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.

The war ended with the collapse of four empires: German, Austrian, Russian, and Turkish. In conditions of civil war, influenza epidemics, and the violent establishment of successor states, populations melted and flowed across the continent. Germans crowded back from lost territories in East and West. The Poles resettled 1.4 million people in the eastern lands of their new state, but thousands froze to death in the refugee trains arriving from the depths of Russia. Jews poured out of the Ukraine into Romania; Hungarians fled from Transylvania and Slovakia into the Danube plains. And the defeated of the Russian civil war, whole armies with their destitute families, fled or were shipped west to temporary refuge in Constantinople and beyond. By 1924, well over a million Russians had become refugees abroad, most in Germany or France and no fewer than sixty thousand in Shanghai.

It was now that the first efforts to assist refugees on an international, official level were undertaken. The Versailles settlements and treaties had tried to reorganize Europe on the principle of nationality, and they contained the provision that those who lived in the affected areas were entitled to choose their own national allegiance. If, say, a Pole living in Germany wished to become Polish, or vice versa, he had a year in which to make up his mind and was allowed to retain his property. Marrus puts it this way:

Against the primitive claims of raison d’état…—the contention that governments had the right to dispose of entire populations for political purposes—the peacemakers generally accommodated the claims of individuals, who could define their own national allegiance and choose where they wanted to live.

In addition, the Allied Powers forced upon a number of unwilling governments, including those of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Yugoslavia, and Romania, explicit commitments to protect the rights of national minorities within their frontiers. It was “an experimental leap into internationalism.” And the fact that these provisions eventually proved ineffective, being—as Marrus comments—no stronger than the security settlement upon which they rested, should not obscure the nobility of their conception. The fact that European regimes accepted and even for a time applied rules that put the individual above the state was an utterly extraordinary event.

To the chaos in Europe itself were added the population movements in the Caucasus, as new nation-states rose and fell, and above all the genocidal tragedy of the Armenians. Over a million, comprising almost two thirds of the Ottoman Armenians, had been slaughtered by the Turks in 1915 and 1916. Now the efforts of survivors to found an independent state in the Caucasus foundered in war and starvation. Nobody gave them effective aid, and a hemorrhage of Armenian refugees poured out across an indifferent world.

Now there came onto the scene a most remarkable man. Fridtjof Nansen was a rare figure: a hero of the popular press who was as brave, decent, and vigorous as his world reputation. During the 1890s he had become world famous as an arctic explorer. In 1919, at fifty-eight, the great Norwegian who had become one of the fathers of his country’s independence was invited to try his talents at the refugee problem. His first task was to organize the repatriation of prisoners of war. “Nansen Help,” based in Berlin, was sponsored by the League of Nations but drew its funds from private sources, and within two years had arranged the exchange of 427,000 prisoners. In 1920, he went on to set up Russian famine relief; millions in Russia and especially in the Ukraine owed their lives to him and to his brilliant underling Vidkun Quisling (the same man who twenty years later was to become the international symbol of collaboration with Nazi occupation regimes).

Then Nansen set about the resettlement of the Russian refugees abroad, rousing suspicions, especially in Britain, that he was trying to make life easier for the Bolshevik government. (Interestingly, Herbert Hoover took the opposite view. As head of the American Relief Administration in 1919, he pressed for humanitarian aid to Bolshevik Russia—amounting eventually to about a billion dollars—on the grounds that communism would collapse when it was deprived of the nourishment of poverty.)

One of the most lasting and noxious relics of the First World War was the passport, generally introduced during the conflict and never withdrawn again. In 1922, Nansen tackled the problem of a new category of misery created by this development—the “stateless person”—by persuading fifty-one governments to recognize a “Nansen passport” for the stateless. However, these were only available for the Russians, like the services of his League-backed “High Commission” for Russian refugees in Europe, the linear ancestor of today’s United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Soon Nansen was trying to deal with the ghastly consequences of the Greek invasion of Asia Minor, which ended in total defeat, flight, and massacre. Through the Lausanne Convention of 1923, Nansen arranged the “compulsory exchange” of more than 1.5 million Greeks and Turks, the largest organized transfer of populations the world had then seen.

By the mid-1920s, the refugee problem was diminishing. It was hoped that it had been solved forever, and would not recur. And, as Marrus emphasizes, solving it was made easier by the comparative readiness of many states to accept immigrants; France, which had lost one in five of its young men between 1914 and 1918, was especially welcoming. Marrus also notes the “durable assumption,” which survived this period, that the ideal solution to the problem of refugee masses was resettlement in agricultural communities, often in remote countries.

But the respite was short. In the early Thirties, the stream of refugees from German fascism began to flow. The Italian fugitives from Mussolini had been fairly easily accommodated into the huge Italian emigrations abroad, especially in France. But by 1933 Europe was floundering in the Depression, unable to employ its own native citizens, let alone new waves of immigrants. Of the sixty-five thousand who left Germany in 1933, four-fifths were Jews. They were joined by Polish Jews, leaving a country where anti-Semitic agitation steeply increased during the middle and later 1930s. All encountered a world busy closing its frontiers and reducing its refugee and immigrant quotas. The Arab riots in Palestine induced the British to cut back Jewish immigration in 1936, just as the pressure to settle there rose to a new peak. The notorious Swiss police chief Heinrich Rothmund persuaded the Nazis to put a special stamp into Jewish passports, which simplified his efforts to keep out permanent refugees and avoid a Switzerland “saturated with Jews.”

By now the Nansen era was over (he died in 1930), and the new High Commission for German refugees set up in 1933 could do little in the face of such international reluctance. In the dreadful year of 1938, when the Austrian Jews fled from the Anschluss, when Czechs and antifascist Germans fled from Bohemia after Munich, and when the “Kristallnacht” pogrom drove a fresh torrent of Jews from the Reich itself, there was held at Evian a conference which did its participants no credit. Roosevelt, who convened the conference, allowed the British to keep Palestine off the agenda. A number of statesmen took the view that Germany was right to identify a “Jewish problem” but wrong to dump it on the rest of Europe; by closing the doors against refugees, they hoped to force Germany to “solve her problems internally.” And this, in the most terrible way possible, was of course what ultimately took place.

This is a book about refugees, not about the Final Solution. But the two subjects are obviously related, and it should be said that Professor Marrus is on balance a “functionalist” rather than an “intentionalist”—he does not believe that Hitler always intended the physical murder of the Jews, but rather that mass murder was a last-minute expedient to deal with displaced and helpless Jewish masses whose resettlement, in Madagascar, the “Lublin Reservation,” or anywhere else, had become impossible. For eight out of the twelve Nazi years, the policy had been expulsion. If—an impossible if—the Evian Conference had gone the other way and used some of Nansen’s dedication and energy to absorb refugees, the gas chambers would probably never have been built.

There was much prattle about agricultural settlements. The German and Polish governments played with the Madagascar idea. Roosevelt looked at maps and wondered if Jews could settle in Angola or Ethiopia; Sir Neil Malcolm, head of the High Commission for German refugees, suggested North Borneo. Marrus comments: “In reality, three-quarters of the German Jews were over forty, most lived in large cities, only 2 percent knew anything about agriculture.” Meanwhile the refugee torrent swelled to gigantic proportions, augmented in 1939 by the collapse of the Spanish republic and the exodus of nearly half a million soldiers and civilians to France.

The period between the outbreak of war in 1939 and the slow stabilization of populations by about 1948 can be treated as a single episode. The first phase, ending in 1941, saw the flight from Poland, the deportation of nearly two million Poles into the Soviet interior, and the flight of perhaps four million civilians before the German offensive in the West in May 1940. The Soviet Union deported much of the Baltic populations (perhaps 24 percent of the Lithuanians). The Germans churned up the whole of Central Europe as they expelled Poles and replaced them with German populations trekking back from ancient eastern settlements by horse and cart. After the German assault on the Soviet Union in 1941, millions of civilians were displaced by war, while the NKVD deported entire nationalities to central Asia. Trains now began to carry millions of Jews and gypsies across Europe to their doom. In Switzerland, Rothmund held to his policies, returning an average of three thousand Jews a year to the clutches of the Nazis. The British kept Palestine locked. The 1943 Bermuda conference on refugees did little better than Evian. Jewish representatives were kept at a distance, while the United States and Britain tacitly agreed not to raise either Palestine policy or the US immigration quota. The various hints that Jews might be “bought out” of Europe through Hungary and Romania were dismissed.

In 1943, the war turned against Germany, and the grand flight westward began. The obstinate courage of the Wehrmacht, fighting its retreat long after the war was effectively lost, vastly multiplied the refugee tragedy; as Marrus says, an instant German collapse of the 1918 variety would have prevented the devastation and preempted much of the flight. As it was, a mixed horde of millions of Germans and anti-Soviet Russians or Ukrainians fell back toward the West as the Red Army advanced. They ended up destitute in Germany, Austria, and northern Italy just as the end of the war released the prisoners and slave-laborers of the Reich. There were 7.2 million Soviet survivors in Germany at the time of liberation. In September 1945, the Western allies were trying to support some seven million “displaced persons” and the Soviet military government probably had as many again in its zone.

Perhaps a quarter of the Reich’s original population had become refugees, and some thirty million Europeans had been driven from their homes in the preceding six years. But by the winter of 1945, the Allies had managed to repatriate some eleven million Europeans, an achievement stained by the forcible inclusion of millions of Russians, Ukrainians, and Byelorussians, some of whom had supported the wrong side. Many were shipped back to death or imprisonment. But the refugees kept coming, as the entire German population of the old eastern provinces and the inhabitants of the Sudetenland were expelled. It is thought that some twelve million Germans were forced from their homes before and after the Potsdam Conference of 1945, which roughly assented to Germany’s new borders; some eight million landed up in the western zones of Germany, and an unknown total—probably between one and two million—died or were killed on the way.

To cope with this continent of vagrants, UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency) had been set up in 1943. (Its jurisdiction excluded the population of “enemy nations.”) Professor Marrus has his criticisms of UNRRA. He salutes its brilliant success in controlling epidemics among the displaced, in the zones controlled by the Western allies, but tends to agree with the outburst of its first chief, the choleric General Sir Frederick Morgan, who called his own cohorts “that adventitious assembly of silver-tongued ineffectuals, professional do-gooders, crooks and crackpots.” This is surely an unfair judgment on a body that had managed to get three quarters of the displaced persons home by early 1946.

Morgan was soon replaced by Fiorello La Guardia, whose demonic energy continued to empty the camps until 650,000 people were left. The Soviet Union released 150,000 Polish Jews in 1946, who joined hundreds of thousands of other Jewish survivors in temporary camps. Britain, still trying to stave off an Arab–Jewish war, continued to hold the Palestine immigration quota at its 1939 level in the teeth of world appeal and abuse until the British withdrawal in 1948. That year, a new body, the International Refugee Organization (IRO), took over most of UNRRA’s responsibilities. The IRO, efficient and well financed, worked away to resettle the “last million” until by about 1951 there remained no more than 175,000 refugees in camps—the old, mad, sick, and friendless, whom nobody wanted. Most of them are now dead, but up and down Europe a few still dwell in temporary quarters that became permanent.

This, really, is the end of Professor Marrus’s tale. In an epilogue, he reminds us that outflows of refugees have not ceased. The cold war has, in its crises, driven streams of Germans, Hungarians, Czechs, and Slovaks, and now Poles to the West. The Finns have received the expelled people of Eastern Karelia; the French, Belgians, and Portuguese their Algerian and African settlers. Who else may come? One day, perhaps, the Afrikaners, or the Ulster Protestants. One day—and this we dare not exclude from possibility—the people of Israel made refugees again by the refugees of Palestine.

For the moment, though, most of the great refugee flows are far off in the third world. Europe is living at home again. But this book is for reading in a comfortable house, for the children—especially—of those who can remember what it was like to sit on a cardboard box tied with string, holding a sick baby in your arms, striving to overcome shivering and hunger cramps and face up to a foreign official who says you don’t exist, you can’t stay.

Auden knew about it:

Say this city has ten million souls,
Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:
Yet there’s no place for us, my dear, there’s no place for us.

Came to a public meeting; the speaker got up and said:
“If we let them in, they will steal our daily bread”;
He was talking of you and me, my dear, he was talking of you and me.

Saw a poodle in a jacket fastened with a pin,
Saw a door opened and a cat let in:
But they weren’t German Jews, my dear, but they weren’t German Jews.

This Issue

February 27, 1986