The Return of No-Man’s Land

Europe's Asylum Crisis and Historical Memory

A seucrity fence topped with razor wire is seen near the makeshift camp called "The New Jungle" in Calais, France, September 20, 2015.  Regis Duvignau / Reuters

In mid September, around 1,000 refugees were reportedly stranded on the border between Hungary and Serbia, with neither state willing to grant them asylum. The return of a “No-Man’s Land” on Eastern European soil is yet another disturbing reminder of how history can repeat itself. No-Man’s Land was last seen in Eastern Europe in 1938, when governments played a sick game of ping-pong with unwanted Jewish refugees, shunting them back and forth across state borders.

In one infamous incident in 1938, the Polish government passed legislation that stripped most Polish Jews living outside Poland of their Polish citizenship. Three days before the measure took effect, on October 28, 1938, Nazis rounded up 17,000 Polish Jews living in Nazi Germany and attempted to deport them to Poland. Poland promptly closed its borders. Throughout November, thousands of people were thus caught in limbo between the Polish and German border near Zbąszyń. They were housed in miserable tents, barracks, and condemned military stables—or else were left to freeze outdoors, exposed to the elements. 

Hannah Arendt, the century’s most famous theorist of refugeedom (and a refugee herself), explained such scenes as a symptom of the interwar obsession with national sovereignty. The state, “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 consequences, she wrote in her book The Origins of Totalitarianism, “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.” 

A Jewish family prior to being deported from Slovakia, 1942.
A Jewish family prior to being deported from Slovakia, 1942. Wikimedia

Such “petty wars” broke out along frontiers across Eastern Europe in 1938. On April 16, for example, Jewish residents of the Burgenland in Austria, on the border with Hungary (the very border to which the Austrian government is currently deploying 2,200 troops) were driven from their apartments,

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