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Lessons To Learn From Another Crisis: The Refugees After WWII


The International Organization for Migration was established in 1951 out of the chaos of another refugee crisis - the aftermath of World War II. I spoke with Bernard Wasserstein, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Chicago. He says the end of the war displaced millions, including the Jews who survived the Holocaust and people fleeing the rise of communism. One of the largest groups was ethnic Germans, who were living in Eastern Europe.

BERNARD WASSERSTEIN: There were millions of them living in countries like Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Hungary and so on. Most of them had lived there for generations. Hundreds and hundreds of years, they were parts of those societies. But most of them - at any rate, large numbers of them - had made common cause with the Nazis during the war, and so they found themselves the victims of the revenge of their neighbors at the end of the war. Thousands - hundreds of thousands, actually - were killed. The rest - the great majority of them were driven out of all those countries, three million out of Czechoslovakia alone.


And how did that migration happen? Was it by land?

WASSERSTEIN: People were arrested. They were, at the point of a gun, driven onto trains, and they were put in cattle carts, like the cattle wagons that Germans themselves had used to send Jews to the death camps. And under the most abominable conditions, they were transported to the German frontier and then dumped.

RATH: Are European countries responding to today's migrant crisis in a way that you would expect?

WASSERSTEIN: Well, as a historian, I expect patterns to repeat themselves. Take Hungary, for example - the Hungarian Prime Minister, the other day, declared publicly that his country is and must remain a Christian country, and therefore he said, there would be no room in the country for non-Christian immigrants. And, of course, that rang a bell - a rather horrific echo of the way that Hungarian politicians spoke in the 1930s about Jews in Hungary.

There are also strange ironies. You know, Hungary is a country that is currently facing a great crisis of the arrival of refugees. But in 1956 when Hungary rose in revolt against Soviet-imposed communism, tens of thousands, eventually hundreds of thousands, fled Hungary for neighboring countries. There are inspiring things. I've noticed here in Europe in the past few days an extraordinary wave of human reaction to that horrific photograph of that 3-year-old child lying on the beach just driven in by the waves. What was, just a few months ago, an issue that people thought of as a political issue - an issue of numbers - today, is recognized by many people as an issue of human values and of human decency.

RATH: Are there any, you know, in terms of dealing with a massive humanitarian crisis - is there anything that - any lessons to be taken from what happened after World War II, anything that could be applied today?

WASSERSTEIN: Well, first that national interests alone cannot solve this kind of problem. It needs an international approach. It needs some way of subsuming purely selfish national interests in a larger human concern. In the end, these people are not just victims. They're not just the flotsam and jetsam driven hither and thither. They are our brothers and sisters.

RATH: Bernard Wasserstein is an emeritus professor of history at the University of Chicago. He spoke with us from Amsterdam. It's been great speaking with you. Thank you so much.

WASSERSTEIN: A pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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