason or another, did not return home as the Allies expected them to and thus became a longer-term refugee population, concentrated above all in the western occupation zones of Germany.

Although there was a flurry of scholarly interest in displaced persons in the immediate postwar period, it was not until the 1980s and 90s that DPs became a critical topic of historical research, with Wolfgang Jacobmeyer’s 1985 book on Allied DP policy being the first major study.2 Since then, interest in the topic has grown significantly, with research on Jewish DPs especially strong.3 Still, the topic often continues to be seen as peripheral, especially to national histories of the postwar. In the German context, the foreign refugees who made up the DP population and mostly left by the early 1950s are largely overshadowed by the ethnic German refugees and expellees who arrived at the same time, and for the most part remained.

The authors of the current volume have set an ambitious agenda to advance scholarship on displaced persons. Most are members of a loose network of DP scholars hosted virtually by the Department of Eastern European History at the University of Bonn.4 One of their primary goals is to integrate work on DPs into the mainstream of historical research on postwar Germany and Austria. In the process, they also intend for historians to move beyond the “DP problem” framework that largely dominates the discussion of DPs in this larger context. Instead, they aim for a framework that fully integrates displaced persons into postwar national narratives while also recognizing the transnational nature of DP history and its relationship to global migration processes and the formation of an international refugee regime.

Keeping with this agenda, two of the central themes of the volume are transnationalism and international refugee aid. Less obviously related to this agenda, and more in line with earlier scholarship, are the volume’s other two main themes, camp life and early efforts to grapple with the wartime past. Indeed, there is sometimes a disconnect between the programmatic aspects of the volume and the individual case studies. Consequently, the volume’s primary contributions to the literature, and there are several of them, are somewhat different from what was explicitly intended.

The volume’s first contribution is that it situates displaced persons within a significantly expanded geographical context. Whereas most research to date has focused on Germany, the authors delve into not only the Austrian and Italian contexts but also numerous extra-European sites where DPs resided temporarily or settled permanently. Especially interesting are Jochen Lingelbach’s essay on Polish displaced persons in British colonial Africa (1942–1950) and Aivar Jürgenson’s exploration of successive waves of Estonian migration to Argentina. The volume’s commitment to a transnational perspective comes through most clearly here, especially in Jürgenson’s discussion of the different relationships prewar and postwar Estonian migrants had with their home and host societies.

Second, numerous authors probe more deeply into the processes by which displaced persons organized and developed a sense of communal identity and purpose. While a focus on internal group dynamics is already well-established in the scholarship on DPs, these essays offer new insights into the contexts and venues within which self-conscious DP communities emerged. This theme comes through most strongly in Stephanie Ligan’s and Evita Wiecki’s chapters on Jewish DPs, perhaps because the already large literature on this group provides a strong basis for microhistorical analysis. Internal group dynamics are also central to Kateryna Kobchenko’s essay on the development of a transnational Ukrainian DP community.

Third, the volume enriches our knowledge of the institutional matrix within which DPs lived. Although the authors reject Wolfgang Jacobmeyer’s premise that displaced persons were “administered human beings” (verwaltete Menschen), there is no getting around the fact that displaced persons’ everyday lives – and possible futures – were deeply structured by institutions, above all the Allied occupation authorities and the United Nations refugee agencies.5 Some authors address this theme by exploring little-known facets of well-known organizations. This is the case with Stella Maria Frei and Wolfgang Piereth, both of whom look at projects undertaken by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), the first UN refugee agency in postwar Europe. Other authors explore the work of less well-known institutions. Jim G. Tobias focuses on the Canadian Jewish Congress and its War Orphans Project, while Philipp Lehar looks at the British Quakers. These specific essays dovetail nicely with other recent work on the role of non-governmental organizations in the postwar refugee regime, though more explicit attention to this connection would have been helpful.6

Finally, the volume expands our conception of the category of displaced persons. Although the editors do not articulate this explicitly, their object of analysis is considerably broader than the anti-repatriation East-Central Europeans who constitute the focus of most work on DPs. The volume includes essays on Czech displaced persons who returned home after the war (Jana Kasíková) and on the formation of new groups of Czech refugees in Austria after the establishment of communist rule in Czechoslovakia in 1948 (Martin Nekola). There is also a brief discussion of South Tyroleans who migrated to Austria (or, more accurately, the Greater German Reich) after 1939 and remained there after the war (Philipp Strobl and Nikolaus Hagen). This expanded conception of DPs – which is, in essence, a return to the term’s origins – is very welcome and supports the editors’ interest in situating displaced persons in the global history of twentieth-century migration.

However, some of the goals of this ambitious collection remain only partially realized. Particularly, few of the essays engage meaningfully with the scholarship on transnationalism and its emphasis on migrants’ intermediate position between home and host societies. Instead, transnationalism functions primarily as a synonym for the multinational origins of specific ethnonational DP groups or for international migration tout court. Likewise, few of the essays explore the integration of displaced persons into their host societies. Most focus on the period in which DPs were considered an Allied responsibility and had limited interactions with the majority society. While temporary populations can leave a significant mark on the places through which they pass, a fuller sense of how displaced persons shaped German and Austrian society – and how German and Austrian society shaped them – will require a broader temporal scope.7

There is thus much work left to be done. Although the current volume does not deliver on everything it promises, it nonetheless sets an excellent agenda and offers tantalizing glimpses of what the future of research on displaced persons will look like.

1 “Outline Plan for Refugees and Displaced Persons,” 3 June 1944, archives of the Leibniz Institute for Contemporary History (Institut für Zeitgeschichte), Munich, Fi 01.84.
2 Wolfgang Jacobmeyer, Vom Zwangsarbeiter zum Heimatlosen Ausländer. Die Displaced Persons in Westdeutschland 1945–1951, Göttingen 1985. Other important works from the period include Mark Wyman, DPs. Europe’s Displaced Persons, 1945–1951, Philadelphia 1989, paperback Ithaca 1998, and Michael Brenner, Nach dem Holocaust. Juden in Deutschland 1945–1950, Munich 1995, English translation: After the Holocaust. Rebuilding Jewish Lives in Postwar Germany. Translated from the German by Barbara Harshav, Princeton 1997.
3 The literature is by now quite large. Notable works published since 2000 include Atina Grossmann, Jews, Germans, and Allies. Close Encounters in Occupied Germany, Princeton 2007, German translation: Juden, Deutsche, Alliierte. Begegnungen im besetzten Deutschland. Aus dem Englischen von Ulrike Bischoff, Göttingen 2012; Tamar Lewinsky, Displaced Poets. Jiddische Schriftsteller im Nachkriegsdeutschland 1945–1951, Göttingen 2008; Gerard Daniel Cohen, In War’s Wake. Europe’s Displaced Persons in the Postwar Order, Oxford 2011; Ruth Balint, Destination Elsewhere. Displaced Persons and Their Quest to Leave Postwar Europe, Ithaca 2021. There have also been some titles aimed at a wider audience: Ben Shephard, The Long Road Home. The Aftermath of the Second World War, London 2010, and David Nasaw, The Last Million. Europe’s Displaced Persons from World War to Cold War, New York 2020.
4 See https://www.netzwerkdpforschung.uni-bonn.de (02.10.2022).
5 Jacobmeyer, Vom Zwangsarbeiter, p. 18.
6 For examples of recent work on the Mennonites’ work with displaced persons, see the essays by John Thiesen, Erika Weidemann, Aileen Friesen, and Steven Schroeder in: Intersections. MCC Theory and Practice Quarterly 9:4 (Fall 2021), https://mcc.org/sites/mcc.org/files/media/common/documents/intersectionsfall2021.pdf (02.10.2022).
7 An important recent book that does this in the Italian context, looking at displaced persons as part of the broader refugee population, is Pamela Ballinger, The World Refugees Made. Decolonization and the Foundation of Postwar Italy, Ithaca 2020.