‘A Troublesome Nuisance’: British Perceptions on Polish Displaced Persons

‘A Troublesome Nuisance’: British Perceptions on Polish Displaced Persons

Samantha K. Knapton (Newcastle University) writes about how the British army understood the phenomenon of Polish Displaced persons in terms of nationality and ethnicity

The end of the Second World War saw an upheaval of peoples on an unprecedented scale. Of the estimated 11 million Displaced Persons (DPs) found in Germany, six to seven million were within the three Western zones of occupation (American, British, and French).[1] Immediately the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF) and the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) sought to repatriate these people as quickly as possible. These DPs were housed in DP camps and transit centres, separated by nationality. By September 1945 the largest concentration of Polish DPs was found in the British zone.[2] Although the initial repatriation drive throughout the summer of 1945 had sent millions home, it was quickly realised the Polish situation was different and the task would not be as simple as it first appeared.

The majority of the Polish DPs were former forced labourers brought to Germany by the Third Reich in the early stages of the war. Some were members of the Armia Krajowa (Polish Home Army) imprisoned after the collapse of the Warsaw uprising in 1944, whereas others were Prisoners of War (POWs) often sent to konzentrationslager (concentration camps). However, the Poland that was presented to them at the end of the war was alien to many. As one DP succinctly stated, ‘It wasn’t the real Poland after the war. It was not our Poland. It was Communist.’[3] To many, the Poland they were familiar with in 1939 no longer existed in 1945. The Allies had conceded to pressure from Stalin which resulted in Poland’s borders shifting westwards, and at the same time, the London-based government-in-exile was rejected and a new Soviet-backed Polish Provisional Government of National Unity (PPNU) was installed. Not only had some lost their homes, but their towns and cities were now east of the River Bug, firmly in Soviet territory. For those whose residences remained in Poland the fear of economic hardship and political persecution caused them a kind of ‘mental paralysis’ causing them to remain within the DP camps of Germany, hoping for a chance of resettlement elsewhere.[4]

To the British, Poland held a special status – for it was in defence of Poland that Britain declared war on Germany in 1939. Poland’s government-in-exile found a home in London and Poland’s army fought alongside (and within) the British army to victory. However, what the Poles found in the camps was not camaraderie but disdain – they were treated as a nuisance, and so the relationship between the British and Polish deteriorated.

Differing attitudes towards the Polish DPs, and DPs in general, do not occur when looking from a Scotsman to an Englishman, or indeed Welshman to an Irishman. Within the British zone of occupation, the British military authorities were one unit working towards the common goal of repatriation. The memoirs, diaries, autobiographies and even private papers preserved in various archives attest to the collective zeal of the British military authority’s propensity not to differentiate between the nations of Britain, whilst simultaneously segregating and dividing DPs based solely on nationality or ethnicity. The personal testimonies made available from military authorities who worked in the German DP camps alongside UNRRA are often those who would proclaim they are English by birth, few are Scottish, and fewer still have claimed they are Irish or Welsh. UNRRA, on the other hand, was an organisation that was international in character and the testimonies left behind contrast vastly between countries (in particular the American view of the British, and vice versa). Yet, when it came to labelling Polish DPs as ‘a troublesome nuisance’, there was no indication of a split or varied opinion – these opinions were based on the lived experiences of British military officials, and indeed some British UNRRA welfare workers.

After the initial repatriation attempts in the summer of 1945, there remained just over 510,000 Poles in the British zone.[5] Those who were left were termed the ‘hard core’ – care of these DPs was split between the UNRRA and the British military. The general perception of Polish DPs is succinctly summarised in a military memorandum from late September 1945, stating that although ‘certain Polish elements are frequently at fault it would appear that all Poles are regarded by many of the British troops as a nuisance’ and that ‘tactless handling of the situation leads to resentment among the Poles themselves’.[6]

The British expected repatriation numbers to increase after the winter of 1945. However as the numbers coming forward were unsatisfactory it was felt something had to be done and in April 1946 ‘Operation Carrot’ was implemented – wherein 60 days’ worth of food rations were to be given to any Pole willing to voluntarily repatriate. An exhibition of this bulk parcel was lavishly displayed in the camps to entice the DPs, something later referred to by UNRRA workers as ‘bait’.[7] Simultaneously, Soviet newsreels were repeatedly shown within camps to appeal to the Polish sense of patriotism. Yet the numbers were still unsatisfactory and the British military were becoming resentful of this seemingly permanent group of DPs.

Therefore, later that year UNRRA issued another order, ‘Effective October 1st 1946, all educational, recreational, and other cultural activities are to be discontinued in all camps caring for one hundred or more Polish Displaced People.’[8] It was made unbearably clear they were no longer welcome. The numbers willing to repatriate increased, however only temporarily. These events had a decidedly negative effect on Polish DPs’ attitudes towards the British. Although there are numerous quotes to illustrate this resentment, the following quote from a 17-year-old Polish boy embodies the collective contempt:

 ‘Is there really much difference between ‘now’ and ‘before’? I was a number. I am a number. I was called Polish Dog [Now] I am called ‘Wretched Pole’. Food – the same. Despised by the Master Race Germans –rejected by the Master Race English. I hated the Germans before – I hate the English now’.[9]

As a consequence of the seemingly ad hoc implementation of policies regarding repatriation, there was a general disdain towards the Poles that was increasingly reciprocated throughout the camps. From the moment of German surrender onwards the Poles were treated as inferior. This feeling of inferiority was given a very simple explanation by one member of the Polish Home Army still resident in a DP camp in 1947. He stated that ‘Under the Germans whatever we endured, we remained Poles. Today we are described by two letters only, DP.’[10]

The relationship between the Polish DPs and the British gradually deteriorated from May 1945 onwards largely due to a lack of empathy on both sides. The British were under great pressure from the PPNU to execute a quick and efficient repatriation programme, regardless of individual wishes – this they did not do. Although the relationship soured as soldiers and welfare workers became weary of these DPs, the British did not give into the pressure to conduct forced repatriation, just as the Poles did not accede to pressure from the British to return to a Poland that was no longer their home. At a time when camps and centres are still today being filled by refugees (and those displaced) due to reasons of war, the echoes of the past are penetrating all too close to home – perhaps it is time to heed the lessons of history to help us to help others today.  

[1] W. Jacobmeyer, Vom Zwangsarbeiter zum Heimatlosen Ausländer: Die Displaced Persons in Westdeutschland, 1945-1951 (Gӧttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1985), p.24.

[2] M. J. Proudfoot, European Refugees: 1939-52: A Study in Forced Population Movement (Faber and Faber Ltd.: London, 1957), pp. 238-239.

[3] As quoted in T. Kushner & K. Knox, Refugees in an Age of Genocide: Global, National and Local Perspectives During the Twentieth Century (Oxon: Frank Cass, 1999), p. 218.

[4] M. McNeill, By the Rivers of Babylon (London: Bannisdale Press, 1950), p.161.

[5] Proudfoot, European Refugees, pp. 238-239.

[6] National Archives, Kew, London. Public Records Office (PRO), FO 1052/273 ‘Polish Displaced Persons (DPs): policy (1945) – Memorandum on Poles, Allied Liaison Branch, British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) HQ 17/09/45.

[7] K. Hulme, The Wild Place (London: Pan Books, 1959), p. 115.

[8] Archives Nationales (AN) Paris. AJ-43-60, ‘London Memorandum Feb. 1947’, Appendix 49 (dated 25/09/1946) [authors emphasis]

[9] ‘Adolescent in Nazi Hand’, Arnold-Forster papers quoted in B. Shephard, The Long Road Home: The Aftermath of the Second World War (London: Bodley Head, 2010), p. 269

[10] ‘A Soldier of the Home Army’, Arnold-Forster papers quoted in Shephard, Long Road Home, p. 269. [author’s emphasis]

Samantha K Knapton is a PhD Candidate in History at Newcastle University. She is currently working on her thesis entitled ‘From Forced Labourers to Displaced Persons: Experiences of Poles in the British Zone of Occupation, 1945-1951’. She would be happy to be contacted to discuss this blog or her work in general at s.k.knapton1@newcastle.ac.uk. Alternatively, you can follow her on twitter @LgmSam.

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