H-Diplo Review Essay 205 on Gatrell. The Unsettling of Europe: How Migration Reshaped a Continent

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H-Diplo Review Essay 205

20 March 2020

Peter Gatrell.  The Unsettling of Europe: How Migration Reshaped a Continent.  New York:  Basic Books, 2019.  ISBN:  9780465093632 (hardcover, $19.99).

https://hdiplo.org/to/E205
Review Editor: Diane Labrosse | Production Editor: George Fujii

Review by Harun Buljina, Independent Scholar

Migration has formed an omnipresent feature of European politics and public discourse over the past several years, with commentators frequently referencing an unprecedented ‘migrant crisis’ and the challenge it poses to continental institutions. Peter Gatrell’s timely new book, The Unsettling of Europe, explicitly confronts these debates, opening with the all-too familiar image of desperate masses crowding into boats and trying to reach the safety of foreign shores. The episode Gatrell describes, however, belongs not to the contemporary Mediterranean, but to a similarly perilous crossing of the Baltic Sea in 1944. The author argues that far from being an apocalyptic novelty, migration forms a defining feature of the past 70-odd years of European history, with his book reinterpreting this period by centering it on the experience of “people on the move” (3).

In doing so, Gatrell draws on several discernible strands of the scholarly literature. The Unsettling of Europe fits neatly within an ongoing concern with ‘mobility,’ both within and without European historiography, with the author notably opting for the term ‘migration’ over such narrower counterparts as ‘immigration’ so as to emphasize the multiple dimensions and open-ended nature of the phenomenon.[1] It also builds on an ongoing scholarly interest in the totality of the “postwar” years—epitomized by Tony Judt’s eponymous study—which has grappled with the consequences of Europe’s Cold War division and reunification by considering the two sides of the iron curtain in conjunction.[2] Above all, however, Gatrell’s book testifies to a renewed methodological emphasis on personal narratives and experiences in public history and similarly-minded academic works.[3] The result is a rich panoramic account of how migration shaped contemporary Europe, humanizing and bringing nuance to public debate while leaving open a number of further questions.

The Unsettling of Europe is divided into five chronological sections, each of which further consists of four-to-five individual chapters focusing on particular national contexts or, occasionally, themes. Part 1 covers the period 1945-1956, with Gatrell arguing that accounts centered on recovery and reconstruction underplay the tremendous displacement that these processes entailed. Emerging Cold War rivalries thus combined with regional retaliations to further redraw Central and Eastern Europe along ethno-national lines, perhaps most notably in the case of the region’s large German minorities. At the same time, both the eastern and western blocs relied on migrants, whether internal or international, to facilitate their economic development. Part 2 consequently turns to the ‘golden age’ of this development between 1956 and 1973. Coinciding as it did with accelerating decolonization, this period saw growing numbers of collaborators, laborers, and repatriates arriving in metropoles from their former colonies. Gatrell particularly examines the questions that new migrants posed for governments and societies in Britain, France, and Germany, but also in the Communist East, whose economic modernization entailed both tremendous internal migration and growing contacts with migrants and visitors from the broader second and third worlds.

Economic concerns continue to structure the book in part 3, which spans from the 1973 Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) oil embargo to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Gatrell documents how the former crisis accelerated rightwing backlash against migrants throughout Northwestern Europe, illustrating what political scientist James Hollifield described as the “liberal paradox”: as businesses demanded the free movement of labor, voters balked at sharing welfare benefits.[4] Alongside these domestic divisions, however, migration from southern European countries such as Greece, Italy, and Portugal also contributed to the continent’s ongoing economic integration. Gatrell is further attuned to the intertwined intellectual development of the concept of multiculturalism and competing demands for assimilation during this same era, but is careful not to let these abstract debates monopolize the discussion, devoting greater attention to the experience of migrants themselves. For many, the reality of likely permanent settlement ran counter to their own initial expectations, opening up gender and generational cleavages that compounded the ‘disintegration’ of pre-migratory social ties. As in the preceding decades then, migration in late Cold War Europe represented a complex and multi-faceted phenomenon, simultaneously tying the continent together and provoking anxieties over civilizational decline, “unsettling” both migrant communities and the larger societies around them.

Part 4 considers the period 1989-2008, during which the collapse of Communism appeared to herald a new Europe of obsolete borders and unprecedented mobility. Gatrell offers a critical reappraisal of these years in light of more recent developments, highlighting growing contradictions within the project of European integration. The break-up of Yugoslavia, for instance, demonstrated once again the link between national self-determination and mass displacement, while the rise of exceptionally mobile ‘Eurostar’ professionals and Western expatriates belied the parallel expansion of human trafficking and brutal exploitation of poorer migrants. Describing the archipelago of camps and detention centers that emerged in the early years of the new century to keep extra-European migrants out, Gatrell sets the stage for the book’s final part 5, which, analogously to part 3, pivots on the economic crisis of the 2008 financial crash. In contrast to the oil embargo of the early 70s, however, here the resulting downturn accompanied enormous political upheavals, most notably the Arab Spring, which sharply increased the numbers of those seeking refuge and stability within the European Union. After offering a pair of more conceptual chapters that consider contestations over migrants’ bodies and efforts at memorialization, Gatrell closes the section with a reflection on the “war on refugees” in Europe today, concluding that the continent seems to have come full circle to the displacement of 1945.

In the conclusion, Gatrell distills the preceding narrative into a handful of overarching points. He reiterates that the history of migration in modern Europe is multi-layered and open-ended, a catalyst for both interstate cooperation and disagreement, the cause as well as consequence of European integration. Situating the current “migrant crisis” within the longer convoluted history that his book described, he takes aim at both popular historical amnesia and such academic formulations as Ivan Krastev’s reference to a newly “barricaded continent.”[5] While Gatrell is a harsh critic of ‘fortress Europe,’ he warns that notions of an unprecedented hostility to migrants obscure how mobility has always worked in tandem with incarceration, as well as the selective embrace of wealthier migrants in the EU today—a filter rather than a fortress. Conceding that questions of identity are never far from the surface, he proposes re-conceptualizing Europe’s history of migration not through the symbol of an arriving boat, but with that of a bridge: the continent may have been less unsettled without it, but it would have also emerged greatly diminished and impoverished.

Besides historicizing the public debate over migration in Europe today, another central intervention of The Unsettling of Europe is to restore historical agency to migrants themselves. Gatrell thus sees dehumanizing descriptions of migrants as an amorphous mass or of waves of migration as comparable to natural phenomena as reflecting not only contemporary anxieties, but also a consistent failure on the part of commentators and policy makers to take into account their diverse perspectives over the preceding decades. Chapters throughout the book therefore repeatedly highlight how socio-political polemics ignored migrants’ varied backgrounds, motivations, and responses to life in new lands, with debates over “assimilation,” for example, showing little concern for how migrants understood the concept themselves. In an effort to rectify this, Gatrell incorporates a broad range of primary sources, from individual memoirs to a wealth of anthropological studies and works of film and literature. The Unsettling of Europe consequently teems with personal stories of migrants from virtually every locale and period under discussion, perhaps taking its cue from similar trends in European museums, which themselves form a major subject of a chapter toward the end of the book.

Taken on its own terms then, The Unsettling of Europe largely succeeds, providing a cohesive and intimate reinterpretation of European history since the close of the Second World War with migration—and migrant voices—at its center. Certain drawbacks emerge, however, precisely at the boundaries of this spatial and temporal scope. Much of the post-1945 displacement Gatrell describes in Eastern Europe, for instance, has its roots in the longer-term demise of pluralistic dynastic empires and the proliferation of nation-states in their wake. Several chapters thus refer to Bulgarian state pressures on the country’s Turkish minority, but while these unfolded within the geopolitical circumstances of the Cold War, they were also rooted in much older local dynamics surrounding the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, which in turn cast their shadow on the present-day ‘Balkan route.’ Taking 1945 as the starting point also conceals other longer-term structural trends, such as the fact that Europe entered the twentieth century as a net exporter of peoples but closed it with the significant in-migration that Gatrell describes; where the interwar overpopulation of the Balkans made them a formative site for theories of economic development that economists later applied to Africa and Asia, today they register some of the steepest rates of population decline in the world. In effect, while focusing on the post-1945 period highlights the relationship between migration, political economy, and state-building, it also risks obscuring the longer-term changes and continuities that shape regional responses to migration today.

In spatial terms too, the European political framing occasionally sidelines certain global and trans-continental developments that are crucial for making sense of migration in Europe itself. As mentioned, the global economic shocks such as 1973 and 2008 structure the book’s narrative, but the focus is on how they affected the European nation-states that drew in migrants rather than on how their global ramifications spurred migration in the first place. In other words, while The Unsettling of Europe more explicitly situates the ‘pull’ factors behind migration within the historical development of the modern European political economy, the corresponding ‘push’ factors emerge largely from the composite of individual experiences. In fairness, however, Gatrell is clearly attuned to the global factors behind migration into Europe, notably criticizing the parochialism of European debates in which commentators ignore the fact that the bulk of those fleeing Syria have ended up in Lebanon, Turkey, and elsewhere. Moreover, with 24 chapters, 70-odd years, and a geographic range stretching from Portugal to the Urals, one can hardly fault The Unsettling of Europe for a lack of breadth. To the contrary, while the above issues of scope testify to the challenges and trade-offs of fitting global phenomena into a European frame, Gatrell’s study makes an important historical contribution to one of the most far-reaching debates shaping Europe today.

 

Harun Buljina received his Ph.D. in History from Columbia University in 2019. Currently based in Cambridge, MA, his research focuses on Muslim intellectual and socio-political networks in the late-Ottoman and modern Balkans.

 

Notes

[1] Jan Lucassen and Leo Lucassen, “The Mobility Transition Revisited, 1500–1900: What the Case of Europe Can Offer to Global History,” Journal of Global History 4:3 (November 2009): 347-377; Engseng Ho, “Inter-Asian Concepts for Mobile Societies,” The Journal of Asian Studies 76:4 (November 2017): 907-928.

[2] Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 (New York: Penguin Press, 2005).

[3] Orhan Pamuk, The Innocence of Objects (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2012), 54-57.

[4] James F. Hollifield, “The Emerging Migration State,” International Migration Review 38:3 (2004): 885-912.

[5] Ivan Krastev, After Europe (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), 108.