H-Diplo Article Review 1031- "Waging the Cold War"

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H-Diplo Article Review 1031

23 April 2021

Emmanuel Comte.  “Waging the Cold War: The Origins and Launch of Western Cooperation to Absorb Migrants from Eastern Europe, 1948–57.”  Cold War History (May 2020).  DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/14682745.2020.1756781.

Editor: Diane Labrosse | Commissioning Editor: Seth Offenbach | Production Editor: George Fujii

Review by Jan Musekamp, University of Pittsburgh

Emmanuel Comte’s article focuses on migration management among Western government organizations in the early years of the Cold War.  At this time, political crises in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), Czechoslovakia, and Hungary led an increasing number of emigrants from these countries to leave for Western Europe.  Comte argues that collaboration in accommodating migrants’ needs was a high priority in Western cooperation for two reasons: to stabilize the war-torn countries to the West of the ‘Iron Curtain,’ and to destabilize the emerging Communist regimes to the East of the ‘Iron Curtain.’ Comte consulted an impressive array of primary and secondary sources in France, Germany, and the United States.  He successfully positions his article within the broader field of Cold War studies and, somewhat less effectively, in migration studies.[1]

The author begins with an overview of population movements between newly erected Communist regimes and their Western neighbors in the late 1940s and early 1950s, focusing on East and West Germany.  Whether most people left the Eastern part of Germany for economic or for ideological reasons has been discussed by scholars for a long time.  Based on the work of Volker Ackermann, the author holds that just one percent of East Germans left for ideological reasons.  This figure is doubtful since Ackermann was merely citing an opinion in West German politicians’ contemporary discussion.[2] In any case, when looking at emigration reasons, it is usually impossible to differentiate between economic and political factors; both are typically intertwined.[3]

In the next part of the article, Comte focuses on the main reason for a coordinated response to migration among the Western powers, which was the political stability of “western border countries” such as Italy, Greece, and West Germany during the early Cold War period.  Comte correctly points at the pressure that the high influx of people was already putting on the West German labor market in the late 1940s (4-5), leading to the electoral success of the Bloc of Expellees and Dispossessed Persons (BHE) and right-wing extremist parties.  Not surprisingly, times of economic downturns and high unemployment are always particularly challenging for potential immigrants who seek admission to another country.  However, it is worth mentioning that by the mid-1950s, unemployment was no longer an important issue in West Germany – from the early 1950s, the rate decreased rapidly.  As a result, a severe labor shortage developed, which was filled until 1961 by immigrants from East Germany and subsequently by so-called guest-workers.[4]

Comte then describes how Western countries actively attracted and allocated a high-skilled workforce from the East in order to destabilize countries that were aligned with the USSR economically. To achieve this goal, enhanced western cooperation was needed.  Comte mentions various U.S. initiatives, which ultimately led to the establishment of the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration (ICEM).  The analysis of the ICEM’s efforts in tackling migration movements across three continents is the most innovative part of this article.  Built-up in 1951 out of the lessons learned from earlier surges in East-West migration, ICEM coordinated Western efforts to manage the migration from the East in both a more active and a more political way.  It also utilized a more collaborative approach than previous organizations like the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the International Refugee Organisation (IRO).  As Peter Gatrell has pointed out, the ICEM did not necessarily arrange for transportation itself.  Still, it assisted NGOs in their efforts – a scheme that recently has been researched in great detail by Dimitris Parsanoglou and Yannis Papadopoulos.[5] As a result, the ICEM elaborated detailed relocation plans. For instance, under a 1952 scheme, some 230,000 Germans emigrated from West Germany to Australia (p. 15).[6] At the same time, Western European countries were among the first to sign the United Nations Geneva Convention on refugees’ status – a legal framework that was subsequently applied primarily to refugees from Communist countries.[7]

Comte closes the article with a discussion of Hungarian emigrants’ resettlement after they left their home country because of the Soviet crackdown on the 1956 Revolution.  At this point, the Geneva Convention’s legal framework and the ICEM’s logistical framework allowed for swift global resettlement of an estimated 200,000 refugees.

While Comte presents the ICEM’s political and economic role during the first years of the Cold War in a convincing way, the positioning of the topic into the broader field of Migration Studies is less successful.  Comte deals with a significant but relatively small group of people who were absorbed by Western countries (less than one half million people).  While this is not an issue in itself, it is worth mentioning the millions of people who were on the move in the decade preceding 1948/49. The author notes the experiences of both West and East Germany in absorbing ethnic German refugees from Central and Eastern European countries (or expellees, “Vertriebene”) as West German politicians called them).  However, he does not mention this movement’s scope, which R.M. Douglas has put at 12-14 million people (1945-1948).[8] Displaced persons (DPs) were another significant group, outnumbering the more recent emigrants from East-Central Europe.  Their numbers decreased from over one million to roughly 650,000 in 1949 – a group that at this point mostly refused repatriation.[9]

From this perspective, it is difficult to agree with Comte’s statement that “from 1948 onwards, immigration from the East increased in Europe” (3).  This was in fact when European mass migration movements were smaller in scale and thus more manageable than they had been in the previous decade – particularly in light of the experiences of the early postwar years. The article also contains some overly dramatic and simplifying statements.  One such example is the idea that the Berlin Wall “broke under the pressure of the outflow of people from Eastern Europe” (1).  In reality, a complex set of factors led to its breakdown – an important one arguably being East Germans’ migration (and not East Europeans’) to the West in the summer of 1989. In the late 1980s, for people from Poland and Hungary, the infamous Wall was no longer a significant barrier since they already had more liberal travel regimes in place.  The article also at times implies an overly sharp dichotomy between Eastern and Western Europe.  This point of departure might make sense in Cold War Studies, from a political science perspective, and when using the term “Eastern Bloc” vs. the “Western Bloc.” However, it is questionable in light of migration history more broadly. In the historiography, the GDR aside, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary are all considered part of Central or East-Central Europe.  People from the region did not welcome the idea of being positioned in Eastern Europe.  In fact, political refugees regarded their countries as part of the Western World, which had been “kidnapped” by the Soviet Union.[10]

Despite these issues, the present article is an essential contribution to early Cold War migration history.  It is part of an ongoing scholarly discussion, stimulated by scholars such as Peter Gatrell, Dimitris Parsanoglou, Yannis Papadopoulos, and others.


Jan Musekamp is DAAD Visiting Associate Professor at the University of Pittsburgh.  His main research interests are Central and Eastern Europe, mobility, and migration history.  Dr. Musekamp is currently working on a book manuscript entitled From Paris to St. Petersburg and from Kaunas to New York.  A History of Transnational Mobility in East-Central Europe.



[1] Concerning migration movements from Eastern Europe from a historical perspective, Comte refers to Tara Zahra, The Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World (New York: W.W. Norton, 2016); regarding Cold War Studies, the author references John Lewis Gaddis, We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997); as for the intersection of Cold War and migration, Comte draws from Kim Salomon, Refugees in the Cold War: Toward a New International Refugee Regime in the Early Postwar Era (Lund: Lund University Press, 1991).

[2] Volker Ackermann, “Politische Flüchtlinge oder unpolitische Zuwanderer aus der DDR? Die Debatte um den echten Flüchtling in Westdeutschland von 1945 bis 1961,” in Jan Motte, Rainer Ohliger, and Anne von Oswald, eds., 50 Jahre Bundesrepublik – 50 Jahre Einwanderung: Nachkriegsgeschichte als Migrationsgeschichte, (Frankfurt am Main: Campus, 1999), 85. Corey Ross references a share of 20% of emigrants from the GDR who were granted the status of political refugees: Corey Ross, “Before the Wall: East Germans, Communist Authority, and the Mass Exodus to the West,” The Historical Journal 45:2 (June 2002), 468.

[3] On the pitfalls of making clear distinctions between different types of migration refer to Jan Lucassen, and Leo Lucassen, “Migration, Migration History, History: Old Paradigms and New Perspectives.” In Migration, Migration History, History: Old Paradigms and New Perspectives, ed. Jan Lucassen, and Leo Lucassen (Bern: Peter Lang, 1997), 10-17.

[5] Peter Gatrell, Free World?  The Campaign to Save the World’s Refugees, 1956-1963 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 22; Dimitris Parsanoglou and Yannis Papadopoulos, “Regulating Human Mobility through Networking and Outsourcing: ICEM, IOs and NGOs during the 1950s,” Journal of Migration History 5 (2019): 332-352.

[6] It seems like the primary source cited does not reveal the original geographic origin of these people.  For the most part, they were refugees from the German Democratic Republic or ethnic Germans from farther East.

[7] It is not clear why the author explicitly mentions Colombia as the only Western European country that was not among the first group of signatory states.

[8] R.M. Douglas, Orderly and Humane.  The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2012), 1.

[9] Peter Gatrell, The Making of the Modern Refugee (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 97.

[10] See the English version of the programmatic essay by Milan Kundera, “The Tragedy of Central Europe,” The New York Review of Books, 26 April 1984, 33-38; on the long-lasting effect of the “invention of Eastern Europe” as a region juxtaposed to Western Europe, see Larry Wolff, Inventing Eastern Europe.  The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994).