Twentieth-Century Warfare and World War I- the Prelude to World War II

Hiroshima Atomic Bomb Dome

The Ruins of the Industrial Promotion Hall in Hiroshima, Japan, now commonly called the Atomic Bomb Dome. Image used courtesy of

Even as the ideals of human rights were pronounced with a new degree of clarity in the twentieth century, offenses against those rights seemed to multiply, and almost every decade was marked by new refugee movements. In fact, many would argue that the twentieth century has stood out from other eras of history, themselves marked by calamity and atrocity, as a uniquely tragic period. In the twentieth century, humanity advanced a great deal in its ability to destroy, and even to wipe itself out with its new nuclear weapons, but it did not advance in morality and responsibility at the same time. As Pope John XXIII said in his 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris,

 “Consequently people are living in the grip of constant fear. They are afraid that at any moment the impending storm may break upon them with horrific violence. And they have good reasons for their fear, for there is certainly no lack of such weapons. While it is difficult to believe that anyone would dare to assume responsibility for initiating the appalling slaughter and destruction that war would bring in its wake, there is no denying that the conflagration could be started by some chance and unforeseen circumstance.”[1]

 Not only did the century’s many local and worldwide conflicts damage existing social structures, but many nations were destroyed, created, or had their borders significantly altered by political agreement.



Nuclear Test Image Bluestone

Nuclear Test Bluestone, Christmas Island, June 30, 1962. Image used courtesy of

World War I alone, for example, brought about the end of the Ottoman, Russian, German, and Austro-Hungarian Empires, the last of which had existed in some form since 962 A.D. Just as many refugees probably never imagined that violence in their nations and communities would overtake them and disrupt their lives, so did most people probably never imagine that these ancient, if somewhat run-down, institutions would one day be wiped off the map. At the end of World War I, the victorious Americans, British, French, and Italians dissolved the Austro-Hungarian Empire, kindling hopes for independence and self-determination among many ethnicities who had previously been blended into the Empire.[2] In its place, a mosaic of small new states arose in Eastern Europe, often composed of several ethnic and religious groups. These new states often proved unstable, leading to situations of ethnic and religious conflict that created refugees.

Economic change and new technologies, two developments which are intertwined, have also been a factor in the twentieth-century tide of refugees. The economic and ideological systems of capitalism, communism, and fascism all made use of new technology, both when they waged war, and when they sought to enforce their ideas on society as a whole. Technology has “made the world smaller”, both for good and for evil. Perhaps the most sinister use of technology we see in the period covered by our documents was the Holocaust, the Nazis’ attempted extermination of the Jews of Europe, which was carried out much more quickly and efficiently because of mass transportation and bureaucratic organization.

In the face of these atrocities, how could a person maintain his or her respect for human nature and the dignity of the individual? Furthermore, when so many of society’s resources were mobilized to do evil and harm, how could one organize a response with enough power and financial backing to repair the damage? These twentieth-century concerns first arose during and after World War I, which caused a refugee crisis comparable to, though still less than, the one after World War II. In Western Europe, the German invasion of France and Belgium created many refugees who quickly awakened the sympathies of the international community. In Eastern Europe, the Bolshevik Revolution caused massive social disturbances which led to famine, anti-Semitic pogroms, and the eventual exodus of up to two million people from Russia by 1921.[3]

Nuclear Test Image Yeso

Nuclear Test Yeso, Christmas Island, June 10, 1962. Image used courtesy of

The League of Nations, the ancestor of the UN, focused its attention on those displaced by the violence and in need of food, supplies and new homes. Fridtjof Nansen, a former Arctic explorer, was named High Commissioner of the League’s provisional relief organization. Although his credentials perhaps seemed doubtful, he made enormous efforts on behalf of the refugees, working twelve-hour days and personally travelling to affected areas. Thanks to his efforts, around 200,000 White Russian refugees, supporters of the tsar against the Bolsheviks, were resettled in other European countries and in the United States.[4] Although the organizational funds available to Fridjof Nansen were nowhere near the magnitude of the UNRRA’s funding after World War II, his office was also authorized to receive charitable contributions from private sources.[5] This foreshadowed the UNRRA’s methods of caring for refugees after World War II, when it would depend on the contributions of Catholic and other religious organizations, as well as on governmental funding.

The anti-Semitic pogroms of World War I broke out in areas of the Ukraine and southern Russia that had a long history of violence against Jewish people, stretching as far back as the Bohdan Khmelnytsky uprising of 1648-57.[6] In the 1880s, pogroms in this area caused the emigration of multitudes of Jews to America, where they greatly increased America’s Jewish population. The Bolshevik Revolution, or Russian Revolution, of 1917 sparked a civil war which raged in many areas of Russia with indiscriminate violence. Jewish people were singled out as scapegoats for the civil disturbances by several ethnic groups, as well as by both White Russians[7] and Bolsheviks.[8] Rumors were circulated that the Jews were plotting against Russia. As a cumulative effect of the persecutions, it is estimated that, between 1880 and 1928, around 1,749,000 Russian Jews migrated to America.[9]

Aid was more forthcoming for the displaced victims of war in Western Europe, while Russia remained an exotic and unfamiliar area to many Westerners. The German invasion and occupation of northern France created many refugees who fled south to other areas of the country, and who would probably be termed IDPs, or Internally Displaced Persons, today. Francesca M. Wilson, a British aid worker who was sent to unoccupied France by the Quakers, wrote a vividly-worded account of her experiences there. She was assigned to a hospital for refugees in the shadow of the French Alps, where the beautiful scenery almost made her forget the ongoing war, many miles away from her.

Nonetheless, many of the French refugees Wilson encountered were still traumatized by their wartime experiences. Some children told how they had lived through weeks of the German bombardment of Rheims before they escaped, and one little boy had almost been shot, but was pardoned at the last moment. To all of the refugee children in Wilson’s account, “boche”, or German, was their favorite insult, and the German Kaiser was a larger-than-life bogeyman.[10] Wilson’s story, filled with an abundance of pathos and human interest, contains many parallels with the later publications of the US bishops. After World War II, Europe was overcrowded with a new sea of refugees in need of food and medical attention and, more importantly, in need of a new place to call home. Lay US Catholics were not necessarily aware of the refugees’ and DPs’ plight, and before the US bishops could solicit their charity and donations, they had to educate them. Making the faithful aware of the refugees’ situation, while still retaining a sense of respect for the refugees’ individuality, is the purpose of many of the documents in this collection.

[1]Pope John XXIII, Pacem in Terris, at, accessed October 2, 2012, paragraph 111.

 [2]Walter Dushnyck, In Quest of Freedom, 1918-1958 (New York, The Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, 1958), 17.

[3]George Ginsburgs, “The Soviet Union and the Problem of Refugees and Displaced Persons, 1917-1956” in The American Journal of International Law, Vol. 51, No. 2 (April 1957), 326.

 [4]Whittaker, 56. 

 [5]Jacques Vernant, The Refugee in the Post-War World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953), 24. 

 [6]Pogrom comes from a Russian word meaning “to wreak havoc” or “to demolish violently, according to the definition of  “Pogroms” in the Holocaust Encyclopedia, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Website,, accessed 8/14/12.

 [7]White Russians were supporters of the Tsar, the royal family, and the old regime against the Bolsheviks, who successfully overthrew the Tsar’s government and eventually established a new regime, built on Socialist and Communist principles, in its place. The Bolsheviks did not gain control of the entire country at once, and for several years a civil war raged between Whites and Bolsheviks, or Reds, in parts of Russia, the Ukraine, and Crimea. 

 [9]Online version of an exhibit on Russian Jews, designed and researched by Joke Kniesmeyer and Daniel Cil Brecher,, accessed 8/14/12.

 [10]Francesca M. Wilson, In the Margins of Chaos: Recollections of Relief Work in and Between Three Wars (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1945), 13.


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