NEW YORK – “Europe’s biggest migration emergency since the World War II” — that’s how most British newspapers described the massive influx of Syrian refugees last week. The accompanying stories criticized the callous response of political classes in the U.K. and Eastern Europe. Even sensationalist British tabloids that had previously blurred the distinction between economic immigrants and refugees fleeing war and persecution took up the self-righteous cry.
In addition to its hypocrisy, the headline is notable for its sheer historical illiteracy. The world’s greatest refugee crisis, of course, predated World War II and extended well beyond 1945. Its most visible victims were hundreds of thousands of Jews, who faced vicious anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe long after the discovery of Nazi concentration camps. But the overwhelming majority of refugees after 1945 were Germans booted out of Eastern Europe.
In what may be the most underreported tragedy of the 20th century, an estimated 12 to 14 million Germans lost their homes in Germany’s former eastern areas and the Sudetenland after the war. (A similar number of Hindus and Muslims were uprooted by the 1947 partition of British India, in what’s more often claimed as the world’s biggest forced migration.) Vengeful atrocities against German civilians were committed in Eastern Europe, especially Hungary, where a 1920 law stigmatized Jews as a separate race.
Today, Hungary’s far-right Prime Minister Viktor Orban claims to be saving Christian Europe. His is the only European nation to host a major fascist political movement with anti-Semitism at its heart. But then Hungary, like other homogeneous Eastern European countries, is a product of ethnic cleansing. Unlike its Western European counterparts, it has little experience of foreigners in the postwar period. Its xenophobia can be explained, if not condoned.
What explains the hysteria in the U.K., which prides itself on its traditional openness to political refugees? Five months ago, the right-wing Sun tabloid saw fit to run a column that claimed, “Show me pictures of coffins, show me bodies floating in water, play violins and show me skinny people looking sad. I still don’t care. … Make no mistake, these migrants are like cockroaches.”
David Cameron, swayed by populist passions against immigration, seemed to be echoing Donald Trump’s rhetoric a few weeks ago when he referred to the “swarm” of refugees beating at British doors. Widespread shock, grief and revulsion caused by the picture of a drowned Kurdish boy have now forced Cameron to offer to take in 20,000 Syrian refugees over five years.
That’s still a measly figure compared to the 800,000 applications for refugee status that Germany expects to process this year, though. While the British public has responded much more generously than its political establishment and media, the damage to the U.K.’s reputation has been done.
Victory over Nazi Germany helped clarify the U.K.’s postwar national identity, aided occasionally by feel-good fantasies about a benevolent British empire that apparently spread democracy and free trade across the world. Germany’s overwhelming welcome extended to the Syrian refugees, along with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s tough stance against the anti-immigrant German hard right, has, in one stroke, canceled British claims to moral superiority. (Conveniently, it’s also obscured the bad press Germany received over the Greek euro crisis.)
The world, faced with the unexpected emergence of Germany as Europe’s conscience, is now discovering some of the ways in which the country remade itself after World War II. Its millions of refugees were crucial to the country’s rapid reinvention as an economic and intellectual powerhouse after 1945. And Germans, unlike the Japanese or the British, had no choice but to undertake a moral reckoning with their imperialistic project.
It remains to be seen how well Germany will accommodate the refugees it’s welcoming; a backlash from the country’s anti-immigrant thugs is surely in the cards. But the country’s empathy and compassion has already contributed a great deal to rescuing Europe’s reputation.
“Having once almost destroyed Europe,” I wrote here last year, Germany “may now be called upon to save it.” This extraordinary reversal of roles has come sooner than I expected. As its old adversaries, the Anglo-Americans, falter, Germany has assumed — briefly perhaps, and for both better and worse — the moral leadership of the West.
Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg View columnist.