The Long Road Home: The Aftermath of the Second World War

Image of The Long Road Home: The Aftermath of the Second World War
Release Date: 
February 21, 2011
Reviewed by: 

Millions of words of have been dedicated to the discussion of World War II, its causes, its horrors and its aftermath. So it might be hard to imagine that anything new could be discussed. The Long Road Home manages, however, to do just that.

While much has been written about the human devastation of the camps, the ruination and waste of postwar Europe, the shift of international powers and geographic boundaries, comparatively little has been written about the geographical and psychological devastation of those who were “liberated” from the Nazi death camps or from the grips of war. Those “displaced persons” who struggled with demons and terrors, experienced little actual “liberation” in the face of those traumatic experiences. Even among psychiatric and psychology professionals, there was limited understanding of the long-term effects of trauma. Enormous numbers of people needed to be “rehabilitated” after the war—research provides numbers nearing eight million.

How was a devastated Europe to meet the needs of these people?

Winston Churchill’s leadership extended, even during the worst of the war’s battles, to anticipating an Allied victory and the ensuing need to administer to the needs of the war’s victims. As early as 1940, he spoke of the need to address not only their physical starvation but the well-deserved promised social and civic freedoms of a liberated Europe.

At the war’s end, Franklin Roosevelt, as President of the newly empowered United States of America, established UNRRA, The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, to alleviate the many struggles and difficulties of the victims of the Axis’s subjugation.

But even the best intentions could not match the overwhelming responsibility of caring for so many millions of victims, and the uncontrollable aftermath of their brutal and crazed lives during the war. There was no one “type” of displaced person. There were those who had fought for the Germans: Cossacks, Croats, Ukrainians; there were concentration camp survivors; there were prisoners of war, those who had been used as slave labor, or as sexual slaves—traumatized fugitives of many kinds. Unanticipated complications included the fact that many of displaced persons did not want to be discovered or returned to their prewar homelands. Millions of people had become nomads, lost emotionally as well as geographically. The lawlessness that overtook these populations swallowed towns and cities with looting, rape, disease, and murder.

It was a near-impossibility for the average relief worker to help these DPs to cope with the post-traumatic effects of their wartime experiences. There was an astonishing number of sexually abused people, now infected with gonorrhea or other sexually transmitted diseases. Enormous groups of wild and crazed, often orphaned, children showed signs of what we now would recognize as borderline-personality disorder. In short, millions of people exhibited signs of serious mental illnesses that could never be addressed by even the best-intentioned worker.

UNRRA was overwhelmed and ill-equipped to handle this mayhem. Mr. Shephard’s extensive research shows an organization not only stunned with the magnitude of its responsibilities, but crippled by its own bureaucracy. Even more tragically, many of the officials of UNRRA abused their own power and fell victim to the temptations of corruption. They were guilty of profiting from sales to the black market, illegal emigration, even sexually abusing some of the DPs. It appeared often as though the hope of rehabilitating the victims of war were dashed, since those meant to offer that help were in need of rehabilitation themselves. The madness of the war seemed to remain within the population, indeed to infect those who had originally attempted to offer succor.

Mr. Shephard tells the reader that he has never himself been an aid worker, nor is he a particularly religious person. But he felt compelled to tell this story, since so much has been written about the demonic side of the war, he wanted to shine a light on those who were trying, even when not succeeding, to offer rescue. Mr. Shephard wanted to examine Europe, “grappling with the psychological aftereffects of war and trying to reconcile the gulf between rhetoric and reality—on the one hand, the reality of the black market and prostitution on the streets of Hamburg and other German cities, and on the other, the language of international brotherhood.”

Can such a dream of brotherhood ever be realized? Mr. Shephard’s book, for all his desire to paint the picture of the noble endeavor, shows that it hasn’t yet come true. Even within those most determined to offer healing, the motives were often mixed, so how could the outcomes be anything but imperfect? There were manipulations, geopolitical motivations, old hatreds and blood feuds commingled with the best intentions.

For many decades after the end of WWII, the world sat, uneasily balanced between the powers of the USSR and the U.S., until the collapse of communism set the balance askew once again. Touted by some as a victory of Democracy and Capitalism, we know now, with the economic collapse of recent years, that a much deeper instability has once again been set in motion. Shepherd tells his reader that this is what gives his book its topicality—that we are once again at the brink of confronting those unresolved tensions and conflicts—the same ones that lead us into the World Wars, that redistributed populations and redrew borders after those wars ended, the same ones that have been playing out with the destructiveness of this wildly out of control Global Economy, and most recently, with the surge of popular uprisings in volatile regions.

The language of international brotherhood is needed more today than ever. The Long Road Home offers a thoughtful and sobering look at the ways we have, so far, failed to speak that language. But as language too often becomes rhetoric, we must widen our reach toward something even greater if we are to survive—a reality, created through our determination and actions, of international brother- and sisterhood, once and for all.