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Lead book review

Migration in Europe is the ripple effect of the second world war

Ever since 1945, the Continent has been shaped by waves of traumatised people crossing arbitrary borders

17 August 2019

9:00 AM

17 August 2019

9:00 AM

The Unsettling of Europe: The Great Migration, 1945 to the Present Peter Gatrell

Allen Lane, pp.548, £30

Two words may pique the reader’s interest on the cover of this timely, panoramic history of Europe by the distinguished writer on human migration Peter Gatrell: ‘unsettling’ and ‘1945’. Why unsettling, and why choose the end of the second world war as a turning point? By the close of dramatic Part I (‘Violent Peacetime, Cold War Rivalry, Rebuilding Europe 1945–1956’), we have gained detailed insight into just how demographically, economically, politically and psychologically shattered — and geographically unsettled — Europeans were in the decade after 1945. The continent was on the move — from the displaced within the USSR and the new Soviet empire, to the two million German civilian expellees from eastern Europe, to the Polish, Italian, Ukrainian and other displaced persons (DPs) from redrawn nation states, especially in central and eastern Europe, which sought to homogenise their ethnic make-up. That project had already begun with the extermination of two entire European cultures — the Jews and the Roma.

For all the ‘ruin in the human soul’ the displacement of survivors caused, in the words of one American author-witness, ethnic homogenisation failed as a measure against future trouble. Our collective attention span is short, and national memory selective. In 21st-century Europe, when politicians equate ‘migration’ with ‘crisis’, Gatrell’s calmly humanist history fills a large memory hole. These compelling opening narratives reveal how the countries of Europe as we know them today were shaped by waves of traumatised people crossing arbitrary new borders, and why ‘opportunity migration was central to the history of post-war Europe’. The extent of that migration dwarfs anything seen since. Here is a witness account by the Canadian historian Modris Eksteins, whose refugee Latvian family crossed Europe:

Beyond the corpses, beneath the rubble, there was life, more intense than ever, a human anthill, mad with commotion. People going, coming, pushing, selling, sighing… Scurrying to survive. Never had so many people been on the move at once. Prisoners of war, slave labourers, concentration camp survivors, ex-soldiers, Germans expelled from eastern Europe, and refugees who had fled the Russian advance… A frenzy.

The International Refugee Organisation, formed in 1946, dealt in the redistribution of DPs, but this was a tortured process (one British diplomat ominously wished for the ‘ultimate disposal’ of these millions of people). Many had no desire to return to their country of origin because it had fallen under Soviet rule. This resulted in vast refugee camps across Europe, where ‘remnants of various decimated nationalities’ waited for their papers to be processed. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it.

This ‘combination of post-war retaliation and demographic engineering’ which transformed the lives of millions for better or worse, cemented our continent’s dark legacy of ethnic cleansing, whose ghosts return to haunt us — as the people of  former Yugoslavia know. A later chapter is dedicated to this second war on European soil since 1945 (the first was the Greek Civil War, 1946–1949, also covered): the carving up of Yugoslavia along ethnic lines and its catastrophic human fallout. By 1995 every second Bosnian was a refugee, and while Germany and Sweden were generous hosts to the 1.5 million displaced, France and Britain were not.

This was repeated with Kosovo and Syria. In a replay of the second world war, we learn that the price of carving an ethno-nationalist state out of the multi-ethnic tapestry that was Europe’s human make-up for millennia is mass murder and the lifelong odysseys of survivors — which Gatrell glosses as ‘the hidden injuries of displacement’. (He has a tendency to underplay complex emotional experiences and to make sweeping statements). But he takes pains to cover equally all of Europe, its former colonies, the Far East and the Soviet world.

Structurally, this is an elegant work. In the 1956–1973 period we see the conflicted movements resulting from decolonisation and rapid economic growth, including reversed migration — when the servants and children of empire ‘came home’. But as in post-war instances of ‘repatriation’, both whites and returnees of colour were received coldly by the natives. This was true of the Algerian French, the Dutch from the West Indies, the Belgians from the Congo, the Portuguese from Angola and Mozambique (800,000), and of course, British repatriates from Kenya and the Indian-Pakistan Partition (45,000). Empire does not forgive, and ‘shared ethnicity might offer no protection against being regarded as “foreign’’ ’.


The significant economic and cultural presence of the 14 million Italian, Turkish, Greek and Yugoslav migrants to West Germany is well captured. Britain’s ‘Windrush generation’ from the West Indies, though culturally very significant, is revealed as just one migration thread of many: Italians made up a quarter of migrant workers in Britain in 1961; there were a million South Asians by 1981; and the Irish presence goes back many generations. The author Brian Keaney recalls his parents’ feelings, after 30 years of living here: ‘As far as they were concerned, they weren’t living in England at all, just visiting.’ Gatrell outlines both the immense contribution of these incomers to the building of post-war Britain and the beginning of the anti-immigrant rhetoric, embodied by Enoch Powell’s 1968 ‘rivers of blood’ speech.

The section ‘European Odysseys 1973–1989’ begins with the oil recession following the 1973 Arab-Israeli War and draws parallels with the Great Depression of the 1930s. Europe began to draw up its bridges, even as Vietnamese refugees from the war sought asylum (Britain took 20,000, who ‘met with a mixed response’). I was intrigued by the history of mass migration from southern Europe (Spain, Portugal, Greece, Cyprus) where poverty and fascist dictatorships pushed millions to seek better lives in western Europe. During the Salazar regime, 1.5 million Portuguese left their country.

A moving scene is quoted from a John Berger novel, describing how migrants crossed the border with France by tearing a photograph in two, keeping one half and giving the other to the smuggler, who would visit their family to confirm they had made it. This was the beginning of ‘España vacía’, or the sad phenomenon of the empty south European village — most migrants were from rural areas. This bleeding of the countryside was mirrored beyond the Iron Curtain, where nationalisation and industrialisation forced villagers into urban ghettoes.

The last two sections, from the end of the Cold War to the recession (1989–2008) and up to the present day, give deep context to our current, confused reality. Here Gatrell offers a treasure trove of lesser known communities and little reported events: the epic Albanian-Italian odyssey of migration in the 1990s; the 10,000 expelled Roma of Kosovo; the fate of the ‘returning’ Pontic Greeks from Russia, who are neither Greek nor Russian but orphans of an elapsed Soviet world; the Crimean Tatars, once savagely uprooted by Stalin, who find there is no place for them in Russianised Crimea; the expulsion of 360,000 ethnic Turks of Bulgaria by the dying regime of Zhivkov; the signing of the 1997 Treaty of Amsterdam, which a lawyer acerbically described as ‘a sort of nightmare resurrection of the Holy Roman Empire’; and stories of East Europeans seeking better lives when the EU accepted new member states in the Noughties.

Here is our ‘barricaded continent’, in the words of the Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev, which began in the 1990s, after the collapse of communism. While western Europe had a high demand for cheap labour, readily provided by the impoverished people of the newly opened ex-Soviet East, there was also fear of over-saturation. War in Rwanda, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa coincided with the influx of Bosnian and Kosovan refugees, and the fear of host governments grew. Gatrell notes:

As the archipelago of camps and detention centres spread across the continent and farther afield, the founding fathers of closer European integration — many of them having had direct experience of Nazi persecution before and during the second world war — would surely have turned in their graves at what their successors had done in the name of Europe.

Fast-forward to our Europe of parallel realities. In his chapter ‘Privileged Lives, Precarious Lives’, Gatrell sketches a Europe of castes where wealthy, highly mobile ‘Eurostar’ migrants (including the 1.2 million Britons in EU countries) rarely cross the paths of  migrants from the second-class nationalities of non-EU Europe and the global South — cleaners, fruit-pickers and street sellers.

Through case studies, first-hand accounts, statistics and sources in film and literature,  Gatrell makes it clear that the misnamed ‘migrant crisis’ (he stresses that the crisis and the tragedy belong to the refugees of war), was the crest of a wave whose origins lie in an obscene, unacknowledged inequality between and within countries and continents. There is a cognitive dissonance among the privileged EU nations who have benefited from migrants, economically and culturally, but are slow to write this into their national narratives. His last reflections are on how and why migration should finally be placed at the heart of the European story.  One of the conclusions he draws is that nation states are instrumental in creating and perpetuating migration crises, as we have seen in all instances of civil war.

Gatrell is good at pinpointing recurrent migratory patterns across time and geography. Just as Bosnia of all places has become the recipient of Middle Eastern refugees following the Balkan land route, so Italy, Spain, and Greece are unwilling hosts to maritime refugees from the global South, having themselves produced vast numbers of migrants during their own difficult decades.

A delight of the book is Gatrell’s frequent use of what Svetlana Alexievich calls ‘the lone human voice’ to show how ‘contingency and personal connections’ are behind each ‘ordinary or extraordinary’ story of migration. The most affecting passages are from writers such as Berger, Chatwin and Tahar Ben Jelloun, from witness accounts and interviewees. I made a list of films to track down: An Impression of Exile (1965), Rocco and His Brothers (1960), Lamerica (1994), La traversée (2006), Fire at Sea (2016) and On the Bride’s Side (2014).

Surprisingly, I was left feeling optimistic — by Gatrell’s informed vision of an unstoppably interconnected world, unsettled, not by migration but by inequality, yet full of possibilities, provided we have the courage to own our history. It is a history of millions of people on the move, people like us loaded with hopes, crossing borders built at great expense by backward-gazing demagogues, whose lies about a homogeneous arcadia (whose blooded price we have already paid) should not become our collective nightmare again. Or, as the great Swiss writer Max Frisch put it: it is not migrants that need to assimilate, it is we who need to ‘assimilate reality’. And the reality is that the world is, as ever, on the move.


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