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The Second World War as refugee crisis

On this, the 74th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe, when refugee camps across the globe are overflowing, it’s worth considering that the war itself was the violent climax of a massive refugee crisis. Even before the refugee problems caused by the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution could be solved, Hitler’s seizure of power in early 1933 convinced Jews and left-leaning political opponents of Nazism to leave their homes. Not long after, refugees from the Spanish Civil War trekked into southern France, followed by millions of families fleeing from the Wehrmacht’s blitzkrieg through western Europe.

The response of the Vichy French and German occupation authorities to this pile-up of refugees was to allow most of them to return to their homes and to put the rest under police control, either under house arrest or in woefully inadequate internment camps. Some chose not to stay where they were told, thereby turning themselves into fugitives. Over the course of the occupation, other categories of refugee-fugitives slipped into the increasingly complex clandestine world. They included Allied soldiers who had evaded capture in 1940 or escaped from POW camps; resisters who could no longer stay in their legal lives; Jews who refused to report for deportation; young men and, in a few cases, women, who declined compulsory labor in the Third Reich or who left their war jobs; and downed Allied aviators. On the surface, a Jewish grandmother and an American pilot didn’t have much in common, but they were both being hunted by the authorities.

It was no easy task to live clandestinely under Nazi occupation. Everyone over the age of 16 was required to carry a range of identification papers including a standard ID card plus (depending on the situation) a birth certificate, a baptismal certificate, a marriage certificate, a work certificate, and travel passes. Police of all varieties—regular police, currency police, secret police, military police—could and did demand to inspect civilians’ papers in public and private spaces. But the net of surveillance stretched even further to include that most basic necessity: food. Because food was rationed, fugitives needed either illegal ration coupons or enough cash to pay black market prices. Very few commanded the resources to survive illegally without help.

Even so, thousands of men and women accepted those risks either by hiding refugees or by working together with other like-minded resisters in escape lines.

The civilians who extended such aid became resisters by that very act of generosity. A rescuer, as those who assisted Jews are called, or a helper, as those who assisted non-Jewish fugitives are called, could either hide a fugitive indefinitely or find a way to get that person out of occupied territory, usually to Switzerland or Spain. In doing so, a helper or rescuer took grave risks. Although a local constable might look the other way, the Abwehr (German secret military police) ruthlessly pursued anyone who helped aviators. Torture, deportation to the concentration camps, and death were always a possibility whenever a civilian helped a fugitive. Even so, thousands of men and women accepted those risks either by hiding refugees or by working together with other like-minded resisters in escape lines.

While refugee-fugitives and their helpers moved through the clandestine world of occupied Europe, the authorities were moving millions of other civilians, quite legally, out of their home countries in order to work or fight for the Third Reich. Indeed, at the war’s end so many people had been driven from their homes by the military destruction or taken from their homes by the occupying forces that the Allies created a new category of refugee which they called “displaced persons.” The first manifestation of the new United Nations to go into operation, because it was the most critically needed, was the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), a predecessor of today’s United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

The world wars launched the first truly global refugee crisis in modern times. In 1945 the UNRRA counted over 15 million refugees and displaced persons in Europe alone. Regrettably, the World Economic Forum reports that the number of displaced persons in the world today has risen to 65.6 million, 25 million of whom have left their own country. Encouragingly, there are still men and women, the heirs to the resistance’s helpers and rescuers, who are willing to extend a helping hand to refugees.

Featured image credit: Olympics by Nicholas Blumhardt. CC By 2.0 via Flickr.

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