Refugee Crisis—The Worst Ever?

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German refugees fleeing Russian onslaught in Kurland, October 1944. Photo from Bundesarchiv.

The tragic refugee problem makes headlines every day. Dramatic photo and video scenes repeatedly show us a mass of impoverished humanity on the move. In many of us fortunate enough to have a permanent home in which we’re viewing or reading these stories, the reports evoke empathy. But in some they also produce indifference, or even outrage. Such people are angered that their country is overwhelmed with migrants. Supporting refugees is never cheap and there can be major social consequences from an influx of people of a different culture and religion.

Modern refugees loading a boat....

Refugees transferred to a Maltese patrol boat. US Navy public domain photo

So what is the world to do with the millions of people who have lost their country? As massive and unprecedented as today’s problem sounds, the world faced an even more desperate crisis after World War II—one I described in The Secret She Carried. At that time millions of people were forced to flee the fighting as the Eastern Front fighting pushed into the Soviet Union, then reversed course and ran westward back to Germany. In today’s crisis, the dead number in the thousands. But in the earlier crisis over two million of the 15 million ethnic Germans who were forced out of their homes in Eastern Europe died.

“The western countries added to the refugee misery when they allowed Stalin to forcefully repatriate millions of people in the West’s zones of occupation.”

Refugees in Berlin in 1945 waiting for a train. From Bundes... (link)

Refugees in Berlin in 1945 waiting for a train. Photo from German Bundesarchiv.

Modern refugees waiting for a train in Munich. Public domain photo from ...

Modern refugees waiting for a train to Germany in Vienna. Photo courtesy of Bwag in Wikimedia Commons

The place the survivors ended up, a starving Germany, was already coping with about 8 million people from various countries who’d been involuntarily brought to Germany by the Nazi government. Many of them didn’t want to leave Germany and return home. This all presented a huge problem to the Allied military governments as refugees streamed in both directions. Much housing had been destroyed by Allied bombs, along with the water and sewage systems. Then winter set in. The little food available often couldn’t be cooked—the broken transportation system couldn’t ship coal and fuel for cooking or heating.

In the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence, the problems were monumental as well. But there, where Stalin had already engineered the mass starvation and forced migration of millions of his own people before the war, he again showed no mercy. I know some of this story because my aunt was one of the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Germans he forcefully brought to Russia as slave laborers after the war. (Her eventful story will be a part of my next book relating my father’s wartime experiences.)

“There was both disgrace and benevolence to be found in this earlier crisis. The same holds today.”

The western countries added to the refugee misery when they allowed Stalin to forcibly repatriate millions of people in the West’s zones of occupation. These powers even agreed to let him take back people who had left Russia decades before and become citizens of other countries. The Allies additionally sent back all 1.5 million Soviet POWs still held by the Germans at the end of the war. Not all of them wanted to go. It was Stalin’s own military unpreparedness that had caused these men to fall into German hands, yet he branded them traitors. They too became refugees of sorts when they were sent to the harsh Siberian Gulag instead of their homes.

There was both disgrace and benevolence to be found in this earlier crisis. The same holds today. How it will play out, no one yet knows. At present, some countries are carrying a disproportionate share of the load. Others, ruled by autocratic governments who have precipitated crises regionally and around the world for decades, have taken in none.

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