Displaced Persons (DPs)

Polish Displaced Persons in Germany (here former forced laborers) on the roof of cars at a collection point for DP's on July 3, 1945.
Polish Displaced Persons in Germany (here former forced laborers) on the roof of cars at a collection point for DP's on July 3, 1945.

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After the end of the Second World War in 1945 many Polish citizens in the Allied occupation zones decided not to return to their homeland on political grounds. These included members of Polish armed forces in the West, prisoners who had been freed from concentration and work camps, and former prisoners of war.

Many of them were not prepared to accept the shifting of Polish borders to the west and the communist takeover of power in Poland. Under such circumstances a return to Poland was impossible for them. These persons were then designated as “DPs”, Displaced Persons. 

At first they were placed in transit camps. Some of them decided to emigrate and others to remain in Germany. From the very start Polish DPs organise their own structures. After 1951 the Union of Polish Refugees (Zjednoczenie Polskich Uchodźców) whose headquarters were in Velbert, was their principal representative body. The organisation worked under difficult conditions. Communist secret services tried to shadow them. In the 1950s they set up a huge number of activities. Their influence declined in later years due to further emigration and the fact that their members were less active politically.

The end of the Second World War fundamentally changed the situation of Polish citizens in Germany. Because of the shifting of Polish borders many of the former Polish minority in Germany, including those in the autochthon population of Upper Silesia and Masuria, suddenly found themselves in Polish territory once again. The Polish centres in Germany began to close down. There were also serious demographic and material losses. Estimates say that around 150,000 Polish citizens (former German citizens), lived in all the occupied zones of whom 50,000 were in the Soviet zone. The occupation forces treated the Polish national group like Germans, in that they called them “Germans with a Polish migration background”. This made it difficult to revive Polish organisations which had been founded by the so-called “old emigration”. This term was created in order to differentiate the group from members of the so-called “new emigration”. The new emigration primarily included former forced labourers, prisoners of war and soldiers in Polish armed forces in the West. The occupation forces gave them the status of displaced persons and accommodated them in special camps and settlements which no longer contained any German inhabitants (e.g. Wildflecken, Hohenfels, Emmerich and Haren). These camps were organised and headed by UNRRA. From 1st July 1947 they were taken over by the International Refugee Organisation (IRO). The aim was to create better conditions in order to care for refugees and provide them with food and clothing etc. Future repatriation should also be facilitated.

At the start all DPs were accommodated in camps. This situation changed in the subsequent years after some of the inhabitants began to find work, marry and live outside the camps. Towards the end of the 1940s between 25% (in the British occupied zone) and 30 % (the American zone) lived outside the camps. By contrast three quarters of the Polish DPs in the French zone lived in private housing. The commanders in the camps were selected by the Allied forces and were directly responsible to them. Most of these were former prisoner of war officers. Independent self administrative organisations helped the commanders in the camps. They also dealt with cultural life and the education of the DPs, as well as distributing aid from care organisations. In order to ensure that camp life proceeded in an orderly manner the commanders had their own police force whose duties were to support the occupying forces and the German police in investigating crimes committed by camp inhabitants. 

The Polish authorities attempted to repatriate all their citizens who had been imprisoned or worked in Germany during the war. These plans were implemented most completely in the Soviet zone where repatriation was sometimes compulsory. Up until the end of 1946 all the DPs in the zone returned to Poland, and up until 1949 20,000 members of the “old emigration” also did so. In the Western zones repatriation was also supported but not enforced. Hence it only occurred very gradually. Because of the new Communist regime in Poland a considerable number of Polish citizens refused to return home. Most of them emigrated further west. The remainder settled in West Germany. 

According to UNRRA statistics there were 922,088 Polish DPs registered in the Western zones in May 1945. Their numbers declined further following their return back home or further emigration to countries like the Netherlands, Belgium, the USA, Canada, Australia and Great Britain. In 1946 there were only 422,000, at the start of 1948 210,000, and in September 1949 when the Federal Republic of Germany was set up, only 113,000. According to IRO statistics there were 80,354 Polish GPs and Polish refugees living in the territory of the Federal Republic of Germany on 1st July 1950. Data gathered on 1st October 1951 even spoke of 120,000.

In 1951 the IRO handed over responsibility for displaced persons to the government of the Federal Republic of Germany, thereby ending the situation which had existed in 1945 at the end of the war. The first step taken by the German government was to close down the refugee camps and give this group of persons a legal status. On 25th April 1951 the German parliament passed a law concerning the legal position of “homeless foreigners” in the country. From now on DPs were treated like foreigners who were protected by German law. They were guaranteed religious freedom and the opportunity to set up private schools. Legally they were under the jurisdiction of German courts and duty-bound to respect the laws of the Federal Republic. Another important article in the new law stated that the German government was duty-bound not to expatriate any foreigner to countries where they would be in danger on the grounds of their political views. The German government guaranteed their care. Similar rights were given to, for example, political refugees from Poland who were henceforth able to apply for political asylum. Further waves of Polish immigrants benefited from the new law. 

After 1945 the DPs set up many organisations. However because of the constant emigration of Poles from Germany and the huge amount of personal and political conflicts between the Polish exile government in London and the communist government in Poland these organisations were relatively weak and prone to divisions. At the start separate structures existed in each of the occupied zones (in 1945 in the British zone the organisation was known as the “Główna Komisja Porozumiewawcza Środowisk Polskich” / the Head Commission on Communicaton between Polish Circles; in the American zone as the „Zjednoczenie Polskie / the Polish Union”; and in the French zone as the “Powiatowe Ośrodki Polskie” / the Polish Urban Centre Circles). In 1946 the “Porta Polonica“Zjednoczenie Polskie w Niemczech” / the Polish Federation in Germany was created as an umbrella representative organisation for Polish DPs in their dealings with the occupational forces and aid organisations like UNRRA and IRO. Because of internal conflicts at the end of the 1940s  the Polish Federation in Germany was replaced in 1951 by the “Zjednoczenie Polskich Uchodźców” / League of Polish Refugees (ZPU) whose headquarters were in Velbert. This organisation had an independent character, roughly 5000 members and was recognised by the Polish government in exile. Its first chairman was Janusz Zawalicz-Mowiński and its press organ was “Polak”, published in Quakenbrück. The League of Polish Refugees was divided into four areas known as circles, and each of these circles was further divided into other sub-circles (Ogniska). The organisations were mainly concerned with questions dealing with everyday existence (finding a job, legal aid, attempts to get compensation for forced labour and internment in concentration camps, the education system). The League of Polish Refugees also supported new emigrants from Poland although these people tend to weaken the organisation. In the 1960s and 1970s the organisation underwent a crisis and membership declined rapidly. When the work of the League of Polish Refugees finally came to an end in 1989 only a few sub-circles remained active, including some in Bavaria.

Other DP organisations included the League of Polish War Veterans and the Polish League of Former Political Prisoners in German Concentration Camps. Political parties also set up their own branches, like the “Polska Partia Socjalistyczna” / Polish Socialist Party (from 1946), the “Stronnictwo Ludowe „Wolność“ / Polish Farmer’s Party “Freedom” (from 1947), the “Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe” / Polish Farmers party (supporters of Stanisław Mikołajczyk), the “Stronnictwo Narodowe” / National Party and the “Stronnictwo Pracy” / Workers Party. That said their membership was insignificant and they existed only on the fringe of the main wave of Polish activities in Germany. 

Between 1945 and 1950 there were 260 private and secondary schools (15,700 students) in and around DP centres. They published around 400 journals and set up a huge amount of choirs, amateur theatre groups and orchestras. In the 1950s this number began to decline as the refugee camps were closed down and DPs began to move elsewhere or become more integrated into the community. As a result the influence of the “League of Polish Refugees”, which suffered internal conflicts also declined. These conflicts led to further fragmentation in the organisation in the late 1960s and 1970s.


Krzysztof Ruchniewicz

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