Internationalists in the Age of Nationalism

In this post, Bertrand Taithe considers some of the causes and consequences of Britain’s forthcoming withdrawal from the European Union.


The place in which I have lived for over 22 years, as an academic immigrant, has voted against membership of the EU on Thursday 23rd June 2016. The same village is now festooned with Union Jack flags as part of its festive 1940s memories weekend – the event is a celebration of the spirit of the war during which the good folks dress in second-hand uniforms of varying accuracy, invite fake Tommies and GIs and even the occasional Russian or Wehrmacht re-enactors to parade in the street and make camp on the school grounds. One cannot avoid the conclusion that this celebration has taken a very different tone when, a week before, Jo Cox, the MP from the neighbouring constituency has been stabbed and shot to cries of ‘Britain first’.


This is not to attribute to an exercise in nostalgia for a united society facing a common enemy any deep sinister motives. Rather, it is to point out that 1940s weekends and other flag-waving events are not only nostalgic reminders of nationalisms gone by. They are also popular engagements with the rituals of patriotism, at a time when patriotism is once again used for political aims.

By 1940 the great European ideal of internationalism was deeply buried. The left was split by the alliance of Communists and National Socialists, the main institution of internationalism was seen as a great irrelevance and a failure. A parallel comes to mind in 2016, though to compare the EU with the League of Nations is perhaps a little far-fetched. Yet both have interesting common features: the League was a Wilsonian idea but it really built on 50 years of preliminary international conferences, technical networks and ideals which brought together the same kind of experts who later fed into the European project. It combined liberal economic ideas with liberal notions of social justice and global aspirations of development and protection – making humanitarian aid a cause at the heart of international relations through new common institutions. Arguably, it only tentatively raised the issues of citizenship, minorities and participative democracy when so many of the key powers were empires. There were tensions in the edifice and states embraced ideals in its debating chambers they privately rejected.

Much the same could be said of the EU. Like the League of Nations, the EU combines a charisma vacuum, a failed engagement with the citizens it claims to represent and yet profound technical expertise and a desire to protect citizens. The legacy of the League was a technocratic one. The technical committees of the League survived throughout the war and were later the bedrock of UN collective expertise. The International Labour Organisation and the WHO are obviously the main examples of this continuity while the work the league undertook on behalf of refugees acquired new meaning in the turmoil of the 1940s. The EU has delivered over and over again on technical issues, on education and rights, on ecological and health norms, on workers’ rights, but its overall political project, much like the loftier dimensions of the League of Nations, is in danger of failing utterly.

Part of this failure of course is that international bodies such as the EU or the League of Nations remain empty drums on which states play their own tunes while pretending to be listening. Access to citizens is not part of their remit – the EU parliament is as toothless as the petitions to the League were. Its remit is technical, not democratic. Ventriloquism is the only way Leagues or EU can speak. They are no more than echo chambers – resounding and deafening when cacophony is the only sound given to them.

The debates of the League were not edifying when Ethiopia faced the Italian onslaught and generated a mass displacement of refugees, when faced by the nativist and racist ideology of Fascists across Europe in Spain, Italy, Germany and increasingly across the democracies of the continent. The drum ceased to beat altogether when it became obvious that no-one was listening any more. The EU is not yet faced with these issues or on that scale and perhaps the comparison becomes less relevant. Yet with the UK, one of its five largest countries, withdrawing over a range of issues which range from accountability vacuum to the rejection of the non-British and the fear of the other, the discourse is changing and we are witnessing the revival of old nativist tropes and somewhat more muted racist ones.

This is not a complete surprise. The EU has been in weak responsive mode for a decade and its democratic agenda has stalled even as its technical expertise became part of the problems member states face. As an international body it became the site of conflicts between states rather than the expression of internationalism. Ironically, the EU became also the target of the most committed internationalists, with MSF denouncing its deal with Turkey or its treatment of refugees and migrants – MSF has decided to reject all funding originating from the EU and its constitutive states to make the point that the EU as a whole is failing as a humanitarian or internationalist organisation. Torn between calls to close the border and appeals to expand or guarantee humanitarian rights of refuge, the EU makes no sense to the humanitarians who used to take ‘its’ money.

Of course the EU has no money of its own and it does not raise its taxes, it is not either a humanitarian or internationalist structure per se. As merely a supranational pooling of sovereignty and expertise it does not have much of a will of its own, and its ‘programme’ is poor in political terms. Crises reveal the EU’s weak political nature, and they are an ‘occasion for cheering’ much like the one enjoyed by detractors of the League of Nations in 1936. To reject the EU is to challenge how little it can do, rather than denounce its role. The pooling of some elements of national sovereignty has not diminished the existence of sovereign voices. The EU only has the foreign policy governments allow it to have. MSF is targeting the drum rather than the drummers: citizens and states besieged by demagogues.

Governments themselves are looking at their public opinion and at the resurgence of nationalism with fear – evaluating how far the debate has shifted towards a rejection of internationalism and globalisation. Opening up societies to refugees now appears a difficult humanitarian line to pursue. The fact that the country most reluctant to accept its share of the people needing protection (and yet one of the largest donors of international development aid) has now turned away from internationalism, partially on those grounds, should be something humanitarians and internationalists need to ponder. Weak international bodies and structures are not the single cause of a weakening of internationalism – attacking them and weakening further their frail legitimacy is to indulge the enemies of internationalism. To rejoice in the end of an internationalist illusion, as some did in 1936 or as some do today, is to disguise as realism profound cynicism on the prospects of humanity. The terms of the debate on the League of Nations or on the EU were and are not about pragmatic evaluations of what works or what should work: they are about what constitutes our common humanity and how we should define citizenship. Despite their best efforts, technical experts did not articulate a social compact which could resist the allure and romance of nationalism with its binaries of love and hate, inclusion and rejection. So-called European citizenship fails to live up to the most basic requirements of the concept. In current debates (July 2016) this citizenship of the European Union offers no long-term guarantee of residency or political participation in Britain post Brexit. The vote out of the EU effectively disenfranchised some of the union’s citizens (this would also apply to the British residents in the EU) and the EU has shown no explicit concern with the fate of citizens in this debate. Furthermore, EU citizenship and internationalism is precisely what renewed nationalism defines itself against.

I have never dressed up as a free-French in my village fete. Were I to choose a costume for the village parade, I think I might go for the grey business-like suit of a League of Nation expert, anonymously working through the war in grim and earnest despair but in the hope of an internationalist future. On second thoughts, I think I might give it a miss.

Bertrand Taithe is Professor in Cultural History and Director of the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute at the University of Manchester.

The bombing of Kunduz and the crisis of international humanitarian law

Is international humanitarian law in crisis? In this post, Eleanor Davey reflects on the recent history of attempts to amend and enforce the Geneva Conventions.


‘Power of Humanity’: this was the slogan of the 32nd International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, which took place in Geneva from 8-10 December 2015. The conference brought the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the National Societies, and the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRC) together with governments from the world. These discussions in December demonstrated that ultimately the power of humanity proved less compelling than the autonomy of states. One of the proposals that did not receive endorsement was to create a new platform to improve compliance with international humanitarian law (IHL). It called for ‘a non-binding voluntary mechanism which would bring states together to: 1) exchange information and best practices on key thematic and technical issues, and 2) participate in a voluntary self-reporting process on IHL compliance.’ The ICRC and the Swiss government had been working towards this proposal for several years. While states were keen to express their commitment to the law, they baulked at the idea of a new mechanism to encourage respect for its rules (though ICRC work in this field will continue). After the conference, ICRC President Peter Maurer spoke with frustration about the message that ‘despite the rhetorical recognition that this is a problem, there is no real political will to engage substantively to make things better.’

On the eve of the conference, an IRIN article on the proposed platform offered its final word to Dr Joanne Liu, President of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) International: ‘The [Geneva] Conventions were written to mitigate the impact of war on civilians… and that is what we will fight for, to keep that humanitarian space in war zones.’ As head of an organisation that had lost dozens of staff members, patients, and other civilians in the targeted bombing of their hospital in Kunduz, in northern Afghanistan, Liu held a place of sorry privilege in these debates.

The choice of Liu and MSF’s incinerated hospital to embody the ‘last patch of humanity in a war zone’ was not random; violations of IHL could have been represented by, for example, the barrel bombing of civilians in Syria. Instead Kunduz figures as the most egregious violation in a mass of unacceptable violations, taken as evidence that the lack of respect for international humanitarian law is both long-standing and ever worsening. As Liu declared in a speech shortly after the bombing, ‘This was not just an attack on our hospital – it was an attack on the Geneva Conventions.’

Picture 2

A hole in a wall from a shell at the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, 15 October 2015. Photo by Victor J. Blue for NBC News,

It is striking that the attack on the Kunduz hospital is used to make the case for a more effective mechanism for compliance with international humanitarian law, even as the core of MSF’s response to the attack – a call for the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission (IHFFC) to investigate the incident – appeals to a platform previously created for just this purpose. The IHFFC, established in the late 1970s, was intended to examine alleged violations of the law. However, it has not even once been used. When its creation was being debated, the American jurist Richard Baxter commented that ‘it was somewhat paradoxical to be drafting new law when the old law was not fully implemented and the principal instrument for neutral supervision was moribund.’[1] His words, from 1975, would not be out of place today. The power of humanity has given way to states before.

Moreover, claims currently being made about a ‘crisis’ of international humanitarian law strongly echo those made in the 1960s and 1970s, when another so-called ‘crisis’, again brought about by widespread disregard for existing laws of war, led to the writing of Protocols I and II additional to the Geneva Conventions (it was Additional Protocol I that provided for the creation of the IHFFC). Highly destructive wars proliferated nonetheless – in Vietnam, in Pakistan, in Nigeria, in Southern Africa, in the Middle East. But jurists’ and aid workers’ call of ‘crisis’ did not mean humanitarian and human rights norms were afforded a neutral or apolitical space. In the field, humanitarian action was always caught up in political agendas and conflict economies. In the law, a comparable dynamic applied: the Protocols were proposed, drafted and passed in a profoundly political and at times polemical environment, as international humanitarian law became implicated in the international campaign against colonialism (a condemnation of Portugal’s continued hold on its territories in Africa), foreign occupation (a move against Israel after its gains in the 1967 Six-Day War), and racist regimes (attacking South Africa’s apartheid system and minority rule in Rhodesia).

The writing of the Additional Protocols is thus remembered by legal scholars and historians alike as an ideological struggle, at least in its early phases. The 1974 session of the Diplomatic Conference that drafted the Protocols – the first out of an eventual four – was an angry and, in the minds of some of its participants, unproductive encounter in which international humanitarian law was forced into the service of political goals. The decision to include ‘wars of national liberation’ in the category of international conflicts was emblematic. Neither the ICRC nor the Swiss government had wished to reopen the Geneva Conventions, fearing that political antagonisms would diminish rather than improve the protections they provided. Nonetheless, like the IHFFC, several of the key protections for medical facilities, transports, and workers are to be found in the Additional Protocols. Amidst the many disagreements aired during consultations, there was a near consensus on the importance of improving protections for medical missions, and government experts were able to make significant headway in agreeing on key provisions.[2] And while certain areas of the law were more likely to be subject to agreement, the discussions as a whole became less inflammatory over time.

What does this earlier example tell us? For one thing, it suggests that the idea of a crisis of international humanitarian law is neither new nor sufficient as a motivator for change. Decolonisation was a crucial factor in debates about updating the law in the 1960s and 1970s. There was widespread recognition then that the large majority of ‘third-world’ countries had not been independent when the Geneva Conventions were written. Since that time, the presence of developing countries in international forums had increased markedly. The desire of some of these states to assert an anti-colonial agenda, including through the use of human rights and humanitarianism, profoundly marked debates about international humanitarian law. This political goal combined with the sense of urgency to strengthen the case for change. In other words, it was the wish to see law take account of the struggle for decolonisation and against racial discrimination – what contemporaries and commentators since have described as a distortion of the law’s impartiality – that created conditions for the law’s ‘reaffirmation and development’.

Of course, this did not lead to perfect law for the regulation of armed conflict. Nor did it guarantee respect for that law in the future. But it reminds us that a diagnosis of crisis, no matter how starkly (or frequently) presented, is not enough to effect change. Less pure motivations for considering humanitarian protections, such as institutional rivalry and political point-scoring, have also played a part in creating sufficient conditions for action. The history of international humanitarian law shows us this, notwithstanding the fact that even the ICRC, with its long experience of brokering agreements on the law, has today resorted to a public discourse of newly pressing crisis. The Kunduz attack may well be used as a symbol of crisis, but crying crisis alone is not enough.

[1] Richard Baxter, Humanizing the Laws of War: Selected Writings of Richard Baxter (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 292. Originally published as ‘Humanitarian Law or Humanitarian Politics? The 1974 Diplomatic Conference on Humanitarian Law’, Harvard International Law Journal 16 (1975): 1-26.

[2] Frits Kalshoven, Reflections on the Law of War: Collected Essays (Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff, 2007), 39-40, 61-65. Originally published in Netherlands Yearbook of International Law 2 (1971) and 3 (1972).

Dr Eleanor Davey is Lecturer in History of Humanitarianism and British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute, University of Manchester, and author of Idealism beyond Borders: The French Revolutionary Left and the Rise of Humanitarianism, 1954-1988 (CUP, 2015)

The State of Europe

In our first post of 2016, Martin Conway thinks about the past and future of European nation-states.


When will the historians of twentieth-century Europe accept that their century has ended? The violent attacks in Paris on the night of 13 November serve to confirm what we should already have known: that the populations of Europe have moved on from the politics of the twentieth century, and it is time for the historians to do so too.

Of course, in the aftermath of traumatic events, historians delve rapidly into their store-cupboard of analogies and precedents. And there are many which can be drawn upon for such purposes. Violence by small militant groups composed predominantly of immigrants from specific ethnic backgrounds has, after all, a considerable lineage in twentieth-century Europe. The various revolutionary and counter-revolutionary movements that proliferated in the former territories of the Habsburg and Tsarist empires at the end of the First World War, the militant Jewish Communist groups who played such a role in the anti-fascist movements and the wartime Resistance groups in the 1930s and 1940s, and the FLN militants of Algerian origin who were active in France in the 1950s and 1960s, are all examples of how political violence has often been generated in Europe by marginalized ethnic and religious minorities, who derived their legitimation from the perceived repression by state authorities. And yet none of these models really has much purchase for understanding the various incidents which, from the train bombings of Madrid in 2004 to the events in Paris, have become part of Europe’s contemporary present. In part, of course, this is because European history is no longer, if it ever was, self-contained: this violence draws its inspiration from elsewhere, and from different histories. But there is also a broader and more disconcerting reality. The radicalized militants who have generated this violence feel no affinity with these precedents. Indeed, one suspects that they know little or nothing (and care even less) about Europe’s past history.

This is a cause for some modesty on the part of historians. We inhabit a present which owes little to “our” past. The twentieth-century history of Europe has come to an end. Everybody can choose their terminus date of preference, be it the reunification of Europe after 1989, the impact of the neo-liberal reforms of the 1990s, or the attacks on the Twin Towers on 9/11 and their subsequent imitators in Europe. But, wherever you choose to stick the frontier post between past and present, it is impossible to ignore the sense that European history has not so much ended as turned into a new configuration. For contemporary historians, to misquote J.P. Hartley, the present is another country, and they do things differently there.

Quite why that should be so is a question which probably demands an answer on a rather grand scale. But the more immediate challenge for historians of Europe is to develop frameworks for understanding the evolutions of the present, which are more relevant than reworkings of our all-too-familiar stories of the crises of the 1930s and 1940s. The history of the twenty-first century has to start somewhere, and the events of the last year have given us plenty of raw material to work from. War in Ukraine, the rise of new populist forces of right and left (or both), the demands for revision of national sovereignty, the arrival of large numbers of migrants fleeing war and economic deprivation, and the impact of new forms of political violence constitute a formidable agenda which demands a response more substantial than the overused language of crisis.


27 October 2015, Migrants are led by German Fedeal Police to an emergency accommodation centre in Wegscheid, southern Germany (Armin Weigel/ dpa via AP)

Crisis is of course a term that historians conventionally deploy to describe the demise of the old and the difficult birth of the new. The first is certainly highly visible in present events, as manifested by the collapse of a certain way of managing Europe, as well as the retreat of pre-existing political elites in the face of economic pressures and the demands of angry and exasperated voters. Of course, they will not go quietly. The logics of austerity economics and of national security justified by the supposed internal and external threats to European populations provide plenty of means for state authorities to seek to impose their discipline on their populations. But state authority is not what it used to be. One of the more tangible consequences of the last twenty years has been the hollowing out of much of the former trappings of state power and of national politics. In an era when communication has become primarily electronic, and national borders have become largely notional, state authority no longer has the same centrality in the history of twenty-first century Europe.

Part of the challenge of a history of the present is therefore to appreciate, if not fully to understand, the fluidity of boundaries of any kind. We inhabit a new cosmopolitanism, as reflected in the global character of many of Europe’s major cities, but also in the flexibility of identities, be they national, political, ethnic, or indeed religious. Journalists investigating the backgrounds of the authors of the Paris attacks have appeared surprised to discover that they were products of the banlieux of Paris and of Strasbourg, who amidst the chaotic years of their early adulthood travelled without any great sense of purpose to Syria, from where they returned equipped with a cocktail of animus, bravado and perhaps a superficial understanding of some elements of Islam. And yet that surely is what one would expect: militants are made not born, and the manner of their making well illustrates the fluidity of identities among those many Europeans whose lives have been rendered fragile by economic changes, the dislocation of social structures, and the retreat of structures of state provision.

In order to understand this, the most appropriate template is not the twentieth century, with its explosion in state power and totalizing ideological visions, but its predecessor. Looking at Europe’s present-day cities, one cannot but be reminded of the chaotic immigrant cities of Europe in the nineteenth century, and their worlds of neighbourhoods, ethnic self-help structures, and an almost total absence of state authority. Zola, it seems, has never been so topical; but other aspects of Europe’s present-day history seem also to recall the Europe of the mid-nineteenth century. The impact of vast economic forces beyond the control of any public authority, the pressure of migrant masses on a pre-existing population, and sudden surges of political support for charismatic individuals or for rhetorics of national liberation (and of xenophobia) smells much more akin to the Europe of the 1840s and the 1850s, than it does to the Europe of Adenauer, de Gaulle, Thatcher, Kohl and Mitterrand.

However, to replace one set of analogies with another borrowed from the previous century is not sufficient. A history of Europe’s twenty-first century has to identify the building blocks of the new. Some elements of this are incontrovertible: the new precariousness of living standards caused by economic change and untrammelled market forces, and the consequent replacement of the disciplined interaction of socio-economic interest groups by a new and much more volatile politics of economic opportunity and grievance. But other elements appear much less clear-cut. Is Europe moving left or right? Will the migrants of 2015 be integrated into a new and more multi-cultural Central Europe, or will they provoke a descent into forms of ethnic essentialism?

Above all, where, in the end, will state authority be discovered to reside? One of the most striking features of Europe since the final decades of the twentieth century has been the demise of those hierarchical organizational charts of government which used to characterise political-science textbooks. Power is now more dispersed and also more opaque, shared between a plethora of regional, national and supra-national institutions, but also secreted away in institutions such as central banks and security structures that are impervious to democratic control or even public scrutiny. None of that means that we are about to experience new forms of authoritarianism; the populations of Europe have, one suspects, moved beyond the stage when they would submit to the disciplines of states of emergency and military coups. Moreover, for all of the seriousness with which leaders have gathered to consider Europe’s overlapping current crises, one of the most striking features of their discussions has been the relative absence of effective tools of power. Military force – other than the spectacular acts of aerial bombing in Libya, Iraq and Syria – has almost disappeared; national economic policy-making has been transferred to central banks and the power of the markets; and even the routine ability to keep track of the movements of populations appears to have been largely eroded. From the streets of Molenbeek to the beaches of Lesbos, it is the limits of the capacity of the state which has been more apparent than its strength. Perhaps that presages a new 1848, but more significant is the way that the state has lost, or surrendered, its twentieth-century role as the grand manager of European life. What will replace it forms part of the still uncertain nature of the history of the European present.

Martin Conway is Professor of Contemporary European History at Balliol College, Oxford.

The Dangers of Sympathy

In our last post of 2015, Becky Taylor ponders charity, public sympathy and ‘deserving’ refugees. Merry Christmas!


How fickle we are. Back in September the drowning of three-year old Aylan Kurdi made even The Mail take a step back from its habitual anti-immigration vitriol and consider the human costs of the ongoing refugee crisis. Then it appeared that perhaps we were on the cusp of a more compassionate response to those displaced by war and civil chaos. How long ago that now seems. After the attacks on Paris, the vote allowing RAF bombing of Syria and Donald Trump leading the charge of hysterical kneejerk rhetoric tying Syrian refugees to IS, we are back on more familiar territory; a territory where refugees are vilified, mistrusted and left to take their chances with human traffickers, byzantine asylum systems or the ever growing shanty towns on what is effectively Britain’s border, in Calais. Often lost in the swirl of emotive commentary is the simple fact that under international law those fleeing the complex conflicts of the Middle East are refugees, and as refugees have certain rights above and beyond how the public opinion might be being swayed on any given day.

Jessica Reinisch rightly suggested in her Europe in Crisis blog piece that the current refugee crisis is complex and refuses easy parallels such as the one I had constructed in relation to the 1956 Hungarian refugees. In it I had argued that this historical moment saw an unprecedented coming together of public empathy with international action. In reflecting on this I proposed that we might use 1956 as an example to remind ourselves that mechanisms could be put in place to solve crises where there was the political will to do so. In my defence I would say that this article stems from a sustained and more nuanced piece of research exploring the British response to refugees across the twentieth century. The arrival of Hungarians after they fled the Soviet invasion is in fact both part of a longer story of ambivalent reception of refugees to Britain, and in itself encapsulated much of that ambivalence. When I wrote of the welcome given to Hungarian refugees entering Britain what I did not do, in that first piece, was to write of the next phase of that history. I had hoped it would not be necessary. Even academic historians sometimes give way to hope. Now seems an appropriate moment to move beyond hope and explore what happened when 21,000 Hungarian refugees arrived in Britain in a matter of weeks over the winter of 1956/7. As with the Syrians currently arriving in Canada, behind the novelty of the reception programme and welcoming words lurked attitudes with a far longer history: a history of charity engrained with expectations over proper expressions of gratitude and the behaviour of the deserving poor.

Bruno Grgurević, one of the Red Cross volunteers arranging for food packs to be distributed to arriving refugees at the Slavonski Brod temporary transit centre. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian.

Reading contemporary newspaper reports what is immediately striking is how the refugees were portrayed. For, although the international effort was being coordinated under the newly created UNHCR, the discourse in Britain did not centre around the Hungarians’ rights under the 1951 Convention. The language used by the press, the government and reception workers was not one of obligation under international law, but rather of welcome based on an understanding of the refugees as anti-Soviet and vulnerable. Despite approximately two thirds of Hungarian refugees being young men, it was ‘bewildered’, ‘small’ or ‘sick’ women, children and the elderly who were most often depicted.

This narrative of the welcoming of vulnerable or deserving refugees from Communism was reinforced by the ways in which the British constructed their own role in the process. For every mention of how these ‘welcome guests’ were ‘heroic freedom fighters’, there was another situating Britain as a moral leader on the international stage rescuing the Hungarians as part of its ‘tradition’ of welcoming ‘fighters for liberty’. First-hand accounts from Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS) volunteers universally depicted them as ‘cheerful’ and ‘stalwart’, ever ‘working tirelessly’ and ‘creating order out of chaos’ while ‘taking things in their stride’. Where there were ‘difficulties’, they were brushed over. ‘Disgruntled’ refugees might sometimes have been ‘trying’, but with patience any ‘misunderstanding’ was surmounted by the redoubtable WVS worker and a cup of tea. Overall, the conventional expectation of the volunteer-refugee interaction was of beneficent giving on the part of the British and gratifying appreciation on the part of the refugees. One volunteer at the end of the process reflected how her group had received a number of letters ‘expressing grateful thanks for our help’, and how ‘women have broken down, and… men have kissed our hands’. While admitting that there were ‘a number who have shown no gratitude at all’, fortunately these were ‘in the minority’, and overall, the volunteer declared, her experience was ‘very well worthwhile’. This was not in a discourse of refugee rights under international law and within the newly constructed welfare state.

The positioning of refugees as charitable subjects by WVS volunteers sits within what Tony Kushner has termed a habit of ‘national self-congratulation’. If the British were disposed to see themselves as cheerful dispensers of practical charity and common sense, then this was viewed as an extension of the nation’s tradition of tolerance and welcoming refugees. Newspaper accounts, statements in the House of Commons and the comments of voluntary organisations and individuals all emphasised British ‘tolerance’, ‘welcome’ and ‘fair play’ where the government, police force, rule of law and everyday society operated on the basis of trust and openness. Such self-congratulation was visible at all levels of the reception effort. Colonel Pennyman, who had opened one wing of his house, Ormesby Hall near Stockton-on-Tees, for refugees was thanked by the local branch of the Red Cross for ‘the laudable way in which you have so worthily upheld the tradition of British hospitality’. At the household level and nationally the advice and media coverage aimed at the Hungarians was couched in the language of ‘host’ and ‘guest’, glossing over how ‘hosts’ might be paid board and lodging at standard National Assistance Board rates. Beneath expressions of welcome we can see certain processes at work which located the position of both Britain as the host nation and the new arrivals around discourses of behaviour rather than rights.

How did this discourse of conditional welcome and the climate of high expectations translate into everyday experience in the reception and resettlement process? Overall the language of reception centred around the promotion of a spectrum of expected behaviour which began with picking up social cues and learning English and moved on to finding employment, ‘settling down happily’, and assimilating. The official report evaluating the resettlement programme placed the weight of responsibility firmly on refugees themselves: ‘It might have been expected that the Hungarians would be particularly amenable, being filled with gratitude for the help and generosity of the British people’. However, the report went on to observe how, having been feted as heroes, they ‘came to Britain expecting far too much’ and indeed exhibited a range of unattractive behaviours. For, fuelled by fears of being infiltrated by Hungarian government spies, many hostels operated with an atmosphere of mutual mistrust. And in sharp distinction to the enthusiasm of the British volunteers, often the refugees ‘would not help with the running of the camp, even for their own benefit’ unless they were paid. Within weeks of the first Hungarians being housed stories circulated in newspapers and hostel managers’ reports of bad behaviour normally involving young men, drunkenness, theft of bicycles and motor bikes, fights and downing tools at work. Chiming with contemporary anxieties over juvenile delinquents and youth culture, the ‘romantic heroes’ and ‘indomitable giants’ were rapidly transformed in the press into ‘loud mouthed ruffians, a bunch of lazy, grabbing, Central European teddy boys’.

Colonel Pennyman soon found that the families he had welcomed were ‘difficult’ rather than ‘heroes’. His accounts record the ‘plain thievery’ of fifty blankets, an ‘extravagant’ use of gas, the loss of fifty teacups and of over £16 worth of cutlery. Possibly more damningly as far as he was concerned, the refugees he was housing were not interested in finding work, learning English, or ‘settling down’. Instead, they wanted to re-emigrate to the US, Australia, or South Africa where they already had relatives. We can locate Ormesby Hall’s experience as a microcosm of a far larger phenomenon. British public opinion was ‘surprised and disappointed’ to find that most of the Hungarian refugees ‘who had been welcomed with so much love’ did not wish to stay in Britain. As early as December 1956 it became clear that many of the first batch of Hungarians had thought that Britain was simply a step on the way to emigration to America or Canada. Often identified as ‘restlessness’ by those working with them, the legitimate desire of the refugees to join the large Hungarian communities in North America was typically interpreted as a slight to the generosity of the British government and people. One WVS volunteer reported that she found the refugees ‘on the whole very impatient’, expecting all ‘their requests to be granted at once’, including the desire to be transferred to America. East Riding’s County Welfare Officer spoke for many when he admitted that he was looking forward to their departure, reflecting how ‘my experience so far has rather hardened my heart a little’.

A problem with constructing a discourse of refugee reception around enthusiastic welcome rather than around rights was, therefore, how to deal with a rejection of that welcome. Public enthusiasm and voluntary effort could only be sustained within an atmosphere of gratitude, and without it the welcome easily turned sour. For those sent to live in the hostel at Haverton Hill in County Durham gained this sourness was expressed through a full-scale riot in June 1957 which saw serious and sustained disturbances over a succession of nights. Hostel residents armed with fence posts – ‘some bearing four inch nails’ – defended themselves against crowds of up to three hundred locals who had surrounded the hostel. The events were sparked by anti-social behaviour on the part of the Hungarians but also by fears of locals that ‘their’ women were socialising with them, and ‘their’ jobs were being taken by them.

The reality is that refugees, however feted in the media, are always simply human beings trying to reconstruct their lives against overwhelming odds. The realistic chances of them immediately understanding the social rules of the country where they find refuge, of quietly settling down and assimilating, and never transgressing their new society’s boundaries are vanishingly small. As one WVS volunteer reflected: ‘When we began this work, we prepared to receive twenty thousand heroes, but we soon discovered that we had to deal with ordinary human beings, made up of all types, good, bad and indifferent’. To deal with the awkward fact that refugees are not heroes or villains but are simply human beings, we consequently need to protect them from the enthusiastic generosity of the public just as much as from its untrammelled hatred. Simon Behrman in particular has argued that enshrining refugee rights in international law is not without its dangers, not least through entangling asylum seekers in labyrinthine and hostile bureaucracies. But relying on the vagaries of public sympathy is, I would argue, far more dangerous. Being generous feels nice, it makes us believe that we are good human beings, but true generosity implies giving with no expectation of return. Charity however, remains all too often steeped in assumptions over the appropriate behaviour of the recipient. This can be no basis on which to build the well-being, safety and futures of hundreds of thousands of people. People in need of protection, shelter and a new country should have access to this as a right, not because they smile. If we can take anything from history to inform the present refugee crisis it is to demonstrate the urgency of constructing a clear international structure of rights based on need rather than the short-term memories and shifting whims of a capricious public.

Dr Becky Taylor is Reader in Modern History at the University of East Anglia.

The Paris Climate Agreement and the Year 1965: How Much Can We Achieve in 50 Years (Or Less)?

In this post, Hiroki Shin considers the agreement reached at the Paris climate conference earlier this week, and points to a longer history of tensions between international and national attempts to control energy.


After intensive and tough negotiations, the COP 21 climate conference in Paris finally reached an agreement on 12 December 2015. Political leaders hailed the agreement as a historic turning point, an agreement in which the global community now shares the recognition that climate change is a threat to human existence, an enormous challenge that has to be tackled with an internationally coordinated system. The Paris pact aims to keep global temperature rise well below 2.0C, while officially acknowledging the more ambitious target of 1.5C. It also envisions the world with zero carbon emissions in the latter half of this century. The new global climate deal is to be implemented through reviews of individual countries’ performance every five years – measured against their voluntary pledges (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, or INDCs) – and by intensifying efforts to mitigate climate change over the coming years. As much as it is a landmark event in terms of the world coming to embrace a common goal, we need to see the Paris agreement as a headlight illuminating a rough road ahead of us. Furthermore, the agreement’s reference to the latter part of this century might make it sound as though we have plenty of time, but this is not the case. Looking at how things have changed in the past shows that, when dealing with a global problem, decades are a very short unit of time.


Picture 3

Half a century ago, in 1965, energy was already an international topic, though not for its environmental implications. The world was only beginning to realise, mostly at the national level, the environmental harm caused by human activity. It was still a burgeoning recognition expressed, for example, in the US President’s Science Advisory Committee report Restoring the Quality of Our Environment (1965). The report opened with the statement, ‘Ours is a nation of affluence’, but 1965 was a year when affluence and scarcity formed a curious mix. One of its manifestations was the American Northeast blackout in November 1965, evidence that energy affluence came with disruptions, shortages and the fear of losing power. The blackout, which lasted for more than ten hours on a Tuesday evening, affected over thirty million people in a country that had come to depend for the major part of its normal life on electrical power. What is interesting is not just how Americans experienced and responded to the sudden deprivation of electricity, but also how outsiders saw the event. On the other side of the Pacific Ocean, in Japan, which still regarded the USA as the model for its economic development and standard of living, news of the Northeast blackout was received with a mixture of surprise and admiration. An article described it as an event caused by ‘a blind spot of the hypermodern city’.[i] The mechanised cities that came to a halt during the power outage were seen as proof of the extent to which energy-using technology penetrated into American life. The blackout was therefore seen as a sign of affluence, the level of energy civilisation the Japanese aspired to achieve.


Picture 2

The British, less impressed by the American hypermodern, asked themselves the question: ‘Could it happen here?’ The answer of the UK Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) was that, thanks to Britain’s integrated power supply system, it was ‘impossible to visualise a similar situation arising in this country’.[ii] Despite the CEGB’s confident claim, there were a number of blackouts in the UK at the time. Less than a week after the American blackout, on 15 November 1965, a power outage occurred, affecting London, the Home Counties, Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, Derby, Chesterfield and most of East Anglia. The CEGB blamed the exceptionally cold weather that coincided with the operation to overhaul much of its equipment.[iii] The Guardian’s chief editor, Mark Arnold-Forster, exonerated the CEGB by pointing out that the real culprits were ‘millions of customers [who] felt cold at once and switched on direct-acting electric fires’.[iv] Indeed, a sudden imbalance of supply and demand had been the cause of a number of blackouts since the 1940s, including a power outage on the Christmas Day in 1962.[v]

Picture 4
The Guardian, 27 December 1962.

Energy experts in 1960s Europe were well aware that demand was not the obedient follower of supply. In the spring of 1965, the Committee on Electric Power of the UN Economic Commission for Europe held a symposium in Istanbul to consider the challenge of meeting the rapidly growing electricity demand.[vi] The attendance of 215 representatives from twenty-one countries demonstrated that those countries were facing a similar problem. However, although the problem was shared, their approaches differed. While the USSR delegate referred to a central committee to allocate power to different classes of consumer in times of emergency, the UK delegate – ever so inclined to soft persuasion – presented a paper on how to control load growth using consumer advisory services. While the problem was discussed at an international forum, the solution was sought at the national level. What could be described as the common recognition then was that the problem caused by power demand ‘does not arise only today, but exists at all times’, as expressed by the Turkish chairman.[vii] This amounted to an admission that there would be no future in which everyone’s need for power is fully satisfied at all times.

In July the same year, in Bangkok, another international meeting was held by the UN Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East (ECAFE, later to become ESCAP). The focus of ECAFE’s working group meeting was the development of energy resources – particularly electric power – and how to exploit them for industrialising the ECAFE region that included major developing countries such as China, India, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam and Iran.[viii] Some of the ECAFE countries were already experiencing the demand problem discussed by European countries in Istanbul. The demand for power was constantly outstripping supply in developing countries too, but it was simply taken as insufficient capacity building. What is striking about the Bangkok conference is how easily the longing for more energy could overshadow other important issues such as balancing the supply capacity and demand. Another topic that received only a passing reference was the depletion of fossil fuels, even though the Asian energy experts must have been familiar with King Hubbert’s ‘peak oil’ theory, first presented in 1956, which warned that US oil production would reach its peak around 1965–1970.


Picture 5

ECAFE Electric Power Experts’ Tour in India, 1956. United Nations Photo

The two meetings in Istanbul and Bangkok demonstrate that the different priorities had a profound effect on how some problems were selected while other issues were obscured. Fifty years on from the two UN meetings, the environmental issues are now centre stage at international forums where developed and developing countries participate equally in negotiations. In this way, there have been major changes. Nevertheless, there are uncanny parallels between the situation today and that of 1965. Energy disruption still haunts developed and developing countries; power outages arising from technical problems, human errors and natural disasters abound, and the renewable transition has now been added to the list of disruption causes. For instance, the UK’s attempt to abandon all of its coal-fired plants has narrowed the electricity supply margin to satisfy the nation’s demand. In early November 2015, the National Grid had to appeal to business users to reduce energy consumption to avert a wide-scale disconnection. In Germany, a record number of consumers were disconnected because they could not pay their electricity bills, which had been inflated due to added subsidies for renewable energy. Blackouts have yet to be eliminated in developed countries; they are still alive and kicking. In developing countries, including those that have already achieved significant levels of development, the appetite for energy is unabated. More than anything, the belief that greater energy use leads to greater economic growth remains so strong that it is obscuring other important issues and sacrificing the global environment for future generations.

A brief look at the events of 1965 and 2015 tells us that the length of fifty years has turned out to be far from sufficient in balancing our needs and desires for energy with the resources and capacity we have. During the same period, we have failed to manage our power demands, which has led to severe damage to the global environment. With the coming of a more rigorous emissions control regime, the problem of managing energy demands will become more acute. In addition, as the Paris meeting highlighted, the fundamental divide between energy haves and have-nots has changed very little in the past fifty years, and this is the situation we have to deal with in the coming decades. Aligning our goals is one thing, aligning our acts and deeds is another, and the latter is usually more difficult. To meet the numerous challenges, several decades are equivalent to but a short space of time. This means that we must equip ourselves with ever-increasing determination and will in order to sprint through the long and rough terrain in the decades to come.

[i] Asahi Journal, 9 January 1966, p.88.

[ii] The Guardian, 11 November 1965.

[iii] The Guardian, 16 November 1965.

[iv] The Guardian, 18 November 1965.

[v] The Guardian, 27 December 1962.

[vi] Economic Commission for Europe, Symposium on Special Problems in Meeting Rapidly-Growing Requirements for Electric Power (UN, 1966).

[vii] Ibid, p. 23.

[viii] Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East, The Role and Application of Electric Power in the Industrialization of Asia and the Far East (UN, 1965). A recent review of the ECAFE’s early history is Ikuto Yamaguchi, ‘The Development and Activities of the Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East (ECAFE), 1947–65’, in S. Akita, G. Krozewski and S. Watanabe (eds.), The Transformation of the International Order of Asia (Routledge, 2014).


Dr Hiroki Shin is Co-Investigator of the AHRC-funded ‘Material Cultures of Energy’ project (PI: Prof Frank Trentmann), based at Birkbeck College, University of London.

One of Us? Dealing with Difference Among People on the Move

In this essay, Jim Bjork looks at Poland’s recent history of assimilating culturally distinctive newcomers.


On 12 September 2015, people in the Polish city of Wrocław engaged on each side of the debate over policy toward the growing number of refugees coming to Europe from the Middle East, Africa and Asia. The issue was, by then, a familiar and thoroughly pan-European one. But the language deployed at these demonstrations reflected some distinctively Polish points of reference. At a football match, supporters of the local team unfurled a banner declaring ‘We want the repatriate, not the immigrant.’ Popularized by right-wing groups such as the Pan-Polish Youth, the slogan combined a rhetorical welcome to so-called ‘repatriates’—residents of current-day Ukraine or Central Asian republics who could claim Polish descent—with rejection of ‘immigrants’, ostensibly unassimilable foreigners, who had been primarily characterized as ‘African’ in earlier demonstrations but who now figured as agents of ‘Islamization’.


Banner at football match in Wrocław on 12 September: “We want the repatriate, not the immigrant.”

The use of the word ‘repatriates’ was an especially evocative rhetorical move in western Poland. This not only referred to the potential immigration of a relatively small number of ethnic Poles currently living outside of Poland’s borders. It also touched on the life stories and family histories of hundreds of thousands of current residents of Wrocław and the surrounding region of Lower Silesia. ‘Repatriate’ was the term applied to roughly 1.5 million people who were compelled to leave territory that had constituted the eastern half of Poland before the Second World War but that became a part of the USSR after the war and that now make up the western portions of Belarus and Ukraine and parts of Lithuania. The thrust of the Polish Right’s symbolic embrace of this group was clear enough: both the post-war repatriates and current/future migrants using the same term had to be understood as automatic insiders within the Polish community, and their proprietary claim to the rights and benefits offered by the Polish state (and by extension the European Union) needed to be asserted against ‘real’ foreigners (‘immigrants’). Although the specific demonstrations cited here were spearheaded by a relatively marginal far-right group, this view of migration was broadly shared by much of the Polish electorate, as shown by the triumph of the Law and Justice Party and strong performance of other right-wing parties in the most recent parliamentary elections.

On the same day, in the market square in the centre of Wrocław, a very different demonstration was invoking the history or post-war ‘repatriation’ in a very different way. A number of placards at this rally explicitly rejected the ostensible contrast between ‘repatriates’ and ‘migrants’, redefining both as ‘refugees’. Some signs noted that ‘Wrocław was rebuilt by refugees’, a reference to the city’s wholesale re-population and partial reconstruction after the Second World War, as almost all of its previous German inhabitants fled or were expelled, and hundreds of thousands of in-migrants—many from the former Polish East, though also many form central Poland—took their place. Describing as ‘refugees’ people who had been forced to leave their homes and move to an area most had never seen before, let alone inhabited, seemed a much more honest use of language than the euphemistic ‘repatriates’, which suggested the soothing fiction that they had all simply ‘come home’. Other demonstrators held up signs saying that ‘Kargul and Pawlak [were] also refugees’. As almost all Poles (but few non-Poles) would know, this referred to the popular film Sami Swoi (1967), a title that can be translated as ‘just folks’ but that conjures a stronger sense of in-group intimacy, along the lines of ‘just among ourselves’. Kargul and Pawlak were the film’s main characters, members of families that had been feuding neighbours in the old homes in rural eastern Poland before both ended up in Lower Silesia after the war. Jan Pawlak moves to the United States for a time, but when he returns he discovers that the two families had now reconciled and, indeed, intermarried in their new common homeland.


Demonstration in support of refugees in the Market Square in Wrocław on 12 September: Sign on the left reads ‘Kargul I Pawlak [were] also refugees’; sign on the right reads (in German) ‘Refugees welcome’. An image of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, Poland’s most famous icon, can be partially seen in the centre.

These duelling deployments of Poland’s post-war migration history show that recent debates about refugees from outside Europe are not only about Poles’ or Europeans’ understandings of those migrants. They are also about Poles’ view of Poles and Europeans’ views of Europeans. These debates are, in other words, about an ostensible contrast between mass movement that is deemed normal and unremarkable, the circulation of like among like, and mass movement that is deemed pathological (sometimes quite literally). This contrast was, for example, central to Viktor Orban’s notorious remarks portraying the recent influx of refugees as a threat to ‘European identity’ while simultaneously celebrating migration within the EU as the ‘experience [of] freedom itself’. It is unsurprising, then, that advocates of a more welcoming stance toward current refugees have critiqued this contrast from both sides: not only making the strange familiar (humanizing current refugees) but also making the familiar strange (revealing the extent of cultural difference within putative ‘homogeneous’ communities).

The placards just discussed, especially the reference to Kargul and Pawlak, might seem to be playful gestures, gently tweaking pop cultural memories. But they were also, for those thinking them through carefully, genuinely provocative, tugging at strings connected to some of the most painful and divisive events in modern European history. They invited observers to recall the suffering not only of hundreds of thousands of Polish refugees from the East, but also of millions of German refugees who fled from the territories that the descendants of ‘repatriates’ now called home. Perhaps even more provocatively—and so beyond what Sami Swoi was willing to engage, even in the context of comedy—the invocation of post-war migration could trigger reflection on relations between, on the one hand, the hundreds of thousands of natives of Poland’s western territories who were deemed Polish and so remained in the region (so-called ‘autochtones’) and, on the other, the hundreds of thousands of newcomers to the region, both ‘repatriates’ from the lost eastern territories and ‘newcomers’ from central Poland. The nationalist view, shared by leaders in both Eastern and Western Europe at the time, that this kind of post-war migration had involved an un-mixing of people, resulting in cosily homogeneous local communities, failed to correspond to realities on the ground. Many ‘autochtones’ viewed in-migrants as foreigners–indeed, often as ‘Ukrainians’ rather than genuine Poles—bringing an ‘Asiatic’ civilization into their ‘European’ communities. Many ‘repatriates’ and ‘newcomers’ returned the favour, characterizing the local population as ‘Germans’ posing as ‘Poles’ and accusing them of hiding Nazi pasts and sympathies. Even the clergy of the Roman Catholic church, the one important cultural institution shared by the vast majority of both indigenous and in-migrant residents, readily characterized their parishes as ‘mosaics’, made up of distinct communities with different geographic origins and different cultures who largely kept to themselves and only very gradually began socializing and eventually inter-marrying across what were essentially ‘ethnic’ lines.

In her introductory post to this blog, Jessica Reinisch rightly strikes a note of caution about the uses of history and the invocation of historical ‘lessons’. No historical example is exactly like any contemporary phenomenon, just as no historical example is exactly any other historical example. Perhaps more important, even if we accept that an episode from the past is strikingly similar to a current development, we are still left to unpack the meaning and implications of the past episode. Poland’s migration history after the Second World War is no exception. To begin with, should we look back at this history as a success story or as a cautionary tale? If our criteria are the achievement of geopolitical stability, the avoidance of violence, and the long-term integration of newly resettled populations, then the post-war era featured some impressive elements of success. Even if people thrown together by the demographic upheaval of the 1940s did not originally see themselves as part of a shared national community, most seemed to develop such an identification over time. But there are caveats to such a verdict. Already in the first several years after the war, many Jewish Holocaust survivors who had initially resettled in Poland’s new western territories now emigrated from Poland altogether. Antisemitic sentiment, sometimes escalating into physical violence, often played a decisive role in this additional round of uprooting. Over subsequent decades, hundreds of thousands of people who initially had been deemed ‘ethnic Poles’ after 1945 have decided that they had been miscategorised and have migrated west as ‘ethnic Germans’. Again, non-Catholics, including Protestant Slavic-speaking residents of Masuria, were especially likely to feel that their initial welcome into the Polish national community was ineffective and unconvincing. Even many of those who have remained in Poland up until today have recently re-identified as ‘German’ and/or as members of newly recognized ‘Kashubian’ or ‘Silesian’ nationalities.

If we view post-war integration of intra-European migrants as a qualified success, the natural follow-up question is: which policies worked, and which did not? Proponents of a ‘strong’ integration model (French republicanism is the most familiar example, though structurally similar models can have different ideological content) could plausibly point to the integrative power of Poland’s normative national mythology (a literary canon; sense of historical mission; pantheon of heroes). People now defined categorically as ‘ethnic Poles’ may have had little in the way of genealogical connection to this narrative, but they nonetheless came to embrace it as ‘theirs’. As just noted, however, for large numbers of ‘Poles’, this embrace turned out to be temporary acquiescence; they eventually came to conclude, in varying ways and for various reasons, that Poland’s hegemonic culture was not ‘theirs’ after all.

In my own recent research on approaches to cultural integration within Poland’s Roman Catholic church after the Second World War, I have found that the most fruitful approaches—those that seemed to foster durable institutional connections—involved important qualifications to a straightforward assimilationist model. Local priests and bishops were sensitive to concerns about who was assimilating whom, and many sought to foster a sense that a shared Polish culture would be built on genuine, on-going negotiation rather than mandated as a set ‘heritage’ defined by other people’s ancestors. Within parishes in the western territories, for example, different groups had opportunities to set the tone of local communal life, framing their own local customs, traditions, and historical memories as normatively ‘Polish’. It was certainly not full-blown multiculturalism, but it was a kind of pluralism, clearly recognizing both the existence and the ongoing value of difference.

It is useful to keep in mind these experiences from an earlier wave of mass dislocation in considering approaches to current migration challenges. Just as can be seen in discussions today about the ‘assimilability’ of refugees, a common religion was often viewed as a prerequisite for integration in post-war Poland. But religious homogeneity was never a matter of protecting a cosy pre-existing uniformity against incursions. Its achievement in the years after 1945 required the purging of longstanding religious minorities, often through outright violence, though sometimes through subtler forms of ‘un-welcoming’. Current warnings that ‘Christian Europe’ is unable to absorb Muslim immigrants have similarly troubling implications for millions of Muslim Europeans.

As we recall the violent exclusions that marked post-war migration, however, it is also important to remember the ways in which these mass movements created diversity in local communities. Although the overwhelming majority of post-war Polish citizens shared a Roman Catholic affiliation, differences in customs, traditions, and language meant that they often perceived one another as coming from different civilizations. They also brought wildly divergent wartime experiences to their new communities, some having fought for various Polish resistance groups, some in the German army, some in the Soviet army, many in several of these in succession. The frequent characterization of Poland (or Eastern Europe more generally) as having no experience of dealing with culturally distinctive in-migrants is, then, quite misleading. Earlier mass migration by some current residents initially felt quite threatening and overwhelming to other current residents, and yet they have, on the whole, managed to find common ground. The problems, needs, and potential contributions of current refugees from Syria or Eritrea will, to be sure, be different from those of post-1945 migrants from what is now southeastern Lithuania or western Ukraine. Encountering flesh-and-blood migrants has always involved negotiation of diverse pasts as well as recognition of current and, even more important, future similarities. The perennial challenge is to move past caricatures of absolute sameness or irreducible difference and think through carefully what exactly people need to have in common in order to live together and how a sense of shared fate can be cultivated.

Dr James Bjork is Senior Lecturer in Modern European History and Liberal Arts at King’s College London.

Crisis, What Crisis? The EU in Historical Perspective

In this post, Kiran Klaus Patel challenges the idea that the EU is on the brink of collapse.


Once again, the European Union is mired in crisis. First the debt crisis and the desperate attempts to keep Greece within the Eurozone; then the high number of refugees landing on European shores; and now the security threats of Islamist terrorism: in none of these cases does the EU cut a fine figure. Intelligence cooperation between its member states remains inadequate. Fences and nation-centered solutions seem to dominate responses to the rising number of refugees and migrants. And before that, Greece already showcased the lack of European consensus on values such as solidarity and reliability. In all these (and other) instances, the EU is accused of not delivering. Many observers feel that the Union is on the verge of collapse, and history time and again features prominently to support such claims. In a recent article, for instance, Brendan Simms and Timothy Less invoke the situation in Austria-Hungary in 1918, and in the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia in 1990, to explain where the EU stands today. Against this backdrop, they predict the “disintegration of the European project” unless draconian measures are taken.[1]

Of course, nobody knows what the future will bring. Still, many scenarios and historical analogies seem rather far-fetched. They tend to neglect the complexities of the past (and the present), as a problem that has already been critiqued in earlier essays, for instance by Jessica Reinisch and Dora Vargha in their blog posts on questions of migration. History does not repeat itself. And if history has a lesson, then it is that the EU (including its predecessors) is surprisingly resilient.

Doom-and-gloom talk has accompanied the integration process since it began in the first postwar decade. In fact, many of its deepest crises eventually led to an expansion of activities and competences. Already the EU’s founding fathers highlighted this phenomenon. In his memoirs, Jean Monnet argued that Europe would be built on crises.[2] For him, “crisis” did not rhyme with “collapse,” but with further integration steps. And, indeed, the 1970s and early 1980s – at the time characterized as a period of stagnation and “Eurosclerosis” – witnessed the European Communities’ first enlargement rounds and advances in several new fields, including foreign and monetary policies. This does not mean that times were rosy for Brussels. But it certainly did not let a serious crisis go to waste. Similar dynamics also characterize the ongoing debates on the Eurozone, for instance. In a strictly institutional sense, the EU has grown stronger in the past few years by creating a series of new instruments such as the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) and the European Stability Mechanism (ESM). Beyond instituting new measures, the more active role of the European Central Bank is another example of how the European Union has become a more important player during and due to the crisis.

This does not mean that all of this is good. Most EU reforms of this kind are built on unstable compromises, prone to lead to new problems later. Moreover, such dynamics do not imply that integration is progressing steadily. The EU’s founding fathers would be frustrated if they saw the direction in which their project has developed. The prospects of a full-fledged federal union – as the ultimate goal of many of those who stood at the EU’s cradle – seem rather dim today. Moreover, there have been major defeats in the course of the past decades—some real, others mainly symbolic. While the plans to create a European Defense Community that failed in 1954 belong in the first of these categories, the non-ratification of the 2004 Constitutional Treaty is more part of the latter. Crisis talk loomed large in both these moments, but their wider context is telling: 1954 ultimately sparked new efforts to deepen integration, clearing the route to the Treaties of Rome less than three years later. Fifty years on, the EU also quickly identified an alternative, leading to the Lisbon Treaty of 2009. The dogs bark, the caravan passes on.

Even if the EU continues to exist, everything about it has changed massively over time. The heavy-handed form of economic intervention characteristic of the early Common Agricultural Policy of the 1960s has found few successors. Over and over, the institutional balances have been readjusted; supranational tendencies have been challenged by a more intergovernmental approach, creating a highly hybrid creature. From a somewhat Keynesian orientation, the EU has long made a swing to a more neoliberal economic approach. And these are just a few examples. It is easy to criticize these alterations as opportunistic. Its very flexibility, however, has also made the EU particularly resilient. In many ways, it operates much more as a platform that allows (groups of) its member states to take initiatives, than as a federal state.

This also makes historical analogies problematic. Today’s EU is remarkably different from entities and the periods Simms, Less, and others compare it to. Nobody knows exactly what the EU is—but it is certainly not a state or an empire. Admittedly, it has far-reaching sovereignty rights in monetary matters, along with regulatory competences in many policy domains, including energy, consumer protection, and transport. This multi-dimensional character makes it less likely to fall into dysfunction – a failure in one field can be compensated by an active role in other policy domains. Coal and steel are the obvious examples: from being the starting point of the process leading to today’s EU, they have now become marginal. But despite its role in so many policy fields, the EU has never acquired full federal or state-like qualities. With its hybrid nature, it still shares some characteristics with International Organizations and other forms of regional integration. And while empires and states dissolve and fail, International Organizations (almost) never die, as Gottfried Haberler, Susan Strange, and others argued already decades ago.[3] They might change their names or functions, but they tend to live and linger on. The worst that could happen to the EU is to be reduced to a rather technical International Organization, a fate it would then share with many other IOs.

But even that is unlikely, mainly because of the world the EU operates in. Globalization and the rise of a dense web of institutionalized connections between states and societies shape today’s Europe. The EU cooperates with other institutions to an extent unforeseen in the nineteenth century or Socialist nation-states and empires. Today, states and organizations such as the EU are all embedded in a dense web of more or less formalized linkages. And often, the European Union is only one of several players, and one of several cards that its member states have up their sleeves. Witness the sudden reappearance of the Western European Union at the end of the Cold War or, more recently, the close cooperation of the IMF with the EU’s institutions in Greece and the role of the OSCE in the war in Ukraine. All this demonstrates that globalization and geopolitical constellations induce states to cooperate, and to do so, they regularly fall back on the institutions at hand.

In our times, European nation-states therefore rarely opt for either national sovereignty or the EU. Most frequently, they choose between various formats and forms of international cooperation. Together, these diverse organizations contribute to a robust and resilient architecture of cooperation, which also stabilizes the EU’s position in the world. Seen from this vantage point, even a Brexit would not lead to an automatic unwinding of the system. In fact, the first two things the United Kingdom would do after leaving is to try to rejoin EFTA, actually its own brainchild but carelessly abandoned in the 1960s, when it started to flirt with the EC and even more so in 1973, after joining the European Communities. And, secondly, to renegotiate its relationship to the EU – but this time from the weak position of an outsider.

All this does not mean that the EU is perfect, quite the contrary. It’s just very likely to stay. There is life in the old dog yet.

Kiran Klaus Patel is Jean Monnet professor of European and global history at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. His next book The New Deal: A Global History is published by Princeton University Press in January. He is presently writing a history of European cooperation and integration during the twentieth century.

[1] Brendan Simms and Timothy Less, “A Crisis without End,” New Statesman, 9 November 2015.

[2] Jean Monnet, Memoirs (London: Collins, 1978).

[3] Susan Strange, “Why Do International Organizations Never Die?” Autonomous Policy Making By International Organizations, ed. Bob Reinalda and Bertjan Verbeek (London: Routledge, 1998), 213–220; Gottfried Haberler, Economic Growth and Stability: An Analysis of Economic Change and Policies (Los Angeles: Nash Publ., 1974), 156.

Temporary Migrants or Permanent Immigrants: France’s Long “Migrant Crisis”

In a timely piece just two days after the terrorist attacks in Paris, Darcie Fontaine reflects on the place of non-white, non-Christian minorities in France and France’s vision of itself.

In the wake of the dramatic and deadly terrorist attacks across the city of Paris this past Friday night, for which the Islamic State claimed responsibility, the French public and politicians across Europe struggled to come to terms with the potential ties between the militants and the wave of Syrian refugees who have been flooding into Europe over the past several months. Reports that a Syrian passport belonging to a man who entered Greece with a wave of Syrian migrants in early October was found near the bodies of two jihadis at the Stade de France led European leaders to make the threat of ISIS infiltration among migrants and refugees a key topic at this weekend’s G20 summit in Turkey. Additionally, right-wing officials across Europe have renounced any future plans to aid Syrian refugees in Europe. On Saturday, Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s extreme right-wing National Front party spoke out in favor of tighter border controls in France and the European Union, while analysts suggest that French President François Hollande, a Socialist, will also take a similarly hard line on domestic security and border control. According to The New York Times, Le Pen also declared, “Fundamentalist Islam must be wiped out. France must ban Islamist organizations, close radical mosques, and kick out foreigners who are preaching hatred on our soil, as well as illegal immigrants who have nothing to do here.” News that at least one member of the three coordinated terrorist teams was a French-born Muslim of Algerian descent from the suburbs of Paris, who had been under observation by the French police for his ties to radical Islamists in France, further solidified the connections that many in France have long made between Muslim immigrants to France (and their children who are born there) and terrorism.

While these attacks will create an even more complicated situation for the Syrian migrants spread out all over Europe, it also does not bode well for the many thousands of migrants already housed on French soil. The precarious situation of these migrants was also highlighted this weekend when a massive fire broke out in the migrant camp in Calais in northern France, which currently houses nearly 6,000 migrants from the Middle East, North and East Africa, according to the prefect of the Pas-de-Calais region. Although French officials have repeatedly stressed that it had nothing to do with the Paris attacks (it was an electrical fire that was contained and did not cause any deaths), the living quarters of more than forty families were completely destroyed.

Although the dire situation in the sprawling migrant camps in Calais has recently received widespread international attention, it is not a new phenomenon, nor one that emerged primarily in response to the Syrian refugee crisis. As Jessica Reinisch discussed recently on this blog, the situation in Calais is an ongoing crisis that fits within a global geography of displacement. Yet, it is also a crisis rooted within specifically French contestations over immigration, asylum, and identity that have their roots in France’s colonial empires and the aftermath of decolonization.

Even with the closing of the Sangatte center in Calais in 2002 and the consistent dismantling and rebuilding of the “jungle” of camps that emerged in its place, the situation in Calais was tolerated because the “migrants” who went there were always in transit to somewhere else. But the situation has changed this year. In the past, unless you went directly to Calais or worked with migrants in the “retention centers” where they were administratively held pending deportation, the “migrant crisis” was an abstract political problem for the vast majority of the French population. This past summer, however, it became much more concrete, particularly for Parisians: as one Parisian friend reported to me, “Paris looks like a refugee camp.”



Migrant camp at La Chappelle []
Migrant camp at La Chappelle []
At dawn on June 2, 2015, French police evacuated a camp of over 350 African migrants, mostly Sudanese and Eritreans, that had been slowly building over several months under the metro bridge of La Chappelle in north central Paris. While the migrants were put onto buses and taken to emergency housing, their tents were bulldozed, for what the police chief claimed were “hygienic” reasons and to avoid “threats to public order.” A second massive camp near the Gare d’Austerlitz was evacuated in mid-September.

The fate of these migrants is dependent on their legal status in France. Marie Doezema of Al Jazeera reported in June that roughly 100 of the migrants from La Chappelle had presented documentation that they were seeking asylum in France. If they do not leave France imminently, the rest will be viewed as illegal immigrants, taken to retention centers, where they will risk deportation. But even applying for asylum is not a clear and easy proposition.

In the 1990s, France began to “crack down” on illegal immigration through both legislation and more active policing. The Pasqua laws of 1993 introduced what became known as the government’s “zero immigration” policy, which made it extremely difficult for foreigners to gain legal status in France. For instance, the law now required proof of uninterrupted housing and employment to renew visas. It also took away the right of those born on French soil to French citizenship; children born in France to foreign parents now had to wait until age 18 to request French nationality. These laws were aimed primarily at stemming the flow of immigration from France’s former African colonies, and the key target was North African immigrants. The Pasqua laws did not emerge in a vacuum but were the result of growing anti-immigrant sentiment both within right-wing political movements and within the population in general. For example, in 1988, the far-right National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen won more than fourteen percent of the vote in the first round of the presidential election while campaigning on an anti-immigration platform. The focus on stemming North African immigration was a reaction to the growing violence of the Algerian Civil War and the cultural tensions within France about the status of France’s Muslim community.

While North Africans had long formed the bulk of labor migrants to France, beginning in the First World War, the decolonization of Algeria in 1962 set in motion larger waves of both labor and permanent migration, including family reunification. Migrants from France’s other former colonies, including sub-Saharan Africans and refugees from Vietnam also sought both economic advancement and political asylum in their former colonial metropole. After World War II, France experienced booming economic growth of the so-called “trentes glorieuses,” which meant three decades of underemployment. France accepted hundreds of thousands of labor migrants in this period. The economic crises of the early 1970s, however, transformed France’s relationship to immigration. In 1974, France officially ended its labor migration policy. Although immigrants continued to arrive in France after 1974 – some through family reunification, some seeking asylum, and some illegally – the discourse on immigration began to shift in the 1980s away from labor. Instead, officials were concerned about social tensions and the dangers of second-generation “immigrant” youth who failed to assimilate into French society. In the early postwar period, many thousands of migrants who came to work in French factories lived in shantytowns on the outskirts of major industrial French cities, but by the early 1970s, they began to move to the HLMs, or French subsidized housing in the banlieues, or the suburbs. The concentration of immigrants in public housing in the banlieues, many of which lack good access to public transportation, has come to signify their exclusion from French society; the term banlieue itself has come to mean “ghetto” rather than “suburb.” Numerous incidents over the past few decades have inflamed tensions between residents of the banlieues and French police, and the prevalent conception within French society is that the banlieues spawn political and religious radicals, notably islamists.


The shantytown at Nanterre on the outskirts of Paris [Monique Hervo/Mediapart]
The shantytown at Nanterre on the outskirts of Paris [Monique Hervo/Mediapart]

The perception that the growing numbers of immigrants are Muslims whose religious practices and beliefs seem foreign to French Republican values has fueled the sorts of terminological confusions in which the word “immigrant” stands in for “Muslim,” and “Muslim” stands for “danger” to French national culture, which is defined as secular. Treating French Muslims as perpetual “immigrants,” even those who have been citizens and assimilated into French society for generations, has led to growing cultural conflicts between France and its non-white citizens. These conflicts have ranged from French legislation that regulates visible religious symbols, more colloquially known as “headscarf laws,” to the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks. While the Pew Research Center has noted that there was no public backlash against French Muslims in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack, and that French opinion toward Muslims marginally increased (rising to 74% of the French population who have a favorable view of Muslims living in their country, from 72% in 2014), the assimilation of non-white, non-Christian immigrants into French society continues to be a major political issue. It also directly affects the contemporary migrant crisis in Europe.

Because France’s immigration policies since the 1990s have been framed largely in terms preventing the arrival of new immigrants, the current migrants who are seeking refuge in France are not finding a particularly hospitable environment. In a poll conducted by Odoxa for the French newspaper Le Parisien-Aujourd-hui in September 2015, 55% of those surveyed opposed easing rules for Syrian migrants seeking refugee status in France. The divisions were quite stark, however, along the political divide, with 69% of those identifying as politically “left” and 30% on the “right” supporting easing the rules. The French population generally seems to see the migrants not so much as political refugees but rather as potential economic migrants or simply as Muslims, who will not integrate into the French nation because of their religion. French National Front leader Marine Le Pen has also stirred up anti-immigrant sentiment, arguing that the plight of Syrian refugees, and specifically the photo of the drowned Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach, was not enough to change French policies toward migrants or political asylum. Le Pen instead claimed the refugee crisis was a plot by Germany to “rule” the French economy and “recruit slaves” and that France did not have the means to provide aid for “the world’s misery.”

Additionally, the announcement in mid-September from French President François Hollande that France would take in an additional 24,000 refugees from European countries over the next two years prompted unease among local officials across France. The proposal from the French High Committee on Housing for Disadvantaged People [Haut comité pour le logement des personnes défavorisées] that more than 77,000 spaces in “social housing” (also known as HLMs) would be made available for migrants and asylum seekers would potentially solve the problem of lodging. However, it does not solve the problem of legal status, as access to this housing would most likely require having attempted to maneuver the notoriously complex process of requesting asylum.

As anthropologist Didier Fassin and sociologist Estelle d’Halluin have argued in a 2005 article in American Anthropologist, the shifting political situation and immigration laws in France during the 1980s and 1990s directly affected the meaning and politics of asylum as well. They write, “Although in France, during the 1970s, up to 95 percent of all seekers were granted refugee legal status, this rate rapidly declined in the 1980s and 1990s—dropping to as low as 12 percent for the administrative evaluation and 18 percent when taking into account the appeals. This dramatic evolution has lead to (1) an unprecedented increase in undocumented foreigners, corresponding to dismissed asylum seekers; (2) a worrying development of spaces of exception at the national borders, to contain the unwanted immigrants before they can even present their case; and (3) a growing suspicion toward all asylum seekers.” In granting asylum, France now considers the body and visible medical trauma as the main evidence of need to grant asylum. Those without that evidence are often rendered uncredible, and not granted political asylum. If they stay in France, they simply become illegal immigrants and subject to deportation. According to Eurostat, in 2014, France received 37,085 asylum applications, of which only 4,245 (or 11.4%) were given Geneva Convention asylum status. Whether that will number will increase in the future, especially given the specific conditions of the growing migrant crisis is difficult to say.

Certainly there are numerous immigrant rights associations and even strong suggestions of political will within the French population to help migrants and refugees. However, the current crisis cannot be understood outside the context of the decades-long series of cultural debates and political policies that reflect a deep division within French society over how non-white, non-Christian minorities fit within French society and within French conceptions of national identity. While migrants in Calais were out of sight and consistently perceived as “in transit,” they posed less of a threat than did Muslim French citizens, who were treated as “immigrants.” While accepting Syrian and African refugees into France and potentially even granting them political asylum could ease their immediate material concerns, simply shoving them into HLMs, which are very often in the banlieues of major cities, would not improve their political or social status in the eyes of those who fear that these refugees or migrants will bring Islamic terrorism to France or seek their jobs. The current migrant crisis for France is not just a material crisis but one that will test France’s vision of itself and its place in the world. For the migrants themselves, the path to a permanent life in France is paved with roadblocks, especially after this newest wave of terrorist attacks.

Darcie Fontaine is assistant professor working on French colonial history and women and gender history at the University of South Florida. 

Lessons from Europe’s Refugee Pasts

In a new post on ‘Europe in Crisis’, Pamela Ballinger contemplates historians’ responsibilities to provide advice for the present, and offers three lessons from past refugee crises in Europe.


In the introductory essay for this blog series, Jessica Reinisch rightly warns against “drawing a straight line between two superficially similar events” and urges that scholars — particularly those making recommendations for policy — proceed cautiously in extracting lessons for today’s migration emergency from Europe’s previous refugee crises. Reinisch does, however, highlight continuities in the motivations, experiences, and responses to refugees, suggesting that studying the past can yield important lessons for both the present and future when translated carefully across differences of time and space. Translation, of course, does not merely entail a mechanical or one-to-one conversion of one language into another but always entails a reinterpretation and what Lawrence Venuti (a key figure in translation studies) has called “the creation of value.” In their respective blog posts on the selective memorializations of past refugee crises in the contemporary Hungarian context, Dora Vargha and Friederike Kind-Kovacs detail the creation (and erasure) of value in previous refugee moments, underscoring the real effects at both the micro and macro levels of these politics of the past for current refugees. As historians, a critical task at the moment lies in translating into present contexts the nuances and complexities of those past refugee emergencies, as well as possible disjunctures and incommensurabilities between past and present. If we do not, we risk ceding the conversation to those who view history merely as a convenient storehouse from which to cherry pick illustrations in support of their particular political viewpoints.

Unprecedented crisis?

Contrary to frequent claims about the unprecedented nature of Europe’s current migration emergency, Europeans possess deep histories of forced migration that could – and should — inform responses to the humanitarian crisis now playing out at Europe’s borders and in its islands, ports, and train stations. In particular, the continent experienced multiple, massive and prolonged refugee “crises” in the last century, especially (but not only) after the two world wars. Indeed, many older Europeans may have experienced such displacement themselves or have family members or neighbors who spent some time as a refugee – whether it be during the Second World War, as a Cold War “escapee” from a communist state, or from the Yugoslav conflicts of the 1990s. It’s not an exaggeration, then, to say that Europe’s 20th century was a refugee century. Although those histories have figured in overly simplistic fashion in the tortuous policy discussions within the European Union, they echo in the forms of grass roots solidarity demonstrated by the many ordinary EU citizens who are working to welcome refugees and provide them with food, accommodation, and medical supplies. In order to stem alarmist fears about being “flooded” by a tide of refugees and to seek durable solutions for those refugees, the New Europe must look back to the history of the old Europe.

In many ways, the modern refugee was a product of the First World War. Although exile and displacement is a story as old as humanity, it was in the aftermath of the Great War that the first international refugee regime arose, housed in the League of Nations. The Norwegian polar explorer and scientist Fridtjof Nansen became the League’s first High Commissioner of Refugees, giving his name to the travel document known as the “Nansen Passport” that facilitated travel for stateless people. The League’s work with refugees focused on Russians displaced by the events of the Revolution and survivors of the Armenian Genocide, as well as the Greek and Turkish populations “exchanged” by the terms of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. In the interwar period, international legal protections largely defined refugees in terms of membership in specific groups (e.g. Armenians or Russians).

The events of World War II produced an even more dramatic displacement crisis within Europe. On VE Day in May 1945, an estimated 11 million civilians in Europe had become refugees. (These highly imprecise figures do not include the millions of prisoners of war, as well as the significant numbers of refugees in other parts of the world, such as China.) Displaced persons in Europe included individuals who had been “bombed out” of their homes, those fleeing occupying armies or civil wars, Jewish survivors, and those deported to the Third Reich as forced laborers. These numbers should give pause when we consider the magnitude of today’s refugee crisis and those who claim that Europe lacks the resources to assist those fleeing violence in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond. In 1945, Europe was a continent in ruins, literally and figuratively. Those Europeans fortunate enough to have survived the war in their homes had very little to give in comparison to citizens of the European Union today, even in light of the Great Recession of 2008.

Within six months of the conclusion of World War II, the Allied forces and the Displaced Persons section of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) repatriated the majority of Europe’s refugees. There remained, however, at least a million or so persons who would not or could not be returned home because there existed a well founded fear of persecution. These displaced persons were soon joined by new refugees coming from the emerging socialist states of Eastern Europe, including Jewish survivors fleeing pogroms in Poland and between 11 and 12 million ethnic German expellees. In the face of these new displacees and the realization that Europe’s displaced persons problem had not disappeared, the International Refugee Organization (IRO) was created, with the aim of finding new homes for those who could not return safely to their countries of origin. (Most of the Volksdeutsche expellees did not meet the eligibility criteria as international refugees and instead received assistance within the two Germanies.)

Palazzo Doria

Palazzo Doria, former barracks for displaced Italians, Fertilia, Sardinia (author’s photo)

Then, as now, the sight of impoverished refugees, many of them markedly different in cultural and religious background from the host countries to which they fled, provoked a mix of negative responses and empathy from local Europeans. Likewise, then, as now, policy makers and personnel at the agencies struggled to figure out who really counted as a refugee deserving of international protection and who, instead, should be considered as merely an economic migrant. These distinctions would eventually be codified in the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees, the guiding legal document for the work of the Office of the UN High Commissioner on Refugees established in December of 1950. While the 1951 document built in some ways upon the Convention of 28 October, 1933 Relating to the Status of Refugees, it also redefined the refugee as an individually determined status, rather than an axiomatic consequence of belonging to a specific national group. Article One of the 1951 Convention laid out the criteria of eligibility — most notably “well-founded fear of persecution or reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion” together with displacement outside one’s country of citizenship — that continue to govern international refugee status. However imperfect, many of the international legal frameworks for assisting and managing refugees developed out of Europe’s extended refugee crisis in the 1940s and 1950s.


These histories of Europe’s own refugees offer, I would argue, several relevant lessons for dealing with contemporary migratory flows.

First (positive) lesson: resolving Europe’s 20th century refugee crises demanded international cooperation. In particular, resettling millions of Europeans after 1945 required both financial aid (the United States proved the single largest donor for both UNRRA and IRO) and expanded immigration quotas from countries of resettlement (including the U.S., Canada, Australia, and Argentina). In addition, European states like Britain and France sponsored labor migration progammes (“Westward Ho!” and the “French Metropolitan Scheme,” respectively). At the present moment, Australia, Germany, Britain, and France are among those countries that have announced they will take additional Syrian refugees in response to growing public pressure. Despite the announcement of a 30,000 increase in total numbers of refugees to be admitted over the next two years, more pressure must be brought to bear on the U.S to step up and find ways to expedite the vetting process for resettlement. Perhaps members of the U.S. Congress should look back to a historical precedent and send fact-finding missions to European refugee camps similar to those after World War II that turned the tide in favor of passage of the U.S. Displaced Persons Act of 1948.

At the same time, however, a second (negative) lesson from Europe’s refugee past is that meaningful and durable solutions are not always achieved quickly. Some refugees in post-1945 Europe languished in camps for over a decade, having been rejected for emigration (often because of illness). This gave rise to the so-called “hard-core” or difficult to settle refugees. Groups in countries like France, the Netherlands, and Switzerland worked to provide new homes for these refugees, particularly those afflicted with tuberculosis. The UN even launched “World Refugee Year” in 1959-1960 with the aim of finally “clearing the refugee camps” in Europe. Given the deleterious effects on refugees of living in limbo for extended periods – as well as the all too real possibilities for radicalization – EU policy makers should do their best to avoid a replay of the story of Europe’s “hard core” refugees who could not find homes.

Refugees 1960

Refugees 1960: Publication designed to draw attention to Europe’s “hard core” refugees around World Refugee Year

The final lesson for today is one of perspective. However daunting and overwhelming Europe’s refugee problem may appear at this moment, Europeans confronted much greater challenges from internal refugee emergencies in the past and did so in the face of the devastation wrought by war. President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker said as much when he urged his fellow Europeans to take pride in the fact that their continent is today “a beacon of hope,” rather than the ruined landscape of seventy years ago in which Europeans themselves were the refugees.

Eric Hobsbawm once commented, “historians are not prophets,” noting the inadequacy of history (as well as the social sciences) for grasping the assemblage of structures that will constitute future events. Those who study the past, however, are well placed to identify and analyze the past in the present (as legacies, memories, and structural continuities and disjunctures) and to provide critical context, in this case of the current migration emergency in Europe. A critical question remains as to the best venues for doing so. As one response, this blog series draws on (relatively) new media and forms of writing. In what other ways might scholars make critical interventions into the discussion?

Pamela Ballinger is Associate Professor and Fred Cuny Chair in the History of Human Rights at the University of Michigan.

At the Gates of Europe: The Eastern European Refugee Crisis

In this post, Ana Antic probes further into the widely quoted anti-immigration discourses in Eastern Europe, and identifies striking connections with those in the West.


As Syrian, Iraqi, Afghani and other Middle Eastern refugees struggled to make their way to Europe this spring and summer, the European Union first greeted them with silence, and then, in September, the world was universally appalled by the images coming from Eastern Europe: the self-proclaimed (or aspiring) borderlands of the European Union mobilized state and police power to prevent the transit of refugees to Germany or Scandinavia. Hungary’s border fence, only an ominous idea back in June, came to life in a string of violent incidents, in which the Hungarian police (and, strikingly, one journalist) were pitted against unarmed men, women and children who attempted to enter the country from Serbia. Hungary’s PM memorably opined that ‘Hungary is a country with a 1000-year-old Christian culture. We Hungarians don’t want the global-sized movement of people to change Hungary.’ But there was more at stake than only Hungary’s Christendom: as the PM of the state positioned on the very border of the EU, Orban took on himself the grandiose responsibility for protecting the entire continent, as he repeatedly stated that Europe’s way of life and ‘culture’ were threatened by the influx of non-European and, even worse, non-Christian refugees.

Bulwark of Christianity?

            Orban has been particularly fond of the Christian theme, and remains steadfast in his commitment to ‘keep Europe Christian’, because, reportedly, ‘European identity [has been] rooted in Christianity.’ Slovakian and Polish spokespersons agreed and stated that their countries would only accept Christian refugees, thereby making Muslims explicitly unwelcome and marking them as a security as well as civilizational threat. This, though, is not a recent development: the myth of being antemurale Christianitatis – literally, in front of the ‘walls’ of the castle of Christianity, the last outpost of Europe and ‘defender of its gates’ and its ‘true’ civilization – has been one of the most persistent and significant ones in European and East European national historiographies, and has arguably remained central to national identity production on the borders of the continent. This interpretation of East European historiography rests on the idea of a civilizational and cultural boundary, which different societies defined according to their own needs, and serves to show that the group in question is included in a superior cultural community, and is forced to protect it from other, inferior groups who do not belong.

The myth has had explicitly martyrological and messianic overtones, and suggests that the nation on the borders of a larger community has chosen to sacrifice itself in order to save that broader civilization of which it is a part. But the myth also served as a legitimating mechanism, a way of proving that, say, the Balkan or East European borderlands did in fact belong to the European civilization despite their marginal geographical or political position. And while the ‘dark forces’ that attacked Europe throughout its history have been many – the Ottoman Muslims, the ‘Eastern’ or ‘Asiatic’ Communists, the Orthodox Slavs – they have always been marked as barbarians and infidels. The myth has proven to be remarkably flexible, and can easily accommodate different types of non-Europeans in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The current reiterations of the need to defend the ‘gates’ and borders in Eastern Europe only show how the ‘new Europeans’ have been imagining themselves in relation to the coveted ‘West.’

Eastern Europe has consequently itself become a target of some very unfavourable recent reviews in European public and academic discourses. In response to what he termed the East European ‘deficit of compassion’, leading Balkan and Bulgarian political scientist and analyst Ivan Krastev wrote that, ‘[d]espite living at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, Russia and the Middle East, many Eastern Europeans are incurious and insular.’ Prominent American-Polish historian and foremost expert on WWII and post-war violence in East Central Europe, Jan Gross, added that, ‘[t]he states known collectively as ‘Eastern Europe,’… have revealed themselves to be intolerant, illiberal, xenophobic, and incapable of remembering the spirit of solidarity that carried them to freedom a quarter-century ago.’ In his piece in Foreign Policy, Paul Hockenos referred to the ‘stunning hypocrisy of Mitteleuropa’, and argued that ‘[i]t seems tolerance and civic values in these countries are less advanced than we assumed. Illiberal values, it seems, have been passed from one generation to the next, and it will take more than the arrival of tens of thousands in need of compassion and succor to change this sad state of affairs.’

The role of the West

            The images of brutality and rhetoric of discrimination coming from Eastern Europe seem to justify these harsh words. The discourses of civilizational bulwarks and outposts only work to generate more authoritarian and chauvinistic domestic policies and public opinion, For instance, it’s clear that the Hungarian government’s comprehensive anti-refugee campaign was mainly aimed to please domestic right-wing voters. But what is even more worrying is that this idea of being the outposts and defenders of Europe (or a certain unfortunate concept of Europe) has been directly encouraged by Western Europe and the EU.

The idea of Europe which East European leaders now seem to believe they are defending is a particularly narrow and exclusive one: in addition to ‘Christian values’, it seems to mainly rest on a nebulous concept of ‘Western’ civilizational/cultural standards. But this is pretty much the only one that has ever been put forward to them in practice: it is exactly the kind of exclusionary politics that the EU has long been practicing on its Eastern borders. It’s the kind of disparaging treatment that East European migrant workers are still facing as they move to Western Europe, long after they received their EU passports which gave them unrestricted labour rights anywhere on the EU territory. As Dejan Jovic has argued, instead of democratizing the countries on its borders, the EU has made them even more authoritarian and less liberal: instead of spreading the idea of freedom and cooperation, it has been erecting walls towards Eastern Europe, reinforcing its borders and reintroducing non-liberal policies as it attempted to ‘protect’ itself from those countries and their flawed, authoritarian or unruly characters (remember the EU requests that Serbia ‘prevent’ its Roma population from entering the territory of the European Union and asking for asylum – it remained unclear how the EU officials imagined such screening of the Roma exiting the country to be organised).

This points to one of the main problems with this particular historical discourse of being antemurale: it can cast one and the same group or society in both roles: as defenders as well as ‘barbarians.’ This is the phenomenon that Milica Bakic-Hayden called ‘nesting orientalisms’, and while she mainly wrote about Balkan countries, the term seems to be eerily applicable to the current refugee crisis. While Eastern European countries define and prove their ‘Europeanness’ or Christianness or civilization by distancing themselves culturally from the refugees, they are often frustrated to find themselves identified as ‘not European enough’ by their Western neighbours, and by the EU itself.

The idea that non-Communist ‘Europe’ always represented a set of liberal and humanistic values has remained very influential but rather vague and unsubstantiated throughout the post-Communist period. Moreover, walls have not always remained symbolic: between 2010 and 2012, the EU’s border patrol agency sent teams of policemen from across the Union to guard the Greek border with Turkey against immigrants from Iraq, Afghanistan, and African countries, and a number of other measures were introduced to increase Greece’s border security – including building a fence! – with EU backing.

2012. Greece, Corinth. Mohamed from Morocco and his friends hiding behind the rocks at the port during the night, waiting for the right time to illegally board a ship to Italy. ### 2012. Corinto. Grecia. Mohamed del marocco con i suoi amici si nasconde dietro le rocce del porto, aspettando il momento giusto per entrare nella illegalmente sulla nave merce diretta verso L'Italia.
2012. Greece, Corinth. Mohamed from Morocco and his friends hiding behind the rocks at the port during the night, waiting for the right time to illegally board a ship to Italy. Photo by Alessandro Penso []
For instance, the problem of illegal immigrants who entered Bulgaria from Turkey has been the main obstacle preventing the former country’s inclusion in the Schengen area. This led to Bulgaria’s decision to raise its own barbed wire fence along its Turkish border, another feat which was directly caused by the EU political pressures and partly funded by EU money. Even now, although the Hungarian reaction provoked almost universal consternation and the Austrian chancellor’s dramatic comparisons with the 1940s, the official EU responses were lukewarm at the most. The EU solution to the crisis is less violent but substantially not very different from Hungary’s. The President of the European Council affirmed that ‘we need to correct the policy of open doors and windows. Now the focus should be on the proper protection of our external borders.’ This proposal moves the symbolic wall over to Turkey, the new (aspiring) outpost of Europe, which is supposed to ‘stop people heading for the EU.’

West European states such as Denmark and the UK have actively worked to discourage the influx of refugees and migrants, while the French and British governments remain slow to deal with the inhumane conditions in the Calais makeshift refugee camp. A string of fires in refugee camps and shelters across countries such as Sweden or Germany indicates that the problem is much larger than Eastern Europe’s lingering illiberalism. Just last week, the EU mini-summit in Brussels aimed to come up with agreements and policies to alleviate the mounting refugee crisis, but its conclusions have not moved beyond the same old framework of fences and borders: the European Commission promised more funds for ‘extra border police’ in order to ‘strengthen Schengen’s external borders in Greece and Slovenia.’ Since Orban’s inflammatory statements this summer, both Slovenia and Austria have both partially closed their borders in an attempt to slow down the influx of people into Western Europe. Orban’s rhetoric might be more incendiary than any other EU leaders’ at the moment, but his solutions are ultimately far from controversial, and ‘Fortress Europe’ lives on.

‘Europeanizing’ Eastern Europe

            Jan Gross’s article suggested that the Communist period should be viewed as the key to understanding the current ‘compassion deficit’ of Eastern Europe: unlike Germany, ‘Eastern Europe… has yet to come to terms with its murderous past. Only when it does will its people be able to recognize their obligation to save those fleeing in the face of evil.’ In other words, the Communist regimes in the region never honestly addressed the East European societies’ complicity in Nazi crimes, and substituted overly politicized narratives of WWII for such cathartic, German-style ‘dealing with the past.’ Hockenos agrees, adding that, over ten years after most of formerly socialist Eastern Europe joined the EU, ‘we might have expected that some of these communist-era hangovers should have mellowed and disappeared.’ However, calling the East European governments’ extreme unwillingness to welcome the refugees ‘a communist hang-over’ and pinning all the blame for the ‘compassion deficit’ on Communism is hardly productive, as it completely bypasses Europe’s responsibility for encouraging and supporting the idea of raising symbolic and concrete walls on the EU’s borders. While Communist societies’ memory politics left a lot to be desired, it is highly problematic to argue, or imply, that the sole legacy of Communism in Eastern Europe is the culture of illiberalism and intolerance.

Moreover, it was in the anti-Communist dissidents’ proclamations, much hailed by a welcoming West, that some of the most powerful reinforcements of the antemurale myth have been entertained: Milan Kundera’s influential essay ‘The tragedy of Central Europe’, affirmed East Central Europe’s ‘Europeanness’ by stating that it was ‘a piece of Latin West which has fallen under Russian domination’, and that, although it was politically in the East and dominated by ‘Asiatics’ – Russians, it remained ‘culturally in the West.’ Thus, in the 1980s twist of the myth, it was the countries of Central Europe – Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia – which defended the true ‘European civilization’ from the non-European barbarians. From that lofty civilizational perspective, there could not be too much difference between Russians and Syrians.

So it was one of the most influential – and brilliant – liberal democratic thinkers of Eastern Europe, a naturalized French intellectual, who popularized the civilizational bulwark discourse in the 1980s, and believed that precisely such discourse could best aid his country’s and region’s inclusion in a European family of nations. Moreover, Kundera was hardly the only one. We are currently seeing the unsavoury consequences of such ruminations. As East and Central European states negotiated their ‘return’ to Europe after 1989, this inclusion rested on re-affirmations of the region’s commitment to the ‘Western’ values and ‘European way of life’ which Orban is now invoking so avidly. In fact, the post-Communist ‘Europeanization’ confirmed and reinforced the image of Eastern Europe as the bulwark, and the symbolic walls were constantly erected and occasionally moved further to the southeast. In that sense, the East European states’ brutal reactions to Middle Eastern refugees might be the sign and the proof of the former Communist region’s ultimate Europeanization.

festung europa
Demonstrations against immigration by Austria’s Identitarian movement, Vienna, November 2013 []
Importantly, the recent string of articles by scholars who explored the historical sources of Eastern Europe’s poor record in the refugee crisis have tended to reinforce that same narrative of fundamental distinctions between East and West, and have almost universally argued that Eastern Europe was missing some crucial cultural and political elements to make it properly ‘European.’ Tara Zahra, for instance, has highlighted the East European ‘fiction that national homogeneity was the essential precondition for a modern, democratic state,’ and has related the East European states’ hostility towards refugees to this regional obsession with ethnic uniformity and with keeping minorities outside state borders. But this argument disregards the zeal with which West European and US governments encouraged that very fiction, and in fact drew it onto the map of Eastern and Central Europe after 1918. It also fails to take account of the long and troubled history of the nation-state in the West itself, and of the persistent intolerance towards national and racial minorities and immigrants throughout Western Europe. The idea of national homogeneity (or cohesiveness) has certainly maintained its appeal in some of the oldest members of the EU.

Such interpretations of Eastern Europe unwittingly repeat the antemurale strategy by erecting a conceptual border between East and West and emphasizing Eastern Europe’s continual ‘lagging behind’ the Western standards. This often results in self-congratulatory narratives by authors who praise Western Europe’s supposedly unproblematic commitment to pluralistic and liberal values in contrast to the troubled East. The purpose of the antemurale myth-making has often been to preclude self-reflection and self-criticism by displacing blame and responsibility further to the east or south, and the current public discourse in the West on the East European refugee crisis seems to be doing precisely this. But the influx of refugees and the consequent EU crisis offer an unprecedented opportunity for such self-reflection, primarily in Western Europe. It remains to be seen if that opportunity will be taken, and if the very idea of ‘Fortress Europe’ with its borders, fences and cultural chauvinism will be re-examined.

Europe’s ‘fake’ refugees

In this week’s post, Elidor Mehilli considers another boat-load of people and reflects on Europe’s recent history of distinguishing bewteen ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’ refugees.



This dramatic image has been going around on social media for the past few weeks. If you have seen it, chances are that it came along with one of three possible stories.

The first is that the image depicts recent Syrian refugees (or various other combinations of “Muslims”) “invading” Europe. Nothing makes the idea of an invasion more tangible than the sight of thousands of disheveled men ready to disembark on some European port. Not surprisingly, one early online comment accompanying the post raised the alarm: “The next step is a Muslim Europe”. Another warned of a “growing cancer.”

In Belgium, a local branch of the French-speaking conservative liberal Mouvement Réformateur party (part of the ruling coalition) became embroiled in a mini-scandal, when its Facebook page shared the image, along with the previous poster’s comment declaring that the rival Socialist Party was getting a whole lot of new voters. (The branch has since distanced itself, blaming a site administrator for the faux pas.)

Others, however, have insisted that the image depicts exactly the opposite; that these were Europeans fleeing to North Africa from the mayhem of World War II. The implication is that Europe has a clear moral obligation to return the favor by letting in desperate refugees fleeing war and putting their lives in danger by crossing the Mediterranean (most often, as we have seen, using small boats rather than ships). One German-language post to this effect was reportedly shared over 140,000 times.

Since viral culture relies on rapid-fire sharing, it encourages mass outrage. And so a third story quickly took over social media. The image, we finally learned, shows neither Syrians fleeing to Europe, nor Europeans fleeing to North Africa after World War II. These are Albanians fleeing to nearby Italy, aboard the commercial ship “Vlora,” in August 1991. Most commentators left it at that, but some offered the additional nugget that the depicted episode followed the collapse of the Communist regime there.

Beware the fake migrant images,” warned a French media blog. “Fake!” declared Austria-based investigators. It was now clear that the image originated in another era (though this clearly has not stopped others from posting the image and insisting that it shows what they think it shows).

There is nothing new in the fact that images tell us whatever we want them to tell us. The devastating picture of little Aylan Kurdi on a Turkish beach was bound, perhaps, to encourage counter-images. Images have long been instruments of power, and we now have unprecedented means for instantly attaching millions of eyes to them.

The problem is that the debunking can obscure as much as enlighten. By disassociating the 1991 event from what is happening in 2015, the debunkers unintentionally created the illusion that these events are completely disconnected.

Once assigning those thousands of bewildered Albanians to a different historical moment — having reinserted them into the post-Communist frame where they belong — we can then quickly move back to the urgent crisis. The Albanian bodies disappear into the virtual world where they came from, to let our screens populate once more with the “real” bodies in crisis.

Over at the London Review of Books blog, Thomas Jones rightly pointed out that falsification “can turn out to be a useful reminder of the past, once you’ve identified it” but then stopped short of identifying the stakes in the historical parallel.

Yet, the concept of a “fake,” and the shadow of legal precedent over who counts as a “real” refugee, has long been part of the European legacy of handling displaced persons. So when we actually take the long view, some connections emerge.

Every crisis is specific, but let us briefly recall what happened in the early 1990s. While other Eastern bloc regimes had collapsed, the unreformed Albanian Communist party clung to power. This was Europe’s most brutal and isolated regime. In the summer of 1990, thousands of desperate inhabitants (overwhelmingly young men) stormed West European embassies in the capital Tirana. By December of that year, spontaneous student-led protests turned into broader demonstrations. Instead of cracking down, the regime unexpectedly permitted the creation of other political parties, thus ushering in the liquidation of the party-state.

Months of chaos, clashes, and uncertainty followed. Thousands of Albanians fled to Greece. Others took control of ships in the ports of Durrës and Vlorë and set sail for Italy—a trickle, at first, and then by the tens of thousands. By some estimates, half of the country’s population (roughly three million) migrated between 1990 and 2010.

Consider the Italian reception in 1991. Then, too, at first there was sympathy for the victims of a ruthless Communist dictatorship. But the Italian public debate then quickly shifted to obsession over who was a “real” refugee and who was a “fake”— the “clandestini,” in other words, seeking refuge in Italy for economic reasons rather than out of safety concerns. There was, after all, no war in Albania in the summer of 1991.

Does this sound familiar? This is a European legacy, too. The framework for what constitutes a refugee was established in 1951 — in a post World War II context. Originally, it was a limited response to displaced Europeans in the 1940s. Later, however, the UN decided to make the definition universal, conferring the obligation to the always-murky “international community,” in whose protection refugees have ever since found themselves.

Taking the recent refugee crises in Calais as a departure point, Jessica Reinisch has recently argued that this postwar solution enshrining “collective responsibility” over refugees has had a contradictory legacy. One outcome of the international compromise has been that those claiming refugee status have needed to show that they are “genuine,” or in the long-established language of the 1951 Refugee Convention, that they have a “well founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

Longer term outcomes of the institutionalization of this standard have included ever more elaborate systems of policing, detention, and investigation, along with criminal smuggling networks, small businesses in the fake ID industry, and creative story-telling strategies among asylum aspirants.

For decades, European economic integration has unfolded in parallel to the expansion of visa regimes, screening systems, sanctions, severe penalties for airline carriers, declarations of “safe third party” states, and knee-jerk anti-smuggler offensives—all designed to control the circulation of would-be-asylum seekers. The Mediterranean did not suddenly become a place of death; it has been in the making for over a quarter of a century. (Albanians drowned regularly on their way to Italy in the 1990s and early 2000s, albeit in far smaller numbers than recent tragedies.)

What European history also shows, especially in light of celebrations in Germany last year and more recently, is that walls and militarized borders tend to encourage desperate people to find other creative and dangerous ways to evade barriers.

All of this makes dealing with Syrians fleeing a devastating war all the more complicated. Any mass movement encourages other people fleeing for economic reasons, or a host of other reasons, whom the “international community” continues to deem “fake.” (According to EU statistics, between April and June of this year, Albanians constituted one of the three largest contingents of first-time asylum seekers. Still no war there.) But European invasion panic also obscures the fact that 86% of the world’s refugees are hosted by developing countries (like Turkey, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Chad).

Europe is stuck with a system that neither adequately protects the people that desperately need immediate protection, nor recognizes that a post-World War II insistence between “real” and “fake” refugees has had wide-ranging and self-defeating consequences.

Dr Elidor Mehilli is Assistant Professor at Hunter College of the City University of New York, and a former visiting fellow of the Reluctant Internationalist project. His email is


Mnemonic battles on 23 October: the 1956 revolution and the refugee crisis in political discourse

In this post, Dora Vargha examines the battles over historical traditions and memories as fought out in Hungarian politics today. The refugee crisis is just the tip of the iceberg.


As Jessica Reinisch pointed out in her essay, using historical precedents and applying a simplistic “history repeats itself” outlook is often more harmful than beneficial in informing public discourse and policy making. Quite rightly so, we should be wary of political commentary and reporting that does away with particular historical contexts and disregards social, cultural and political complexities of past situations: through a simple analogy, this kind of historicizing presents currents issues in a clean-cut way, which can be simplistic or downright misleading.

But what happens when history is completely missing from the conversation and historical references are consistently skewed or resisted in political discourse? What is the significance of a government’s outright refusal to engage with certain historical precedents at the expense of others? The stakes of not addressing some central historical aspects of a crisis, such as the case in the refugee situation in Hungary, are as high as those that lie in the “misuse” of historical context. In the following I take a closer look at an issue Friederike Kind-Kovacs raised in her blog post to explore these questions, particularly why, as she argues, “the Hungarian government refuses to draw any comparisons between Hungary’s own refugee crisis and the current situation that could possibly trigger feelings of solidarity or compassion”. At a closer look, the historical references and absences surrounding the refugee crisis in Hungary reveal broader questions of political ownership over certain historical events and the flexibility of historical narratives in constructing political identity.

The past refugee crisis in focus is, again, the 1956 revolution in Hungary. Over 200,000 people left the country in a matter of days in the upheaval of the revolution that broke out 59 years ago on October 23. Particularly in recent months, international and Hungarian press and activists have frequently cited this historical precedent as the Hungarian government pursued anti-immigration campaigns and built a fence on the southern border of the country. Former Hungarian refugees, like the co-founder and past CEO of American computer company Intel, Andrew Grove (born András Gróf), have been put forth as examples of the contribution refugees can make to economies and societies. Moreover, 1956-ers themselves have spoken out against current Hungarian policies and practices, recalling the great importance of a welcoming hand in their plight.

The reason why the story of the 1956 refugees has occupied center stage, both on the national Hungarian and international scale, is the same reason why the government of Viktor Orbán has consistently refused to participate in any conversation regarding the revolution in the context of refugees: the revolution of 1956 has always featured prominently in the self-definition of Fidesz, the popular conservative party of Viktor Orbán, which has used it as ‘their’ historical legacy throughout the past 25 years. And it is precisely this central role of the 1956 revolution in the governing party’s historical memory that can explain the silencing of this history now: any kind of engagement with the 1956 refugee narrative would bring forth questions that would challenge the party’s political identity and heritage to the core. To understand this we need to take a closer look at the current Hungarian political landscape.

Viktor Orbán's speech on October 23, 2013 in Budapest. Photo by Kovács Tamás/MTI
Viktor Orbán’s speech on October 23, 2013 in Budapest. Photo by Kovács Tamás/MTI

Hungarian national politics is built upon the historical interpretations and legacies of the fascist and communist regimes of the 20th century. Since 1989, political parties have defined themselves and criticized each other through mnemonic battles over historical legacies, traditions and precedents.

As heir to the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party (MSZMP,) the ruling state party in the communist era, the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), the largest party on the left, has wanted nothing more than to forget its past, or to at least leave it behind. At the same time, it has aimed to position itself as an important force in the democratic turn (see Gyula Horn cutting the iron curtain in 1989) and has been striving to discredit its political opponents by drawing direct lines between the late 1930s and 40s and the present, connecting the contemporary right with mid-century fascism. Fidesz, on the other hand, has aimed to represent the 1980s as another version of the Stalinist years of the early 1950s, depicted in the shape of symbolic institutions like the House of Terror Museum. Although it also has its fair share of communist party functionaries and ex-members of the politburo among its ranks,it has used this particular historical representation to delegitimize the left and strengthen its claim as the truly democratic power. It has tried to increase its political leverage in opposition to communism as a legitimate, democratic party. Most probably due to the same reasons, the two parties have been united in their resistance to allow access to secret police archives from the communist era and have consistently blocked historians’ attempts for open research. The new kid on the block, the far-right party Jobbik, emerged from the largest and most renowned History department of the country and has been building its political discourse directly on the interwar romanticism of Hungarian greatness. The fourth party in parliament, the new liberal-green LMP (short in Hungarian for Politics Can be Different), a very young party with no ties to previous regimes, has been trying to balance between left and right in its interpretation of current historical controversies.

In this post-communist setting, the 1956 revolution has occupied a prominent place in Hungarian historical memory and became a foundational myth of the new democratic era. It was on October 23 that the Republic of Hungary was proclaimed in 1989, and the anniversary of the revolution has been the most important national holiday ever since. The first democratically elected president of the country, Árpád Göncz (who died recently at the age of 93), had been sentenced to life for participation in the 1956 revolution. Former revolutionaries, especially those with prison sentences, have given historical legitimacy to political parties on left and right. Year after year, October 23 has been the date for major political rallies combined with mass commemoration. On the revolution’s 50th anniversary, a right-wing rally turned into a violent protest against the governing left and was met with police brutality.

Newly elected President Árpád Göncz greeting the crowd in front of the Hungarian Parliament in 1990. Göncz was imprisoned in 1957 for his participation in the 1956 revolutionPhoto by Csilla Cseke, MTI
Newly elected President Árpád Göncz greeting the crowd in front of the Hungarian Parliament in 1990. Göncz was imprisoned in 1957 for his participation in the 1956 revolutionPhoto by Csilla Cseke, MTI

It is precisely because of the importance of the revolution in the historical memory of the country, and especially of that of Fidesz, that many Hungarian critics of Orbáns’s government are reaching back to the stories of the 1956 refugees. Drawing an analogy in this case is a method of shaming, and aims to highlight that the governing party is on the way of becoming the state that it established itself against. While these analogies may be flawed in the eyes of an astute historian, they need to be understood in the particular context of how historical memory is used (and abused) in Hungary. This is also the reason why no one on the right will mention the revolution in relation to the refugee crisis. Instead, they reach far back to medieval history and pose as the protectors of Christian Europe against Muslim forces. The amnesia of all the historical circumstances when Hungarians themselves were refugees (and there have been many) serves the purpose of explaining away the lack of basic services and assistance to refugees by the Hungarian state.

But this historical shift of focus also seems to be part of something bigger. The recent years have witnessed a change in Fidesz’s political use of 20th century history. Since the opposition on the left crumbled away or self-destructed, the major threat to power now comes from the far-right. The conventional anti-communist rhetoric has little use here, as the leaders and key party members of Jobbik came of age in the nineties. Political discourse has moved to meet the far-right’s claims, in this particular case with a heavy-handed anti-immigration campaign and the building of fences around the borders of the country.

Historical memory, a central element in political identity, has shifted accordingly. The hallmarks of this change are not only visible on the streets in the form of interwar street names and monstrous memorials, such as the controversial Memorial for the Victims of the German Occupation. In 2012 the government dissolved the public foundation that supported the 1956 Institute, a center for historical research that had been focusing on the revolution and the era of state socialism in Hungary. A year later, a new historical research center was established: the Veritas Institute, which aims to reinterpret the history of the past 150 years “without distortion”, and operates directly under the direction of the Prime Minister’s Office. The professional community of historians is mostly appalled by these recent changes, while right wing historians argue that political involvement has been known to go the other way as well in the past. In a way they are certainly right: in Hungary history writing has been decidedly a political act in the last 25 years.

The memorial commemorating the victims of the German Nazi occupation in Hungary. Protesters placed a sign reading "Historical forgery, intellectual poisoning". Photo by
The memorial commemorating the victims of the German Nazi occupation in Hungary. Protesters placed a sign reading “Historical forgery, intellectual poisoning”. Photo by

The Hungarian refugee crisis has thrown light on this troubled relationship of politics and history in the country. When reaching to historical precedents or evaluating the use of historical arguments, like the 1956 revolution, we have to bear in mind that in Hungary history has not merely been used in making political claims, but it has been the essence of politics itself. Political dividing lines have been drawn around interpretations of historical legitimacy, and history figures as a foundational element in parties’ identities. Many of these deliberations are aimed at the domestic political scene and don’t make much sense outside of Hungary, as the occasional puzzlement in international press over Viktor Orbán’s statements attest to it. However, the particular way in which history is drawn upon in shaping politics and policy in Hungary does have a very real impact with very high stakes for the people who arrive at the border after a long and perilous journey, and certainly has an impact on Hungary’s political maneuvering in the European Union.


Budapest’s Eastern Train Station: From the Past to Today’s (Child) Refugee Crisis

In this post, Friederike Kind-Kovacs discusses the Hungarian legacy of train stations as hubs for refugees, and considers the place of children in the refugee crisis.


In the past month, Budapest’s Eastern train station (Keleti Pályaudvar) became an evocative symbol for the unwillingness of the Hungarian government to respond to the current refugee crisis through humanitarian means. The Hungarian government neither pursued a coherent emergency strategy nor did it provide any humanitarian relief to the thousands of asylum seekers who were stranded at Budapest’s major train station. Yet, this train station is not just a symbol of today’s refugee crisis. It also reminds us of one of Hungary’s ‘own’ past refugee crises. It was at the end of the First World War and around the time of the signing of the treaty of Trianon that Budapest’s major train stations became the emergency shelter for thousands of Hungarian refugees from the cut-off Hungarian territories. Train stations — like harbors, airports or bus stations—historically serve as urban venues of migration. Budapest’s major train station witnessed countless flows of migration. While most everyday migration happens without much notice, train stations and other nodes of migration gain only then public attention when mobility is abruptly interrupted or entirely unwanted. Then train stations turn into deadlocks of mobility that are unable to further handle the massive influx of people. This was the case both at the end of WWI and in the summer of 2015.

Hungarian Refugees after WWI

Almost a hundred years ago a great number of Hungarian refugees were stranded at Budapest’s major train stations after being expelled from the former Hungarian territories. Due to the disastrous housing situation in Budapest at the time, the refugees were housed in dysfunctional cattle cars that were standing for months and even years at the train stations. These refugees became known as the “Railway Dwellers” (Vagonlakók), whose everyday life was closely documented by photographers at the time.

“Railway Dwellers,” 1920.
“Railway Dwellers,” 1920. Érdekes Újság, Vol. VIII, No. 2, 1920.

As the Hungarian state was unable to stem the social and financial burden of the influx of these refugees, many railway dwellers were dependent on humanitarian help from organizations, such as Herbert Hoover’s American Relief Administration (ARA) or the American Red Cross who provided large-scale relief in post-WWI Central Europe. Most refugees and their children were eligible to receive a free lunch or a portion of milk at the ARA’s many feeding stations and obtain a new set of clothing.

The train stations in and around Budapest were also the place where humanitarian relief donations arrived, such as medical equipment, clothing or food, and were then further distributed.

“Red Cross Relief Donation Arriving to Budapest Train Stations,” 1919.[iii]
“Red Cross Relief Donation Arriving to Budapest Train Stations,” 1919. Érdekes Újság, Vol. VIII, No. 45. 1919.
In response to Budapest’s severe hunger crisis at the time, the Hungarian League of Child Protection also arranged for so-called ‘summer vacations’ for Budapest’s impoverished children in better-off families in Belgium, Holland, Britain or Switzerland. These child holiday trains departed as well from Budapest’s Eastern station, where photographer János Müllner captured the departing and arriving children.

“Child Holiday Train,” 1921.[i]
“Child Holiday Train,” 1921. Érdekes Újság, Vol. IX No. 39, 1921.
Although displacement has been an essential part of Hungarian history and still dominates the public discourse today, the Hungarian government refuses to draw any comparisons whatsoever between Hungary’s own refugee crisis and the current situation that could possibly trigger feelings of solidarity or compassion.

This is even more noteworthy when we consider the role of children in the current crisis. The Hungarian government appears immune even to the plight of today’s refugee children. Although Hungary’s government highly values the role of the ‘Hungarian family’ and the value of children, it refuses to apply these principles to the newly arriving refugee families and their children. At the same time, the absurdity of Orbán’s fear of a dangerous Muslim invasion becomes apparent when meeting some of the many refugee families that arrived with their small children, babies and toddlers. The majority of these children not only have to deal with the memories of the life-threatening journey across the sea but also with trauma of war in civil-war-stricken countries like Syria.

The Current Child Refugee Crisis

The refugee and migrant crisis, as Save the Children states, has turned into a ‘Child Refugee Crisis’. The tragic image of the 3-year old Syrian-Kurd toddler Aylan Kurdi, who drowned in the sea and whose body stranded in Turkey, captures the particular vulnerability of the child in this refugee crisis. The image of this child lying “face down, his head to one side with his bottom slightly up — the way toddlers like to sleep” visualizes the defenselessness and innocence of the children. While the boy died on his travels to Europe, other “children on the move” did manage to arrive in Europe. In 2014 603 and in 2015 8420 children were counted to have arrived in Hungary without their parents; they were either by their parents alone or accidentally separated from their families, which leaves them particularly vulnerable to neglect or exploitation. Those children who arrive without their parents are transferred to the “Children’s City” in Fót, where they are kept for an extended time. During their journey or in refugee camps, children are unable to attend school and are instead often needed to contribute as breadwinners to the family’s survival, as UNICEF and Save the Children stated in a recent report.

But even when children do manage to reach Europe with their families, they can’t claim their “right to protection,” as UNICEF recently reminded some of the – rather reluctant— member countries. Before Hungary closed its border on September 15th thousands of refugee children had already reached Hungary. Yet their plight has not yet triggered any humanitarian response by the Hungarian government. Even after their arrival at Budapest’s train stations, refugee children were not considered eligible for any kind of special governmental protection or emergency relief. As early as 1924 the League of Nation’s Declaration of the Right of the Child stated that “[t]he child must be the first to receive relief in times of distress,” but then and now governments tend to see a fundamental difference between the cause of their ‘own’ and the ‘other’s’ children.

At the Budapest train stations the government has not provided adequate shelter and is not ensuring basic hygienic standards. The limited sanitary facilities do not allow parents to secure their children’s cleanliness and health; babies’ nappies are often changed on the bare floor. It happened several times that children got lost and could not find their parents. A mother even gave birth to her child at the train station, while only supported by a voluntary doctor. In response to the governmental lack of interest in the plight of refugee children, UNICEF Hungary sent on September 4th a written request to the national agencies: it was their duty to ensure that the “children receive adequate assistance and adequate protection”, and that they are welcomed in a “non-prejudiced, non-discriminatory and inclusive environment” while “temporarily or permanently residing in our country”.

Civil Activism for Refugee Children

Children’s relief at the station was entirely in the hands of non-governmental organizations, such as Migration Aid and the Let’s Help refugees in Hungary Facebook group, or individual civil activists or volunteers who did everything to meet the refugees’ most basic needs, including food, clothing information, medical care as well as practical and emotional support. With the help of the volunteers, who brought toys and sweets, the train station turned in the afternoons “into a playground” where the children started to engage in common plays.

“A refugee child receiving a toy at Budapest Eastern Train Station,” Edd Carlile, Budapest Seen, September 6, 2015.

When Migration Aid volunteers started to draw with refugee children with colorful chalk on the asphalt, as a creative means to deal with their traumas, the police reminded them that thereby the children could be made liable for the “violation of public order”. Other children were encouraged by volunteers to simply draw about their life back home, showing the “horrible experiences they endured.” Another day volunteers brought ”a brief smile to the faces” of the children, when they were setting up a projector to show “Tom and Jerry” at the train station. Little is actually needed to make the children forget their past and present reality at least for a little moment.

In contrast to this civil engagement with children, the Hungarian government tries hard to undermine and limit the population’s sympathy with the refugee families and children. Images of suffering children can convey the drama of any humanitarian crisis particularly effectively; employees of the Hungarian state television were recently told “not to broadcast images of refugee children.’ It is up to volunteers and Facebook activists, such as the photo blogger Budapest seen, to visually capture the everyday life of the refugee families and their children at the train station and thus to bridge the distance between the refugee and the receiving societies.

A refugee child at Budapest Eastern Train Station, Edd Carlile, Budapest Seen, September 9, 2015
A refugee child at Budapest Eastern Train Station, Edd Carlile, Budapest Seen, September 9, 2015

Memorializing Hungary’s Refugees

The political discourse about today’s refugee crisis could not differ more from the way in which Hungary’s ‘own’ past refugee crises are publicly remembered today. When it comes to the memorialization of the suffering of Hungary’s ‘own’ refugees after the “Tragedy of Trianon,” throughout the whole country Trianon memorials have been inaugurated and the 95th anniversary of the signing of Trianon, June 4th 2015, was symbolically remembered in front of the Cathédrale Saint-Louis in Versailles and used to call for the revision of the peace treaty. The so-called Trianon Museum even inaugurated on July 8th 2015 an exhibition about the “Life of the railway dwellers: an open exhibition at the Trianon museum” (Vagonlakók élete: új kiállítás nyilt a Trianon Muzeumban). Restaging one of those cattle cars where Hungarian refugees were housed, without running water, electricity or effective heating, allows the visitor to re-experience today the everyday suffering of Hungary’s ‘own’ refugees in the past. Exhibiting the disastrous social consequences of the “Hungarian exodus” from 1918-1920 perfectly fits the current trend to rewrite Hungary’s history and allows evoking feelings of compassion for refugees in the past. Yet, when facing todays’ thousands of non-Hungarian refugees and their children the Hungarian government closed its borders, introduced laws to prevent any special legal treatment of refugee children and simply watched as this situation developed into a humanitarian crisis.

Resisting Today’s Refugees

While the refugees after WWI were Hungarians and thus welcome, today’s Muslim refugees are not welcome in Hungary. “We don’t want to change,” was Victor Orbán’s recent statement, making clear that Hungary would never want to repeat Western Europe’s supposedly failed experience with multiculturalism. Instead, Orbán fuels fears about the unforeseeable consequences of this wave of Muslim immigration, namely a war of cultures, which his “old” Christian Europe would loose. Presenting himself as the savior of Europe’s Christian culture and of Hungary’s national homogeneity serves him to incite fear and hatred of Muslim immigrants. Trianon and the Holocaust could have taught him the dangers of an ongoing “quest for homogeneity.”

Hungary’s post-1956 refugee crisis could have helped the Hungarian government to see the commonalities between Hungary’s own history and today’s refugee crisis. In reaction to the government’ insensitivity, a number of civil actors, such as OSA Archivum in Budapest, have publicized images of Hungarian refugees after 1956, or even contrasted them in video footage with images of the Syrian refugees. Hungary is happy to commemorate its own refugees, but does not want to be reminded of its past dependencies on other countries. It would also be too difficult to remember that the Canadian government warned in 1956 of the “Hungarian refugees’ religion, ethnicity and tendency to political extremism” that were feared to be “incompatible with what they saw as Canadian values.” Yet, Canada overcame her ungrounded fears and accepted Hungary’s refugees.

By contrast, the Hungarian government prefers to pursue its defensive politics and safeguard its national-Christian ideals. It prefers to rather seek to protect Europe’s physical borders than its values, and denies the refugees their most basic human rights. The Hungarian government misses here the chance to realize that this is “a moment when history will look back on the world’s treatment of these refugees, just as we look back on how nations treated those fleeing the Holocaust,” as Miles Gerety recently wrote. Hungary could have chosen “a nobler path, a path of compassion and decency,” as “no democracy is weakened when it offers a helping hand to those who have learned from bitter experience the virtues of freedom.”But while the Hungarian government continues to blame Germany for its “moral imperialism,” hundreds of Hungarian volunteers and activists reaffirm their ‘moral imperative’ by turning feelings of solidarity and compassion into civil and humanitarian action.

Friederike Kind-Kovács is assistant professor at the department of Southeast and East European history at Regensburg University and currently works on humanitarian child relief in Central Europe after WWI. Her book, Written Here, Published There: How Underground Literature Crossed the Iron Curtain, recently received the 2015 USC Book Prize in Literary and Cultural Studies.

On news and non-news: Calais migrants, once again

In this post, Jessica Reinisch digests the news of further clashes between migrants and the French and British police in Calais.


Weekend reports of an “invasion” of the Channel Tunnel by a group of around 100 (or 120, or 200) migrants have once again brought the migrant camp outside Calais (often referred to as ‘the Jungle’, or now as ‘the New Jungle’) back into focus. This latest news is only the most recent in several decades of brief flare-ups of media interest. Migrants have been staying in makeshift camps and shelters in and around the town of Calais more or less continuously since the late 1990s.


‘The Jungle’ in February 2015, Photo by UNHCR/ Christophe Vander Eecken


In the worldwide total of displaced people, migrants and refugees, those staying in Calais make up a tiny speck. But the fact that this trouble-spot lies on the British doorstep has generated some interest in the British press over the years. In 2015, alarm about the situation in Calais peaked briefly in January, when the winter weather motivated the French government to open a shelter for some of the migrants already in Calais. It then filled the papers for several weeks in late June and early July, when the combination of a French ferry workers’ strike and migrants’ attempts to storm the tunnel and board UK-bound lorries created a newsworthy chaos, just in time for the ‘silly season’.

Every time the Calais migrants do come into view again, it is because of a perceived crisis or acceleration of problems, in the form of local riots, migrants’ attempts to break through fences or storm the Tunnel, disrupted holiday traffic, and spats between British and French officials. Every occasion gives the impression of a unique escalation: of greater numbers of migrants, greater violence, greater short- or long-term threats, greater local paralysis, and more and more desperate measures. British and French official responses have invariably consisted of announcements of yet more money to be spent on security technology, police and border control – with little obvious effect to date. In between the crisis-points, there are long shallow periods when news reports don’t touch the issue, and the only available information about conditions comes from local voluntary organisations. At that point, politicians are grateful for one less fire to fight.

What disappears from view in the news coverage is not just the broader context of how Calais fits into the world map and political geography of displacement, but also that none of these mini-crises have ever been fully resolved. At no point since the first official migrants’ camp in Sangatte in 1999 was any lasting or consistent series of measures agreed on how to process, train, employ, advise, relocate or integrate the steady flow of migrants, or how to manage migrants’ expectations about their potential new host countries, or, for that matter, how to prevent them from arriving in the first place. The one-off “burden-sharing agreement” between France and Britain in late 2002 was as close as it came, as a result of which the majority of the camp residents at the time in were brought to the UK or other parts in France. But almost as soon as the last of those on the relocation lists had been moved, new people began to arrive. Makeshift shelters have been erected and torn down again by the French authorities. In all this time, political measures have been retrospective, out of date already by the time they are announced and reported.

The migrant arrangements in Calais are ‘forever temporary’ – a phrase that is as true today as it was when the French Red Cross officer Pierre Kremer wrote about the Sangatte/ Calais migrants in 2002. Even at that point this was already old news. In fact, the waxing and waning of interest in Calais, by both politicians and media, has compounded the problem: it has prevented the search for a workable, long-term policy for breaking this paralysing vicious circle, for improving the situation of the migrants and enabling the local and national authorities to manage the migrants’ arrival and stay. We are as far from a solution now as we have been in 1999. You’ll no doubt hear about Calais again before long.

You can read more about the factors that have shaped the different ‘migrants’ crises’ in and around Calais in Jessica Reinisch’s essay, “‘Forever temporary’: Migrants in Calais, Then and Now”, published in The Political Quarterly.

History matters… but which one? Every refugee crisis has a context

In the first essay in our new series on ‘Europe in Crisis’, Jessica Reinisch looks at the uses and abuses of historical precedents in recent coverage of the refugee crisis in Europe. The essay is co-published with History and Policy.


For months, newspapers and screens have been filled with images of displaced and distressed people seeking refuge in Europe. It is estimated that more than 4 million people have left Syria since 2011. They are fleeing a brutal civil war, which has seen ruthless attacks on civilians and to date at least 200,000 dead (and very likely more; numbers are disputed and difficult to estimate). Over 6 million are internally displaced inside Syria. Of the over 4 million Syrians registered as refugees by UNHCR, a growing (but still relatively small) proportion have been trying to reach Europe, along with other migrants from the Middle East and Africa. Frontex, the European border security force, has reported over 500,000 illegal border crossings into Europe in the first nine months of 2015, compared with 280,000 migrants detected at EU borders in the whole of 2014. Media coverage of this increase has zoomed in and out of so-called flashpoints in Italy, Greece, Hungary, Germany, Austria, Croatia, Slovenia and Serbia – a belt around southern, central and eastern Europe that has functioned as a demarcation line of sorts between different parts of Europe.

In the face of these numbers and images, many commentators have gone in search of historical parallels and precedents. Indeed, Europe’s twentieth century offers many refugee crises and enormous population movements to choose from, either during or after military and civil conflicts, and an array of states’ and international organisations’ failures to deal with them. This essay looks at some of those precedents, and argues for the use of caution in the way they are applied to current events. Does the history of refugees offer insights for the European refugee crisis unfolding today?

Migrants and refugees queue near the registration camp after crossing the Macedonian-Greek border near Gevgelija on September 29, 2015. (ARMEND NIMANI/AFP/Getty Images)



From some vantage points, all refugee crises look the same. We are familiar with timeless images of bedraggled men, women and children, carrying a few bags of possessions, cramming into whatever transport is available, tired, hungry and sick from the disasters they left and the long journeys they have endured, sleeping rough on the way, herded into reception centres or camps, receiving blankets or food from a handful of volunteers, and causing fear and panic wherever they arrive. Details such as their skin colour, mobile phones, and the logo on the volunteers’ armbands may be different today, but there are plenty of similarities with previous crises.

“This is not the first refugee crisis we have faced, and nor will it be the last”, wrote Angelina Jolie, UNHCR Special Envoy, and Arminka Helic, British politician and former refugee, in The Times on 7 September. “From Europe to America, our countries are built in part on a tradition of helping refugees, from the aftermath of the Second World War to the Balkan conflict of the 1990s.” They and others have tried to highlight a ‘tradition of helping refugees’ by drawing on positive historical precedents. For example, in late August the International Business Times UK published a photo gallery of “Britain’s history of welcoming refugees”. It featured a series of 20 photographs of refugees in the UK, arranged chronologically from the 1922 arrival of refugees from Smyrna in Plymouth, to a 2015 portrait of a young Syrian woman about to start studying at university. The short text at the beginning and end criticised David Cameron’s use of the term ‘swarm’ for the most recent arrivals, and presented data to show that migrants needn’t be a drain on a country’s resources. There is no commentary that explains or links these very different scenarios. All we see are groups of Jewish children, of survivors of Bergen-Belsen, of Vietnamese war orphans, all beaming with relief and gratitude.

In spite of its good intentions, the feature has some troubling implications. What exactly are these photos saying about Britain’s refugees policy? That as long as the refugees are grateful and productive they are welcome? What about the sick, elderly, unproductive or ungrateful? What about all those who have been turned away? Is this portrayal going to help convince British voters that the UK should accept, in the short- and probably the long-term, significant numbers of Syrians, Afghanis, Iraqis, Eritreans, or Somalis, who are leaving their countries for a range of reasons and want a better life? The British government is falling woefully short of understanding and managing immigration in a positive and constructive way, but these naïve and uncontextualised images of past arrivals are unlikely to improve matters.

Academics and policy-makers too have looked for and found historical yardsticks for the current ‘historical moment’. Consider, for example, the “Five history lessons in how to deal with a refugee crisis” offered by Alexander Betts, Professor in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies and Director of Oxford’s Refugees Studies Centre. Serendipitously dipping into the history of the twentieth century, Betts identified 5 “solutions” for past refugee crises which should be applied to the present. They include the Nansen passport, given to under half a million stateless people, mostly from Russia and Armenia, after the end of the First World War; the resettlement plan developed after initial disasters of drowning ‘boat people’ from Indochina in the late 1980s; and the ‘burden-sharing’ agreement between European states to take on refugees fleeing 1990s post-break-up Yugoslavia. Each of these precedents, according to Betts, offers hope and insights into “how, as new challenges arise, there are opportunities to develop new standards, guidelines and approaches.” “There is a lot to be learned from history”, he wrote in another article. “We have learned a lot over the last 70 years.” But what exactly have we learned from this history? How far are those past events comparable with current developments? In what way can they guide us in the present with solutions? In what way have preparations and responses improved? Betts doesn’t say.

1938 AND 1956

Two previous crises in particular have been filling the papers in the last few weeks: the refugee crises of the Second World War, and the Hungarian refugees of 1956. Let’s consider each in turn.

A much-repeated and highly problematic reference point in recent coverage have been the refugee crises during and after the Second World War – or, more accurately, specific rescue missions within it. In the British press, a favourite ‘precedent’ has been the so-called Kindertransport, the rescue efforts which brought around 10,000 mostly Jewish children from central Europe to the UK in late 1938 and 1939. “Why don’t we launch a Kindertransport scheme for Syrians?”, asked Ed West in The Spectator on 1 September. A few days later, Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi, was quoted in various papers that the “UK must emulate Kindertransport to aid refugee crisis.” By 21 September, more than 100 rabbis were urging the British Prime Minister to accelerate and expand British plans to take in refugees, once again referring to the Kindertransport as a model and “our beacon for hope in the values of Great Britain.” In recent House of Commons speeches and debates about migration policy (such as on 3 June and 24 June, and at length on 8 September and 9 September), the Kindertransport is used as evidence of Britain’s “proud tradition” of taking in refugees.

The example appears again and again, but without reference to its context, the Kindertransport model is misleading at best. No European country in a position to offer shelter has reason to be proud of its history of rescue. Countries such as Britain and the United States did much to prevent immigration by turning desperate people away. In 1938, at a doomed conference in the French spa town of Evian, delegations from 32 participating nations – Britain among them – failed to come to any agreement about accepting the Jewish refugees fleeing the Third Reich. Delegates were sympathetic to their plight, they said, and urged others to find a long-term solution, but were unwilling to ease their own immigration restrictions. The outbreak of war then made any joint agreement even more unlikely. Throughout this time, most European borders were tightly shut, and millions of people were turned away, often to certain death. Selective memory has nonetheless helped to cement the Kindertransport as “a beacon” in British consciousness. In reality, it was a rescue operation organised by a number of private, philanthropic and religious organisations, not an official state programme. Under pressure from these groups, Neville Chamberlain’s government temporarily waived immigration visa requirements for a limited number of unaccompanied children from central Europe. The organisations had to fund the operation and find sponsors and homes for the children themselves; they stopped when their money ran out, and when the outbreak of war made their task impossible. Comparisons of 1938 with today might be justified, but are hardly cause for celebration. For millions, much worse was to come.

The refugee crises of the 1940s were indeed unprecedented in size, scale and consequences. They comprised many different movements by different groups: refugees, expellees, deportees, evacuees, concentration camp inmates, prisoners of war. By some calculations, as many as 60 million Europeans were involuntarily moved from their homes during the war or immediate post-war period. In eastern-central Europe alone, between 1939 and 1948 some 46 million people were uprooted through flight, evacuation, forced resettlement or deportation. In Germany, by the end of the war over 25 million people were by some measure ‘in the wrong country’. These numbers included the forced labourers freed by the Allied troops (7 million of whom found themselves in the western occupation zones; those in the Soviet zone remained uncounted), and the over 12 million ethnic Germans who had been expelled from their homes in eastern and southern Europe and sent into the rump of the defeated country. Europe presented a messy, complex map of many millions of people out of place, which in practice meant many millions of attempted journeys to reach home or safety across a continent in ruins and in the grips of a military and civil war. Countries in southern, central and eastern Europe, most affected foreign occupation, genocide and war, particularly felt the consequences of this dislocation.

Some of the refugee problems were solved after the war, but the context of those solutions was very different from anything going on today. In 1945, for only the second time in the century, national priorities and international concerns briefly coincided. Most European states were at their most vulnerable, weakened and bankrupted, and dependent on international handouts. The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), a short-lived international organisation with a uniquely bold brief, tied the US and the other big powers into a joint arrangement to provide a substantial programme of international aid, at the centre of which stood the return of people to their homelands. Ambitious national reconstruction programmes not only expanded states’ capacities and obligations for their citizens, but also created outlets where refugees could be put to work. Europe’s dislocated people across the continent supplied the booming post-war economies with labour. The West German ‘economic miracle’ of the 1950s was to a large part sustained by the enormous pool of refugees in the country. Other countries also made targeted use of migrant labour. Over 80,000 refugees came to Britain under the ‘European Voluntary Worker’ scheme, recruited directly from the continental refugee camps to work in the National Health Service, in agriculture, mining, iron, steel or textiles. In the following decades, foreign worker or ‘guest worker’ schemes brought millions of migrants into the big northern European economies, until the 1973 oil crisis and subsequent recession brought those recruitments to a halt.

The refugees leaving Hungary in the wake of the 1956 revolt against the Soviet-backed Hungarian government have become another favourite talking-point since interest in the current crisis spilled over from Italy and Greece to Hungary. It all seems so pertinent: then, in 1956, around 200,000 refugees left Hungary and made their way on foot and by train to Austria and other neighbouring countries; now, in 2015, hundreds of thousands of Syrians are making the same trek, their troubles exacerbated by Hungary’s closed border.

Some are invoking 1956 to attack the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, for his hard-line refusal to take in any refugees. Pointing to the “stunning hypocrisy of Mitteleuropa”, Paul Hockenos in a Foreign Policy piece on 10 September argues that Hungary’s “shrill” anti-refugee proclamations stand in stark contrast to its moral obligations. Not so long ago, “when they were at their lowest”, they themselves had “depended on the kindness of strangers”. Now, he insists, they are being “deliberately disingenuous” in their resistance to an EU-quota system for taking in refugees. Reference to history helps him to make his case.

Others see 1956 as a reminder that there is a much better way of handling refugees, a time when, unlike now, European nations were eager to do their bit and take their share. In early September, in a post for History Workshop Online the historian Becky Taylor wrote about the responses to the Hungarian refugees as “another way of responding to refugee crises than building fences and ever-strengthening the borders of Fortress Europe.” In 1956, a combination of sympathetic media, public compassion and pressure from an active UNHCR helped to find these refugees new countries, homes and jobs, all in a matter of months. Taylor concluded that it is “time for the UNHCR and national governments to re-visit some of the characteristics of the Hungarian relief operation…”. Less informed but making a similar point, CNN’s Tom Lister also thought the 1956 example was relevant today: the Syrians heading to Austria in September walked a “well-trodden route”, taken by those “desperate Hungarians” 59 years ago. The Hungarian crisis became “the template on which the international community would handle later refugee crises” – although, he admitted, it “set a standard rarely matched since.”

Whatever you may think about Hungary’s, Britain’s or Europe’s current responsibilities for people fleeing brutal violence, war and poverty, the two scenarios are hardly comparable. Present numbers far outweigh those of the Hungarians in 1956 in scale. Where in 1956 European countries saw white, middle class, Christian Europeans on their doorsteps (with whom, in the case of Austria, they had jointly run an empire in then living memory), today they are trying to stop far greater numbers of non-Europeans of various shades, many of them Muslim. Religious and cultural differences between refugees and potential hosts provide immigration opponents with pretexts they could not have used before. Most importantly: context matters, and the context of the Hungarian refugee crisis could hardly have been more different. As the first major refugee crisis of the Cold War, 1956 was a major propaganda victory for western governments. The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees – the main legal document defining who a refugee is and the protection they are entitled to, which had come into force just two years earlier – provides asylum to people fleeing political persecution. Refugees from Communist regimes were the perfect victims to fulfil its criteria. Neither the Soviet Union nor Eastern Block countries signed the Convention until after the end of the Cold War. It was hardly surprising that the UNHCR, the organisation created to uphold and implement the Convention, sprang into action when the Hungarian refugees arrived in the West, welcoming them as victims of totalitarianism and boosting the organisation’s reason d’etre. Austria, then one of the main receiving countries and today used as an example to shame Hungary’s (and Britain’s) lack of compassion, had only in the previous year regained its full sovereignty after post-war occupation by the war-time Allies. It too, like the UNHCR, had to prove itself and its anti-Communist credentials. The Hungarian refugees could not have arrived at a better time.

The world of 2015 is different in so many ways. Far from being at their most ambitious and expansive, today’s states are intent on reducing their scope and budgets after painful experiences with recession. Their manufacturing sectors no longer offer easy opportunities to put migrants to use, making western states even more reluctant to open their borders to anyone. The USA has not been part of the search for a joint policy on migrants and refugees. The UNHCR is a mere shadow of UNRRA, upholding a framework that has never fitted the complexities of the post-Cold War world, and lacking both the funds and mandate to successfully intervene in the growing refugee crises. Today, impetus for joint action within Europe lies with a fragile and weak European Union, already in the state of unravelling, certainly not driven by a collective desire to rebuild the world. At the same time, Western intervention and civil wars in the Middle East and the collapse of Syria and Libya have created unprecedented levels of displacement, with global consequences.


Invoking history and finding precedents is no neutral exercise. Every political project can find confirmation from history by selectively or mis-reading the evidence and isolating it from its context. This doesn’t make it representative or useful. Drawing a straight line between two superficially similar events is at best misleading, at worst disingenuous and plain wrong. All of this doesn’t mean that historical examples are of no use, but it does mean that lessons from the past have to be extracted more carefully. We should ask: what is distinctive about each refugee crisis, and what is not? What patterns and details have we seen in the past that still seem to apply today? What sorts of attempted solutions have never worked; which ones have had some success and might be used again?

The uncomfortable fact is that no historical comparison fits neatly with what is going at the moment. Europe has certainly experienced great refugee crises and enormous population movements before, but in very different contexts. Perhaps closest to the world of 2015 are examples from the end of the Cold War, such as the refugee crisis accompanying the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, and the vast population movements resulting from the break-up of the Soviet Union. But they, too, have their limitations and can’t be straightforward guides to future policy.

Nonetheless, a number of long-term continuities stand out. A defining feature of past and present refugee crises has been this: although people on the move are by definition an international problem, states have continuously resisted any obligations imposed on them from outside. The facts of migration have always fundamentally challenged European states’ notions of sovereignty, national integrity, security and cohesion, and even the very nature and functions of the state – this is unlikely to be solved in a hurry. References to past examples of open borders and successful multicultural societies should perhaps try to alleviate some fears and point to the many benefits of migration, but it is going to be slow work.

Another continuity is that international organisations have a poor record of making states admit refugees they don’t want to take in. Today, UNHCR upholds a flawed legal and political framework for refugee protection which is simply not fit for the realities of the world since the end of the Cold War. Its distinction between ‘legitimate refugees’ and ‘economic migrants’ has not helped many of those arriving in Europe today, whether or not they are fleeing political persecution, nor those expected to house them. Partly, this reflects problems inherent in UNHCR’s original constitution and mandate, but to a large degree the distinction between ‘refugee’ and ‘migrant’ addresses a more fundamental problem. Nowhere in modern history has there been a universal definition of what a ‘refugee’ is and the protection refugees are entitled to. As Gil Loescher, one of UNHCR’s historians has pointed out: “As long as states are the sole arbiters of status and protection of refugees, it is difficult to see how international standards can be applied more even-handedly.”

Another striking lesson is that economic prosperity breeds greater tolerance to strangers, and recession and austerity have the opposite effect. This is a crucial feature of today’s developments and invites comparisons with the 1930s. David Cameron’s raiding of the UK overseas budget for funding a few refugee camps in Lebanon isn’t going to be sufficient; Angela Merkel’s (unprecedented) decision to take in millions of Syrians will result in local resentment and political backlash unless the German state can provide enough resources for them without trimming elsewhere. And even then difficulties can persist: refugees were perceived as a burden and struggled to be integrated even in the advantageous climate of political will and economic possibilities after the Second World War. In the absence of national commitments and international agreements, voluntary humanitarian work with refugees was and is often a dire necessity. But even if this work is celebrated as both morally satisfying and politically convenient, it has always proved to be fundamentally inadequate in material terms.

If the modern history of refugees has taught us anything it is that, in spite of states’ persistent resistance to international solutions, the current numbers of migrants and refugees are unlikely to be successfully managed with anything other than a European-wide, even world-wide, programme of agreed responsibilities and the provision of generous regional, national and local resources to facilitate their care. The fact that neither seems likely – the EU is near collapse, and national purse strings are tightly closed – makes for depressing times.

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