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Maastricht University

The Occupied become Occupiers – The Case of Maczków/Haren

Samantha Knapton, University of Nottingham

At the end of the Second World War, Allied-occupied Germany was described as ‘a sea of make-shift shanties’, ‘a kingdom of barracks’, and an ‘archipelago of displaced persons camps’. American army officer and geographer, Malcolm J. Proudfoot, estimated there were seven million United Nations displaced persons (DPs) in the three western zones of occupied Germany in May 1945. For over a year the Allied armies encountered millions of the displaced along the roads and railways and hastily erected transit and assembly centres to feed, clothe, house, and de-louse them. Although the allied military took charge of gathering people into these centres, the primary responsibility for looking after their welfare and attempting to repatriate them once war ended lay with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA). Created in 1943, before the official United Nations was formed, UNRRA was intended to provide for those displaced by war in every conceivable way. However due to staffing shortages, they became reliant on the Allied military for transport, housing, and security.

UNRRA Repatriation Questionnaire in English, Polish, and German. Gilles Lapers Private Collection

For many of the DP groups in occupied Germany, their reversal of fortunes at the end of the war was greeted with relief but closely followed by confusion: How were they to get home? At the same time, the defeated German population now had to shift from being a nation of occupiers to an occupied nation. For the population of the town of Haren, this would be felt much more viscerally than elsewhere, as the entire German population was removed and replaced with Polish DPs for three years before eventually a second reversal took place: the Poles moved out, and the Germans moved back in. But why did this happen?

Although most DPs were housed within specifically erected camps, alongside repurposed concentration camps, prisons, and army barracks, some were also placed in requisitioned private housing. The British zone of occupation included the heavily industrialised areas of the Rhineland and Ruhr in the north-west of Germany. These areas had been heavily bombed and rarely were neighbourhoods intact – nonetheless it was common for whole streets to be given over to DPs, and the UNRRA teams had to imagine that they were governing an entire district as if it were one big DP camp. As the adage went: the Americans had the scenery, the French had the wine, and the British had the ruins. In reality, this merely ensured that the already fraught relationships between UNRRA and the military, between the Germans and the occupiers, and between the DPs and all of the above groups, were frustrated further as housing was scarce, food was in short supply, and new hierarchies among the deprived emerged daily.

The DPs who resided in British-occupied Germany had a variety of wartime experiences. The most numerous, and therefore most visible in this zone, were Polish DPs – in September 1945 they accounted for 79% of the zone’s total DP population. Some were ex-concentration camp prisoners or former forced labourers, some were members of the Polish army who had fought alongside the British, while others were the surviving remnants of Poland’s mass underground resistance movement, the Armia Krajowa (AK) – the Home Army, most of whom had been captured after the Warsaw Uprising failed in October 1944. In one particular corner of British-occupied Germany, between 18 and 19 May 1945, an entire German town was requisitioned. Haren, on the river Ems, was evacuated with the help of British and Canadian armed forces and on 22 May, the Polish First Armoured Division arrived together with sixteen female members of the AK, to start registering, processing, and housing Polish DPs in the requisitioned town. By 24 May 1945, Haren had become a Polish town in Germany and quickly became the informal capital of a series of large Polish camps which comprised ‘Little Poland’ in and around Emsland, a mainly rural part of the zone near the border with the Netherlands. Shortly after taking over the town, to ensure that visitors who had lived there previously were in no doubt about the present situation, Haren was renamed Maczków after the Polish army General Maczek.

Maczków functioned as a Polish town and already by June 1945, it boasted primary and secondary schools, four bakeries, a butchery, a theatre, a publishing house, a hospital, a police station, a fire brigade, a Roman Catholic parish, and the beginnings of a youth scouting movement. Largely occupied by soldiers who were members of the Polish First Armoured Division and Polish First Independent Parachute Brigade, together with their families and dependents, the town’s existence caused consternation in Allied diplomatic circles. Although still part of the Polish army, these units were under the protection of the British army as they had fought in the war under British army command. Furthermore, because the boundaries of Poland changed considerably during and after the war, the former homes of many DPs were no longer part of Poland. Many of those loyal to the Polish government-in-exile based in London were rightly fearful of returning to a Poland with changed borders and a new Soviet-backed government. Yet according to the three western Allied powers, to the new Polish Provisional Government of National Unity in Warsaw, and to UNRRA – repatriation to Poland was the main goal for these DPs, regardless of whether they actually wished to return or not. The Allies and UNRRA had quickly repatriated numerous Soviet, French, Belgian and other DPs during the summer of 1945. By September it became clear that Polish DPs were the most visible of those remaining in Germany and the easiest solution was considered to be – go back to Poland. Many Allied and UNRRA officials claimed that those who refused repatriation were only doing so from greed or because they were seeking economic opportunities for themselves in Germany, but this was generally not the case. Resettlement opportunities abroad were limited and remaining in former enemy territory was, for many DPs, not a viable option. Yet, the creation of Maczków caused some of those who sympathized with the Soviet position on DPs, to declare that an independent Polish state was being erected on German soil. It was only through reinforcing Maczków’s temporariness that these fears were quelled. Although ostensibly under UNRRA care, Maczków acted independently of UNRRA and the other DP camps in many ways but also came to be central to the functioning of Polish DP life in the western zones of occupation – for example hosting the Central Committee for Schools and Education in 1946 (Centralny Komitet dla Spraw Szkolnych i Oświatowych).

Maczków continued to thrive throughout 1945 to 1947. However in 1946 the British government created the Polish Resettlement Corps (PRC) with the intention of demobilising those DPs who were not prepared to return to Poland and permitting them to settle in Britain with the hope that they may repatriate to Poland in the near future. By 1947, the first large scale piece of British immigration legislation was created – The Polish Resettlement Act. After the act was passed in March 1947, the number of DPs remaining in Maczków dwindled. Finally, on 10 March 1947, the Municipal Council of Maczków received an irrevocable order from UNRRA Team 162 to hand over 65 houses back to their German owners. By 1948, the inhabitants of ‘the capital of Little Poland’ had dispersed, some to new countries, some to Poland, and many to other DP camps or to Britain. The town’s name was reinstated as Haren, and slowly the German population returned.


The Polish inhabitants of Maczków, although undergoing a variety of wartime experiences, all endured occupation at the hands of Nazi Germany – some almost immediately after war was declared in September 1939, and others later after the retreat of the Soviet Union in 1941. Many civilians and members of the Polish army who were imprisoned by the Soviet Union or awaiting deportation to Siberia were suddenly granted their release as a result of the Sikorski-Maisky agreement in July 1941. Army dependents and civilians found themselves in Tehran, Iran, Palestine, North Africa, India, Mexico, and beyond. Yet, when the Polish First Armoured Division and Polish First Parachute Brigade took over Haren, mostly with the help of Canadian 701 detachment, some thought that they were indeed reestablishing pre-war Poland on German soil. The picture was complicated further by the involvement of Allied powers, the British in particular, attempting to appease the Soviet Union and prevent the spread of Communism, and therefore paying little attention to the upheaval their DP policy created to Polish lives. For three years, Maczków was, for all intents and purposes, a microcosm of pre-1939 Poland.

How did the Germans who were forced from their homes react? Little has been written about the longer-term impact of multiple forced migrations within the local German community of Haren, as those belonging to a nation of occupiers became simultaneously forcibly displaced and occupied, only to have their homes returned to them once more, three years later, while still under occupation. Although post-war studies have certainly boomed in the past couple of decades studying the attitudes of the descendants of the inhabitants of Haren who were evacuated and then returned, would not only be interesting, but could provide further insight into how episodes of forced migration affected successive generations. Examining the experience of those who were both occupiers and occupied, at different times, may help us gain a greater understanding of the impact of forced migration on post-war Anglo-Polish-German relations, and more generally on broader questions of population displacement and international humanitarianism.



Jaroszyńska-Kirchmann, A., D., The Exile Mission: The Polish Political Diaspora and Polish Americans, 1939-1956 (Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2004).

Knapton, S. K., Occupiers, Humanitarian Workers, and Polish Displaced Persons in British-occupied Germany(London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2023).

Lembeck, A. & Wessels, K., Befreit, aber nicht in Freiheit: Displaced Persons in Emsland, 1945-1950 (Bremen: Temmen, 1997).

Łuczak, C., Polacy w Okupowanych Niemczech 1945-1949 (Poznań: Pracownia Serwisu Oprogramowania, 1993).

Nowak, K., Kingdom of Barracks. Polish Displaced Persons in Allied-occupied Germany and Austria, 1945-1952 (McGill–Queen’s University Press, 2023).

Rydel, J., “Polska okupacja” w północno-zachodnich Niemczech 1945-1948: Nieznany rozdział stosunków polsko-niemieckich (Kraków: Fundacja Centrum Dokumentacji Czynu Niepodległościowego Księgarnia Akademicka, 2000).


Photo credits:

Cover photo: Maczków/Haren sign on Bridge. Gilles Lapers Private Collection

The images were originally made available to me through Gilles Lapers who had an extensive private collection of documents and images from Maczków. The majority are now all freely available to view on www.porta-polonica.de.

Samantha Knapton is Lecturer in Modern European History, University of East Anglia, UK.