One of the great ironies of Hitler’s catastrophic twelve-year rule from 1933 to 1945 – an irony no doubt lost on the Führer himself – was that a regime so fixated with racial purity ended up making Germany the ethnic dumping ground of Europe. By the summer of 1944, a quarter of the German workforce were non-citizens; there were nearly eight million of them from at least twenty countries, either prisoners of war conscripted for corvée labour or else Hilfswillige, ‘volunteers’ imported, with varying degrees of coercion, to work for the Reich. Most of the Hiwis were Poles and Russians, often female, often very young: the typical worker was said to be an eighteen-year-old schoolgirl from Kiev. Half a million concentration camp inmates, Jewish and non-Jewish, were churning out Messerschmitts and machine guns in the Reich’s armament factories and toiling on the Pharaonic construction projects of Armaments Minister Albert Speer. Germany was the hub of a vast and polyglot slave empire.
The Allies inherited this dazed and half-starved sea of humanity when they entered Germany in the spring of 1945. What to do with the ‘Displaced Persons’ or ‘DPs’ of Europe was to occupy the minds of statesmen