Book Review: Gerald Daniel Cohen, In War’s Wake: Europe’s Displaced Persons in the Postwar Order

Gerald Daniel Cohen. In War’s Wake: Europe’s Displaced Persons in the Postwar Order. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. 248 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-539968-4.

Reviewed by Margarete Myers Feinstein (UCLA)
Published on H-Judaic (May, 2012)
Commissioned by Jason Kalman

The Lasting Impact of Displaced Persons on the International Community

In this fascinating volume, Gerard Daniel Cohen argues for the centrality of the displaced persons (DPs) of postwar Europe in redefining human rights law and international humanitarianism. Unlike recent histories that focus on reclaiming agency for the displaced persons themselves or earlier refugee histories that emphasize international diplomacy and national policymakers, this work explores the impact of relief agencies on the definitions of refugee and human rights. Within the DP universe, Jews quickly emerged as having distinct needs, and Cohen demonstrates how their situation shaped the perspectives of international aid workers and fostered the creation of the State of Israel. Using the International Refugee Organization (IRO) archives, Cohen offers a comprehensive picture of the impact of DPs on international history, tracing developments in the Cold War, humanitarianism, human rights law, and international migration.

The central actors of this narrative are the administrators and field workers of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) and the IRO, many of them American New Deal experts. American influence in the new organizations of the postwar era resulted in the spread of New Deal principles of social work as well as in Western dominance of international relief in the Cold War era. Western language of individual rights and the human right of resettlement won out over Soviet demands for forced repatriation and the dominance of the state. International organizations now recognized persecution as warranting protection, and consequently individuals had to demonstrate their persecuted status in order to merit international aid. Cohen includes the voices of these displaced persons, providing a human face to the subject.

Resettlement of refugees was a central concern, and the IRO directed refugees to countries in need of manpower. The desirability of coordinating migration with economic needs had first been proposed by French officials during the interwar period and studied by the Roosevelt administration during the war. The IRO did not have power over national immigration policies, but it did manage to regulate migration on a global scale.

Beginning in 1946, Belgium, France, and Britain created schemes to recruit workers from among the DPs as part of the rational resettlement of populations. These schemes were motivated not by humanitarianism but by the needs of postwar reconstruction. The IRO vetted DPs’ credentials and conducted medical exams to facilitate matching DPs with labor schemes. Despite IRO efforts, the selection process excluded many DPs from consideration, particularly Jews and intellectuals.

Manpower selection boards did not recruit Jews and some openly stated their aversion to Jews. With the rest of the world closed to Jewish migration, for many Jewish DPs, Israel became the last possible refuge. Cohen counters the assertion of Israeli “new historians” that the leaders of the Yishuv only recruited “good human material” for immigration. He points out that Israel became the third-largest recipient of DPs after the United States and Australia and that the IRO praised Israel for taking in “hard-core” refugees who required institutionalization. Cohen suggests that this “indiscriminate approach” (p. 117) stemmed from the need to repopulate areas from which the Arab population had been forcibly evicted. What he does not acknowledge is that these humanitarian cases posed long-term financial burdens to the nascent state, and that Israel was only able to fund the care of these dependent immigrants through the resources of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee  (JDC) and its establishment of a social services network in the country. Whatever the source of the funding, Israel won “sociological legitimacy” (p. 117) through its remarkable record of integrating refugees of diverse backgrounds and capabilities.

In the chapter “Extraterritorial Jews,” Cohen argues that “by acknowledging the legitimacy of Jewish nationhood claims, the postwar refugee regime fostered the emergence of philosemitism in international politics” (p. 129). This assertion is somewhat surprising given his documentation of the antisemitic policies of the manpower selection boards and his acknowledgement that there were no alternatives to Israel for the resettlement of many Jewish DPs and refugees. Although the Soviet Union and Poland accepted repatriating Jews, neither country actively encouraged their return. Poland in particular was enjoying a remarkable homogenization of its population with the expulsion of ethnic Germans and its rejection of Ukrainians who wanted to register as Polish (not Soviet) DPs. With most Polish Jews dead, Poland could virtually rid itself of the Jewish minority if the survivors chose not to return. American Jewish leaders presumed that the experiences of the Final Solution had severed the ties between European Jews and their countries of origin and advocated their status as non-repatriables.

In describing Earl G. Harrison’s recommendation for Jewish emigration to Palestine in his August 1945 report to Harry S Truman, Cohen uses the phrase “emergency Zionism” (p. 135). This term is to indicate the pragmatism behind the suggestion that fell short of endorsing Jewish nationhood as such. Later, the IRO constitution adopted the American position that German and Austrian Jews who refused reintegration into their country of origin should be accorded international protection. This recognition of Jewish statelessness and extraterritoriality “normalized the idea of Jewish self-determination in international politics” (p. 143).

Emergency Zionism seems a more appropriate description of the international decision to create Israel than philosemitism. Concerned that surplus populations were destabilizing, the international community agreed on the need to resettle displaced Jews. No one, however, with the exception of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, wanted the Jews, and there was general consensus that Jews could not be expected to stay in Germany. The decision to create a nation-state for Jews thus appears to have been more a reaction to the postwar population crisis than motivated by remorse for the Holocaust or appreciation for the Jewish people. As Cohen points out, this solution to the Jewish DP problem disregarded the question of where the new immigrants would be housed and the likelihood that, in some areas at least, Arabs would be displaced to make room for the new immigrants.

The IRO’s policy toward Palestinian Arabs was noticeably different from that toward the Jews. Cohen rejects the unsubstantiated claims of historian Ilan Pappe that Zionists kept the IRO from aiding Arab Palestinians in their right of return, pointing out that United Nations agencies viewed Palestinians as humanitarian refugees and not political victims (p. 146). Unlike the Jews, who were seen as extraterritorial with understandable reasons to leave Germany and even Europe, the Arabs were not seen to be in conflict with their place of refuge. Just as the international community expected Germany to assimilate millions of ethnic Germans expelled from Eastern Europe, it anticipated that Arab countries would absorb Arab refugees from Palestine/Israel. Consequently, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency promoted the integration of Palestinians into developing Arab countries rather than repatriation. In the long run the experience of displacement in UN camps had a nationalizing effect on Palestinian Arabs similar to that of Jewish DPs, the primary difference being that Palestinians did not gain recognition as an extraterritorial nation.

The emphasis on persecution as a primary criterion for protection created a distinction between economic and political refugees. The political dissident became the ideal refugee for the West. Applicants for refugee status found that IRO officials responded well to persecution narratives. Cohen traces the roots of today’s efforts to separate “genuine” asylum-seekers from economic migrants to postwar attempts to deny “adventurers” the protection of DP status.

Cohen capably demonstrates the lasting impact the DP crisis had on international humanitarianism. International planning and coordination replaced the earlier situation of charities reacting after the fact in an often competing and overlapping manner. The subordination of relief agencies to military governments and UNRRA resulted in secularization of their missions since they, with the exception of the JDC, were required to serve all DPs regardless of nationality or religion. The international status accorded aid societies by the IRO facilitated their evolution into non-governmental organizations (NGOs). For the most part, aid workers were dedicated to liberal internationalism and modern welfare techniques. The use of refugee camps became standard. Unlike earlier camps that had often resembled prisons, DP assembly centers had adequate food and health services, and permitted a certain amount of mobility. They became the locus of techniques of population management. The IRO required its field workers to file numerous reports and to compile detailed statistics on their charges. This humanitarian “governmentality” used social science tools to manage displaced populations and helped to create a “refugee nation” (p. 77).

Through its advocacy on behalf of DPs and refugees, the IRO also contributed to the development of the human rights era. IRO officials “believed refugee protections supported the entire edifice of human rights” (p. 96). Unlike other NGOs consulting the UN who represented specific interests groups (e.g., labor, women, and antislavery), the IRO presented a broad agenda ranging from the right to a nationality, to the right to a fair trial, to the rights to privacy and freedom from interference in family life. IRO officials argued that through citizenship the individual attains a place in international law. The IRO also advocated the rights of the individual as opposed to minority group rights. This language of individualism informed the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention.

This well-crafted book demonstrates the far-reaching and lasting impact of the displaced persons on international affairs, humanitarianism, and human rights. It also provides a unique perspective on the attitudes and interests that led to the creation of a Jewish state. Although this is an international history with an interest in organizations, it does not lose sight of the individuals whose plight drew the attention of policymakers. The voices of refugees emerge from the IRO archives to remind us of their humanity and their struggle to gain protection in a chaotic world. Cohen is to be commended for his ability to balance a discussion of concepts and institutions with the dignity of the individual.

Citation: Margarete Myers Feinstein. Review of Cohen, Gerald Daniel, In War’s Wake: Europe’s Displaced Persons in the Postwar Order. H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews. May, 2012.

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