P. Gatrell: The Unsettling of Europe

The Unsettling of Europe. The Great Migration, 1945 to the Present

Gatrell, Peter
London 2019: Penguin Books
576 S.
€ 36,00
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Allison Schmidt, Concordia College

The 2015 refugee crisis in Europe has drawn parallels to another historic population movement on the continent – that of the displaced persons (DPs) of World War II. These junctures in migration history bookend Peter Gatrell’s latest impressive work, Unsettling Europe. The Great Migration, 1945 to the Present. A specialist in Russian history before his turn to world history, the University of Manchester professor has previously written on refugee movements from the early 20th century onward. Now he has created a “migration and mobility” companion piece to other post-1945 European histories by Tony Judt and William Hitchcock.1 While those commonly used texts do contain information on migration, Gatrell centers his narrative on movement, arguing convincingly that “every major development in postwar Europe is connected to migration” (p. 3).

For Gatrell, the story of migration and Europe follows neither a declinist nor a progressive paradigm. People have moved and will continue to move for better opportunities. Political and social reactions follow. The Unsettling in the title hints at an unease and anxiety that things have changed, changed drastically, shifting away from an imagined Europe of the past. Indeed, another potential argument for 1945 as a starting point is that few eyewitnesses are left to tell of prior movements and people’s reactions to them, though migration historians point out that the “unsettling of Europe” has had long occurred, and inhabitants of past centuries had their own pasts to look back on. Migration histories seek to normalize mobility as much as stasis.

The first part of the book examines the DPs and expulsions of ethnic minorities in the decade after World War II. It also establishes a major player in the lives and futures of migrants in the next 70 years – the nation-state and its efforts toward cultural homogeneity within a country. In an attempt to deter future ethnic conflicts, successive nation-states expulsed millions of civilians who did not fit within the „imagined community.“ The migrants, such as ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia, often found that they had little in common with their new communities beyond a shared language. Similar to Tara Zahra, Gatrell connects the histories of states on either side of the Iron Curtain by acknowledging “the similarities in the way European states behaved or how migrants experienced mobility” (p. 89). The second part of the book centers on the economic boom circa mid-1950s to 1971, with the „guest workers“ it attracted and the postcolonial migrants who, formerly residents of imperial possessions, made their way to mainland Britain, France, and the Netherlands. Gatrell turns the traditional narrative of cause and effect on its head by arguing that the „guest workers“ themselves made the economy boom. The third part of the book focuses on the years of the 1970s and 80s when these immigrants, and now their children, navigate their identities in lands that push for assimilation and integration while excluded by religion and skin color from political-right radicals’ definitions of European. Gatrell also acknowledges the still-lingering economic divide between the wealthier North and the economically strapped South in a chapter on migration in the Mediterranean states. Part four examines the post-1989 “colossal exodus” from the former Soviet Union that “never came to pass” and the types of migration that occurred instead (p. 271). Here enters a privileged class of migrants, the jet-commuters who work in one country and live in another on the weekends. Class is inextricably interwoven with movement, and migrants with less social, economic, and cultural capital face different challenges. This leads to an overview of the last decade of immigration to Europe, particularly across the Mediterranean via Turkey or North Africa. These migrants navigate the boundaries of “Europe” as an entity, whether an imagined cultural entity or embodied by Frontex.

Gatrell deftly weaves policies and statistics with personal accounts and thematic perspectives. The book relies primarily on secondary literature, which makes it a great reference for scholars attempting to put their migration studies into context or for anyone trying to find more information on a specific group. Each chapter mentions films, documentaries, and memoirs that personalize the statistics (or make excellent primary sources for university instructors to pair with a chapter). The book really piques the reader’s interest when it engages with thematic issues: the growth of migration museums, the repatriation of immigrant bodies to countries of origin, and headscarf debates.

Naturally, an expansive overview cannot cover everything, but a couple of segments could use more detail. Gatrell argues for “the importance of individual decision-making” in migration rather than the “forced” versus “economic” motives (p. 79). However, the book could add more about the underlying causes of the largest refugee crisis since World War II. The intensity of the situation shows some distinctive forces, whether the desertification of Mauritania due to climate change or destabilization in Afghanistan and Iraq due to US-led wars in the 00s. Additionally, the book overall presents the headscarf and assimilation debates very well, yet could acknowledge the inherent sexism in the debates. One of the arguments against the headscarf is that it supposedly represents the oppression of women, yet those who oppose them are still ultimately focused on controlling the behavior of women.

Though the book engages themes of emotion, religion, gender, and the body, at the crux is the relationship between migrant and the state. A group of people immigrate, and the receiving states attempt to integrate/deter them with varying degrees of success. The relationship of migration and the state has long occupied migration scholars. However, this dynamic in Gatrell’s narrative reveals a latent question: what exactly is a post-World War II European state? Is it a culturally homogenous nation-state or a liberal democracy, open to cultural heterogeneity, or could both coexist? True to his emphasis on the migrants’ experience, Gatrell ignores the ideological debate and focuses on what Zadie Smith would call “descriptive fact;”2 multiculturalism exists, and ethnic homogeneity does not automatically equal peace. Ideological debates, even states, come and go, but migration continues.

1 William Hitchcock, The Struggle for Europe. The Turbulent History of a Divided Continent, New York 2004; Tony Judt, Postwar. A History of Europe Since 1945, New York 2005.
2 Isaac Chotiner, Zadie Smith on Male Critics, Appropriation, and What Interests Her Novelistically About Trump, in: Slate.com, November 16, 2016, https://slate.com/culture/2016/11/a-conversation-with-zadie-smith-about-cultural-appropriation-male-critics-and-how-trump-interests-her-novelistically.html (24.06.2020).

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