The Reading Room

Fate of the Displaced Persons

George Orwell’s account of the Second World War refugees in Germany…

Recently I had the good fortune to pick up a cheap second hand copy of Orwell: The Observer Years, a wonderful collection of essays and reviews written for the London Observer newspaper from 1942 until 1949. It is a fascinating collection of thoughts by the great man written at such a key time in world history, an undertaking which would help form a close friendship with the paper’s proprietor, David Astor who was looking to push The Observer in a new direction.

Many of the articles were written during his writing of Animal Farm (1945) and it shows the bravery of Astor to give voice to an author who was repeatedly rejected by publishers (particularly for Animal Farm) for his increasingly hostile views on politics which found him alienated by those on both the left and the right.

It was Astor who sent Orwell to cover the Allied advance into Germany in 1945 which subsequently lead to him meeting Hemingway in Paris. Orwell was as good for Astor as he was for Orwell, the one hundred articles were written for Astor who in turn did much to help Orwell in his later years including finding him a grave in Oxfordshire.

One particular article caught my eye; The Uncertain Fate of Displaced Persons from June 10th 1945. Here Orwell covers the problems associated with the resettling of foreign workers forced into labour in Germany during the war. Orwell details the work being done in 230 camps across Germany to deal with 4,500,000 displaced foreign nationals in Germany alone. The figure was broken down thus; 1,500,000 Russians, 1,200,000 Frenchmen, 600,000 Belgians along with some 100,000 Dutchmen (by then nearly all repatriated) and smaller groups of Czechs, Scandinavians, Greeks and Yugoslavs.

As the authorities worked to register and relocate them they realised a great number had already taken flight, going to the countryside where they begged and stole or sought work on farms. There was the real issue of food shortages and the dilemma of how much food should be rationed to the Germans. Interestingly, Orwell describes the level of food wasted by American troops and the depth of ill feeling it caused to starving onlookers who could see for themselves the might of the American dollar.

As we now find the term ‘fake news’ part of our everyday lives so Orwell pulls up the British Press for their take on the foreign workers who were described as ‘slave labourers’ were, more often that not, volunteers and in most cases treated better by their German masters than the British Press were willing to admit to. Orwell raises the question of a legitimate study into the refugees and their reasons for being where they were. He wrote: ‘We can only make the vaguest guess as to how many of these people changed sides  on ideological grounds, how many were mere adventurers, and how many were ignorant peasants to whom serving in one army was very like serving in another’

He finishes the article with a very interesting and relevant question; ‘One point that does not seem to have been decided -or at least, no authoritative pronouncement has been made-is whether a Displaced Person who does not wish to go home is obliged to do so’…one cannot help but wonder what he would have made of the refugees ‘flooding’ (as per David Cameron) into Europe from Africa and the Middle East and the question of their status should they not wish to return to Iraq, Syria, Libya or Afghanistan. Whilst they are not foreign workers they are very much ‘Displaced Persons’ and that is a question begging to be answered by many.

Orwell: The Observer Years printed by Atlantic Books 2003

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