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.

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.

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


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.

Europe in Crisis: New Blog Series

The Reluctant Internationalist research group is pleased to launch a new blog series on the theme of ‘Europe in Crisis’. Each contribution seeks to identify a theme of current concern and show how a historical perspective can shed light on contemporary dynamics, patterns, potential solutions.

The series will not be limited to discussions of recent failures of the architecture and institutions upholding European integration, and think about wider social, cultural, and political problems currently facing the continent: migration and refugees, national sovereignty, national security, regional inequalities and the idea of development, the notion of ‘burden-sharing’, regional and international collaboration, European ‘values’ and ‘civilisation’, and the extent of Europe and ‘Europeanness’ itself.

We invite essay submissions between 800 and 2,000 words in length that include at least one image. Essays should be jargon-free, written accessibly for intelligent but uninformed readers, and include headings and minimal references. Where possible, references should be inserted as hyperlinks in the text. The editors will undertake minor editing of language and grammar before publication if required. Please send proposals or papers to


Conversation with Elidor Mehilli

A year ago, Elidor Mehilli joined the Reluctant Internationalist project as a visiting fellow. You can now read a transcript of Jessica Reinisch’s conversation with Elidor.


JR: Let’s talk about your work. What kinds of things have you been working on? What have been some of the findings of your research?

EM: Thank you very much for having me. It’s been my pleasure. In large part, it’s been so exciting to be part of this project because of the book that I’m currently writing. It deals with internationalism, but a specific kind of internationalism—the so-called socialist internationalism of the early stages of the Cold War. Specifically, the project looks at one site of this kind of internationalism: Communist Albania, which first had contacts with Yugoslavia in the 1940s, with the Soviet Union in the 1950s, along with a host of other countries in the Eastern bloc, and then with China in the 1960s. Albania was somewhat peculiar because it broke with each of these patrons. So, as a site of socialist internationalism it is interesting, because, on the one hand, it had all the propaganda and the officially sanctioned contacts that socialist states were supposed to have. On the other hand, it broke with these sponsors. So it was a kind of internationalism that was constantly breaking down. And I think that’s what makes it particularly interesting for me—to see not only the contacts and the state-enforced exchange and the communication, but also what happens when a country decides to break politically from its sponsors.

JR: So you describe the ‘socialist world’ as an international construction. What is this ‘socialist world’ in your work?

EM: Originally, it was supposed to constitute the whole world. Of course, what ended up happening is the story that we know: Stalin, socialism in one country, pushback against the idea that the whole world would be swept by revolution. And, of course, the reality of the Cold War. So the socialist world is bigger than the Soviet Union, although the Soviet Union is central to it. And increasingly in the 1950s it involves a powerful and assertive China, which becomes a major player. And of course it’s about hopes and aspirations of states in the Third World, in the so-called decolonized world, in the late 1950s and the 1960s. So in many ways, it’s a world of aspirations. It’s a political reality, sure, it’s something that exists. But the actual reality on the ground doesn’t always reflect the bigger aspirations. And the aspirations don’t quite go away either until 1989.

JR: Thinking about the ground-level perspective, you do use this notion of a periphery. How useful has that been?

EM: It’s been an interesting concept and in some ways an inevitable concept when you work on a place like Albania, because the country was on the edge of empires, or, if you prefer, imperial configurations. It served as the periphery of Italy’s fascist imperial project in the 1930s. It was the periphery (a satellite) to Tito’s Yugoslavia, and it was a periphery, detached territorially, within the Eastern Bloc. Then, of course, it engaged with China, but increasingly isolated itself by the 1970s, in many ways parallel to what North Korea was doing— hanging on to a kind of autarky that became strict by the 1980s. So the concept of the periphery has been useful to understand some of the governing mentality and the choices, but in some ways the periphery sometimes turns into a kind of a center too. At some point, the Albanian Stalinist dictatorship sees itself as a kind of center, a sort of Marxist Mecca for revolutionaries around the world in the 70s and 80s.

JR: To what extent did Albanians think of themselves as Europeans?

EM: There was very much the sense that Albania belonged to Europe. But of course there were also considerations among the political elites that Albania’s survival was not necessarily guaranteed. There was a real sense that you had to make certain political calculations. This was a small, weak country that had not been able to have a viable independent state in the past. So, yes, elites thought of themselves as Europeans but ideology should also be taken seriously. A lot of these elites trained in 1940s and in the 1950s also thought of themselves as being part of this expansive Communist world stretching east. And you could have both; these identifications didn’t necessarily contradict.  This becomes clear when you look at the students who studied in places like Moscow or the capitals of the Eastern bloc in the 1950s.

JR: And the Communist world itself was of course partly European.

EM: Absolutely. And I think the shift of the emphasis away from the European theater, in recent accounts of the Cold War, has been worthwhile, but we should not forget that Europe was very much the central theater of the Cold War. Of the confrontation that was the Cold War. And that’s why that confrontation was also so intensely felt in places like Albania, or in Greece in earlier years. And these European peripheries remain fundamental to understanding the Cold War.

JR: In your work you also think a lot about experts. These are agents in this history of reconstruction and the postwar transnational networks. What are some of your findings?

EM: I’ve been interested in this question of how ideas travel. Not only across national borders, but also different kinds of borders: ideological borders, political borders, geopolitical lines, regions—places like the Mediterranean, for example. With ideas I mean innovations but also sets of practices and ways of doing things—norms and modes of behavior. So looking at experts has been part of this effort to study how these ideas about socialism, about what socialism is, travel. And Albania is a country in which they try to build a workers’ state in a state with no workers. So how do you do that? How do you bring these norms and modes of behavior from the outside? In my work, I try to do two things: First, I try to look at the Soviet angle of the story, which is very important. Traditionally, the history of the Sovietization of Eastern Europe has emphasized Soviet domination. Except that in the Albanian example, the locals very much demand access to the Soviet resources. In many ways, they understand that that is a formula for modernity, and they want it. It’s a specific formula for modernity. And they want access to it. In addition, of course, to the security guarantee, which is crucial. And the other angle is not to ignore the rest of the Eastern Europeans that are also present in Albania. So it’s not just the Soviets coming in. There are also Poles, East Germans, Czechs, and Hungarians. So I try to understand how these experts interacted and how some of these interactions often resulted in conflict. Some of this transnationalism produces misunderstandings. I try to historicize these encounters and analyze the kinds of power dynamics they generate.

JR: I appreciate this very much, but you are going very much against the historiographical grain, trying to integrate the history of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. These are often treated in very different ways. I think this is one of the really important points here.

EM: They have been treated separately in much of recent literature. There are reasons for it: professional, linguistic, issues of funding, and so on. And of course much of it has nothing to do with the historical record itself. But you cannot really divorce the story of the Eastern bloc from the Soviet Union in the ‘50s, and specifically with an example like Albania. I think there has been a recent push among some historians of the Soviet Union to recognize this wider perspective.

JR: And you’re using a very different angle; going to a different location to look at that story.

EM: Right. That has been intentional, to look at the Communist world from the outside as well. So for me it was important to pick a case study where you could see the Communist world operating closely — the encounters, the dynamics, the cooperation, which didn’t always result in the kinds of outcomes that they wanted to achieve — but also to be able to look at it from the outside (when Albania breaks from the Soviet Union).  What you see, and what I try to show in the book, is that a lot of the socialist exchange succeeded not because of the intentions, or because of the elites, and what the officials tried to do, but sometimes despite of them. Despite the politics and diplomacy, certain effects and practices linger.

JR: What kind of experts have you looked at?

EM: I have mostly looked at planning experts, including engineers (a reflection of the fact that Albania was heavily investing in industrialization and thus interested in developing engineering and bringing in a lot of technical personnel). So the idea was to build the factories to create the workers. It’s been planners, engineers, and architects. And then I have looked at students—the experts-in-training. So the young people who were sent to the universities abroad to quickly develop the skills and become specialists in their respective fields.

JR: Does the nature of the expertise make a difference to how these networks unfold? Are engineers different from doctors, different from other kinds of experts?

EM: That’s an interesting question. There seems to have been differences. Sometimes the records reflect the particular understandings that socialist officials had—about what constituted valuable professional expertise, for example. Expertise in certain fields guaranteed a certain lifestyle; it came with certain protections. Or, precisely because it was so important, it could also be very risky. If a building ended up being leaky, or a factory was not finished on the precise day it was supposed to be finished. Some of these projects (factories, power plants, and so on) were not just infrastructural—these were ideological showpieces. So they were politically significant. Communist Albania was a country in which some of these planners and engineers and economists paid a steep price.

JR: Let’s step back a little bit. Labels have become increasingly important in our work. What do you think of yourself as doing? Transnational history? International history? Albanian history? European history? What do these labels mean to you?

EM: Probably it’s a combination of some of those things. I have been very much influenced by certain key historians of the Soviet Union. I have been influenced by historians of Europe. I’ve been influenced by historians of technology. I’ve been certainly influenced by authors who have written about the so-called “transnational turn.” I think the transnational is an angle—it offers a certain perspective, depending on what the question is. And so I think it can be a valuable angle. In terms of how I look at myself, I would say that Europe has been and continues to be the site where I am interested in pursuing work. Not to be seen in isolation from the wider world; to be contextualized; to be internationalized, and always addressed in this broader global perspective. But certainly: the meaning of Europe, its definition, the many kinds of  Europe that have existed—that’s what fascinates me.

JR: These questions are very important for our project as well: to think about Europe as a site of these kinds of exchanges. Thank you very much and we hope you come back soon.

2015 Visiting Fellows

We are pleased to announce our 2015 Visiting Fellows. This summer we will host three visiting fellows:

Jessica Pearson-Patel is a historian of France, the French empire, international organisations, public health and development. During her residence at Birkbeck, Jessica will work on a book manuscript, The Colonial Politics of Global Public Health: France and the United Nations in Postwar Africa. She will conduct more research on the Commission for Technical Cooperation in Africa South of the Sahara, a joint Franco-British organisation active in developing public health in the French and British African colonies after the Second World War.

Brigid O’Keeffe is a specialist in late imperial Russian and Soviet history, with interests in internationalism, ethnicity, citizenship and everyday Soviet life. Brigid is the author of New Soviet Gypsies: Nationality, Performance and Selfhood in the Early Soviet Union (University of Toronto Press, 2013). She is currently working on a new book, Speaking Transnationally: Esperanto, Citizen Diplomacy and Internationalism in Russia, 1887-1939.

Friederike Kind-Kovacs is a historian of childhood, central, eastern and southern Europe, and the author of Written Here, Published There: How Underground Literature Crossed the Iron Curtain (Central European University Press, 2014). During her fellowship she will be conducting research for her second book, The Embattled Child: Child Welfare in Interwar Hungary between International Philanthropy and National Propaganda, 1918-1944, in which she explores the effects of the First World War and the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire on children in central Europe, with a special focus on Hungary.

The Reluctant Internationalists project is also delighted to host Francesca Piana’s extended stay at Birkbeck from May 2015 to November 2016. Francesca is a postdoctoral fellow of the Swiss National Science Foundation, and currently working on two projects: a book manuscript on the history of international initiatives for prisoners of war and refugees after the First World War, and a project entitled Women and Humanitarian Work: Three Parallel Lives, ca.1880s-1950.

You can read more about them on our website under ‘people’.

We look forward to welcoming the fellows to London, and to spending a productive summer of discussions and collaborations with them. Our new round of visiting fellowship applications will open in the autumn.

Visiting Research Fellowship – Call for Applications

The Reluctant Internationalists project is now accepting applications for its 2015 summer research fellowship.

The Reluctant Internationalists is a four year Wellcome Trust-funded project, run by Dr Jessica Reinisch at Birkbeck College, University of London, with a team of four full-time researchers. Each summer term we invite a Visiting Research Fellow to join the project team.

Fellowships are open to academic researchers working on any aspect of the history of internationalism or international organisations in the twentieth century. The Fellow will be entitled to £1,300 per month for a maximum of three months. The Fellow will be expected to collaborate with the Reluctant Internationalists team by taking part in our reading group and project meetings, and by helping us to organise a seminar, lecture or other public or outreach event. The Fellow will be a member of the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology for the duration of their stay, and will have access to Birkbeck’s and the University of London’s facilities, including use of a shared office for visiting fellows in Birkbeck’s Russell Square site. Successful applicants can take up their posts any time between April and July 2015.

Applications consisting of a CV, a one page research overview, a suggested event and the preferred period of residence, should be sent to by 1 December 2014.

For further details about the project and previous visiting fellows, please see, or contact

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