Peter Gatrell, Professor, University of Manchester

Writing migration into a history of Europe since 1945

I am writing a history of Europe since 1945 seen through the prism of migration. Europe has always been a continent of people on the move; it’s difficult to imagine any part of the continent that has been untouched by migration of one kind or another. The continent’s history and the history of individual European countries have been shaped by migration, by people voluntarily and often quietly crossing international frontiers or moving within a single country, by people who have migrated in order to escape from violence, by people who have been deported, and by those who didn’t migrate.

My book will begin with dead bodies: ‘People trying every way to get out in boats. Bigger ships could not come in, only little ships. I remember there was an old lady left to die, screaming. No-one to help her. Left to herself. We were lucky. We get out on little ship and then to big ship … There was no water in town. Canals full of dead people’. There are many more stories in the same vein, of individuals being literally as well as metaphorically engulfed. One eye-witness recalled: ‘the stench was terrible. There was no air. We didn’t know where we were going. We didn’t know how long we’d be on the ship. We couldn’t see anything’. Migration is partly about engulfment. The first quotation is the testimony of a Latvian refugee, describing the journey she made from the Baltic coast to Lübeck, in a desperate attempt to evade the Soviet Red Army in May 1945. The second is a quotation from the words of an Algerian woman described being transported to France in 1962, along with hundreds of other harkis, Algerians and their families who fought on behalf of the French during the bitter conflict over the status of Algeria.

Historical testimony such as this can make us sit up and take notice. It can prompt us to think about what is familiar and what is unfamiliar about migration and about how migration is and has been represented. It has the capacity to challenge unwarranted suggestions that what happens today is ‘unprecedented’. Precedents direct our attention to the scale and suddenness of migration, as in ‘refugee crisis’, but also require us to think about motives, opportunities and constraints on people who migrate. As the late Adam McKeown put it: ‘the arguments about migration are numbingly familiar … the intractable positions of migration debates seem to be trapped in an incestuous cycle of call and response that has little to do with the dynamics of migration itself’. In my presentation I want to talk about dynamics – changes in political, economic and other contexts – and about the aspirations of migrants, against the backdrop of constraints of numerous kinds.

Peter Gatrell teaches history at the University of Manchester where he is also affiliated to the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute. He is the author of a trilogy of books on refugee history, including A Whole Empire Walking: Refugees in Russia during World War 1 (1999) and The Making of the Modern Refugee (2013). His latest book, co-edited with Lyubov Zhvanko, is Europe on the Move: Refugees in the Era of the Great War, 1912-1923 (2017). He is currently writing a history of migration in/to Europe since 1945, for Penguin Books and Basic Books.

Organised together with the Department of History (Modernhistoriska seminariet), Stockholm University.

Program för Forum för transnationell migration och CEIFO-seminarier vårterminen 2018.