The cliché runs that history repeats itself. The late Per Jacobsson was fond of stating that those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it. This can be disproved in two ways: (1) By finding people with a vivid memory of history who none the less slip into repetitive behavior. An example might be the French who pulled down sterling in 1930 with dire consequences for the world, and now seem interested in undermining the dollar. Or (2), by uncovering an historical analogy which has escaped general notice, and seeing if the same story unfolds itself later. The second path is the one followed here. The mass migration now taking place from Southern to Northern and Western Europe-from Portugal, Spain, Italy, Greece and Turkey to Switzerland, France, Germany and Belgium-can be measured against the movement from Southern and Eastern Europe to the United States between 1880 and 1913 for similarities and differences. It is particularly instructive to observe whether previous pitfalls have been avoided, and if so, whether by accident, by circumstances or because of the increased social consciousness of the human race.

The economic, social and political importance of the two movements is difficult to overstate. In both cases, cheap labor fed economic growth by holding down wages, relatively at least, and maintaining high rates of profit, investment and expansion. The migrants constituted the "reserve armies of the unemployed" which Marx believed were necessary for capitalism to feed on. The Marxist model is by no means the only road to the growth of income-over-all, but also, be it noted, per head as well. In some situations it is possible for economic growth to be stimulated by mass emigration: clearing up redundant labor, or disguised unemployment, stimulates the economy by increasing the return to efficient utilization of resources, and in particular encourages the adoption of machinery which saves total resources as well as labor. Just as Ireland benefited from emigration in the nineteenth century, so Southern Italy, Spain and Greece enjoy high rates of economic growth today while their citizens contribute to growth in the North.

The evident similarities of the two mass movements go beyond their contribution to growth. Immigration in the United States in the last century was disjointed; Europe's is today. In the United States, the first wave came from England, Germany, Scandinavia and Ireland, reaching a peak in 1882. Thereafter the source shifted to Southern and Eastern Europe- especially Italy, Austria-Hungary and Russia. Up to 1961, the immigration in Europe came largely from politically affiliated sources-from East to West Germany, from Algeria to France and from the West Indies, Pakistan and Malta to Britain. This immigration has been cut off, whether by the Wall between East and West Germany, or by regulation in the British and French cases, and new immigration has come from the Mediterranean countries. Some new immigrants moved into the slums previously occupied by the old. In New York, as the Irish and the Germans moved to Brooklyn or the Bronx, the Italians and Jews took over their tenements on the lower East Side. In Champigny-sur-Marne, Portuguese have flooded into a bidonville abandoned by returning Algerians.

The first migrants went into agriculture to replace natives who had moved on-out to the frontier in the United States, and into industry or trade in Europe. The succeeding wave went into "dirty jobs": mining, construction and heavy metal work like blast furnaces for men; textiles and domestic service for women. Unskilled work was turned over almost entirely to the immigrant, so much so that all Swiss now hold down skilled or semiskilled jobs. This echoes the statement of Isaac Hourwich in 1910 that immigration has brought "elevation of the English-speaking workman to the status of an aristocracy of labor, while the immigrants have been employed to perform the rough work of all industries."

A final similarity is only now emerging in the fact that the capacity of a country to absorb immigrants is limited, and that after a time it will make efforts to call a halt to inward movement. These limits are reached sooner for immigrants of different races than people of similar stock. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 parallels the de facto restrictions of North Africans and colored races by France and Britain. German employment of Moroccans and South Koreans in mining is an exception explained by the Hallstein doctrine, under which West Germany is especially friendly to countries which refuse to recognize East Germany. After the initial restrictions on Chinese and Japanese in the United States came qualitative restriction- prohibitions against the sick, paupers and, under the Foran Act of 1885, against contract labor. (The Foran Act illustrates the complications and misunderstandings in the field. It was led by skilled window-glass workers, though the immigrants were virtually entirely unskilled; and it failed to reduce immigration since almost none of it was based on contracts made abroad.) Subsequent attempts to restrict immigration in a period of rising nativism, with violent outbreaks like Haymarket, New Orleans lynching of Italians in 1891 and anti-Jewish riots, failed to overthrow the presumption in favor of America as an asylum for Europeans until the restrictions of 1919, 1921 and 1924. Some countries of Europe-Britain, Austria, the Netherlands and Scandinavia-do not as a rule admit Southern Europeans, but the country which has the most-Switzerland-is now experiencing a revulsion on social and political grounds which has given rise to executive restriction, a refusal to ratify an agreement with Italy for increased rights for immigrants, and even a petition for a constitutional amendment restricting foreign-born residents to 10 percent of the native population.

That immigrants are still accorded a warm welcome in Belgium, France and Germany may be attributed to their limited numbers, as compared with those who came to the United States. Here the foreign-born constituted about 20 percent of the labor force in 1890 and 1900, as compared with 4 percent in Germany, about 9 percent in France, 10 percent in Belgium and 30 percent in Switzerland currently. The relationship between immigrants and growth may be a constant one in economics, but that between immigrants and social cohesion has an inflection point. It is possible to test girders for stress experimentally, and even perhaps camels' backs with straw. The Swiss action in resisting more in-migration at 30 percent whereas the United States reacted at nearer 20, may constitute a difference, but the experiment is inconclusive. Differences in size, tradition, initial conditioning and prospects-if we recall that the interruption of immigration by war produced a potential flood in subsequent years-affect the comparison. The German welcome for foreigners, who are called "guest workers" or workers from abroad rather than foreign workers, stems in part from the remnants of guilt toward the displaced persons or foreign workers (fremden Arbeiter) of World War II.

Scale, then, is an important difference for all but Switzerland. Another apparent difference is that the migrant to America turned his back on the old world and sought a new life, whereas the European migrant today is a transient, who seeks his fortune abroad for a few years and then plans to return home. Whether he actually does go home, time alone will tell.

But the statement that immigrants to America turned their backs on the old country is not substantiated. Many of the Italians and Greeks who came to the United States were seasonal workers, golodrinos, or swallows, who came in the spring and returned as winter approached. Close to 60 percent of the immigrants into the United States were males, which implies that 40 percent were females, and that many families arrived in the United States as a whole, when the sources of immigration were Ireland, Germany, England and Scandinavia. By 1910 the proportion of males had risen to more than 70 percent, with the figure for the Italians at 79 percent and for the Southeastern Europeans 95 percent. Some men sent for their women-wives or fiancées, some of whom were arranged for. But many went back. Departures from the United States between 1897 and 1918 were almost half as many as arrivals (47 percent). The longer they stayed the less was the likelihood of return. Of some two million returning after 1908 who answered a government questionnaire, 77 percent had been in the United States less than five years.

But if more returned from the United States than is generally believed, the opposite is true in Europe. It is still too early after 1961 to know what proportions will stay abroad, but early postwar experience as investigated in studies sponsored by UNESCO makes clear what the answer depends on. Young men who come abroad will return-unless they marry a local girl. Older men or those already married will return-unless they bring their wives and stay long enough for their children to go to the local school, form friendships with the natives and push roots into the local soil. Major conditioning factors are whether they live in a ghetto or intermingle with local populace, how quickly they learn the native language, how frequently they return home on leave.

This open question is fraught with considerable significance for Europe. France wants the immigrants to settle permanently and fill the demographic void left by the low birth rates prior to 1946 and the war losses. Greece, on the other hand, is fearful that her national existence is threatened by the effusion of her best people-since foreign employers take mainly the healthy, the young, the politically innocent and the skilled. Italy favors freedom of individual choice. Germany has not yet begun to think about the long-run impact. Spain is fearful that returning workers who have breathed freedom beyond the Pyrenees will find the domestic political air suffocating.

Moreover, the Swiss have found that the economic benefits of immigration change with time and permanent settlement. In the short run, with excess capacity of plant but full employment of labor, immigration pays off. Wages are held down, profits are maintained; it is the best of all possible economic worlds. In time, however, high profits stimulate plant expansion, which makes it not only desirable, but now imperative to have foreign workers. And as the foreign workers stay on they require capital expansion for themselves: housing, schools, hospitals. One in every fifth child born in Switzerland today has foreigners as parents; in Zurich hospital corridors and wards on Sunday afternoons, it is said, one can hear mainly Italian spoken, and with more animation than Swiss sobriety considers seemly. Foreign funds in Switzerland are no longer held liquid or reinvested abroad, but are increasingly needed to construct industrial and social capital to go with the foreign workers. With foreign capital and foreign labor, the Swiss are supplying only the real estate and the management, and feel themselves in a precarious position. They are economically damned if the foreign workers leave, and politically and socially altered beyond all recognition if they stay. But as each year goes by, the chances of their staying increase.

The pattern of migration and the chances of staying are strongly affected by cultural forces. Spanish women emigrate by themselves to take jobs as domestics in France, Belgium, Switzerland and even Italy. Italian women lead much more sheltered lives and go abroad only to join their husbands. Many more Spanish than Italian women will remain abroad through marrying local men. The Greeks are particularly skilled at languages, which increases their chances of settling in Germany; the Turks, on the other hand, are illiterate in greater proportions than any other national group, and learn foreign languages and especially German-beyond the minimum phrases necessary for the job-with great difficulty. They will therefore go home. Italians can settle easily in Switzerland, France or Walloon Belgium, but feel unhappy in Flemish Belgium and the Netherlands. One view is that the Swiss predilection for noodles helps, though most authorities believe that teigwaren are a poor substitute for pasta. But an Italian-speaking person in Switzerland could be a citizen of Ticino. Germany is not a Latin country, but Southern Germany-Frankfurt and Stuttgart-has ready access to Italy when it comes time to take leave; Cologne has a tradition as an international city, but the Ruhr has the jobs.

There may then be a difference in the permanence of immigration, but it is too early to be certain. Other differences are surely present. In the United States, the foreign worker was used as a strikebreaker. In Europe, if he comes in at all, the unions welcome him. It is true that labor unions in Britain, Holland and the Scandinavian countries account in large part for the policy of exclusion followed by these countries. In Sweden, it has gone so far that the government has yielded sovereignty on the question to the unions. Employer requests for foreign workers are referred by the government to the union, and if the latter objects, the request is refused.

In France, Germany and Belgium, the labor unions, at least officially, welcome foreign labor. This is true not only of the Confédération Française des Travailleurs Chrétiens (C.F.T.C.) but also of the Socialist Force Ouvrière. Even the Communist Confédération Générale de Travail is unwilling to take the Communist line that employment of foreign labor is peculiarly exploitative but contents itself with agitation in favor of raising and improving living conditions for Algerians in France. It is not clear whether the sympathy of these unions for foreign workers is based on social attitudes of the brotherhood of man, in spite of economic competition, or on the sophisticated economic view that there is no real competition, since the native worker moves up to semiskilled jobs when foreign unskilled labor keeps economic growth going. It seems unlikely that there is much economic sophistication in the attitude, since in all countries labor unions seem to fall into the vulgar economic error that if foreign workers are paid the same wage as domestic workers, their presence does not affect the wage level. (But wages would have risen, given the expansion of demand, if supply had not increased pari passu. The immigrants may not lower wages absolutely, under the union condition of equal pay for equal work, but they lower them relatively where they take the same sorts of jobs as native workers.)

Not only are the foreign workers not strikebreakers in Europe today; they may be the strike makers. The strike in the Asturias coal mines was supported by contributions from Spanish miners in the Ruhr, Foreign workers drop their tools when unions call strikes. Where the workers are admitted, solidarity reigns. But the difference must not be exaggerated. Immigrants were strikebreakers in the United States only through ignorance. Strenuous efforts were made to keep the involuntary scabs from contact with the regular workers. Where this screen was penetrated, the foreign workers left the plant too, on numerous occasions. And in Europe today it is very hard to get the southern worker with his weak union tradition to pay high dues, attend meetings or participate in routine union life.

One might look for a difference in the records of foreigners in disease, crime and immorality. But it is hard to know which way it would go. Rising nativism brings accusations of high rates in these evils of modern living, but closer examination substitutes questions for answers. In the United States, higher rates for crime among the foreign born than the native population did not stand up when the latter were corrected for age distribution and residence. Foreign adult workers in the city had the same crime rate as native adult workers in the city. And the German authorities claim that the crime rate among the Italian workers is no higher than among the German born.


The major difference between nineteenth-century America and twentieth- century Europe lies in the correction, or at least the attempt at correction, of the abuses of exploitation which such mass movements can lead to. In Germany and France, for example, the recruiting is done by government as well as by employer. The contract system so vehemently denounced in the United States and prohibited in 1885 is the established means of operation, run by the governments of both countries in collaboration. Runners, padrones and boss interpreters lurk at the fringes of the system, but are systematically repressed. There is a substantial private movement of workers from Italy into Germany and France as tourists. Under the regulations of the European Economic Community, citizens of one country have rights to work almost equal to those of natives. Portuguese padrones smuggle peasants into France, jammed into ships and moving clandestinely at night, but this survives only because of ignorance, since a governmental agreement in 1964 made the movement legal. Some Germans object that the foreign worker with a one-year contract has more protection than the native-born employee who is without a contract. This applies only to the last in. Those who have worked for more than a year are on an equal footing. It is evident that no country in Europe will dare to force the weight of recession exclusively on the foreign worker; international public opinion will not allow a country to repeat the French action of the 1930s in canceling the visas of Poles and Italians, loading them on trains and shipping them home.

The recruitment and allocation of workers have thus been taken into government hands for the most part. Working conditions are supervised. Living varies from country to country. Company towns exist in many places, especially in Germany, where many of the larger companies, but not all, have constructed barracks for single workers. These are typically organized along national lines with a kitchen to enable the foreign workers to cook their native fare. In France, however, and to a lesser degree in Switzerland, housing conditions more closely resemble the notorious boardinghouses, usually run by a compatriot, which provide minimal comfort and nutrition at substantial prices. Last summer the French authorities closed down a so-called "merchant of sleep" in Lyon who had 50 beds, occupied three times daily, in a normal house. Equally insalubrious are the so-called Paris hotels where congregate the African migrants from the Communauté largely from a single migrant tribe, the Saraholes, whose land lies in Senegal, Mali and Mauritania.

Housing is a serious problem from many points of view. It is short for the native population throughout Europe. The foreign worker with a family at home is anxious to spend as little abroad as he can. To require him to have comfortable housing and to pay its market value is to force him to accumulate capital at a slower rate than he wants, against his return when he wants to buy a farm or a business, or pay off old debts. He seeks overtime work, hangs around the station on the weekend to avoid spending money at the café, and crowds together in inexpensive barracks to save. Swiss citizens are disturbed at the rash of signs for rented rooms, saying "No foreigners need apply," but the landlord's defense is a legitimate one: a room rented to one Italian often is used by ten, with serious consequences for the property in dilapidation. Compare John R. Commons' remark in "Races and Immigrants in America" that the competition of races is the competition of standards of living: "The reason the Chinaman or the Italian can save three days' wages is because wages have been previously fixed by the greater necessities of the more advanced races."

In every country, moreover, the state intervenes when it comes to dependents. No house, no wife; and the house must pass muster. Southern Belgium has the advantage of available housing, somewhat run down, to be sure, but available. Some German firms are building housing for their married workers, and allocate it through a workers' committee. On normal standards, which assign a high score to seniority, no foreigner could qualify. But the workers' committees are asked by management to take care of the good foreign workers and compassionate cases on some equitable basis which breaks the strict queueing order. Housing is a critical item. France is currently losing foreign workers to Germany at the termination of their contracts because better housing is available there. Some of the apartments are built for foreign workers by the German Employment Service (and Unemployment Insurance Agency), which is rich because of heavy receipts of unemployment insurance premiums and no payments for unemployment. In these, a special effort is made to avoid segregation. Barracks for single men may be located near the plant to minimize transport costs (and a different cost of social seclusion), but married housing for foreign workers is deliberately spotted about in a random fashion to encourage integration.

The enlarged role of the state is not to make up for lack of private interest. The benevolent societies organized on religious and national lines in the United States in the nineteenth century are matched in Europe today. Caritas, the Catholic welfare agency in Germany, provides meeting places, like settlement houses, for the workers from Portugal, Spain and Italy. Lacking immigrants from a Protestant country, the Evangelical Church has underwritten the welfare work among the Orthodox Greeks. The Moslem Turks had no religious group to look out for them, a vacuum which the agnostic trade-union movement undertook to fill. Germany today has three mosques for Moslem worship, one in Frankfurt, one in Cologne and one mounted on a flatcar with a tower which folds down for passage under bridges and through tunnels, which accompanies the large railroad construction crews from Turkey.

Here, then, is a wide difference: the enormous movement of population is not left to laissez-faire but attracts the efforts of government at all stages. In the United States, the states regulated abuses (as early as 1847 in New York), but the Federal Government operated only to slow down the movement and ultimately to turn it off. In Europe it is under continuous government surveillance and control.

The development of the welfare state on divergent lines in separate European countries poses complex problems for bureaucracy at national and international levels in coping with today's migrants. The European Economic Community has a special Social Directorate which concerns itself with the guarantee of rights by each member to citizens of the others. Treaties of association with other countries, which provide most of the migrants, guarantee virtually identical rights. And outside the Community separate arrangements between countries of immigration and emigration assure the worker his rights to a job, his social security benefits, family allowances, etc. There are stories of a Turk with four wives and 24 children, who draws gargantuan family allowances in Germany which are paid out in Anatolia, and of clever Italians who have it all figured out that they will work, say, nine years in Switzerland, seven years in Germany and eleven years in Italy and draw social security benefits from all three countries. The suggestion is even made that in calculating the international indebtedness of Switzerland one should bear in mind that its social security reserves should be regarded as foreign debt, owed ultimately to people who will probably spend their retirement years outside of Switzerland and along the Mediterranean.

International movement with equal treatment of foreign workers puts pressure on Europe for harmonization of employment regulations and social security systems as well as of wages and salaries. A country like Austria which gets out of line and has a very large proportion of real wages in social security benefits and low rents is unable to attract foreign workers, who want more cash. Expatriates are reluctant to return homeward until the social security and other benefits are brought up to the level to which they have become accustomed abroad. Mobility makes for harmonization because of the high costs of dealing with disparities, and the possibility of sharp operators taking advantage of them.

But (to move from the economic and social to the political), there is one more difference in which the United States does not come off too badly: citizenship. When a man did stay five years, and learned the language, he was eligible to become an American citizen and to vote on a par with the native born. This was the expectation. In Europe it is the exception.

Rapid access to citizenship in the United States is of course explicable in terms of the transatlantic backgrounds of the first citizens. Its consequences were untoward in some particulars, however, particularly the "Irish conquest of the cities," the emergence of urban political bosses responsive to practical needs rather than higher principles of political progress, and the development of minority blocs which sought to modify the national interest to allow for some vestigial attitude. German Americans and Irish Americans did not prevent the United States from going to war against Germany at the side of the British in World War I, much less a quarter-century later, but the existence of ethnic groups colors attitudes on many questions from the Palestine Mandate to the Oder-Neisse line and the responsibility of the S.S. troops for the Malmedy massacre.

It is possible for a foreign immigrant to become a citizen in Europe, but difficult. What Italians and Spanish in Switzerland focus on is not citizenship but the right to stay permanently, won after only three years' residence, although the proposed treaty with Italy would reduce the time to 18 months. The Algerians, and members of the Communauté who have citizenship, have lost the free right of entry, but the members of the Common Market who have free right of entry have no easy road to citizenship. This waits on economic integration going so far that it leads to social and ultimately political integration.

This is the European dilemma, which time must resolve. If the Mediterranean immigrants stay in the North and West for economic reasons, they must have social and political equality. If they go home, the question is what will become of them.

The agricultural worker from, say, Norway, who went into farming in America and later returned, was a changed man-experimental, innovating, discontented with the routine methods in his native land. But the Italian peasant who went into industry in the United States found it hard to fit in when he came home. He had money which he loaned out rather than invested in a new business of his own; but he had acquired no agricultural and few industrial skills. America had changed his clothes and his appearance, but his goals remained what they had been when he left-to get off the farm and into the city. Many Turks returning from Germany these days bring back large American second-hand cars and set themselves up in dolmus businesses- half-taxi, half-bus-in Ankara or Istanbul. Some Italian firms have recruited back Italian workers in German cities, giving us the curious phenomenon that Germany, recruiting workers in Southern Italy and losing them to Northern, is providing mobility to the Italian labor force which the country had difficulty in achieving for itself. But even if they go back to their own country, it is not clear that they can readily be absorbed.

This, then, is the danger-that the mass migrant of today will become a man without a country, one who has left one life and finds that he cannot stay where he is and cannot go home again. The problem of belonging is difficult enough within one's own borders. Unless Europe achieves a social and political identity, it may develop a problem of "flying Mediterraneans," restless spirits with no home.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now