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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 the thirteen Colonies. But the phenomenon was already familiar enough. Marrus begins with the expulsion of the Jews from the Iberian peninsula at the end of the fifteenth century, and continues with the Moriscos, with Protestants and Catholics displaced in the religious wars, with Serbs escaping from the Turks, with the fugitives from the zones of the Thirty Years’ War. Between 1492 (the Spanish expulsions) and 1700, it is reckoned that about a million Europeans became refugees. The following century was relatively quiet.

The title of Marrus’s book is The Unwanted. The unwantedness of refugees is “the peculiar character of the refugees in the twentieth century,” for in the past, and to some extent even in the last century, refugees were often regarded as desirable and made welcome. One king’s rejects were another king’s windfall. Flemish and Huguenot refugees brought textile technology to many countries. They brought agricultural skills to the first Colonies, military and industrial skills (as in the case of the Irish and the Scots) to Prussia, Poland, and Russia. At the dawn of the modern era, the Polish commonwealth built the nucleus of a commercial middle class out of Jewish fugitives and emigrants from Western Europe, especially the Rhineland.

The nineteenth century produced many relatively small refugee flows, mostly from waves of revolution and insurrection. Here the term “refugee” must be used with caution. These were seldom helpless masses of poor people, moving as whole families or communities. The Polish movement into France after the collapse of the 1830 November rising was composed largely of men of education and high status (the common soldiers of the insurrection stayed behind, to face the consequences). Much the same was true of those who left czarist Russia or Germany after 1848 for Britain, France, or Switzerland. Alexander Herzen, Heinrich Heine, Georg Büchner, Lajos Kossuth are all better described as “exiles.” They were treated with a good nature now inconceivable. To take up residence in Britain, a fugitive had only to step out of a boat onto a beach, showing no papers, and make his way inland. Since there was no system of registration, nobody knew officially if he was in Britain or not, and nobody cared.

In 1849, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies protested to Britain that a ship in London docks was being loaded with guns by Sicilian émigrés preparing for a revolutionary invasion. Palmerston, amazed by this note, replied that any investigation of what private people did with their own property would be quite alien to government policy and public opinion. In France, where up to twenty thousand exiles had been made welcome by 1848, government subsidies were provided to destitute exiles and graduated according to rank in their country of origin.

During the last decades of the century, however, the dimensions of flight began to change. The Austro-Prussian and Franco-Prussian wars, mobilizing men on an unprecedented scale, put masses of ordinary people on the roads in the battle zones. The Poles who escaped from the failure of the January rising in 1863 and from Prussian colonial policy, and the Russians fleeing from the czar, were more numerous, less well born, and often far more radical than their predecessors. Germans settled in Russia and Volhynia began to trek west. War in the Balkans displaced many thousands of peasants. And the Jewish emigration from Eastern Europe began.

Between about 1880 and 1914, according to an estimate which Professor Marrus accepts, some 2.5 million Jews left their homes and moved west. Some came from the Hapsburg empire, mostly Galicia and Bukovina, some from Hungary and Romania, but the great majority came from the western borderlands of the Russian empire.

The significant date here is 1881, when the hardening czarist policy toward the Jews turned to open violence. From then on, the outflow steadily mounted, rising from an emigration of twenty thousand a year to America in the 1880s to a peak of eighty-two thousand on average per year between 1906 and 1910. Were they “driven out”? Professor Marrus is cautious about this. He thinks it wrong to separate the Jewish emigration from the enormous general emigration of the Eastern European peasantry that was taking place at the same time. “Although persecution played its role in the Jewish exodus, there was certainly no concerted effort to force the Jews from Russia.” The steep decline of the economy played a large part, a process made worse but not simply created by erratic czarist discriminations. The emigration of Jews from Galicia in these years was almost entirely a function of “pauperization.” Marrus points out that the total Jewish population in the Russian empire did not decline, as a result of the astronomical rate of natural increase—itself an important cause of the economic catastrophe. He makes another interesting and controversial stab at received ideas by arguing that the rate of Jewish return to Russia was actually quite high, possibly as high as one emigrant in five in the last two decades of the nineteenth century.

Were these people “refugees” or economic migrants? The Combination of pogrom and poverty is too intimate to unscramble. Both factors were also present in Romania, where almost a third of the Jewish population left for America. The march of the “fusgeyers,” who walked in a blaze of publicity from Romania to Hamburg on their way to America, brought Romanian anti-Semitism to Western attention and helped to solidify the impression of a people leaving its home against its will.

But the Jewish emigration also began to attach a disagreeable, xenophobic association to the concept of a refugee. The Jews from the East seemed very alien to the Christian West. Their misery and numbers seemed unmanageable, probably harbingers of epidemics. The Jewish communities of the West worked hard to assist the new arrivals and transients, but there was a similar trace of reserve in their attitudes. They were anxious to help the Ostjuden on their way; rather less anxious to assist them to settle on the spot. Jewish centers in Budapest and Antwerp persuaded many immigrants to go home again. In Britain, the Jewish Board of Guardians assisted about fifty thousand Jews to return to Russia between 1880 and 1914. Governments, too, began to revise their old liberality to incomers. The British passed the 1905 Aliens Act which, though not zealously applied, limited immigration and by creating the status of “political asylum,” tried to distinguish those indistinguishable political or economic motives for migration. The first motive alone could qualify its possessor for the formal definition of refugee. Those driven by the second motive were merely immigrants.

All this, for Professor Marrus, forms only a prologue to his main theme. The real tragedy of the unwanted refugee, in its pandemic and horrible twentieth-century morphism, began with the Balkan Wars of 1912–1913. Through much of the previous hundred years, Moslems had been moving southward and Christians northward in the course of what Lord Curzon sonorously termed “the unmixing of peoples.” The Balkan Wars now precipitated mass refugee movements of hundreds of thousands of civilians, tipped out of their homes into chaos and starvation. Although the rest of Europe was not affected directly by these refugees, the conflict carried directly on into the First World War as it afflicted the Balkans. Between 1914 and 1918, over a third of the Serbian people were uprooted from their homes.

The displacement of peoples caused by the First World War had no parallel since the barbarian invasions. As late as 1926, the total of refugees in Europe was set at 9.5 million. Most of them came from Eastern and Southeastern Europe. In wartime Russia, even before the revolution, it was estimated that some five million human beings were on the roads. Most of the war in the East was fought over the Polish–Russian “borderlands” where the main Jewish settlement lay, and Jews were subjected to indiscriminate pillaging, violence, and deportation. The collapse of the czardom led to the worst of all pogrom outbreaks, especially in the Ukraine, between 1917 and 1921. Perhaps thirty thousand Jews died, and half a million were rendered homeless.

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