Mass migration has been reshaping Europe and North and South America for at least 150 years, but not always in the same way. At some points, it has provoked the erection of walls and a wave of deportations and detentions. At other moments, states have actually competed to recruit migrants to fuel their economies, settle land, or make up for declining birthrates.

These days, the world seems to have opted for the first approach. Barbed wire fences and internment camps have come back to Europe as thousands of refugees have been stranded between state borders. Right-wing governments with anti-migrant platforms have taken power in Poland and Hungary. After campaigning to “stop the invasion of the Muslims,” Norbert Hofer’s far-right Freedom Party lost Austria’s 2016 presidential election by only 30,000 votes. And parties from the Danish People’s Party to the French National Front have expanded their constituencies with promises to close borders and stop the flow of goods and people. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, a victory propelled by animosity toward migration and globalization. And in November, American voters elected Donald Trump to be their forty-fifth president, after Trump campaigned with promises to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, ban Muslim immigration, and deport illegal aliens. His recent executive order that placed a hold on refugees and on immigration from seven Muslim countries suggests he intends to keep those promises.

The ideas promoted by these parties and politicians have existed for a long time, although the targets have shifted—from Irish, Italians, and Jews in the early twentieth century to Muslims and Mexicans in the twenty-first. In Europe, anti-migrant parties gained ground in the 1970s and 1980s following the oil shock. After recruiting migrant labor for two decades, France, the United Kingdom, and West Germany all restricted immigration in the 1970s. But the last time the world saw a migration panic at today’s pitch was arguably the 1930s, when the plight of thousands of Jewish refugees was met with indifference by Western governments, all of whom took a “not in my back yard” approach to refugee resettlement. 

Hannah Arendt, the century’s most famous theorist of refugeedom (and a refugee herself), saw the migration panic of the interwar years as a symptom of an obsession with creating nationally homogenous populations and reinforcing national sovereignty. She was particularly moved by scenes of refugees—thousands of Jews in 1938—stranded in no-man’s-lands between the borders of Central European states. A state, she wrote, “insisting on its sovereign right of expulsion, . . . smuggled its expelled stateless into the neighboring countries, with the result that the latter retaliated in kind.” The consequence, she explained, “were petty wars between the police at the frontiers, which did not exactly contribute to good international relations, and an accumulation of jail sentences for the stateless who, with the help of the police of one country, had passed ‘illegally’ into the territory of another.”

Arendt’s diagnosis remains relevant. For decades, many experts, politicians, and journalists have insisted that we are in an age of ineluctable internationalism and globalization and the erosion of national sovereignty. Many young Brits, Czechs, and Spaniards, who grew up with the euro, Erasmus, and easyJet, took Europe for granted. Meanwhile, among historians, one of the biggest methodological shifts of the last decade has been a decisive turn toward transnational and global history, upending the nation-state’s traditional role as the primary “subject” of history. Without exactly ignoring the nation-state, these histories have generally reflected an assumption that world history is on a trajectory toward more internationalism and integration, not less.

The nation-state was never obsolete, and nationalism was never “overcome.”

But the nation-state was never obsolete, and nationalism was never “overcome.” The dismantling of the Iron Curtain, celebrated as a symbol of open borders and freedom, came with intense conflict and anxiety on all sides. In Germany, even before the wall fell, some West Germans began to complain about the growing number of East Germans who allegedly lived off welfare and crowded the Western market for jobs and apartments. In August 1988, Theo Summer, editor-in-chief of Die Zeit, responded to such sentiments with a warning not to “erect a concrete wall in our heads against the liberated Germans from the East, who are able to come to us after so many years.”

The only issue that provoked more tension than the influx of Ossies was the opening of German frontiers to neighbors farther east. Between 1989 and 2004, when eight former Socialist countries joined the European Union, an estimated 3.2 million people from Eastern Europe (not including the former Soviet Union) emigrated westward. Further EU expansion after that compounded matters. In 2005, in the lead-up to an infamous French vote against the EU constitution, the so-called Polish Plumber became a symbol of Western fears about a potential invasion of cheap Eastern European workers. At the time, only 150 Polish plumbers were unclogging French pipes, and only 5,537 Poles had taken advantage of their newfound freedom of movement to move to France in 2004. That did not stop French opponents of the EU from raising the specter of hordes of Eastern Europeans arriving by the busload (or flying in on low-cost airlines) to steal French jobs.

More recently, Roma have been the most visible targets for anxieties about freedom of mobility in the expanding European Union. And many of the negative traits often ascribed to Roma—criminality, welfare parasitism, lack of assimilability—were seamlessly transferred to refugees. In 2015, former Hungarian Prime Minister Péter Boross compared refugees to Roma: “the masses of Muslims don’t just come from different cultures, but their psychic apparatus, their biological and genetic endowments are different.” On this basis, he insisted that social and political integration does not work, adding, “It hasn’t worked with the Gypsies, although they have lived with us for hundreds of years.”

Demonstrators in London protest U.S. President Donald Trump's ban on travel from seven Muslim-majority countries, February 2017.

Migration panics are not limited to countries that receive migrants. Countries exporting human beings have often been equally concerned about mass migration. In Central Europe, ambivalence toward migration was born at the very moment that the region first became a source of mass emigration. Many policymakers, politicians, clergymen, and social reformers saw emigration as a symptom of weakness and backwardness, a badge of failure in a global competition for imperial and national prestige. Eastern Europeans, the argument went, would be the economic, political, and cultural losers in a process that was uprooting millions, dividing families, and dissolving communities. Equally important, Eastern European states feared losing control of their borders and bodies; policing frontiers by preventing emigration was thus a way to reassert sovereignty, or at least to create the impression that sovereignty wasn’t a fiction. They justified restrictions on mobility in the name of protecting their citizens from exploitation abroad, fearing that Eastern Europeans might become the slaves or coolies of the twentieth century.

Efforts to prevent emigration generally failed, as migrants were more interested in improving their own lives than in the concerns of political economists and demographers. This did not prevent government officials from proposing increasingly radical measures to stop the exodus. During World War I, for example, an Austrian consul stationed in St. Paul, Minnesota, proposed that all emigration to the United States be banned after the war. This ban, he claimed, would bring the American steel and coal industries to their knees and enable Austria to retain valuable “human material” for its own use, as “it is precisely the most physically and intellectually productive elements who are lost to their homeland, and the qualitatively less valuable human material, the crude rubble...that remains at our disposal.”

Most government officials disagreed with the plan, but they did not contest its underlying principles. They simply recognized that it was impractical. The Hungarian interior minister (presciently) concluded that emigration could be successfully curtailed “only if all our neighbouring states take the same position with respect to emigration, which we can hardly count on.” But restrictive laws were indeed introduced across Eastern Europe after the First World War. They were often intended to create more homogenous nation-states: the goal was to prevent the emigration of “nationally desirable” citizens and encourage the emigration of “undesirable” national and religious minorities. The Iron Curtain was itself the culmination of fifty years of failed attempts to prevent emigration through less drastic measures. It was also the flip side of ethnic cleansing. Postwar Eastern Europe needed to prevent the exit of Czechs, Hungarians, Poles, and Slovaks to make up for the loss of millions of Jews, Germans, and other minorities through murder or expulsion.

There were also ambitious campaigns to lure migrants home to Eastern Europe in 1918 and in 1945. One re-migrant to Slovakia recalled that, in the earlier years of the twentieth century, Czechoslovak President Thomas Masaryk traveled to America to solicit for citizens. “He said ‘you know, you don’t have to be in America, we can make America at home, you’ve got the opportunity to make America in Czechoslovakia.’” In Poland, the government’s emigration office registered 678,000 re-migrants between March 1918 and July 1922. Czechoslovak officials counted around 200,000 in the same period. In reality, however, the vast majority of these re-migrants were not fervent patriots. The decision to emigrate or return home was typically based on more mundane calculations. One Czech official even speculated that America’s new Prohibition law was the decisive push factor. “The majority of re-emigrants proclaim that ‘it’s better to earn less and at least be able to drink again.’”

Today, all that might seem like the distant past. Eastern Europeans enjoy unprecedented freedom to move within Europe’s borders. Yet many of them appear to be most invested in maintaining an iron curtain around the continent’s edges. A parallel story can be told about the descendants of Eastern European immigrants in the United States. Descendants of migrants once targeted by anti-immigration laws that saw them as a threat to America’s “racial stock” voted for Trump, betting on his promise to close the door to the next generation of immigrants and protect their privileges as white Americans. This may seem like a great irony, but it is consistent with nationalist and populist traditions that link popular sovereignty to national homogeneity.

And yet, as the Brexit vote has demonstrated, in Europe, Eastern European migrants today remain vulnerable to anti-migrant sentiment and violence. In the United Kingdom, many who voted to leave the European Union seem to have been voting against Poles and Romanians as much as against Syrian refugees. The aftermath of the vote saw hundreds of hate crimes directed toward immigrants, many targeting Poles. In a London suburb, Arkadiusz Jozwik, a forty-year-old Polish worker in a meat factory, was sitting outside eating pizza in late August when he was attacked and beaten to death by teenagers. If Eastern European migrants have achieved some status as more “desirable” migrants in Europe, their position remains tenuous in many communities, and emigration is no sure path to a better life.

In the United Kingdom, many who voted to leave the European Union seem to have been voting against Poles and Romanians as much as against Syrian refugees.

It is perhaps not surprising that, in another echo of the past, Eastern European governments have tried to capitalize on xenophobia in the West to woo emigrants home. The Jackson 5 song “I Want You Back” has become the theme of a snappy Latvian campaign to encourage return migration. In Poland, the government continues to promote return, offering assistance to re-migrants with housing and employment, while Romania has attempted to recruit returnees with scholarships and employment fairs. It is not yet clear whether these efforts are having any effect. At least in the United Kingdom, the number of workers from Eastern Europe has actually increased in the short time since the Brexit vote, as many individuals have sought to arrive before new restrictive regulations take effect. However, the declining value of the British pound makes working in the United Kingdom a less attractive option.

It seems that every Great Departure comes with its own choices, anxieties, and disappointments. States make choices about whether to welcome newcomers or build new barriers, whether to encourage departures or returns. Individuals, meanwhile, are forced to make more tortured choices between pressing onward or returning home. And the case for returning home looks set to become stronger. For immigrants in America from the seven countries listed in Trump’s recent executive order (and for many other immigrants as well), the prospect of being trapped into the United States, unable to travel or visit family for fear of not being allowed back in the country, is a high price to pay. There are reports that some Middle Eastern migrants in Europe are returning home already, whether because they have been refused the right to remain, because they find themselves isolated and broke in a hostile environment, or because they are simply homesick. 

In turn, the years between 1989 and 2015 may ultimately be remembered as exceptional in Western history, a fleeting age of growing (if contested) integration and more open borders. If it does, it is worth keeping one of the major lessons of the Cold War in mind: borders tend to erode freedoms on both sides of the wall.

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