The historians’ view: How noble is Europe’s tradition of welcoming refugees?

To what extent can Britain and Germany’s responses to the migrant crisis be explained by similar episodes in the past? Two historians offer their perspectives... This article was first published in the November 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine

Migrants look out a window as they stand on board a train to Serbia at a transit camp in Gevgelija, Macedonia, after entering the country by crossing the border with Greece, September 15, 2015. Two decades of frontier-free travel across Europe unraveled on Monday as countries re-established border controls in the face of an unprecedented influx of migrants, which broke the record for the most arrivals by land in a single day. Germany's surprise decision to restore border controls on Sunday had a swift domino effect, prompting neighbors to impose checks at their own frontiers as thousands of refugees pressed north and west across the continent while Hungary sealed the main informal border crossing point into the European Union. REUTERS/Ognen Teofilovski - RTS1613

Professor David Feldman:

As they confront the desperate attempts of undocumented migrants to enter Europe, both the Conservative government and its critics agree on one thing: namely, that Britain has a noble tradition of welcoming refugees. The prime minister says the government is living up to this tradition; critics say it is being betrayed.


As they justify their positions, both sides invoke a pageant of victimised peoples who have made their home here: from Huguenots in the 16th and 17th centuries to political exiles, royalists and revolutionaries alike, in the 18th and 19th centuries; Jews fleeing tsarism before the First World War and Jews escaping the Nazi regime in the 1930s; followed by Hungarians, Ugandan Asians, Vietnamese, Kosovans and others in the decades after the Second World War.

Yet there is another, different, story we could narrate. For alongside the history of hospitality and asylum there is also the long established practice of governments closing the door and failing to support those refugees who do make it into the country.

One of these two stories – the one that presents Britain as a beacon of decency – has a secure place in public memory. The other is buried and forgotten. Yet a Janus-faced response to refugees is an abiding feature of British history over the last century.

While more than half a million Jews sought refuge from Nazi persecution in Britain, just 80,000 were allowed into the country, with the intention that most would re-emigrate. The celebrated Kindertransport brought 7,482 children to this country but, unable to obtain visas, their parents perished. Ministers and officials feared that the Jewish refugees would never leave, would take British jobs, arouse anti-Semitism in Britain and become a charge on the public purse. This view of how a refugee crisis impinged on the national interest squeezed the space in which humanitarians could work.


A Kindertransport document from c1939. This rescue operation saw 7,482 children given sanctuary in the United Kingdom, yet many of their parents would perish. (© AKG Images)

A similar tension arose three decades later when, on 4 August 1972, President Idi Amin announced the expulsion of 50,000 Ugandans of Asian descent, the great majority of whom held British passports. Just one year earlier the Conservative government had passed the 1971 Immigration Act. This was the culmination of a decade of legislation enacted by Conservative and Labour governments designed to drastically reduce the entry to Britain of people of colour, even if they carried a British passport. Responding to Amin’s announcement, many in the Conservative party and some local authorities protested that the country was full. Faced with a Powellite challenge, Edward Heath’s government agreed to accept a little more than half – just 27,000 – of the Ugandan Asians.

Our selective recall plays a role as we confront the refugee crisis today. Refugee campaigners draw on the partial history of British humanitarianism as they try – with little success – to get the government to adopt a more benevolent policy. But the government itself insists its actions are in line with the nation’s best traditions. It has always been thus. Anthony Eden’s words, written in 1943, could equally provide the watchwords for ministers now: “We should avoid any reproach that we are not doing all we can to rescue these unfortunate people.”

Professor David Feldman is director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck, University of London

Eve Rosenhaft:

The spectacular opening and panicked closure of Germany’s borders in recent weeks could be a metaphor for a migration history that is more complex and ambivalent than many imagine.

Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm II had large Polish-speaking populations who were regarded as Germans and Prussians – integration was organic. But when they moved west to industrialising areas of the Ruhr, they became a ‘problem’. They spoke a different language, they were Catholics in largely Protestant areas, they had too many children. Yet over the long haul they developed their own political organisations, and integrated themselves.

During the 1930s and 40s the Nazis promoted the idea of the Auslandsdeutsche – ethnic Germans all over the globe who were seen as part of the greater Reich, to be ‘brought home’ and reintegrated.

Ironically such a homecoming occurred after the war when 12 million refugees – mainly ethnic Germans – were expelled from eastern territories as punishment for Nazi aggression. Most settled in the new West Germany, where they were integrated.

Having studied the worst of German history, I retain a grudging respect for the way in which West Germany (at least at the official level) faced up to these challenges.

With later arrivals, the picture changes. As the economy boomed, so-called Gastarbeiter (‘guest-workers’) arrived from places like Turkey and southern Europe. Their reception confirmed that, in terms of long-term German national identity, the country still saw itself as kein Einwanderungsland (not a country of immigration).

My own research into ‘black Germans’ reinforces this point. In the 1920s there was a terrible backlash when France used African troops to occupy the Rhineland. That licensed a kind of colour-based racism on a large scale. The ‘Rhineland children’ (born from relationships between German women and French African troops) became an icon of German racism. And the vision of Germany as a society of white people is still deeply embedded today.

In the German response to the current crisis we’ve again seen both sides of the story. Before the emergence of more public sympathy in August, what dominated the news was evidence of popular opposition. There was violence against refugees and hostile demonstrations. More recently we’ve seen the re-emergence of a tradition of humanitarian engagement in Germany, strong in the churches since 1945.

Demography also seems to be playing a new role in German thinking. Germans are increasingly aware that the country’s population is shrinking and it will need more young people. For decades policy-makers were too anxious about anti-immigrant feeling to suggest that new blood could be ‘imported’, but something does now   seem to be shifting here.

Eve Rosenhaft is professor of German Historical Studies at the University of Liverpool


Interviews by Chris Bowlby, a BBC journalist specialising in history