Misery and indifference: German refugees post-World War II and refugees now


… While doing research on occupied Germany after the Second World War, Christine de Matos came across material that should be considered as we confront today’s refugee flows.

In November 1948, a British woman named Mary Sutherland made an official tour of the British zone of occupation in post-war Germany. Sutherland’s area of expertise was women, work and politics, her credentials including Chief Woman Labour Officer of the Labour Party, Secretary of the Standing Joint Committee of working women’s organisations, membership of the Board of Directors of the Institute of Houseworkers, and the UK government representative to the United National Status of Women Commission. She was expected to report on the situation of occupied Germany’s women.

What particularly strikes today’s reader of her report are her comments on German refugees: those Germans displaced by the change of borders in post-war Europe, especially the loss of East Prussia; those expelled from territories formerly under Nazi occupation or sites of long-time German migration, such as Sudetenland/ Czechoslovakia; and those escaping from the newly communist countries in Eastern Europe.

Sutherland wrote:

The strongest impression of my visit  is of the indifference of Germans to the misery of other Germans, their failure to help each other…The refugees in the Western Zones are not wanted and are made to feel they are not wanted. They are a suitable subject for propaganda to the outside world, but their situation is not seen as a challenge to the conscience and practical sympathy of Germans. Again, of course, there were exceptions to the general attitude, but not, I fear, many. The general attitude is rooted not in fears about the terrific economic problems presented by the influx of refugees, but in the intense nationalism which is still the strongest political motive among Germans of all parties and opinions.

While she castigates one group of Germans, she has sympathy for the other. Sutherland visited refugee camps and centres, and praised the organisations that were undertaking the enormous task of relief work for all of the refugees, German and non-German, along with homeless orphaned children and returning POWs. Those organisations included the Red Cross, welfare groups and religious organisations. But she was also appalled by the conditions in many of the camps, a ‘gloom’ that was only ‘lightened’ by ‘a spirit of self-help’. Sutherland appealed to the German women she met to help the refugees, for example by ‘adopting’ children and families into their homes and communities, but was regularly told that it was a job for the relief organisations, and, besides, nothing could be resolved until more housing was built.

Sutherland was not the only visiting expert to comment on the refugee situation. Helen Deneke and Betty Norris, representing the Women’s Group on Public Welfare from Britain, had visited the British zone in 1947 to report on the ‘democratic development’ of German women’s organisations. They too noted the ‘influx of refugees from the Eastern Zone’, arriving in occupied Germany ‘with nothing more than they stand up in, many are barefoot’. Deneke and Norris also had nothing but praise for the Red Cross and sympathy for the lack of amenities, overcrowding, damaged buildings and unsanitary conditions in the camps. They observed that their thoughts on Germans, especially the refugees – recent enemies – would not be popular ‘at home’.

At the end of her report, Sutherland suggested that ‘Labour and Trade Union people and friends who belong to Church organisations’ might help by sending gifts of clothing and taking in ‘German children to England for short periods’ from the refugee camps. Her sense of exasperation is palpable:

This is the only practical suggestion I can think of for alleviating this gigantic problem.

What can this moment in history tell us about our own ‘gigantic problem’ today? At the end of the war, Germany was physically and psychologically devastated; its people outcasts in Europe. There were huge problems to surmount: economic, political, attitudinal. Many reluctant Germans took refugees into their homes because they had to – they were part of a defeated nation under military occupation. Yet, even under these problematic post-war conditions Germany was able to absorb millions of refugees (current estimates of the number of expelled Germans stands at around 12 million, large numbers of whom died in the mass forced migration). All of Europe was devastated by World War II. Nevertheless it found solutions – with the financial aid of the US anti-communist-driven European Recovery Program or Marshall Plan – for around 40 million displaced people, hundreds of thousands of whom were relocated overseas to places like Australia, Canada and South America.

Comparatively, nations today are better equipped economically and structurally to enact resolutions to the current refugee crisis. The plight of the former enemy Germans touched the hearts and minds of the likes of Sutherland, Deneke and Norris at a time when the refugee crisis and Europe’s economic woes appeared insurmountable. That offers some sense of hope to us now: through empathy we will find ‘practical suggestions’ to alleviate human misery. But the obstacles identified by these British women in the late 1940s are uncomfortably familiar – the ‘challenge to the conscience’, the demonising of compassion as ‘sentimentalism’ and, most dangerous of all, the presence of ‘intense nationalism’, even in the wake of war that had fought just that. No matter the changing economic or political context, then, human reactions and emotions remain constant, including those of fear, loathing and indifference. That is the saddest, and scariest, part of the message contained in this moment from the past.


Bundesarchiv Kobenz, 5/344-3/3, Mary Sutherland, ‘Notes on Visit to Germany: November 4-20, 1948’.

Helen Deneke and Betty Norris, The Women of Germany, London: National Council of Social Service, 1947.

Image sourced from Wikipedia


3 thoughts on “Misery and indifference: German refugees post-World War II and refugees now”

  1. Last week I conducted an oral history interview with a German migrant who arrived here in 1957. Her late husband was one of these displaced people from East Germany. Because of that he was classified as a refugee and given an assisted passage to Australia – with his wife. They were housed at the Cronulla Migrant Hostel and were placed in jobs a week later. Their relatively smooth transition to life in a new country could be replicated today if we changed our thinking.

  2. Thank you both for your insightful comments. Yes, it is sad and frustrating to know that reacting to the current crisis could be done so differently – and that society forgets the recent past so readily.

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