Friday, July 15, 2011

The end of the war

The Long Road Home: The Aftermath of the Second World War: Relief and Refugees After the Second World War

I finished reading  Ben Shephard's book on the train yesterday (helped by a delay when a preceding train had been 'hit by a metal object', causing everything to come to a halt).

It is an instructive (as well as illuminating read). He weaves the stories of particular displaced persons and refugee workers deftly into the wider narratives of organizational and political change.

The first lesson is that we do not learn the lessons of history very easily. Often the lessons we learn turn out to be the wrong ones: history becomes a burden to thinking through actual situations in the present and developing new future scenarios.

The second is that culture matters. The failure to understand the different cultural backgrounds of displaced persons (and the ways in which people had suffered) led to a catalogue of misunderstanding. Make haste slowly might be the motto here. In our eagerness to help, we can most definitely hinder.

But culture mattered in differentiating the help given - the British came as improvisors and social workers of amateurish disposition (often in a good sense) and the Americans appeared with an overwhelming advantage in material resources but also with plans of social relief and rehabilitation whose enthusiastic imposition often came at the neglect of the idiosyncratic and the personal.

The third strand that struck me was the power of propaganda. So adept was the emergent Jewish lobby in the United States that they managed to create the impression that the majority of displaced persons were Jews (which was far from the truth, both Poles and Ukrainians significantly outnumbered Jews) and though this helped their case about the establishment of Palestine, it hinder the options of particular Jews in choosing places for resettlement (that may also been a Zionist point). No one wanted to be 'swamped with Jews' except the new Israel!

Indeed 'Holocaust memory' (and sympathy) had not developed. This was an emergence that had to wait for the 1960s, sparked most notably by the trail of Eichmann.

The fourth strand was how wider policy can transform particular life options. As the iron curtain descended, and the war grew cold, the position of the 'anti-Communist' Balts and Ukrainians shifted. No longer treated warily as 'allies of the Germans', they were now seen to have only fought in parallel with them for the laudable aim of fighting the scourge of Communism! It was of no apparent importance to many (indeed most) that elements within had happily participated in the elimination of Jewish populations (that would have to wait for the 'invention' of the Holocaust)!

And finally the resonances it struck with today's humanitarian responses. The most striking fact being that no matter how far you prepare responding to actual events as they evolve still often captures you unaware or ill-equipped and here the quality of the people employed is utterly critical. They rise (or fall) to occasion but the happy thing is that it is most often the former. There is a critical mass of the willing and able such that help is offered, imperfect undoubtedly, but that enables people to carry on and ultimately shape lives that can and do flourish.

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