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Europe, a Continent of Refugees

Friday 18 September 2015

By SIMON WINDER

SEPT. 14, 2015

LONDON — At the heart of Europe’s confused response to the refugee crisis is a feeling, largely unexpressed but still quite palpable, that these desperate, robbed, half-starving Syrians are in some way a contaminant, that to allow them in will result in Europe’s getting something horrible and staining on its fingers — but also that somehow Europe is “full.”

This is not just knee-jerk racism. It is very important to Europeans to see themselves as living in a lucky citadel of rationality, a managerial environment based around consumer choice. Nationalism also continues to play a role; each European state sees itself as organic and complete. The world outside consists of inauthentic migrant states (the United States), dictatorships and poverty.

This pleased-with-itself ideology has been central to Europe’s leaders and their view of the world. But it is also of a relatively new vintage, and speaks of a desperate wish not to return to the bloody tumult that long defined European society.

There is hardly a corner of Europe that has not been torn to pieces by massacres, the flights of whole populations and violent resettlements, all fueled by ideologies every bit as violent and nihilistic as those of the Islamic State. Europeans love to imagine that ferocity and unreason are somehow, like Syria, “far away” — and yet if ever there was a part of the world that should feel a deep-rooted empathy for the plight of ordinary Syrians, it ought to be Europe.

Just consider the ground covered by today’s refugees, as they travel from Greece to Germany. In the last 100 years Greece itself and the rest of the southern Balkans have undergone civil war, military regimes and catastrophic change, and been subjected to such brutality that the landscape would be almost unrecognizable to a traveler trudging northward a little more than a century ago.

This was a world that was, in many areas, heavily and deeply Islamic. But in a series of devastating wars before, during and after World War I, this all changed. Every group suffered, but from Greece alone in the early 1920s some half a million surviving Muslims were expelled eastward. Their disappearance was accompanied by the ruthless destruction of almost every trace of Islamic architecture.

Only Albania, through a quirk of international statesmanship, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, which had at a key point been under the rule of the Hapsburg Empire, kept their Muslim populations more or less intact. Even into the 1980s the Communist authorities in Bulgaria were expelling their remaining Muslims (known as Pomaks).

As today’s refugees head into Serbia, they find themselves in a country once eviscerated by two world wars. Following the invasion of Serbia by the Hapsburg armies in 1914, it is reckoned that at least half of all Serbian men died, either in combat or through starvation or terror reprisals. For years much of the country was almost empty. Next door, Bosnia-Herzegovina became another disaster area in the 1990s, a wilderness of camps, ethnic cleansing and ideological terror.

In Hungary, today’s refugees enter a country itself entirely shaped and created by refugees. The grim scenes at the Keleti train station in Budapest could not have happened at a more appropriate place. So many tragedies from Hungarian history have been played out in that building.

In both world wars, train after train of doomed soldiers left to cheers, flowers and military bands. Following Hungary’s defeat in 1918 and the implosion of the Hapsburg Empire, of which it had been a vital part, Keleti station filled up with thousands of Hungarian refugees fleeing ethnic cleansing by vengeful Serbian and Romanian troops. And they stayed: Despite the collapse of Central Europe’s economy after 1918, the permanent population of Budapest grew substantially because there were so many terrified incomers.

And once the refugees make it to Austria and Germany, they are of course in countries which once conjured up the most ferocious, demonic ideologies of all, with the Holocaust towering over everything. These countries should be absolutely sympathetic to the refugees’ plight. Indeed, the emotional and moral clarity with which Angela Merkel has made her decisions stems from this and is a striking contrast to the floundering of other European leaders. While the Germans plan to take some 800,000 refugees, British prime minister David Cameron (who referred to the desperate figures in Calais as a “swarm”) has now agreed to take the almost surreally paltry and arbitrary number of 20,000 Syrians during the course of five years.

In 1945 there were some 20 million European refugees milling around, fleeing persecution, the destruction of their homes or justice. The principal story of the latter half of that decade is how Europe as a whole found homes for all those people (sometimes tragically, as with those shunted back east into the clutches of the Soviet Union).

Postwar Europe was shaped by waves of migration on a scale vastly greater than in the current crisis. In 1947 all German speakers were expelled from Czechoslovakia, and in a few weeks well over a million arrived in the American zone of occupied Germany alone. Despite entering a country mostly reduced to rubble and with a barely ticking economy, they were settled across southern Germany.

In just a few weeks in 1962, some three-quarters of a million Europeans arrived in France following Algerian independence and were settled. Immigration from outside Europe is common, too — consider the millions of Britons of South Asian descent who moved in the 1960s and ’70s, or the millions of German Turks.

Mass movements of people lie at the heart of Europe, whether voluntary or involuntary. Communities adapt, terrible scars partly reheal, cities grow, children are born, new skills are found. Even setting aside the enormous complicating factor of the West’s role in countries such as Libya, Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, the answer to the current crisis is obvious.

Simon Winder is the author of “Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe.”

A version of this op-ed appears in print on September 15, 2015, in The International New York Times.

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