Book Review: The Great Departu Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World. By Tara Zahra

EASTERN Europe is in the midst of a migration panic. Milos Zeman, the
Czech Republich’s president, has called the influx of refugees to the
continent an “organised invasion”; Jaroslaw Kaczynski, chairman of
Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, warns that they may be carrying
“very dangerous diseases”. But anxieties about migration in the region
are nothing new. In 1890 a lawyer in Galicia described it as “one of
the most important, burning problems of the day”. Yet as Tara Zahra
recounts in “The Great Departure”, a perceptive history of migration
and eastern Europe, until very recently that problem was not
immigration but emigration.

considered a “fever”, that could empty villages. For most, the
destination was America: 300,000 made the journey from Austria-Hungary
in 1907, the highest number to arrive from one country in a single
year. The story of their arrival there has been told many times; Ms
Zahra, of the University of Chicago, describes the impact that leaving
had on their homelands and the debates it provoked. The departure of
so many men of working age, for example, created new opportunities: in
one Hungarian town women reportedly took over most of the positions in
local government. But it alarmed local elites. Polish nobles were
deprived of cheap agricultural labour, Austrian and Hungarian military
officials of conscripts.

The authorities quickly found a convenient scapegoat. They fined and
arrested Austria-Hungary’s travel agents, accusing them of duping
gullible peasants into leaving the country. This was part of a wider
propaganda battle, in which newspapers ran lurid items about violence
and exploitation in America. After the first world war, scare stories
no longer sufficed. Populations had been devastated, first by the
fighting and then by the Spanish flu. The region’s new nation-states
quickly deemed emigration an existential threat. In 1920 Poland
introduced stricter passport controls; Czechoslovakia sought to lure
back expatriates to boost the national stock.

Emigration did have its uses for some, though. Politicians realised
they could exploit migration policy to remove unwanted minorities.
Despite the passport restrictions, in Poland Jews were encouraged to
emigrate. By the mid-1930s many politicians in the region were in
favour of mass Jewish emigration. Seeking a solution to what was
widely referred to as the “Jewish problem”, Western officials
fruitlessly considered places—Madagascar, British Guyana—where eastern
European Jews could be resettled. As Ms Zahra points out, these
efforts blurred the lines between “rescue and removal…emigration and
expulsion”, while doing little to save Jews from the horrors that
awaited them. Even before the Holocaust, removing Jews from eastern
Europe had become politically acceptable.

For the author the Iron Curtain was the “culmination” of eastern
Europe’s struggle against emigration. Communist regimes had long
warned of the misery that awaited emigrants to the West; now, however,
the political stakes were far higher. Embarrassed by defections to the
West, eastern-European governments sought to woo back other �©migr�©s,
offering them financial incentives even as they denounced the greed of
capitalist societies. But still they were willing to let certain
citizens leave. Dissidents and unwelcome minorities could be sold to
West Germany or Israel in exchange for substantial ransoms: in the
1970s, Nicolae Ceausescu said that Romania’s best export commodities
were “Jews, Germans and oil”.

Eastern Europeans now enjoy the freedom of movement that so many
longed for under communism. The expansion of the EU in 2004 gave
Poles, Hungarians and Czechs, among others, the right to live anywhere
in the union, stimulating the biggest wave of east-west migration in a
century. Migration today is never one-way. Some people spend just a
couple of years in the West before returning. Others never leave at
all. Now that east Europeans can move as they please, for many true
freedom is the “freedom to stay home”.