The Great Departure; Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World by Tara Zahra. W.W. Norton, 2016


The Great Departure covers over a century of Eastern European migration from the mid-nineteenth century to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The phrase “mass migration” is appropriate; between 1846 and 1940, it is estimated that 55 and 58 million Europeans moved to North and South America. We assume that the efforts to control this migration were mainly on the part of receiving countries. Tara Zahra explains that Eastern European countries and particularly Austria-Hungary introduced various measures to direct that flow to accommodate their imperial interests.


Eastern European governments worried about the loss of population, particularly since many of those who left for the Americas were young adults. Population was viewed like any other resource, and its losses deplored. They worried about army recruitment. They also regretted losing the investment they had made in the emigrants’ education.


We normally think of North America as providing opportunity for “their tired, their poor, their huddled masses yearning to breathe free”. In fact, immigrants leaving Ellis Island faced appalling living conditions in over-populated neighborhoods on the lower east side of New York and other eastern seaboard cities, low wages, and a sense of isolation from all they had known in their life.


Eastern Europeans must also have been demoralized by the attitudes of the receiving countries. ”Nativists” in the U.S. worried that immigrants would undermine existing cultural values. Did they possess the capacity for organized industrial work and for democratic participation? Prohibition, passed in 1920, was aimed at the saloon culture with which Eastern European males were associated. Their willingness to accept low wages was thought to undermine wage rates for American workers.


The sensational Wadowice Trial in 1889 involved a group of “emigration agents” charged with having misled innocent Ukrainian and Polish peasants into immigrating to North America, while pocketing their fees. The trial was held in the Galician town of Oświęcin (later called Auschwitz).  Oświęcin was a big railway junction from which many emigrants traveled to Hamburg and Bremen for departure on steam ships. These emigration agents were even accused of having abused travelers on the town’s train platforms.  They had formerly often been livestock traders, a common occupation of Galician Jews. So these cattle dealers came to their new occupation with baggage.


Zahra explains that Eastern European governments soon began to realize that migration could be regulated to accomplish certain national objectives. Once there were limits on mobility, you could shape the ethnic composition by refusing to issue exit permits to favored nationals while encouraging others to leave the country. Or you could shape immigration toward accomplishing imperial ambitions by directing emigrants toward ethnic colonies in North and South America.


Or you could create a welfare network that would make immigration less attractive. Otto von Bismarck’s German Empire is the best example of a budding welfare state. On the other hand, the expansion of the Third Reich in the 1930s, its anti-Semitism and the pogroms on 11 November 1938 (Kristallnacht) shaped another emigrant flow – now “refugees” – were mostly Jews.


The Nazi government complicated its efforts to rid the Reich of its Jews by demanding “compensation” for their investment and confiscating emigrant property and wealth as part of the exit process. As these Jewish emigrants were unwanted in most of the older immigrant countries, new destinations were proposed: Madagascar, British Guiana, the West Indies, and even distant Russian provinces.


Both world wars temporarily ended the “great departure.” But all of the issues involving Eastern European migration would return with German defeat in 1945. Potential migrants were now “displaced persons.” And there was a distinction made between those who qualified for humanitarian aid and those classed as “economic migrants,” seeking opportunity in a new land. DPs must be “useful to the work force” and capable of cultural assimilation.


Eastern European Jews who had survived war and concentration camp were automatically classed as eligible for humanitarian aid and DP status. The U.S. Refugee Act of 1980 also allowed those facing persecution based on race, religion, national origin, and ideological commitments to be classified as refugees and eligible immigrants. But that excluded the more traditional Eastern European ‘economic emigrant.’


Most of the refugees were returned to their native countries. This did not work well. Polish Jews, for example, were returned to Poland only to face anti-Semitism and even violence.


After 1945 the Russian occupation zones in Germany and Austria controlled mobility. Restrictions were eventually eased within their eastern zone, though that backfired when East Germans began fleeing to West Germany through Hungary, Austria, and Berlin. The Berlin Wall was thus a latter-day effort to control Eastern European immigration. It crumbled in 1989 perhaps due to the efforts of an American president: “Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down This Wall!” Politics have always shaped the views and actions of governments supplying and receiving emigrants.


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