»Migration permeates European history«

Philipp Ther is a historian and professor of central European history at the University of Vienna. He also directs the Institute of East European History. His book ‘The Outsiders’ was published in Germany in 2017 and is to be translated into English by Princeton University Press.

Interview by Gemma Pörzgen

In the current debate, migration and displacement are often treated as new phenomena. As a historian, what is your view?

Migration permeates European history. But it is still important to distinguish between refugees, labour migrants and other forms of migration. Labour migrants move to another country to improve their standard of living; refugees leave their country behind because their life is in danger. I began my book The Outsiders with a description of the year 1492, as this was when the first widespread displacements and expulsions of minorities occurred. They targeted Sephardim as well as Spanish Muslims and their descendants, some of whom had converted to Christianity. Similar patterns continued throughout the 17th and 18th centuries and into the 20th century, with the latter rightly being viewed as the century of displacement and expulsion.

As displacement is an integral part of our own, European, history, it should really belong to the basic tenets of history education. As such, why is the current debate so contentious?

I’m not so sure that most people realise that displacement belongs to our history. That’s why I wrote my book – to provide basic information about the issue. Many people – and this includes some experts – are not aware of the fact that the world wars that took place in the 20th century produced far more refugees in relation to the world’s population, and especially in terms of the European population, than we are seeing today. This is why we need to view the 2015 ‘refugee crisis’ in context.

So how do you explain the outcry?

Fear and rejection of strangers are central motifs that have existed throughout European history. But we also live in very wealthy societies that are based on an extremely unequal world order. Rich, industrialised countries exist alongside poor and impoverished states. Clearly, Europe has been able to keep this inequality at a distance for a long time, but displacement and labour migration are forcing us to confront the issue. Misery is now on our doorstep – metaphorically speaking – and it is even appearing in the very place that we call home. Many people are scared by this situation. This is compounded by increased fears of terrorist attacks, fears that have risen since 11 September 2001 and which have resulted in a wave of anti-Islamism. History demonstrates that a shift away from a relatively strong level of willingness to help refugees towards a tide of scepticism and rejection after a certain period of time is by no means a new phenomenon. But it is political actors that are always responsible for turning the tide.

Supporters of a ‘welcoming culture’ in countries such as Austria and Germany seem to be on the defensive. Are there any historical lessons that could demonstrate how we could turn back the tide?

It is difficult to learn from history. But we can try to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past and also to pinpoint the best approaches. History shows that host countries have almost always benefited from migration in the long term. In contrast, emigration has always constituted a loss for countries of origin. This is why certain states prevented their population from leaving their country during the Early Modern period – this was the case in France under Louis XIV, but it also occurred in the 20th century in East Germany and other Eastern Bloc countries.

In your book, you view solidarity as essential to successful integration. What does this mean for us today?

Integration has two sides. It can be criticised for encompassing profoundly different ideas about society. If the relationship between receiving societies and refugees is to develop properly, a certain level of openness is needed. At present, there is a real danger that the pressure caused by the current debate will lead to the impression that this openness has been lost and that divisions are opening up in society. I am particularly concerned that our societies could become stuck in a vicious circle resulting from the current strength of right-wing populism. Societies that lack openness and allow negative attitudes to strengthen prevent refugees from settling in properly. This leads them to feel permanently marginalised. However, it not only makes life more difficult for refugees – it can even make them unwilling to integrate. This would transfer our problems to the future.

Some Eastern European countries argue that their populations have yet to make the same experiences as those in the West. They argue that this explains their different approach to refugee policy and is why they are less willing to accept migrants. What is your view?

Dividing Europe into East and West is not particularly helpful. East and West are spatial concepts that developed out of the Cold War, and were particularly popular in the old Federal Republic of Germany. If we divide the world up in this manner, we also need to include Germany’s ‘inner East’ – the five new (East German) federal states – as part of our argument. As a consequence of the Second World War, Germany’s occupation and domination of other countries and the crimes associated with this history, post-communist societies developed that were particularly homogenous. After 1945, the ideal of a homogeneous society was propagated for a long time in East Germany – even by the state. This situation continues to influence today’s societies. Post-communist societies are also poorer, and they faced enormous levels of uncertainty during the transition that occurred after 1989. They also lack the wealth that exists in the old West German federal states. This situation furthered the development of the negative attitudes that these populations often express towards migrants. The Eastern Bloc countries also have less experience with foreigners – and this also applies to the five new German federal states. Populations that have less experience of people from Muslim countries, for example, are more likely to harbour fears about them. Of course, these fears are also being instrumentalised for political ends. And it is important to differentiate between countries in which right-wing populists are whipping up anti-migrant sentiment and those where the populists are already in power.

You mean countries like Hungary? Or which country would you choose an example?

This is not a problem about East and West. Look at Denmark: a right-wing populist party is providing support to the government and, therefore, shares power. Denmark currently has a highly restrictive refugee policy which has been copied by Austria – neither country is located in Eastern Europe. Due to the coalition with the FPÖ and the fact that the conservative ÖVP has adopted many of the FPÖ’s values, in 2017, Vienna began implementing a refugee policy based on deterrent. However, the decisive factor in situations such as these is whether the demands made by the right-wing populists are actually taken up by the political mainstream. In this respect, much has changed in the debate in Germany. Political parties that call themselves Christian have begun adopting some of the positions advanced by the AfD. The problem, therefore, clearly extends beyond the limits of Eastern Europe.

You have criticised the Austrian government for using the term ‘illegal migration’ in its legislative programme. This term is also frequently employed in Hungary and other countries. Why is it so problematic?

The term ‘illegal migration’ is demonstrative of the fact that a shift has taken place in our common interpretative framework. ‘Migration’ used to have positive connotations. Since the time of the Huguenots, people have assumed that refugees needed help. This view involved a certain amount of compassion. During the Cold War, refugees from East Germany and other Eastern Bloc countries were collectively viewed as having been persecuted and, therefore, received appropriate support. Therefore, the question we need to ask ourselves is why migration is currently viewed so negatively. Clearly, there has been a huge shift in the debate. And as soon as the term ‘migration’ is coupled with the word ‘illegal’, refugees can be criminalised. This is already happening in Austria, Hungary and the US, and it’s becoming a much broader phenomenon.


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