Upheaval and displacement on the European continent are nothing new. Great movements of people took place between the two world wars and again, on a massive scale, in the aftermath of the second. The emphasis today is largely on forced migration by non-Europeans, yet the anxieties over ‘integration’ which have grown dramatically since the wave of arrivals in the Mediterranean in 2015 were also present during the postwar period, in relation to Germans and Eastern Europeans. The years that followed the fall of Berlin saw the largest mass movement of a single ethnic group in European history. But German refugees were associated with the defeated aggressor, and so their fate was either downplayed or seen as a justifiable punishment. Ten million Germans suffered in what Peter Gatrell describes as ‘a reckoning on a grand and terrible scale’: 2.7 million were expelled from the Sudetenland and other parts of Czechoslovakia; six million were driven out of Poland and hundreds of thousands from Yugoslavia, Hungary and Romania. ‘We must expel all the Germans because countries are built on national lines and not on multinational ones,’ said Władysław Gomułka, one of Poland’s communist leaders. Churchill also called for ‘a clean sweep’ of ethnic Germans from Poland. Czechoslovakia’s liberal president, Eduard Beneš, urged his compatriots to ‘liquidate the German problem’. The Potsdam Agreement between the Allied powers in July 1945 said that the transfer of Germans should be ‘humane and orderly’, but much of it was callously carried out.
The misery of the expelled Germans did not end when they reached the two embryonic postwar German states, the Western occupation zones which later became the Federal Republic, and the Soviet zone which became the German Democratic Republic. Despite their backgrounds, they encountered prejudice and hostility from their compatriots in a devastated economy with huge housing shortages. Many were housed in attics, basements and stables as well as old air-raid shelters, barracks and camps. Despite initial sympathies, locals were quick to vilify the new arrivals. Some began to speak of them as ‘a Slav element’ whose German blood had been contaminated by centuries in Eastern Europe. Resentment rose in proportion to the size of this new population. In 1950 they accounted for 17 per cent of West Germany’s population and 24 per cent of East Germany’s. They were expected to move to rural areas where there was less war damage, and communities were split up, partly as a result of fears that the expellees would support revanchist claims for the re-acquisition of ‘lost’ territories – this happened anyway.
In the same period there were scores of lesser but still sizeable expulsions of other ethnic groups. Stalin moved Poles out of Ukraine and 430,000 Karelians from what was now a province of the Soviet Union into Finland. Around 100,000 Czechs and Slovaks were transferred from Yugoslavia. The process of forced resettlement, sometimes glossed as voluntary emigration, continued for several years. In 1950 Bulgaria began ‘repatriating’ 250,000 Turks. The communist authorities gave them ninety days to leave, taking whatever they could carry. Cold War politics came into play when the Turkish government described the new arrivals as ‘unfortunate victims of communism’. The West German government, still struggling to house the first wave of expelled Germans, welcomed migrants from East Germany because they were seen to be choosing freedom over totalitarianism. During the Greek civil war of 1946-49, the children of communists were evacuated to Eastern Europe. Some were helped by the Red Cross to return in the 1950s; right-wing groups claimed that the children had been hostages of ‘Slavo-communists’.
Economic considerations were as decisive as ideological questions in shaping host attitudes to migration and determining government policies. Several Western countries set up immigration programmes to swell their postwar workforce. The arrival in Tilbury of the Empire Windrush with 492 West Indian migrants is often described as the earliest example of this in Britain, but in February 1947, more than a year earlier, the Ministry of Labour had sent officials to recruit displaced people languishing in camps in Germany, including Balts, Latvians, Poles, Ukrainians and Lithuanians. The programme was bizarrely named Westward Ho! and the recruits referred to as ‘European Volunteer Workers’: ‘foreign workers’, it was felt in Whitehall, was a description that might expose them to hostility. Ministry officials, Gatrell tells us, showed a clear ethnic bias, giving places to people from the Baltic republics ahead of Poles and Ukrainians. Between 1946 and 1949 as many as 90,000 men and women were recruited under the programme.
Professionals reinvented themselves as plumbers and farm labourers in order to increase their chances of selection. Camp inmates were checked for any sign of physical weakness or mental disability. One Quaker relief worker described the recruiting process as a slave market, while an American observer reported that recruitment officers ‘prowl in the camps as if in department-store bargain basements, where the marked-down price tags feature race, size, family status, age, skill and muscles’. This triage, in which other governments – hard-pressed for manpower – also took part, was so fastidious that 175,000 inmates remained in DP camps in Germany five years after the war ended. Those who got through the selection process received a grudging welcome. ‘Other countries had taken the cream and left us most of the scum,’ the Daily Mail commented. ‘They must now be rounded up and sent back.’
In the mid-1950s, as Europe’s imperial holdings were wound down, the first large intake of non-Europeans, moving north – and west – began to arrive. After Algerian independence in 1962, close to a million French settlers returned to the mother country. Although many pieds noirs at first slept on docksides and in public parks, the government quickly organised a massive relief programme. The harkis, the Algerian Muslims who had fought on the French side, were less fortunate. The government accepted its responsibility to protect them, but brought them to France surreptitiously, often at night in overcrowded boats, before consigning them to camps in remote areas. De Gaulle, who had returned to office in 1958 as a result of the crisis brought about by the war in Algeria, regarded France as a country ‘of the white race, of Greek and Latin culture and the Christian religion … The Muslims, have you seen them, with their turbans and djellabas? You can see clearly they are not French.’
Germany, meanwhile, was actively recruiting Muslim Gastarbeiter from Turkey, having used migrant labour from Italy, Greece and Yugoslavia to drive its economic reconstruction. The turn to Turkey began in the 1960s, and in 1965 a Law on Foreigners distinguished the rights of Common Market citizens from those of Turks, making it easier for employers to dismiss Turkish workers, whose one-year residence permits could be renewed – or not – according to the level of demand for labour. The intake of Turkish workers led the German media to raise questions about the wisdom of the gastarbeiter programme, but the left-liberal line that Germany must prove it had buried all vestiges of the Nazi past prevailed through the 1970s. Anticipating the position Angela Merkel would take in 2015, Germany’s leaders and technocrats presented the programme as a building block of international understanding and solidarity. In September 1964, German officials greeted the millionth arrival, a carpenter from Portugal, with a fanfare at the railway station in Cologne. He was given a moped and a bunch of carnations. A band played the Portuguese and German national anthems. Similar ceremonies took place over the next ten years as new milestones were reached.
Like its German counterpart, the Turkish government expected that most Turks would eventually come home. But despite their understandable ambivalence – in the words of one guest worker, ‘we were wanted but not welcome’ – large numbers opted to stay in Germany, opening shops, cafés, restaurants and their own cultural and religious facilities. Inexorably the tone of media stories began to change. In 1973, the liberal magazine Der Spiegel spoke of an ‘invasion’ under the headline ‘The Turks Are Coming: Run for Your Lives’.
By the early 1970s, in Gatrell’s convincing schema, the controversies that have come to dominate Europe’s discourse on migration were set: assimilation v. integration, conformity to the wishes of the ‘host’ society v. multiculturalism, as well as the dilemmas posed by a relatively new, unfamiliar kind of migrant – the asylum seeker. The critical moment, in Gatrell’s view, was the Arab embargo on oil sales to Europe in 1973, which led to 15 years of economic recession. European governments did their best to close the lid on immigration, and public opinion became increasingly hostile. Thousands of workers decided to rejoin their families in Turkey but the majority remained in Germany, despite their precarious status as non-nationals. In 1978 foreigners were given the right to an unlimited residence permit after spending a continuous period of five years in Germany: it was a significant concession to a community that had contributed to the country’s economy for nearly two decades.
France, by contrast, had always favoured assimilation and naturalisation. If the state passed anti-discrimination laws and migrants showed a willingness to give up some or all of the practices or beliefs associated with their home culture, the argument ran, they were entitled to citizenship. It was a hardline variant of the American melting pot in which all citizens of whatever origin are expected to sign up to a common project. Britain and most northern European countries favoured what Gatrell calls ‘sensible integration’: migrants acquire legal status and political rights, and enough economic security to gain a foothold, while the host country tolerates diversity. The two positions are in reality more fluid and the French approach is in practice as ambiguous as the Nordic/Anglo-Saxon model, but Gatrell has put his finger on a key divergence of principle. ‘Integration was about gain,’ he writes, ‘but, to all intents and purposes, assimilation was about loss.’
With the influx of thousands of asylum seekers from the 1970s on, the arguments of the early postwar years over how to manage refugees and displaced people were reignited. That these refugees were coming from outside Europe should have been a marginal consideration: after all, arguments about integration and assimilation had raged in the late 1940s as governments and populations struggled to accommodate displaced Europeans. All the same, the ethnic profile of the new refugees – mostly East African Asians and Vietnamese – gave the migration debate a racialised turn. A further complication arose from the definition of a bona fide asylum seeker in the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, which ruled out claims based on economic disadvantage. It was clear, of course, that people were leaving their home countries as a result of intolerable economic hardship and political persecution, and that the two were often connected. Was it fair to make a distinction?
Idi Amin’s decision in 1972 to expel Uganda’s Asians caused political turmoil in Britain. As Commonwealth citizens they didn’t have an automatic right of entry to Britain, but Wilson’s government gave them the benefit of the doubt and public opinion grudgingly accepted that the UK had an obligation to take them in. Around 28,000 were admitted; a similar number went to India, Canada, Sweden and elsewhere. Mahmood Mamdani, whose family property was expropriated by Amin, felt that the British ‘seemed to be getting ready for us as one prepares for a swarm of locusts’. The Labour administration lodged them in disused army camps and other holding centres. The plan was to resettle them in towns and cities across the UK, but the Asians themselves preferred to settle in places like Leicester where pioneering migrants from their communities had already arrived.
The military coup in Chile in 1973 saw a flood of left-wing militants leaving for Germany and Sweden. In 1975, the fall of the regime in Saigon produced another mass migration, with Britain unexpectedly opening its doors to 20,000 Vietnamese. Fifteen years later, it was assumed that the fall of the Soviet Union would produce a comparable exodus to the West but instead, as the Soviet republics became independent states, hundreds of thousands of Russians suddenly found themselves expatriates in their own cities and villages. Some moved to Russia itself, but the majority stayed where they were, even when anti-Russian feeling, long suppressed, began to run high, especially in the Baltic states. Compared to the end of the British, French and Portuguese empires, the fall of the Soviet Union was remarkable for its relative lack of violence: it was many years before ethnic Russians who had lost their dominant position in the Baltic satrapies took to the streets.
The recent migrant intake in Europe – between January 2014 and March 2018 1.8 million entered EU countries via Mediterranean crossing points (with 16,000 recorded as dead or missing) – bears comparison with the three million people displaced by the wars in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s. The current mood is one of dismay and xenophobia. EU attempts to organise a fair redistribution of refugees away from the ‘frontline’ states of Italy and Greece between all its member states foundered on opposition from Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic. Austria and Slovenia, which had eliminated all passport controls when they joined the Schengen area, put up fences and razor wire along their common border. In 2015 the EU launched Operation Sophia to intercept migrant boats in the Mediterranean and return them to Libya, while also funding the Libyan coastguard to stop boats full of migrants gaining access to international waters. Gatrell, a historian of human movement, calls this ‘a wintry response’: he’s thinking largely of governments and EU institutions. He has very little to say about initiatives by Greenpeace, Seawatch and other European NGOs to rescue migrants from their rickety vessels and pluck drowning people out of the sea, and nothing about the people in many European countries who invite asylum seekers into their homes.
Gatrell devotes a paragraph to Merkel’s bold decision to welcome a million migrants and refugees to Germany. By the standards of every other European country, with the exception of Sweden, this was an impressive decision. But he is more interested in the ‘limits to German generosity’. His account of the Kosovo crisis of 1998 and 1999 is sketchy and loaded. He wrongly describes Nato’s decision in 1999 to launch a bombing campaign as a ploy to destabilise the Milošević regime, when it was in fact devised to drive Serbian forces out of Kosovo and prevent ethnic cleansing. During the bombing a million people fled or were expelled by the Serb authorities, ending up in Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro – but we never learn from Gatrell that the majority returned to their homes within six months of Serbia’s capitulation.
Few scholars know as much as Gatrell about European immigration policies, but he offers no prescriptions. His sympathies are unambiguously with the migrants. Without them, he writes, ‘the continent as a whole would have been much impoverished: less unsettled, perhaps, but greatly diminished.’ The few lessons he draws are simple. More interesting is the observation that younger nation-states, formed in the aftermath of war, partition or decolonisation, seek to entrench their sovereignty with draconian rules about who belongs and who does not. Britain, an old state, seems bent on rediscovering its adolescence by implementing what is one of the most unwelcoming regimes of all.
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