Refugees and Displaced Persons Before, During, and After World War II


Polish displaced girls in the aftermath of World War I

Refugees and displaced persons are a frequent, if not constant, companion of warfare and violence, a fact that we unfortunately still see enacted in the daily news. The term “refugees” was used, in this context, to describe those who had fled their homes and countries to escape from some grave and imminent threat, most typically persecution. The catch-all term displaced persons was used to describe people who had left their homes, not through their own volition, because they were caught up in the mass population movements occasioned by the war. This category included people like the Russian and Eastern European workers who were transported into Germany by the Nazis for wartime labor, and subsequently liberated by the allies. We can certainly find parallels between World War II and other wars in the demonization and persecution of certain groups within society, and in the forcible appropriation of civilians for military work. However, the refugee situation in Europe in the years surrounding World War II, and particularly in the aftermath of World War II, differed from other refugee scenarios in two ways.




Onlookers view a ruined cathedral in the aftermath of World War I

First, the problem was massive: the number of European civilians who were, for whatever reason, displaced from their homes during the entire wartime era has been estimated at 60 million (Proudfoot, European Refugees, 21). The new, destructive concepts of totalitarianism (or total control of society and the individual by the government) and total warfare are partly to blame for this large number. In the model of total warfare, all of society’s resources were mobilized for the war effort; therefore, all of society was affected and disrupted by warfare. The scale of the population movement exacerbated the refugees’ plight in many ways- for example, when there was a shortage of food for the refugees, it often extended over a large area because of the interruption of lines of supply. This was particularly the case within Germany itself, whose infrastructure and resources had been decimated by the war. In order to deal with such a large-scale humanitarian challenge, the Allies established new institutions and bureaucracies that might impose some semblance of order on the situation. Piecemeal charitable offerings, in this case, simply were not sufficient. In the US Bishops’ documents, as well, we will see the bureaucratic nature of the aid, and the bishops’ at times overbearing concern that all action go through the proper channels.  Efforts at refugee aid can be divided into different phases according to the organizations responsible for them at the time: first the US and Allied military, then the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), and finally the International Refugee Organization (IRO). The Catholic organizations responding to the refugees within and outside of the National Catholic Welfare Conference would also evolve during the wartime and postwar era.


  • How was modern technology used to make World War II’s total warfare more coercive and difficult to escape?
  • What groups, in particular, fell victim to the abuse of modern technologies like improvements in communication, transportation, and administration?
  • How was technology used after the war to help the victims?Which groups were easiest for the Allies to help repatriate after the war? Which groups did not wish to return home, and why?