The Long Road Home
The Aftermath of the Second World War
By Ben Shephard
The Bodley Head – £25.00
Might it be said that Ben Shephard is more of a humanitarian than a writer. By his own admission at the outset of The Long Road Home – The Aftermath of the Second World War, he writes: ‘’What began as an attempt to explore the place of morality in public life soon lost its way in the dungeons and torture chambers of the SS, the NKVD and Saddam Hussein. Hang on, I found myself crying, as the unending Cook’s Tour of Horror took us from the building of the White Sea Canal to Auschwitz to Pol Pot’s Cambodia, what about all the ordinary, decent people? Are we to believe that all of humanity is like this? Wasn’t there some counter to the camps, the Gulags, and the killing fields?’’
With these words in mind, this book is more of an exploration of the term Displaced Persons, rather than a trawl through the European trajectory of the Second World War’s outcome. Shephard sheds more informative light on humanitarian need(s) and behaviour for example, by mentioning influential books on the subject such as Jonathan Glover’s Humanity and Margaret McNeill’s By the Rivers of Babylon – even though the latter is a fictionalised account of a Quaker unit’s work in Brunswick, Northern Germany.
In so doing, one cannot help but wonder if this was a deliberate attempt at injecting a slightly different colouration of language into the literary proceedings; as they are at best, resolute and informative, yet ultimately dry and somewhat scientific in tonality.
This is brought to bear in ‘Skryning,’ where the author writes: ‘’Repatriation was only half the story; screening was the other. Resolution 92 had also called for the ‘registration’ of all DPs and the compiling of information about their employment skills […]. As with repatriation, many different impulses lay behind this move, one of which was a wish simply to reduce the numbers that UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration) was caring for […]. Nonetheless, for UNRRA and the Army to screen all the million-odd DPs in camps in Germany and Austria was quite an undertaking. Was screening going to be fundamental exercise in monitoring the wartime records of DPs […].’’
To be sure, the above, as does much of The Long Road Home, reads more like a manual than a history book. Thus by the time one reaches the half way mark, the reader is left scrambling for a language which is just a tad more alluring and inviting.
That said, in the very same chapter, the author does write with great care and authority on the thorny issue of Polish Repatriation – or, as has been well documented down the years, non-Repatriation: ‘’The British government had for some time faced the question of what to do about the large number of Polish troops serving under British command who were unwilling to return to a Russian-dominated Poland. Some 30,000 soldiers had agreed to go back, but this still left 60,000 in Britain and 100,000 in Italy, where their presence under the command of General Wladslaw Anders, who had made no secret of his anti-Communist and anti-Soviet feelings, had been denounced by the Soviet bloc.’’
If nothing else, Ben Shephard has written a book that comes across like a juggling act betwixt factual analysis and cloying boredom. Which one ultimately wins out, I am still hard pressed to tell – but there you have it.