During Last Mass Migration, Europeans Were the Immigrants

Fifty-five million people left Europe, and they encountered some of the same heartbreaking problems as today's refugees.

It was one of the greatest migrations in human history. From 1846 to 1940, some 55 million Europeans packed their bags and sought a new life abroad, mostly in the United States and South America. Whole regions were emptied out, forcing governments from Vienna to Prague to use propaganda—and punishment—to prevent the spread of so-called “America fever.” But as Tara Zahra describes in her new book, The Great Departure: Mass Migration From Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World, the streets of America were not always lined with gold, and many emigrants returned home, broken and disillusioned. (See the world’s busiest migration routes today.) 

Speaking from Venice, Zahra explains why Western rhetoric has not always been matched by generosity toward migrants; how Donald Trump is drawing on a deep, historical reservoir of anti-immigrant feeling; and why today’s migrant crisis in Europe has disturbing parallels with the past.  

The scale of the migration was staggering. Knock us dead with some numbers. 

It was extraordinary. People talked about villages being completely hollowed out and only women and children being left behind. From the Austrian empire alone, between 1880-1940 about four to five million people left, or about 7 to 8 percent of the total population. A lot of the emigration came from the poorest parts of the monarchy, like Galicia, now part of Poland and Ukraine, and southern Hungary. These were areas where there was a lot of overpopulation and a shortage of land, because of the way it was divided upon inheritance between children.  

One thing many people don’t realize, though, is that return migration was also on a massive scale. We think around 30 to 40 percent of migrants eventually returned home or made multiple journeys. So migration was not a one-way process.  

Today, a massive new wave of emigrants is fleeing to Europe from Syria and Iraq. What parallels do you see with mass migration from Eastern Europe? 

A lot of really disturbing parallels. Some of the ugliest scenes we see today are the creation of no-man’s-lands, like between the Greek and Macedonian borders or the Hungarian and Serbian borders, where migrants get stuck and are unable to move anywhere. That’s exactly what happened to Jews in 1938-39, when they were expelled from one state and then prevented from entering another. It was a brutal and horrible situation then—and it is again, today.  

The strategy of blaming agents and people smugglers as the source of mass migration—though I’m not defending smugglers—is also a more expedient solution than trying to deal with the real, underlying causes of mass migration, which are more complex.  

Animus towards refugees is particularly strong in Eastern Europe. I don’t want to demonize these particular Europeans, but recently there has been a lot of anti-emigration agitation in countries like Hungary, Romania, and Poland. At first glance it might seem strange that a region, which produced the lion’s share of refugees and migrants over the course of the 20th century, would now have so little compassion. And taking a broader look at the history of migration in the region can help us understand that animosity. When Donald Trump calls Mexicans rapists, he is using language similar to the rhetoric of some of today’s right-wing governments in Europe, like Orban’s government in Hungary and the new government in Poland.  

One of the shocking themes in your book is the racism and xenophobia suffered by Eastern Europe’s Jewish population. Talk about the causes—and how it affected emigration. 

One thing that’s surprising is that Jews were actually not hugely represented among emigrants. Jews were around 4 to 5 percent of the [Eastern European] population and made up about 6 to 7 percent of the total number of migrants. You have a totally different picture in Russia, where the imperial authorities actively encouraged Jewish emigration through pogroms, forcing around two million Jews—out of a total of 2.7 million Russian emigrants—to flee for their lives.  

Moving into the later 20th century, states start to manipulate migration, opening and closing it like a tap, and it’s especially Jews who suffer. In the 1930s, Poland in particular proclaims that their so-called “Jewish problem” is a problem of an excess of Jews, and that the solution is to find some colonial outpost and encourage them to emigrate. This idea even catches on in Western circles among leaders like Franklin Roosevelt. 

By the late 1930s, a kind of consensus had emerged that Jews needed to leave Eastern Europe. In Poland, it was supported by all the major political parties, except the Socialists. In the U.S., there was also agreement that the so-called “Jewish problem” in Europe was not simply the problem of German and Austrian Jews but, in the words of one state department official, the problem of “seven million unwanted Jews between the Rhine and the Russian frontier.” But no Western government actually wanted Jews on their own territory.  

Outlandish schemes were developed to relocate Jews after the Second World War. Tell us about these, especially the one in the Dominican Republic.

A lot of different locations were considered, including Angola, which was Roosevelt’s preferred solution. But the one place that did offer to accept Jews was the Dominican RepublicRafael Trujillo, the dictator of the DR, was looking to improve his reputation on the world scene, having massacred thousands of Haitians to “improve” the racial stock of the Dominican population.  

There was an insane discussion about whether Jews were “white” and whether “white” people could survive in the tropics. A lot of advocates of these settlements also argued that, even if the numbers were small, it could be a testing ground for future projects, including the Zionist project in Israel.  

Another place that was proposed in the late 1930s was Madagascar. Poland was so thrilled by this idea that it sent a commission to Madagascar to investigate. Nothing came of it. But later the “Madagascar Plan” would become the Nazis’ preferred solution to its so-called “Jewish Problem”—before they moved on to the Final Solution.  

The Statue of Liberty famously welcomes “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses.” The reality was not always so rosy, was it? 

No. In the U.S., in particular, the way we remember migration is as a success story where people came, maybe struggled for a while, but in the end lived happily ever after. In fact, part of what stimulated the anti-immigration movement in Eastern Europe was the extraordinary suffering of many migrants in the U.S. Families were divided, children and wives were abandoned, people became victims of industrial accidents and returned home disabled or unable to support themselves. There are a lot of stories of people being quite disillusioned and disappointed with what they found on the other side of the Atlantic.  

Western governments criticized Communist countries for not allowing their citizens to move around freely. But that Cold War rhetoric didn’t always translate into action, did it? 

In reality, at the height of the Cold War, policies toward East European migrants were often much less generous, in part for the same reason that you see anxiety and animus toward refugees today: They were seen as a potential national security threat.  

Western governments feared that refugees coming from East European countries, claiming to be victims of Communism, might actually be Communist spies. That belief was so extreme that anybody who had been in a Communist youth organization, which was essentially a universal requirement in the Warsaw Pact countries, could be denied refugee status in the U.S.  

Another contradiction at the heart of the West’s attitude was that it was easy to claim emigration as a human right when very few people were able to emigrate. [Laughs.] But in the late Socialist period, between the 1960s and '80s, as travel regulations loosened in countries like Yugoslavia, Poland, and Hungary, more and more people started moving West. And at that point, people in the West started to say, “Actually, these people aren’t refugees. They’re simply economic migrants coming over here to enjoy Western material wealth and abuse the welfare system.”  

The distinction between economic migrants and political refugees is relatively new. You’re not a fan, are you? 

No, I really am not. If you take a long-term view of that distinction, which was only encoded in law in 1951, you can see that the line between the two has always been fungible and determined by politics. On the one hand, international law said you could have asylum if you were a political refugee, but not if you were an economic migrant. On the other hand, the refugees Western governments were most willing to admit were those that represented a valuable form of cheap labor. What made a person get a visa was often precisely their value as an economic migrant.  

Tell us about your own family background, Tara—and how it inspired you to write this book?  
Like most Americans, I do have an immigration story. My father’s family came to the U.S. in the early 20th century from the Ottoman Empire. They were Sephardic Jews, who came to the Lower East Side of New York. I grew up hearing a bit about the family background, and some stories about the migration experience, and had an early fascination with the history of immigration.  

What sparked my interest in doing this book was reading about a show trial of a group of “travel agents,” which took place in Poland in 1889 in the town of Wadowice. Around 64 people were put on the stand accused of seducing migrants to leave their homes for America and cheating them along the way. The agents were Jews, and their business was in the nearby town of Auschwitz, which at the time was a major emigration hub because it was where train lines from the Russian, Prussian, and the Austrian empires met.  

What was fascinating about this trial was the way in which these agents were blamed for “American fever”—the mass migration of Eastern Europeans—much in the way that people smugglers are often blamed for the refugee crisis today.  

How did this great migration alter the Western world in general, and the U.S. in particular? 

Hugely! The world as we know it was shaped by these mass migrations. It inspired the formation of new transnational welfare states where governments became concerned with the fate of their citizens overseas and tried to extend their protection to those citizens. You saw the creation of bilateral treaties and consuls, all intended to protect the social and political rights of migrant workers overseas.  

Mass migration from Europe also shaped our very ideas about what freedom means: whether freedom is linked to movement and mobility—the ability to come and go as you please—or whether freedom is more about the freedom to stay home. There’s actually a movement today that invokes this freedom to stay home—that people shouldn’t have to cross continents or oceans in order to find security and peace. In an ideal world there would be no emigration. 

This interview was edited for length and clarity.  

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at simonworrallauthor.com.

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