Jane Kramer is right to say that “Europe plays with identity.” She is talking about the sense of nationality and the claim to belong to a community, notions which certainly suffer “elegant manipulations.” But some of these identity games are merciful, designed to save pride. It has for instance always been held shameful to be obliged to emigrate, even when irresistible forces like starvation, merciless landlordism, the devastations of war or racial persecution drive a family to pack and leave its land, its hovel, the graves of its ancestors. The pain with which the Scottish Highlanders, the Jews of the Russian Empire, the landless Slovaks, or the Irish looked back from the rail of the ships as they raised anchor wasn’t only the pain of homesickness or the fear of what a new land might do to their children. For many this was defeat, even a sort of treachery. And in order to cover this shame, Europe invented a game called “America.”
As if the emigrants had died, it was agreed among those who remained that they had gone to a better place. They would improve themselves. It was easy enough to imagine the hardships and sufferings which awaited most of them, in the first generation, but it was not to be thought of. Honor was to be saved. Letters, in any case, soon became infrequent and, when they did arrive, usually put a brave face on things. Correspondingly, Europeans contrived to take as little notice, as possible of the great internal emigrant flows which began to change the demography of the continent in the nineteenth century. The Irish poured into England and Scotland, digging the infrastructure which the industrial revolution required. The Poles came west to work the coal and iron of the Ruhr, laying the foundations of the imperial world-power which was to destroy their own homeland two generations later. Italian and Spanish seasonal workers invaded southern France, as the northern capitals began to demand permanent supplies of green vegetables and Mediterranean flowers.
The work of these millions was needed; their identity was not. They were paying with their labor for the sin of having left their own lands—doubtless ploughed to sterility through their own improvidence—and for the impertinence of speaking queer tongues and worshipping strange gods. In medieval Europe, the irruption of foreigners in large numbers had usually meant the arrival of an invading army or—as with the Scots in Poland—of a tribe of astute traders. The old hostility survived even when the incomers were in a socially weaker position than their hosts.
Today, at last, movements of vast populations have forced themselves upon European attention. Throughout the continent, some twenty million people were uprooted by war and expelled from their homes between about 1943 and 1947. The West Indians, followed by Asians from the Indian subcontinent and East Africa, came to postwar Britain. Over a million Europeans fled from Algeria to France after 1962. And, above all, the industrial boom years in northwestern Europe after…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.