Buruma grew up in the Netherlands after the war. His father was gathered up by the Nazis and taken to Germany and forced to work as a laborer there. He managed to survive that experience and return home safely. Not everyone who was displaced by the war was so lucky. One of Buruma’s most affecting chapters describes, by example, what was involved in dealing with the millions of displaced people.
Underlying the main drama of the Allies contending with Nazi Germany were a host of regional conflicts; sometimes expressed as civil wars between contending armies, and sometimes ethnic aggressions unleashed by the breakdown in civil structures. The result was a complex situation to be dealt with after Germany surrendered.
Buruma utilizes the situation that developed in the Drau Valley of Carinthia, a beautiful part of Austria, to illustrate how complicated a situation the allied armies faced as the only source of authority at the end of the war.
Buruma includes this quote from a British officer, Nigel Nicholson.
These peoples thought they would be safe once they landed in an area under the control of the British army. They didn’t know, and couldn’t be allowed to know, that the allies had agreed at the Yalta Conference that all citizens of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia would be returned to those countries—forcibly if necessary. This would put the British in a tragically awkward situation.
The Germans took many Soviet army prisoners. Their plan was to dispose of them by starvation. This the Germans did until they became short of manpower and began to give prisoners the option of fighting on their side rather than dying. Many of them chose to live—at least temporarily. Many others on the eastern edges of the Soviet Union viewed the German invasion as an opportunity to revolt against Stalin and took up arms with the Germans. Many others were forcibly sent to labor in German-held territory. In Stalin’s view, Soviet citizens were patriots who fought to the death. Therefore anyone who survived being on the German side of the battle lines must be a traitor and should be treated accordingly.
The allies were aware of the consequences of delivering these people into Stalin’s hands: quick death by execution or slow death in the work camps. They were concerned about the morality of such actions, but the prevailing opinion was one attributed to Anthony Eden:
The incident known as the Betrayal of the Cossacks is used by Buruma to illustrate the difficulties the British had in carrying out this promise to Stalin.
The British had led the Cossacks on with hints that they might become part of the British military and serve the Empire somewhere. This was to keep them quiet until preparations for action were ready. One day they told the Cossack officers that they would be going to a meeting with British officials to discuss future plans. They were told they would be back by evening and that they would not need their guns because they would be given newer and better ones that day.
Gathering up the remaining men along with the women and children was not going to be an easy task. Buruma describes one incident:
They were wrong. One by one the unfortunate soldiers chosen for this task had to try to peel off the outside ring of people and get them placed in a train car. If necessary, they would use their rifle butts to beat people senseless. Panic ensued with people trying to squeeze ever tighter to avoid the soldiers. Buruma provides this statement from a witness:
It was what one British officer described as "a damned bad show."
Similar scenes played out in many locations—even in the United States—as people were rounded up and turned over to the Soviets in what would eventually be referred to as Project Keelhaul. This source provides information on an incident that took place at Fort Dix, New Jersey, in which three people committed suicide and seven were injured before being subdued using tear gas and forcibly taken to a Soviet ship. Thus were 154 people in the United States "repatriated."
Forced repatriation ended in 1947; by then the number who had been turned over was about 2 million.
Roosevelt and Churchill agreed to this return by force if necessary at Yalta, but the terms were concealed in a secret codicil. It would be fifty years before the details became public. Alexander Solzhenitsyn referred to it as "the last secret of World War II."
Those from Yugoslavia who were returned to Tito and his army fared little better, if at all. In the town of Bleiberg, on the Yugoslav border in southern Carinthia, the British were confronted with what was described as a fleeing mass of Croatians, including 200,000 soldiers and 500,000 civilians. The British convinced them that it would be impossible to harbor so many and convinced them that they should turn themselves over to Tito and they would be treated "properly as POWs." The starving Croatians had no other choice.
Little is known of what happened next because there were few survivors. Those who did live to speak of events told of mass executions, death marches, beatings, and other forms of torment.
However, there were occasions where the soldiers knew exactly what was happening.
Estimates of the number of people killed in World War II range from 60 million to 85 million, depending on how on one chooses to attribute a death to the war. Perhaps, after many years of carnage, leaders thought that a million or two more casualties in order to tie up loose ends was not too large a price to pay.
Buruma has produced a masterful recounting of the events that transpired in 1945. To describe it as a "history" might not do it justice. His interest is not in political machinations and grand strategies, but rather in describing how the various classes of people who were affected tried to cope with and survive the greatest cataclysm mankind has experienced. Check it out!