Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
Teaser Image

Displaced Persons (DPs)

Title: Displaced persons in Berlin
Button: Click to display an enlarged version of the image.
The term displaced person (DP) was often used for refugees who at the end of the war in Europe were living outside their prewar national boundaries and needed assistance. In 1942, Great Britain and the United States solicited support from the other Allied powers for help in dealing with the expected masses of slave laborers, prisoners of war, and political prisoners in Germany and its conquered territories. These efforts culminated in November 1943 when 44 nations signed the Agreement for United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), the first international organization created to help to wartime refugees. As the United States would be contributing about 40 percent of UNRRA's budget, an American, former New York governor Herbert Lehman, became its first director.

UNRRA planned to provide DPs with housing, food, clothing, and other necessities until each person could be "repatriated" to his or her home nation. This did not take into account the fact that many DPs, especially Jews and ethnic Germans from eastern Europe, could not safely return home. Others, particularly Poles and Czechs, did not want to return to home nations occupied by the Soviet army. The estimated two-year time frame for UNRRA to carry out its tasks was also wildly optimistic.

UNRRA field teams for dealing with DPs were made up of multinational groups of about a dozen men and women per team. They were selected for language skills and backgrounds in administration, social work, medicine, or various mechanical abilities. In 1944, these teams began to assume administration of refugee camps that Allied military forces had established in North Africa and Italy. Teams had to rely on the Allied military for additional personnel, transportation, and assistance in enforcing the UNRRA regulations at the camps. Some local commanders were quite helpful; others were indifferent or even hostile to UNRRA. This problem lessened somewhat when the Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF) named U.S. Major General Allen Gullion, former provost marshal general of the army and an efficient organizer, as the head of its own displaced persons branch.

By the end of the war in Europe, SHAEF and UNRRA had identified more than 10 million refugees in and around Germany. Others in Soviet-controlled areas were never accurately counted. Most DPs, primarily the former prisoners of war and slave laborers from western Europe, were repatriated before the end of 1945. But nearly 800,000 others remained and were housed in DP camps across occupied Germany.

DP camps were built from German army barracks, depots, and even some former concentration camps. In some areas, neighborhoods and entire villages became "DP towns." UNRRA organized most camps by nationality, having learned that mixed camps too often led to violence. Since DPs were permitted to move freely, over time camps took on specific national and cultural identities. This ethnic concentration was reinforced by the practice of allowing each camp to elect a governing council and maintain its own police force.

UNRRA and the military enforced occupation regulations against black marketing and the like. Throughout 1946, the DP population fluctuated; many Poles and others returned to their home countries. There were still several hundred facilities housing DPs in 1947, when the International Refugee Organization replaced UNRRA as the administrator of refugee matters. Conditions in the camps were crowded, an average of 100 sq ft or less of space allotted to families of five or more people. Food remained scarce, and daily diets in the camps seldom exceeded 2,000 calories and were often less. Packages of food from America and the International Red Cross helped somewhat. As the Cold War intensified, DP populations grew again when individuals and families fled Poland and the other eastern European nations for the west.

Finding permanent homes for these masses of men, women, and children taxed the energies of Europe and the world well into the 1950s. At first, nations such as Belgium, Australia, and Canada accepted only single men who were willing to work in mining, forestry, and other heavy-labor jobs. Great Britain, albeit with some reluctance, permitted Jewish survivors of the Holocaust into Palestine and made room at home for Polish soldiers who had fought with the United Kingdom during the war.

The United States moved slowly in passing legislation to accept DP immigrants. The resulting 1948 law had long waiting periods, quotas, and other restrictions similar to those of the 1930s, but through it increasing numbers of former DPs came to the United States. Ethnic Germans obtained a plurality of American visas because they received considerable help from American church groups. Ultimately, more than 580,000 DPs settled in the United States between 1949 and 1957—more than half of the total number of DPs who went to some 113 countries by the end of the 1950s. The last DP camp closed in 1957. Those who had not found a home elsewhere, mostly the old and infirm, then became the responsibility of the government of the Federal Republic of Germany.

The DP program was an extraordinary experiment in international cooperation to salvage wrecked lives. At the camps, many refugees received the first decent treatment they had known in years. Some were able to take advantage of educational opportunities and learn new trades that increased their chances for immigration. Most of these men, women, and children eventually found new homes somewhere in the world. But it took far longer to achieve this than the originators of the program had expected, and by then new struggles had been ignited in the Middle East and in Korea that produced new refugee populations. These made it clear that the world had not seen the end of the problem of displaced persons.

Terry Shoptaugh

Further Reading
Hulme, Kathryn. The Wild Place. Boston: Little, Brown, 1953.; Proudfoot, Malcolm J. European Refugees, 1939–1952. London: Faber and Faber, 1956.; Wyman, Mark. DP: Europe's Displaced Persons, 1945–1951. London: Associated University Press, 1989.

©2011 ABC-CLIO. All rights reserved.

  About the Author/Editor
  Documents Prior to 1938
  1939 Documents
  1940 Documents
  1941 Documents
  1942 Documents
  1943 Documents
  1944 Documents
  1945 Documents
ABC-cLIO Footer