The establishment of the independent states of interwar Eastern Europe was possible only because all of the great powers bordering on the area were defeated in the same war (Walters 150). The dismantling of the Hapsburg and Ottoman Empires resulted in weak nation-states that did not realize economic prosperity or democratic governance, with the notable exception of Czechoslovakia, which embraced Western-style democracy and capitalist economics. Authoritarian rulers emerged with goals of maintaining control and were not focused on creating opportunities for their people. The influence of utopian-nationalists like Giuseppe Mazzini, who believed that a world of nation-states would mean the end of war, was strong in Eastern Europe. The people had been told to expect a sort of heaven on earth, that a new world of harmony and plenty would appear when nationalist goals were achieved (Walters 151). Beginning in 1944, UNRRA set up missions in many of these nations to help provide needed agricultural and industrial material to enable fuller realization of their economic potential.
Ethnic Minorities in New Countries
The new countries that formed out of the mandates and redrawn borders of the Treaty of Versailles did not fall along traditional ethnic boundaries. Thus minority populations suffered at the hands of unconcerned majority governments that did not allow for minority protections. Again, an exception to this occurrence was seen in Czechoslovakia where Czechs, Slovaks, Sudeten Germans, Ruthenians (Ukrainian), Silesians(Poles), and Hungarians worked through their differences by forming political parties that received seats in the Parliament and broad assurances from the executive leadership. Poland had five neighbors and among them only one friend. Border disputes with the Soviet Union, Lithuania, Germany, and Czechoslovakia were constant political thorns with the only relief being an inconsequential line deep in the Ukraine between them and Rumania (Walters 159). In many of the countries that held significant minority populations of Jewish residents, anti-Semitism was a unfortunate reality although actions never escalated to a "final solution". After world War II, Holocaust survivors and political refugees of many ethnic backgrounds shared the same living space and similar prospects in the UNRRA DP Camps.
1918 Spanish Influenza Pandemic
The entry of the United States military into Europe to fight alongside British, Canadian, and French forces also brought with them the spread of a nasty influenza virus. The global deathtoll from this strain of Spanish flu exceeded that of all the years of trench warfare and poison gas attacks. Civilians suffering from years of malnourishment from war rationing were easy prey of this predator of weakened populations. In total, an estimated 20 million casualites left the world in shock. Some victims could not receive adequate medical care while others were simply not reached in time. After the Second World War, urgent medical attention for the weak became the utmost priority to prevent outbreaks of pestilence and UNRRA willingly filled the role of primary provider for thousands of refugees, forced laborers, and Holocaust survivors.
Food Production & Famine
After World War II, all of the newly independent states of Eastern Europe carried out land reforms that transferred ownership of the soil to those who tilled it. The heavy debts incurred by new land owners of small plots prevented this region from developing a surplus that could have served as the basis to modernize their society. Mechanized farming was nearly impossible and minimal access to credit and education produced a backward, isolated, and impoverished citizenry (Walters 153). The new Soviet model of collectivized farming based on five-year plans and a quota system produced equally poor results. The great famine of 1933 killed millions in the Ukraine due to starvation and neglect by the Soviet central government.
The United States experienced its own difficulties in food production. The Dust Bowl years showed that breaking new prairie soils needed preventative measures to be put in place concurrently to prevent the loss of topsoil due to heat, drought, and high winds. Famine was avoided but thousands of acres of land lost their productive value in the Great Plains which forced many to leave their land in the middle of an already challenging economic depression. Central government action helped provide some relief and assisted farmers in the effort to create more sustainable farming practices. These new programs would become part of UNRRA's later effort to increase production in Eastern Europe and hopefully allow these people to be more self sufficient.
Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924
The end of the wave of immigration between 1880 and 1920 came as a direct result of years of building opposition to relatively open immigration where large numbers of European and non-excluded Asiatic migrants moved to the American West and the urban sprawl of growing metropolitan centers of industry and commerce. From central and eastern Europe came Austrians, Czechs, Slovaks, Finns, Russians, Poles, Lithuanians, Hungarians, Rumanians, Serbs, and Croats. Jews were generously sprinkled throughout all these nationalities. From southern Europe came Italians and Greeks (Lescott-Leszczynski, 22). Studies of American immigration policy often focus their attention on the effects of U.S. policy on populations in Europe during the interwar years. European immigrants were not the only people affected by the enacted curtailment of immigration. After World War I, Japanese exclusion rode the coattails of the larger nativist movement against immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe.
The Immigration Act of 1924 imposed national origins quotas on Europeans and excluded all persons racially "ineligible to citizenship," a euphemism for Japanese and other Asiatics. As a social mechanism, the nativist movement of the 19th century had evolved through its own selective process into that of a eugenics movement. In the United States, the eugenics movement began during the Progressive Era and remained active through 1940. In fact, it was the restrictions of the Immigration Act that led to the turning away of thousands of Jews fleeing Nazi Germany in the 1930s. After Hitler took power in 1933, there were a number of attempts to waive some immigration restrictions so that the soon-to-be victims of the Holocaust would be able to seek asylum in the United States. There was no clear consensus as to what action should be taken, so the restrictions remained. UNRRA DP camps housed thousands of Jewish Holocaust survivors and other forced laborers, but until 1949 were still unable to find refuge due to slow action on immigration policy.
During the "return to normalcy" of the 1920s, America turned inward and away from the world political arena. The "red scare" of 1919-1920, confidence in the nation's ability to take care of itself fostered by successful prosecution of the war, and the German war debt problem - all may have contributed to the decline of interest in the nations of the Old World (Reiselbach, 10). The return of isolationist foreign policies by President Harding and subsequent Republican Party administrations were seen by many voters and interested parties as necessary and prudent actions to remove the U.S. from the theatre of Europe in order to focus on domestic issues. Even under the leadership of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the focus remained on the domestic problems with the cost being appeasement and neglect of helping maintain global security. The 1929 Stock Market Crash ushered in an era of lasting economic catastrophe that lingered until December 1941 when war mobilized the American workforce to end the Nazi German and Imperial Japanese peril. UNRRA grew in part from a realization that failure to engage with the world diplomatically and politically results in either distrust, misunderstanding of other leaders and their goals, and encouraged aggressive action.
FDR and the New Deal
The crash of 1929 had made a mockery of Republican claims to being "the party of prosperity". In the years of Herbert Hoover's presidency, the bottom had dropped out of the stock market and industrial production had been cut more than half (Leuchtenburg, 1). Something had to be done to alleviate suffering of this scale and the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt was simply the first step. FDR took office at a time when the nation was facing a crisis of such magnitude that he could count on an extraordinary amount of cooperation (Polenberg 8). The New Deal drew on many sources and bore the stamp of many authors, arose from no master plan, and did not fit neatly into a single ideological box (Parrish 299). What the New Deal meant to the latter formation of UNRRA was essentially a philosophical change that gave the power to large administrations in order to do big things on behalf of those who could not otherwise achieve their full measure of life.