Europe's `unwanted'. Modern-day refugees: dealing with the tide

The Unwanted: European Refugees in the Twentieth Century, by Michael R. Marrus. New York: Oxford University Press. 414 pp. $24.95. It is 300 years since the Revocation of the Treaty of Nantes, when Huguenots became refugees, adding a new word to the lexicon of international politics. Today, the term is so commonplace that many assume those so labeled are inevitable features of modern life. In a sense, it is true. Indeed, Heinrich B"oll has called this ``the century of prisoners and refugees.'' Michael Marrus's carefully crafted book helps to explain why this is so.

In ``The Unwanted,'' which was originally subtitled ``Refugees and the International Order in Europe,'' Mr. Marrus describes the expulsion, transfer, and escape of millions of people from their homelands in Eastern, Central, and Western Europe into the netherlands of statelessness and long-term dependence in the period from the late 19th century to post-World War II. Who the refugees were, how they were defined, why they left their home countries -- why some were banished, others encouraged to leave, and most escaped -- and what happened to them when they did, are the underlying questions answered in six chapters whose titles tersely summarize the sequential character of Marrus's historical analysis.

``Toward a Mass Movement'' is about the changes that took place in 19th-century Europe, prompting the exodus of Jews from the East and others from the Balkan area. ``The Nansen Era'' covers World War I and its aftermath; the emergence of emergency relief programs, including the American Relief Administration ably run by Herbert Hoover; the establishment of the League of Nations' High Commission for Refugees (a precursor to today's United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees); and the critical role of the Norwegian explorer and humanitarian, Fridtjof Nansen, in trying to make some semblance of order out of the chaos. Also considered are specific refugee movements, including those resulting from the Greco-Turkish war, and several resettlement schemes, some involving population exchanges.

The third chapter, ``In Flight from Fascism,'' deals with pre-war Europe and the rising tide of refugees trying to find safe havens in neighboring lands. Marrus addresses the failures of many international organizations and the critical roles played by a few key individuals and agencies committed to saving those for whom time was running out.

In ``Under the Heel of Nazism'' the author backtracks a bit to describe the changing tactics and ever-tightening noose of the Third Reich, as well as the escape routes sought by those hoping to get away. Of special importance is a lengthy section on the policy inconsistencies of such ``neutrals'' as Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, the Vatican, Sweden, Turkey, Palestine, and certain elements within Italy. Marrus details some of the efforts made to rescue the Nazi victims, including pact-with-the-Devil schemes for negotiating their release from occupied lands.

``The Postwar Era'' offers a word-portrait of a continent reeling from devastation and the efforts to deal with displaced persons.

In the epilogue, Marrus discusses the resurgence of ``the refugee'' as a political archetype, the development of the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and ``the diminished importance of Europe.'' He suggests that, while generally different in origin and ethnicity from many who sought refuge in the first half of the century, the problems of recent refugees are strikingly similar to those whose plight he considers; so, too, are the arguments -- pro and con -- related to providing aid, comfort, protection, and assistance to them.

Owing to their dubious distinction as the most consistently victimized group throughout the period with which Marrus is most concerned, Jews are the refugees most discussed, but they are not the only ones. It should be noted that his treatise is not a book on the personal experiences of such refugees or on their resettlement, adaptation, or acculturation into new environs. ``The Unwanted'' is more about what was going on in the corridors of power and the back streets of strife-torn Europe than in the minds of those who suffered most. As such, it is best likened to two recently published works: ``None is Too Many'' by Marrus's Toronto colleagues, Irving Arbella and Harold Troper, on Canadian wartime policies, and ``The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust,'' by David Wyman.

``The Unwanted'' is a story of the onset of a new era in international relations, and a portent for a future in which refugee problems will continue to be an outgrowth of geo-political conflicts.

In a world with an estimated 15 million to 20 million refugees, that future is already upon us.

Sociologist Peter I. Rose is a frequent contributor to these pages.

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