Category Archives: Eastern Europe

Fates of Foreigners in Shanghai, 1942

From Last Boat Out of Shanghai, by Helen Zia (Ballantine, 2019), Kindle pp. 129-132:

Once Britain and the United States declared war against Japan, life for Shanghailanders—the foreigners—swiftly changed. Immediately after December 8, 1941, all Allied nationals aged fourteen and above had to report to the Hamilton House near the Bund to register with Japanese gendarmes and receive ID numbers, as well as the red armbands they would have to wear at all times when in public.

Worse yet, Japan froze all bank accounts belonging to its enemy nationals. They were allowed to withdraw only two thousand yuan each month—a paltry amount for foreigners accustomed to pampered Shanghai lifestyles, effectively reducing them to the same income level as their Chinese servants. Each day, the Japanese military issued new edicts that further restricted where foreign Allied nationals could go, what they were allowed to do, how they conducted their lives.

Faced with bitter austerity, the Allied nationals were in a bind. Many expatriates worked for American telephone, gas, and electric utilities or the British waterworks, police, port, and customs. Now these entities were controlled by Japan, aiding its war effort. If Allied Shanghailanders quit their enemy-supervised jobs, they’d be stuck in China, destitute. Plenty of British bobbies, former coworkers of Pan Da, stayed on as members of the Shanghai Municipal Police—enforcing the will of Japan to crush all resistance. When their fellow Americans and Britons back home learned of their work for the enemy, they angrily denounced them, accusing them of collaboration, even treason….

At the start of the war in Europe in 1939, after Germany’s invasion of Czechoslovakia and Poland, Denmark had been a neutral country. As a Dane in Shanghai, Kristian Jarldane had expected his Danish passport to shield his family from trouble. Before Pearl Harbor, his household in the French Concession had carried on as if things were normal, in spite of the war outside their home. Bing and Ma watched baby Ole while Elder Sister socialized. Kristian still had his engineering job with the Shanghai Water Conservancy, which paid him in foreign currency—better than gold in the inflationary wartime economy. He joined other Shanghailanders in maintaining the three-hour lunchtime “tiffins,” as well as afternoon high tea. Kristian would return to the apartment promptly at four o’clock for some strong English tea and thick slabs of dark bread from his favorite Russian-Jewish boulangerie, to be served with eel, fish, or some other meat fried in pork fat and onions.

But the expanding world war began to disrupt everything. The first shock hit Elder Sister and her husband on April 9, 1940, when Germany invaded Denmark. The Copenhagen government immediately surrendered to the Third Reich, becoming part of the Axis with Germany, Japan, and Italy. The couple wondered if that would be a plus in Japanese-occupied Shanghai. As a Dane, Kristian wasn’t required to wear an armband, nor was he subject to the mortifying financial restrictions confronting other Shanghailanders. He had plenty of company, for the nationals of other Axis-occupied countries were also exempt, as were the stateless White Russians, Ashkenazi Jews, and Indian Sikhs. But then, one week after all Allied nationals had to register, Kristian received orders from the Danish consular staff. He was required to provide them with the names and contact information of all Danish members of his household. Everyone in occupied Shanghai was to be accounted for….

In early 1943, the Japanese issued the order that Shanghailanders had dreaded: All citizens of Allied countries were to be imprisoned. Kristian and Elder Sister watched helplessly as friends and neighbors were loaded onto trucks and shipped to one of the eight crowded and squalid internment camps on the outskirts of the city. Most of them were British and American men, women, and children. Some were forced to walk for miles and carry their own baggage, like coolies. Because the prominent Sassoons, Hardoons, and Kadoories—wealthy Baghdadi Jewish families who had lived in Shanghai for many years—were British citizens, they, too, were subject to internment. About seventy-six hundred Americans, British, Dutch, and other civilians were imprisoned between January and July 1943 to “prevent fifth-column activities and guarantee stabilized livelihood for the enemy nationals,” according to the pro-Japan Shanghai Times. Ironically, this same rationale was being used by the U.S. government to incarcerate 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent in 1942—and duly noted by Japanese propagandists to label critics as hypocrites.

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Other Names of the Spanish Flu

From Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World, by Laura Spinney (PublicAffairs, 2017), Kindle pp. 63-65:

When the flu arrived in Spain in May, most Spanish people, like most people in general, assumed that it had come from beyond their own borders. In their case, they were right. It had been in America for two months already, and France for a matter of weeks at least. Spaniards didn’t know that, however, because news of the flu was censored in the warring nations, to avoid damaging morale (French military doctors referred to it cryptically as maladie onze, ‘disease eleven’). As late as 29 June, the Spanish inspector general of health, Martín Salazar, was able to announce to the Royal Academy of Medicine in Madrid that he had received no reports of a similar disease elsewhere in Europe. So who were Spaniards to blame? A popular song provided the answer. The hit show in Madrid at the time the flu arrived was The Song of Forgetting, an operetta based on the legend of Don Juan. It contained a catchy tune called ‘The Soldier of Naples’, so when a catchy disease appeared in their midst, Madrileños quickly dubbed it the ‘Naples Soldier’.

Spain was neutral in the war, and its press was not censored. Local papers duly reported the havoc that the Naples Soldier left in its wake, and news of the disruption travelled abroad. In early June, Parisians who were ignorant of the ravages the flu had caused in the trenches of Flanders and Champagne learned that two-thirds of Madrileños had fallen ill in the space of three days. Not realising that it had been theirs longer than it had been Spain’s, and with a little nudging from their governments, the French, British and Americans started calling it the ‘Spanish flu’. Not surprisingly, this label almost never appears in contemporary Spanish sources. Practically the only exception is when Spanish authors write to complain about it. ‘Let it be stated that, as a good Spaniard, I protest this notion of the “Spanish fever”,’ railed a doctor named García Triviño in a Hispanic medical journal. Many in Spain saw the name as just the latest manifestation of the ‘Black Legend’, anti-Spanish propaganda that grew out of rivalry between the European empires in the sixteenth century, and that depicted the conquistadors as even more brutal than they were (they did bind and chain the Indians they subjugated, but they probably did not–as the legend claimed–feed Indian children to their dogs).

Further from the theatre of war, people followed the time-honoured rules of epidemic nomenclature and blamed the obvious other. In Senegal it was the Brazilian flu and in Brazil the German flu, while the Danes thought it ‘came from the south’. The Poles called it the Bolshevik disease, the Persians blamed the British, and the Japanese blamed their wrestlers: after it first broke out at a sumo tournament, they dubbed it ‘sumo flu’.

Some names reflected a people’s historic relationship with flu. In the minds of the British settlers of Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), for example, flu was a relatively trivial disease, so officials labelled the new affliction ‘influenza (vera)’, adding the Latin word vera, meaning ‘true’, in an attempt to banish any doubts that this was the same disease. Following the same logic, but opting for a different solution, German doctors realised that people would need persuading that this new horror was the ‘fashionable’ disease of flu–darling of the worried well–so they called it ‘pseudo-influenza’. In parts of the world that had witnessed the destructive potential of ‘white man’s diseases’, however, the names often conveyed nothing at all about the identity of the disease. ‘Man big daddy’, ‘big deadly era’, myriad words meaning ‘disaster’–they were expressions that had been applied before, to previous epidemics. They did not distinguish between smallpox, measles or influenza–or sometimes even famines or wars.

Some people reserved judgement. In Freetown, a newspaper suggested that the disease be called manhu until more was known about it. Manhu, a Hebrew word meaning ‘what is it?’, was what the Israelites asked each other when they saw a strange substance falling out of the sky as they passed through the Red Sea (from manhu comes manna–bread from heaven). Others named it commemoratively. The residents of Cape Coast, Ghana called it Mowure Kodwo after a Mr Kodwo from the village of Mouri who was the first person to die of it in that area. Across Africa, the disease was fixed for perpetuity in the names of age cohorts born around that time. Among the Igbo of Nigeria, for example, those born between 1919 and 1921 were known as ogbo ifelunza, the influenza age group. ‘Ifelunza’, an obvious corruption of ‘influenza’, became incorporated into the Igbo lexicon for the first time that autumn. Before that, they had had no word for the disease.

As time went on, and it transpired that there were not many local epidemics, but one global pandemic–it became necessary to agree on a single name. The one that was adopted was the one that was already being used by the most powerful nations on earth–the victors in the Great War. The pandemic became known as the Spanish flu–ispanka, espanhola, la grippe espagnole, die Spanische Grippe–and a historical wrong became set in stone.

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Filed under Brazil, Britain, disease, France, Ghana, Iran, Japan, language, nationalism, Nigeria, Poland, Sierra Leone, Spain, U.S., war, Zimbabwe

Sweden’s Caps vs. Hats in 1700s

From Scandinavia: A History, by Ewan Butler (New Word City, 2016), Kindle pp. 166-167:

The death of Christian VI in 1746 and the succession of his son as Frederick V was welcomed by most Danes.

Meanwhile, in Sweden, effective government was exercised by Count Arvid Horn, celebrated as one of Charles XII’s most daring generals and, later, as a skillful diplomat. As president of the estate of nobles, Horn decided that war-weary Sweden needed a long period of peace, and he had to choose his allies with some care. In 1727, when Horn began his rule, Europe was divided into two rival camps. England-Hannover and France stood opposed to Austria, Spain, and Russia, and Horn finally linked the fortunes of Sweden with the Anglo-French combination.

For eleven years, Horn pursued a pacifist policy, much to the displeasure of a large number of young noblemen who were eager to follow a more aggressive course, an aspiration in which they were supported by many influential businessmen and burgesses. These aggressively minded young men nicknamed Horn’s party the “Nightcaps” or more usually the “Caps,” in tribute to their sleepy conduct of national affairs, and in consequence came to call themselves the “Hats.”

In the 1730s, the alliance between England and France broke up, and the French ambassador in Stockholm, well supplied with money, began to intrigue with the Hats. By the payment of large bribes, he managed to organize a campaign of ruthless agitation and abuse aimed at Horn’s government. In 1739, Horn was forced to resign and his supporters were expelled from the council. The Hats, generally men of the lesser nobility and the bourgeoisie, took over.

The aim of the Hats was to take revenge on Russia, with French help, and the outbreak of the War of the Austrian Succession in 1741 seemed to give them the opportunity that they sought. Beginning with a tripartite contest for the Austrian inheritance and the invasion of Austria by Frederick the Great of Prussia, it was to draw many European nations into the fray. France, Spain, Bavaria, and Sweden came to Prussia’s support, while Britain and Holland joined beleaguered Austria. Separately, Sweden declared war on Russia. The entire conflict, which was fought in many combinations and in many theaters, including the American colonies (where it was known as King George’s War), lasted until 1748.

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Origins of Rus

From Scandinavia: A History, by Ewan Butler (New Word City, 2016), Kindle pp. 16-17:

While the Danes and the Norwegians were venturing southward and westward in their search for a better life, the Swedes looked toward the East. Already, Swedish Ruotsi, or rowing men, had made themselves the masters of much of the eastern coast of the Baltic and had established settlements in what would later be called Finland, Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia. But the Swedes were not content to remain on the Baltic coast. They rowed their longships down the gulf which leads to modern St. Petersburg and up to Lake Ladoga, that great inland sea. Thence, the Ruotsi, or “Rus” (as the Slav tribesmen they met corrupted the name), set the prows of their vessels toward the south, down the network of rivers that run to the Black and the Caspian seas. They were led, the Russian chroniclers tell us, by Rurik and two lieutenants, Askold and Dir, who were possibly his brothers. Rurik founded a “kingdom” south of Lake Ladoga and established the city of Novgorod, while his brothers, pressing farther south, set themselves up as kings of Kiev, on the Dnieper River. By the year 900, the two Swedish colonies were united as the lusty new state of Kievan Rus. Russia owes its name and its foundation as a nation to these Swedish oarsmen.

The purpose of the Swedes was not so much conquest, though that was an essential part of their plan, as trade. Swedish ships plied the river courses in such numbers that even Constantinople was threatened by the merchant-marauders. There, at the seat of the Roman Empire, the Swedes gathered goods from the East – gold, silver, carpets, tapestries, perfumes, leatherwork, dried fruits, precious stones, and many other things never before seen in their homeland. These treasures were shipped to Gotland, a large island in the middle of the southern Baltic Sea, which developed into a rich trading entrepôt. To it came merchants from the mainland of Sweden, Denmark, and countries as far afield as France and Holland. Modern research has unearthed in Gotland hoards of coins from every part of the world known to tenth-century Europe.

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Calcutta’s Mix of Migrants

From The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta, by Kushanava Choudhury (Bloomsbury, 2018), Kindle Loc. approx. 1140-1150:

Calcutta was a collection of the whims of the communities who migrated there and became rich – Bengali and British, as well as Armenian, Jewish, Marwari, Bohra Muslim, Haka Chinese, Punjabi, Gujarati, Portuguese, Greek and Dutch. In Phoolbagan, within walking distance from my house, there were graveyards of Jews and Greeks, Chinese and Bohras. Their tombstones told of men and women who had been born in Budapest and Constantinople and died of cholera in Calcutta. Sumitro and I had walked the city’s streets, discovering airy Sephardic synagogues, Armenian churches, and temples to the Jain saint Mahavir. In the old Black Town, we had mingled with the deity-sculptors among the lanes of Kumortuli, communed at the annual chariot festival at the Marble Palace and witnessed clandestine human hook-swinging during the Raas festival.

Off Beadon Street, in Satubabu and Latubabu’s Bazar, so named after the two nineteenth-century Bengali business titans who founded it, metal hooks were dug into the backs of penitent believers and then hung from what looked a great balance scale made of bamboo. Then the hooked swung high in the air around the pivot of the scale, like giant gliding birds. The practice had been banned for nearly two hundred years, but it still took place, surreptitiously, in the heart of Calcutta.

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Cold War: Ransoming Emigrants

From The Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World, by Tara Zahra (Norton, 2016), Kindle Loc. 3613-27, 3658-74:

The profile of migrants transformed in the 1970s, as dissident intellectuals and celebrity defectors began to take center stage. There had always been a place in the West for intellectual and cultural luminaries from Eastern Europe. The “ideal” East European emigrant throughout the early Cold War had not, however, been a scientist, doctor, or novelist. He or she was a farmer, a miner, a domestic servant, or a factory worker—someone willing to work hard for low wages and fuel booming postwar economies in the West. That image subtly shifted in the late 1960s and the 1970s. In part, the sociological profile of actual emigrants changed, as the refugees who fled Czechoslovakia and Poland in 1968, in particular, tended to have a higher education. Western economies were also transforming. The 1970s brought oil shocks, growing restrictions on immigration in Western Europe, and the rise of technology and service-based industries. The “ideal” refugee from Eastern Europe—the least threatening immigrant—was now an engineer, intellectual, or tennis star, not a factory worker who would compete for ever scarcer manufacturing jobs.

Then, in the 1970s and 1980s, several Eastern bloc governments introduced reforms that attempted to “normalize” relations with the West and with emigrants abroad. These initiatives did not reflect a change of heart regarding emigration in Eastern Europe. Rather, they represented efforts by desperate governments to raise foreign currency. Socialist regimes were searching for new ways to placate dissatisfied citizens in the 1970s and 1980s. Consumer goods—everything from televisions and washing machines to blue jeans and automobiles—were powerful currency in this quest for legitimacy. East European governments largely financed the shift to a consumer economy with loans from the West. Repaying these loans was possible only with a continuous influx of foreign currency, which flowed into the country along with tourists and visitors from the West, or in the form of remittances from migrants working abroad.

Whereas socialist governments had once bitterly denounced the “human traffickers” who lured their citizens to the West, they now willingly brokered a trade in migrants for their own purposes.

Romania also ransomed Jews and Germans for profit. The exchange of Romanian Jews for money and agricultural products had begun covertly after the Second World War. A Jewish businessman in London named Henry Jacober served as the middleman between private individuals in the West and the Romanian secret service. Jacober traded briefcases full of cash, typically $4,000 to $6,000 per emigrant (depending on the individual’s age and educational status), for exit permits to the West. When Israeli intelligence officials got wind of the deals, they decided to get in on the scheme, with the approval of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. At Khrushchev’s insistence, the Romanians began to demand agricultural products instead of cash. Soon Romanian Jews were traded for everything from cattle and pigs to chicken farms and cornflake factories. The ransom of Jews continued under the rule of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu after 1969. The price of exit could go up to $50,000, depending on the migrant’s age, education, profession, family status, and political importance. Israel refused to pay for young children and retirees.

Selling Jews was so profitable that the ransom scheme expanded to include ethnic Germans, who were sold to West Germany for suitcases stuffed with U.S. dollars. Germans, like Jews, were priced on the basis of their educational attainment and ransomed for rates ranging from $650 for an unskilled worker to $3,298 for an emigrant with a master’s degree or equivalent. Romania also received interest-free loans from West Germany in exchange for releasing Germans. In the mid-1970s, Ceausescu famously boasted, “Jews, Germans, and oil are our best export commodities.” Around 235,000 Jews and 200,000 Germans escaped Romania through these deals. During Ceausescu’s regime alone, an estimated 40,577 Jews were ransomed to Israel for $112,498,800; West Germany made payments of at least $54 million in exchange for exit permits for German emigrants.

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FDR and the “Jewish Problem”

From The Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World, by Tara Zahra (Norton, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2276-2301:

President Roosevelt was on the same page. He envisioned an ambitious transfer of populations that would solve both the immediate refugee crisis and the East European “Jewish problem” over the long term. “It must be frankly recognized that the larger Eastern European problem is basically a Jewish problem,” he maintained in January 1939.

The organized emigration from Eastern Europe over a period of years of young persons at the age which they enter actively into economic competition, and at which they may be expected to marry, is not beyond the bounds of possibility. The resultant decrease in economic pressure; the actual removal over a period years of a very substantial number of persons; the decrease in the birthrate and the natural operation of the death rate among the remaining older portion of the population should reduce the problem to negligible proportions.

Roosevelt appointed the geographer Isaiah Bowman, then president of Johns Hopkins University, to lead the search for an appropriate refuge. Bowman had previously served on the U.S. delegation to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, and was head of the American Geographical Society from 1915 to 1935. In the years 1938–42, Bowman directed a project at Hopkins to research possibilities for refugee resettlement around the globe. The goal of the project, in Roosevelt’s words, was to locate “uninhabited or sparsely inhabited good agricultural lands to which Jewish colonies might be sent.”

Bowman and his team surveyed settlement sites on five continents, and his reports circulated widely in government and humanitarian circles. Not coincidentally, however, he did not seriously consider the United States as a potential destination (aside from a cursory examination of Alaska). Bowman firmly believed in eugenics and in natural racial hierarchies. He actually introduced a new Jewish quota at Johns Hopkins in 1942 and also banned African American undergraduates from the university. He was personally convinced that the United States had reached its “absorptive capacity” with respect to Jewish immigrants—even as he lamented declining birthrates among white, middle-class Americans.

At the international level, then, the most critical years of the Jewish refugee crisis before World War II were spent searching the globe for a new refuge, dumping ground, or homeland for European Jews. The Madagascar plan remains the most infamous resettlement scheme, since the Nazis themselves favored it. But the IGCR [Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees], in cooperation with British, American, and Jewish agencies such as the JDC and the World Jewish Congress, considered a range of territories for potential Jewish resettlement. British Guiana, Angola, the Dominican Republic, Northern Rhodesia, Alaska, and the Philippines were among the most widely discussed possibilities. At huge expense, and in a nakedly colonial tradition, intergovernmental and humanitarian organizations dispatched teams of experts in agricultural science and tropical medicine on fact-finding missions to these far-flung destinations. They wined and dined dictators; surveyed the climate, soil, and “natives” in supposedly “underpopulated” lands; and speculated about whether urban Jews could be transformed into farmers who would “civilize” colonial outposts.

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Arbeit Macht Frei in Postwar Europe

From The Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World, by Tara Zahra (Norton, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2719-32:

Economic logic generally set the limits of humanitarian solidarity in postwar Europe. The employment contracts offered to refugees were often highly restrictive, designed to keep them in low-paid or undesirable jobs for as long as possible. Belgium’s “Operation Black Diamond” imported 32,000 DPs as miners, but required them to work a full two years in the mines before they were allowed to seek employment elsewhere. As of 1949, 8,000 had returned to refugee camps in Germany, unable to tolerate the harsh conditions. Other employment programs were similarly restrictive. Britain’s “Westward Ho!” program enabled 82,000 migrants from Eastern Europe to emigrate to the UK, but confined refugees to employment in mining, textiles, agriculture, or domestic service, rather than allowing them to move freely between jobs or professions.

The French government, with its ongoing anxieties regarding population growth, was initially among the most eager to recruit DP labor. The French military commander Pierre Koenig immediately recognized that East European DPs “represent a human and labor resource that we will have a high interest in using to the advantage of our country,” and he urged French authorities to recruit the best workers. In 1948, the French government even set up its own vocational training courses for refugees in the French zone of occupied Germany. Conditions for foreign workers in postwar France were notoriously poor, however, and that hampered recruitment efforts. Ultimately, the IRO resettled only 38,107 East European refugees in France between July 1, 1947, and December 1950. The bulk of refugees were headed to the New World. In the same period, the United States received 238,006 refugees, Israel 120,766, Australia 170,543, and Canada 94,115.

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When Poles Pined for Colonies, 1930s

From The Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World, by Tara Zahra (Norton, 2016), Kindle Loc. 1766-90:

By 1930, the Polish Bandera had become the Maritime and Colonial League, a pressure group that raised funds for the navy and lobbied the government to pursue colonial interests. The league boasted 1,200 branches and 250,000 members as of 1934, and directly linked colonial demands to emigration, as well as to Poland’s perceived crisis of overpopulation. Colonial advocates argued that emigration had been the primary “solution” to Poland’s overpopulation crisis before World War I. But with the closing of international borders in the 1920s and 1930s, “another solution has arisen again . . . attaining our own colonial territories.”

In the wake of Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, Polish colonial advocates felt increasingly entitled to a place in the sun. “We Poles, like the Italians, are facing a great problem of accommodating and employing a large population increase,” insisted the Maritime and Colonial League. “We Poles, like the Italians, have the right to demand that export markets as well as areas for settlement be opened to us, so that we may obtain raw materials necessary to the national economy under conditions similar to those enjoyed by the colonial states.” In September 1936, Foreign Minister Józef Beck even formally appealed to the League of Nations for colonies—preferably those taken from Germany after World War I (he was unsuccessful). Popular pressure for Polish colonies culminated in the Maritime and Colonial League’s “Colonial Days” festivities in April 1938, a series of nationwide parades and celebrations attended by around ten million Poles.

Poland continued to lobby the League of Nations for colonies right up until the outbreak of World War II. A memo submitted in 1939 proposed that the League’s colonial mandate system, which governed former Ottoman territories, be extended to Africa. The new African mandates would then be parceled out to European states according to “their capacity for colonization and their real economic and demographic needs.” Of course, the Polish delegation insisted that Poland be placed at the top of the list. Poles had already “provided the proof” of their skill as colonizers, “by transforming the virgin forests and uncultivated plains of Brazil, Argentina, Canada, and Siberia into arable land,” the memo asserted. “In particular the tenacity of labor, love of the land and pioneering spirit of the Polish peasant has rendered him invaluable.” In response to British and French objections that redistributing African colonies would harm the “interests of indigenous populations,” the Polish delegation invoked the brotherhood of white men. “There exist rural populations in Europe whose economic standard of living are particularly painful, and whose interests are worth at least as much as those of the black population in Africa. By closing off access to colonial territories to overpopulated nations, the great powers betray the interests of the white race. This treason endangers the solidarity and entente among peoples.” Not surprisingly, nations situated on Europe’s imagined margins seemed to have the most invested in maintaining the privileges of white Europeans—and in asserting their membership in the club.

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Booker T. Washington in Austria-Hungary

From The Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World, by Tara Zahra (Norton, 2016), Kindle Loc. 892-922:

In 1910, Booker T. Washington and the University of Chicago sociologist Robert Park set out for Europe. Their goal was to determine what was propelling millions of Europeans to American shores. “I was curious . . . to learn why it was that so many of these European people were leaving the countries in which they were born and reared, in order to seek their fortunes in a new country and among strangers in a distant part of the world,” Washington explained. Eschewing “palaces, museums, art galleries, ancient ruins, monuments, churches, and graveyards,” he embarked on an inverted grand tour, determined to immerse himself in the “grime and dirt of everyday life.”

Washington’s self-proclaimed mission was to hunt for “the man farthest down” on the European continent. In this quest to explore “the worst” that Europe had to offer, he found rich terrain in Austria-Hungary. During their two-month scavenger hunt for misery, Washington and Park toured Cracow’s Jewish ghetto, Prague’s YMCA, Bohemian mines, Hungarian farms, Viennese slums, Adriatic ports, Galician border towns, and tiny Carpathian villages.

Booker T. Washington hoped that by locating the man farthest down in Europe, he would not only diagnose the root causes of emigration but also find new salves with which to heal American social and racial inequalities. “I believed . . . that if I went far enough and deep enough I should find even in Europe great numbers of people who, in their homes, in their labour, and in their manner of living, were little, if any, in advance of the Negroes in the Southern States,” he reflected. “I wanted to study first hand . . . the methods which European nations were using to uplift the masses of the people who were at the bottom in the scale of civilization.” As he projected the racial politics of the American South onto the terrain of the Austrian empire (which he identified as part of “Southern Europe”), he found many parallels. By the time he returned home, he had concluded that the situation of the Slavs of Austria-Hungary was “more like that of the Negroes in the Southern States than is true of any other class or race in Europe.” Not only were Slavs, like African Americans, “an agricultural people.” They were also distinct from and discriminated by what Washington called “the dominant classes” of Austria-Hungary. “Although they were not distinguished from the dominant classes, as the Negro was, by the colour of their skin, they were distinguished by the language they spoke, and this difference in language seems to have been, as far as mutual understanding and sympathy are concerned, a greater bar than the fact of colour has been in the case of the white man and the black man in the South.” Indeed, Washington concluded that the peasants, workers, and Jews of Eastern Europe actually lived in more debased conditions than African Americans in the South. “There are few plantations in our Southern States where . . . one would not find the coloured people living in more real comfort and more cleanliness than was the case here,” he observed, after touring a desolate Bohemian farm. “Even in the poorest Negro cabins in the South I have found evidences that the floor was sometimes scrubbed, and usually there was a white counterpane on the bed, or some evidence of an effort to be tidy.”

By the time he returned to America, Washington was so disturbed by the poverty he encountered in Austria-Hungary that he began to sympathize with the American movement to restrict immigration. The arrival of millions of destitute East Europeans threatened to create a new kind of “racial problem” in America, he warned. “Whatever else one may say of the Negro, he is, in everything except his colour, more like the Southern white man, more willing and able to absorb the ideas and the culture of the white man and adapt himself to existing conditions, than is true of any race which is now coming into this country.”

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Filed under Austria, democracy, economics, Hungary, labor, language, migration, nationalism, U.S.