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

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

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Category: History
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Clare Reddaway
Reviewed by Clare Reddaway
Summary: A masterly, comprehensive study of the millions of Displaced Persons in Europe in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. A book full of human interest, political insight, intensive research and accurate, historical scholarship.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 496 Date: April 2011
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0712600590

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In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War Europe was in tatters, and millions of its citizens were stranded far from home. How to cope with these Displaced Persons was one of the biggest issues of the immediate post-war period. In The Long Road Home Ben Shephard tells their story.

The issue of these DPs, as they were known, is a complex one. Their nationalities were various: Poles, Ukrainians, Yugoslavs, Italians, Lithuanians, Germans expelled from Eastern Europe, and, of course, Jews. Shephard separates each nationality and area, and minutely analyses their situations. He documents, for instance, the notorious return of Cossacks to Stalin, the camps set up for Poles, the exodus of German refugees from the East. He tells the fascinating story of the post-war Jewish situation, of the state of mind of the Jewish camp survivors, of the Jewish leaders of what was then Palestine, Ben-Gurion in particular, and their efforts to bring the Jews to Palestine. Shephard points out that the 'Holocaust' was not a concept that existed in the 1940s. The Jewish experience of the war was not seen as uniquely appauling at that point in time. He follows the progress of each group as their situation is solved or dispersed, analyses the problems such as the desire for the Poles not to go home, and concludes with the long term consequences for some of the DPs.

Shephard divides the book between personal accounts and human stories, and the overarching political sitatution of the time. He pays particular attention to the creation, management and running of UNRRA, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilittion Adminstration. He paints short character portraits of the main political players, and deftly keeps track of the shifting tides of public and political opinion in the key nations involved. He takes topics such as food, and discusses the significance of food production and the necessity of feeding the starving in the camps and indeed in Germany.

For me, it is the detail of the personal accounts that will remain in my memory. The German middle-aged widow from Brandenberg, travelling with her baby grandson, who was asked why she did not hide jewellery in her skirts, who replied that she had been searched six times in her vagina for jewels. The description by Kay Hulme of the Polish camps, with families using blankets to divide their huts into rooms, producing a smell of drying diapers, smoked fish, cabbage brews and wood smoke. The children who had been kidnapped as part of Nazi Aryanisation policy, who were taken from their German parents to be returned to their birth parents – Gitta Sereny describes the 'inconsolable grief of the parents' and the 'wild uncomprehending anger of the child himself'. With these two particular children, a few months later the boy had become violent and the girl had reverted to babyhood, wetting her bed and drinking from a bottle. The resistance of a group of Cossacks when the British tried to repatriate them: 'As soon as the platooon approached to commence loading people formed themselves into a solid mass, kneeling and crouching with their arms locked round each other's bodies'.

I was fascinated to read of 'Liberation Complex': Allied soldiers found that instead of being 'tractable, grateful and powerless', DPs were full of revenge, hunger and exultation, which made their behaviour and conduct in the camps a problem. The descriptions of how the camps were run, and the refusal of some inmates to work together collaboratively, or at all, is psychologically interesting and insightful. Ultimately, it is also interesting to find out what happened to all of the DPs when they finally reached their destinations, whether that was the mills of Lancashire, the metalworks of Indianapolis or the kibbutzim of Israel.

This book is a comprehensive picture of the political and human sitatution. It is a weighty tome: a magnificently detailed study, meticulously researched and referenced throughout. Shephard, whose creditials include being a producer on the World At War, is an historian on top of his game. This book will become compulsory reading for any student of the Second World War and the immediate post-war world, and will also prove interesting for the dedicated lay reader.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion:

Escape from the Nazis: The Incredible and Inspiring Saga of Two Young Jews on the Run in World War II Poland by Benjamin Mandelkern

Our Longest Days: A People's History of the Second World War by Sandra Koa Wing

Inferno: The Devastation of Hamburg, 1943 by Keith Lowe

Buy The Long Road Home: The Aftermath of the Second World War by Ben Shephard at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Long Road Home: The Aftermath of the Second World War by Ben Shephard at Amazon.co.uk


Buy The Long Road Home: The Aftermath of the Second World War by Ben Shephard at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Long Road Home: The Aftermath of the Second World War by Ben Shephard at Amazon.com.

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