Displaced People in Europe - in the aftermath of war millions of refugees and former inmates of Nazi concentration camps were scattered far from home. DP camps in Germany, Austria and Italy were set up to house them before they could be repatriated or resettled
The end of World War Two brought in its wake the largest population movements in European history. Millions of Germans fled or were expelled from eastern Europe. Hundreds of thousands of Jews, survivors of the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis, sought secure homes beyond their native lands. And other refugees from every country in eastern Europe rushed to escape from the newly installed Communist regimes.
The expulsions were conducted in a ruthless and often brutal manner. At the Potsdam Conference in July 1945, British, American and Russian leaders agreed to '... recognise that the transfer to Germany of German populations ... remaining in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, will have to be undertaken.' They also specified that '... any transfers that take place should be effected in an orderly and humane manner.' The expulsions were, in fact, conducted in a ruthless and often brutal manner.
Some of the people who left those eastern countries were recent arrivals, who had been settled in German-conquered territories by the Nazis as part of their long-term plan for German domination of eastern Europe. But most of those being expelled came of stock whose ancestors had been settled in the eastern lands for generations, and who knew no other place as home. The Volksdeutsche, as the Nazis had called them were, however, for the most part, victims of a calamity of which they were themselves part-authors. Not all were Nazis, but a majority had become supporters of Hitler.
In Poland, German-owned farms and houses were handed over to Poles. Germans were rounded up by Polish militias and put in camps, before being removed from the country. In Czechoslovakia, more than 2.2 million Germans were expelled, and their property was expropriated. At the peak period, in July 1946, 14,400 people a day were being dumped over the frontier. About three quarters went to the American occupation zone of Germany, and most of the remainder to the Soviet zone.
The total number of Germans who were expelled or who departed voluntarily from eastern Europe after the end of the war mounted to 11.5 million by 1950.
As the German presence in eastern Europe was thus abruptly terminated, the Germans' foremost victims were also turned into refugees. Surviving Jews from concentration camps who returned to their homes found that they were unwelcome. Their property had new occupants who were generally reluctant to vacate the premises.
In Poland and Slovakia pogroms broke out, in which Jews were killed. Over 100,000 Jews infiltrated to the western powers' occupation zones in Germany and Austria. Most sought permission to enter Palestine - but the British mandatory government there denied entry to all save a handful. They therefore remained stuck for years in so-called displaced persons' camps.
Other wanderers were also on the move in the early months of the peace. Nearly two million Poles were compulsorily transferred from eastern areas of Poland that had been annexed by the USSR. They took the place of Germans expelled from the formerly German regions of Pomerania and Silesia, now transferred to Poland. Half a million Ukrainians, Belorussians and others were deported from Poland to the Soviet Union. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Croats, and others, fearful of reprisals for wartime collaboration, fled westwards from all over eastern Europe, most of them hoping to get to North America.
The integration of the millions of refugees in their countries of arrival was not easy. European states were, in the main, too preoccupied with the sufferings of their own citizens and with the tasks of reconstruction to have much compassion to spare. The millions of Germans from the east who suddenly found themselves in a fatherland that most of them had never seen before became for a while a dangerous element in politics, easy prey to nationalist demagogues spouting irredentist talk.
The international response to the refugee crisis took both legal and organisational form. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 guaranteed a '... right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution', and forbade the arbitrary deprivation of nationality. The Geneva Convention on Refugees of 1951 defined refugees, accorded them specific rights, and prohibited their forcible return from countries of refuge.
Meanwhile a United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) had been created in 1943. UNRRA was succeeded by the International Refugee Organisation, established in 1946; and that in turn gave way to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in 1950. All these bodies, however, were plagued by political conflict, in particular the outbreak of the Cold War.
Facing History - Post-War: Chaos and Challenges
US Holocaust Memorial Museum - Displaced Persons
Yad Vashem - Return to Life in Displaced Persons Camps (1945-1956)
Voices of the Holocaust - Interviews with DPs
JDC Archives - JDC in the 1940s
Nuremberg War Crimes Trials - prosecution of prominent members of the political, military, judicial and economic leadership of Nazi Germany, who planned, carried out, or otherwise participated in the Holocaust and other war crimes
Held for the purpose of bringing Nazi war criminals to justice, the Nuremberg trials were a series of 13 trials carried out in Nuremberg, Germany, between 1945 and 1949. The defendants, who included Nazi Party officials and high-ranking military officers along with German industrialists, lawyers and doctors, were indicted on such charges as crimes against peace and crimes against humanity. Nazi leader Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) committed suicide and was never brought to trial. Although the legal justifications for the trials and their procedural innovations were controversial at the time, the Nuremberg trials are now regarded as a milestone toward the establishment of a permanent international court, and an important precedent for dealing with later instances of genocide and other crimes against humanity.
The best-known of the Nuremberg trials was the Trial of Major War Criminals, held from November 20, 1945, to October 1, 1946. The format of the trial was a mix of legal traditions: There were prosecutors and defense attorneys according to British and American law, but the decisions and sentences were imposed by a tribunal (panel of judges) rather than a single judge and a jury. The chief American prosecutor was Robert H. Jackson, an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Each of the four Allied powers supplied two judges–a main judge and an alternate.
Twenty-four individuals were indicted, along with six Nazi organizations determined to be criminal (such as the Gestapo. One of the indicted men was deemed medically unfit to stand trial, while a second man killed himself before the trial began. Hitler and two of his top associates, Heinrich Himmler and Joseph Goebbels, had each committed suicide in the spring of 1945 before they could be brought to trial. The defendants were allowed to choose their own lawyers, and the most common defense strategy was that the crimes defined in the London Charter were examples of ex post facto law; that is, they were laws that criminalized actions committed before the laws were drafted. Another defense was that the trial was a form of victor’s justice–the Allies were applying a harsh standard to crimes committed by Germans and leniency to crimes committed by their own soldiers.
In the end, the international tribunal found all but three of the defendants guilty. Twelve were sentenced to death, one in absentia, and the rest were given prison sentences ranging from 10 years to life behind bars. Ten of the condemned were executed by hanging on October 16, 1946. Hermann Göring, Hitler’s designated successor and head of the Luftwaffe, committed suicide the night before his execution with a cyanide capsule he had hidden in a jar of skin medication.
Famous Trials - Defendants in the Major War Figures Trial