Thursday, 18 April 2019

Volunteering for peace in the aftermath of the Second World War

The IVSP logo

One of the collections currently being catalogued here at the History Centre is the records of the International Voluntary Service, formerly the International Voluntary Service for Peace, which is the British branch of an organisation called Service Civil International. Above is the IVSP logo, a shovel over a background of a broken sword, with the slogan “Pick and shovel peacemaking” – a reference to the organisation’s founding idea that useful physical work carried out by volunteers from many countries could contribute to international peace.

One of the most interesting parts of the collection is a section about relief work the IVSP took part in from 1944 until 1949 before and after the end of the Second World War. This section contains minutes and reports, but also contains some personal letters and photos. Most of the reports relate to Units 1 and 2, which went to Greece and Crete, and Units 4, 5 and 7, which went to Germany and the Netherlands.

IVSP Unit 4, taken just before leaving London
IVSP Unit 4 left London for the Netherlands in April 1945, and they were there for about three months before being moved into Brunswick, Germany, just a few miles from the border with the Russian zone of occupation. 

A report by Unit 4, July 1945

After several months working with Polish displaced persons awaiting repatriation, in September 1946 the unit was moved to northern Schleswig Holstein, not far from Denmark. Here the volunteers assisted in the coordination of refugees from former eastern German territories which had been ceded to Poland. Ethnic Germans had been expelled from these areas in huge numbers. They were assigned to the occupied zones in Germany, with around 1.5 million being assigned to the British zone. They were ordered to be billeted on the local population, in an attempt to quickly assimilate them, which did not work as there were simply too many people to accommodate.

In December 1946, the conditions reported by the IVSP team were poor. Huge numbers of displaced Germans had arrived, but there was simply nowhere for them to go, so most were living in camps. In the better camps the large rooms had been partitioned to allow each family a small room of their own, but in the worse ones five or six families would be sharing a room. There was no electric lighting as, although there was electricity, there were no lightbulbs. The roofs almost universally leaked, as there was no tar or felt to be found.

The Unit’s area was the northern part of the province, and they reported that in their initial survey of the district they had seen over 200 camps containing a total population of some 40,000 refugees. They were trying to help the refugees help themselves and “avoid falling into apathy and despair”, as they reported: “This is our aim in establishing camp workshops, where the refugees can make themselves pots and pans from old food tins and from scrap metal which we have scrounged from dumps and aerodromes. Old tyres are good for shoe repairing, bits of wood are turned into beds… Toys made from driftwood are being kept for Christmas…”

A few months later, in March 1947, conditions had deteriorated further. The winter had been cold – it was still snowing – and there was almost no fuel for heating the camps.

Food was also in short supply and the unit was trying to supplement the camp rations, as they reported, “With supplies obtained from Red Cross stores and sent by friends in England, we have been able to extend our child feeding schemes which are now in full swing in 91 out of our total of 185 camps. Our stocks will still only run to feeding ten out of every hundred children and the local doctor has considerable difficulty in selecting those most in need of extra nourishment. A hot drink provided every other day consists either of thick soup containing dried vegetables and meat extract, or of cocoa and dried milk, with margarine or jam to spread on their own bread ration, and in addition half a bar of chocolate or a Horlicks tablet on the alternating days.”

Despite the conditions, the unit members were still committed to IVSP values. The unit leader wrote, “I do not think we should consider our presence in Germany entirely justified if our job consisted solely of ministering to the material needs of the refugees. It has become obvious at our fortnightly International Discussion Group meetings that young Germans are tired of talking and are wanting something practical to do… Discussion Group meetings, for which we have secured speakers on subjects such as “A Comparison of the German and English Social Insurance Legislation”, “The Ideals of Youth” and “English and German Manners and Customs” are always packed to overflowing and there is no shyness or hesitation at expressing frank opinions.”

IVSP personnel in Germany, 1947

The work of unit 4 continued in Schleswig throughout 1947, as conditions continued to be difficult and food shortages carried on into 1948. The IVSP units were now making more progress beyond just relief. In the summer of 1948 they had started a pen-friend scheme for 14-22-year-olds, and there were 66 Germans corresponding with British young people. They reported back to headquarters, “More directly we help the German branch of Service Civil International… We have two very keen groups meeting weekly… and a third meeting occasionally… The group programmes are mainly concerned with the deepening of international understanding through the discussion of mutual problems, hearing guest speakers from other countries when such opportunities occur, and through international workcamps.”

By late 1948 it was clear that IVSP’s role in providing civilian relief had come to an end. Their ongoing projects were passed over to the West German branch of Service Civil International, which the units had helped to get on its feet, and the last IVSP team left the country in early 1949.