Subscriber OnlyBooks

The Outsiders: Refugees in Europe since 1492

Philip Ther analyses expulsion and welcome of migrants on continent over the centuries

Huguenot refugees arriving on the English coast at Dover in Kent, 1685. They fled religious persecution in France. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The Outsiders, Refugees in Europe since 1492
The Outsiders, Refugees in Europe since 1492
Author: Philipp Ther, translated by Jeremiah Riemer
ISBN-13: 978-0691179520
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Guideline Price: £25

The book begins with a dismal description of refugees on the Greek islands living a fox-like existence in tents, shelters of twigs, turf, even caves. My first thought was this was the story of the refugees from the Middle East that have been flooding into Europe in the last decade. They have produced many such heart-breaking stories.

Who can forget the 2015 picture of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy of Kurdish origin whose body was washed up on a Turkish beach as the boat carrying his family capsized when trying to flee from Turkey to the Greek island of Kos.

But Ther’s story is from nearly a century earlier, 1923, and is not of destitute Syrians fleeing to prosperous Europe but Greeks from Asian Minor being sent to Greece following the end of Greek-Turkish war. The fact is refugees, like death and taxes, are always with us, the exodus from the Syrian civil war is only the latest such story which could be said to have begun with Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt, albeit in search of the promised land.

The 1923 refugee had no such prospect and represented the first ethnic cleansing of nearly all the inhabitants of two entire countries. As Greeks trudged “home”, Turks in Greece marched in the opposite direction to Turkey and, horrific as the idea may seem to us, that nation states should be cleansed of their minority remained an article of faith with all European policymakers until well into the middle of the 20th century. Not only Hitler but also the British believed that ethnically homogeneous states was the ideal solution.


As Ther puts it, “By the end of the 1930s, Great Britain referred to ‘Lausanne’ [the 1922 treaty which ended the war between Turkey and the first World War allies and institutionalised ethnic cleansing] on several occasions, as did Hitler in his vision of a ‘new Europe’ based on ethnic borders and ethnically homogenised nation-states. The main difference between the western and German interpretation of Lausanne was the murderous racism of the Nazis.”

Indeed, the idea of having states with only one ethnic community survived the war which saw ethnic Germans from several European countries expelled to Germany with Winston Churchill at the end of 1944 proclaiming the need for a “clean sweep”. Germans were not the only ones affected. Poles, Jews, Italians and a whole host of east European countries were also affected and between 1938 and 1948 about 20 million Europeans lost their homelands for ever.

Purity of blood

Before nation states emerged, rulers targeted religious minorities, a policy that started in 1492, when, just as Columbus was supposedly “discovering” the “new world”, in the old world, the Reconquista in Spain, having ended Muslim rule in Spain expelled half a million Muslims and Jews, even those who had converted to Catholicism. The Spanish Catholics were working on the principle of “limpieza di sangre”, purity of blood where religious affiliation was traced back several generations, an idea that would be adopted by the radical nationalists in the 19th century who substituted race for religion resulting eventually in the Nazi definition of a nation.

Not that Europe has always been hostile to refugees. Medieval and early modern absolutist monarchs welcomed refugees, seeing them as an asset. Both Polish kings and Ottoman rulers summoned Jewish refugees to their kingdoms with the Ottoman ruler Casimir the Great in the 14th century taking in Jews expelled from German cities and later still Jews expelled by Spain. But while the refuges could exist and thrive, Jews could practise their religion and had their own schools and courts, they could not claim equality with their hosts. In Poland, the Jews could not take part in the political decision-making process; in the Ottoman empire Jews and Christians, while exempt from military service, had to pay higher taxes and always be careful not to fall out with the sultan for fear their life would be forfeit.

Protestant Huguenots

Medieval societies practised what Ther calls incorporation “as a collective into state and society” as in the German states’ treatment of the Huguenots. In the late 17th and early 18th century, the Protestant Huguenots fleeing Catholic France to German states were given not only citizenship but tax abatements and start-up loans. In the principality of Brandenburg-Bayreuth, the native population were forced to provide accommodation and some of the peasants even compelled to cart stone and building materials from the surrounding countryside to the Huguenot settlement. Prussia gave the Huguenots an autonomous judiciary and their own clerical organisation. Berlin symbolised such incorporation and even today visitors to the major public square, Gendarmenmarkt, can see a German cathedral and a French one, both so equal that their imposing towers are of the same height. It was three generations before in most Huguenot households more German than French was spoken helped by intermarriage. It is likely to take the Syrians much longer to become Germans and, given the sharp racial and religious differences, the idea that a German city will have a mosque exactly equal in size to a church is unthinkable.

Ther very skilfully blends the seven-century story of Europe’s handling of refugees with brief biographies, ranging from the famous to those whose names have vanished. The story of Madeleine Albright, America’s first woman secretary of state, who was born Marie Korbelova and fled twice, once when Hitler dismembered Czechoslovakia and then after the country fell to the communists, is well-known. Only his family know the story of Manuel Alarcon Navarro, who fought for the Republican army in the Spanish civil war, was sent back by France to Spain and died anonymously in the concentration camp set up the fascist dictator Franco. His family never found his body.

However, while Ther ranges beyond Europe to American attitudes to refugees with Trump, predictably, coming in for much criticism, he has little to say about how Britain handled refugees. And he cannot get over being a professor: he teaches central European history in Vienna, so every chapter ends with a summary that repeats what has already been said. That space would have been better employed in providing a timeline which would have added to this very valuable and topical history.