No Place for Them

The Unwanted: European Refugees in the Twentieth Century

by Michael R. Marrus
Oxford University Press, 414 pp., $24.95

A few months ago I was in Budapest watching the proceedings of the European Cultural Forum. Ostensibly, this six-week meeting in the framework of the “Helsinki process,” the European Security Conference and its aftermaths, was debating the most elevated of themes: the creation and dissemination of culture in divided Europe, and cultural cooperation throughout the Continent.

Every so often, however, the succession of speakers prating on about the supreme values of European civilization was interrupted. The Turks would challenge the credentials of the Bulgarians and refer to the suppression of the “Turkish minority” in Bulgaria. The Bulgarians would then retort with a volley of procedural missiles and—while denying the existence of any such minority—suggest that the Turks were genocidal barbarians. The Greek Cypriots inevitably joined in, demanding that the Turks be arraigned for the cultural devastation in the part of the island they occupy. Soon the mainland Greeks would be on their feet as well.

It usually took an hour or so to damp down these eruptions and return the forum to its agenda. While the diversion lasted, there was time to reflect on the contrast between European cultural pretensions and the underlying reality of frantic national hatreds which these interruptions revealed. I do not, personally, use the phrase “European civilization.” It rests on the notion of a necessary connection between Beethoven and benevolence, Mantegna and mercy, which became untenable after Auschwitz. Europe is a vigorous, barbaric place, in which beauty and atrocity, the extremes of subtlety and of cruelty, continue to exist.

Professor Marrus’s book about European refugees made good reading after Budapest. Looking around the conference center, one could compile another volume about refugee torrents that would have flooded the Continent during the last decades and might do so in the future, if parts of Europe were not under tight imperial military occupation. We like to think that the gigantic population transfers (that euphemism) in the first postwar years solved many “problems.” Compared to them, flights like those of the Hungarians in 1956, the Czechs and Slovaks in 1968, and the Poles in 1980 and 1981, are small. But there remain East Germans who would like to move west, Turks who would like to leave Bulgaria, Cypriots who long to get rid of each other, Greeks yearning to drive Turks out of the Aegean, Hungarians oppressed in Slovakia and Transylvania, Romanians whom irredentist Hungarians would love to expel from their lost provinces. There remain Germans in Poland. Above all, there remain measureless masses of people in the Soviet Union—Jews, Germans, Poles, to begin with—who would take to the roads and the trains if they led to a foreign destination.

The word “refugee,” as Professor Marrus notes, was at first applied only to the French Protestant fugitives from the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. A century later, the Encyclopaedia Britannica extended the definition a little to “all such as leave their country in times of distress” and referred to “American refugees” following the independence of…

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