In War’s Wake: Europe’s Displaced Persons in the Postwar Order – Response Essay

A DP camp possibly near Hallendorf, Germany

*The image above is of a displaced person’s camp, possibly near Hallendorf, Germany. The image is from a blog about a family’s history. One of the members of the family, Janis, was a POW and later lived in a displaced persons camp. Click here for more information and more images.


In In War’s Wake: Europe’s Displaced Persons in the Postwar Order, Gerard Cohen analyzes the creation and evolution of the concept of a “displaced person.” He shows that the term arose in a specific context to describe a specific set of people and, because of the role that Europe and America played in post-World War II international politics, the definition of what it meant to be displaced was applied universally. He also shows how the term was politicized and evolved based on the strategic needs of competing world powers during the Cold War, leading to the commodification of displaced persons. The most important contribution of the book, however, is the development of the idea of what it means to be a citizen of a state.

One of the most interesting, though perhaps least clearly explained, ideas in the book is that people underwent a commodification. Conceptually, they stopped being actors receiving aid and became statistics that had to be managed, from counting caloric intake to disposing of displaced persons in the most expeditious fashion possible. Cohen shows that the way people in dire circumstances were thought of underwent a conceptual shift during the period between the World Wars and again after World War II. Initially people were recipients of “Victorian charity,” a concept that Cohen fails to adequately explain. One can infer from the text that it had little to do with attempting to give the poor the means by which they could advance themselves economically. Food or money was provided, but there was no intent to actually eradicate poverty. The new form of care provided after World War I by UNRRA was designed to elevate people by providing them the means to support themselves and become productive and economically successful members of society. This new conception of relief was adopted later by the IRO and informed later definitions of humanitarian relief work. It wasn’t enough to simply “throw” resources at populations in need of relief. To truly alleviate the situation, one had to give people the means to reestablish a sense of community, of dignity, and the means to become economically self-sufficient.

This new form of help required new forms of monitoring and categorizing people. Cohen cites Foucalt’s theory of “governmentality,” which posits government intrusion into people’s lives as a form of violence. While there was a great deal of intimidation, I’m not sure Foucalt really applies in this situation. According to Cohen, displaced persons were able to forge a history if necessary and still receive benefits. One could argue that requiring detailed information and the history of a person is a form of violence, but in the case of providing that information to receive benefits, it becomes a transaction, albeit an uneven one, with the government, or in this case the IRO, holding all of the power in the situation. Additionally, as the situation evolved, a person’s history was not necessarily as important as where he came from, or what his religion was.

The most pressing issue addressed in Cohen’s work is the conflict and debate revolving around where people belong. It is obvious that by the time World War II ended, the idea of nationalities had become firmly entrenched in people’s minds, but that the exact definition of nationality was still in flux. This is no surprise, since the idea of nationality is still hotly debated today. Nation and state were becoming synonymous in people’s minds. Poland’s demands that all Polish displaced persons be returned while simultaneously working to prevent the return of Jews to Poland is evidence of this. Was there a place for minorities in a state? Do people have to become assimilated to the culture and language of the dominant nation in a state to truly belong? Given the current situation in Europe with Muslim and/or North African minorities being targeted, especially in France, it would seem that people in general still see nation and state as essentially the same. Myths about the ideals and values that a state stands for are typically based on the values and ideals of a particular nation within the state, so expecting people to adhere to them is an expectation of assimilation. Is there room for difference?

Cohen’s book raises many other issues, especially moral issues about the rights of displaced persons in migration, what it means to form an international community, and the hegemonic role of the West in defining what it means to be displaced, a refugee, or entitled to special consideration. The way that the West has defined displaced persons has implications for the internal operations of all states. However, in showing that the definition of a nation was still in flux, and that nationality and belonging can be decided and changed with mere paperwork, Cohen undermines the immutability of nationhood or belonging.