The great wandering

The great wandering

Mass migration continues to define Europe as a system of human fluid dynamics.

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By David B. Kanin

Consider a difference between Europe and China. The latter suffered through several great invasions, Xui, Mongol, and Manchu, for example. These, however, were exceptional events in a long history during which, for the most part, the peoples living in what would become China had the opportunity to develop a common written language, cultural mythologies, political system (after rival pre-imperial claimants had fought things out), and communications and transportation networks robust enough to create what today is a core “Han” identity. The country’s size, its western deserts—which served as much more effective barriers than do mountain ranges elsewhere—and the much-maligned (as a practical barrier) Great Wall enabled development of a trade-and-tribute system that often kept outsiders outside. To this day, a large percentage of China’s minority peoples live on the periphery of the country.

Europe, on the other hand, is a sieve. No matter the mythology of modernist teleology and the Helsinki Final Act, the history of this appendage to Eurasia has been constant movement into and around the area by serial waves of migrating populations moving because of war, agreements reached or conditions created at the end of wars (for example, the migrations of the post-1945 period), or migrations of formerly subject colonial populations and others (Jews moved into and were kicked out of much of Western Europe long before Hitler decided to kill all but those he could sell for ransom).

Europe also is different than the United States when it comes to the conditions of migration. No one in the US can claim to be original inhabitants (except aboriginal people killed by disease and European interlopers). Also, Africans largely were brought to America by force, enslaved, and—once “freed”—subjected to racism and material and intellectual deprivation. The US also is a single federal political entity (no matter its considerable regional differences), not a patchwork of older and newer political constructions bound by less than meets the eye. The current arguments over illegal immigration to the US differ from efforts by earlier settlers and their descendants to keep out new settlers only in that America’s ongoing decline means there is less opportunity for all but a few of the newest immigrants to achieve what politicians and other non-truth-tellers still call “the American dream.”

A counter-factual history might ask “what if?” the proto-Celts who lived in much of Europe had been able to marginalize or obstruct Roman and Germanic interlopers and, like the proto-Hans had formed a more or less cohesive linguistic, philosophical/religious, and territorial security system capable of enabling a core of power and identity. Then perhaps Europe today would be more like China. Such imaginings would have to ignore the basic problem faced by those groups who managed over time to establish themselves in different parts of the small space between the Atlantic and what became Russia. Europe has never had effective natural or constructed barriers to stop succeeding waves of invaders or migrants from penetrating to its core and attempting to supplant or their predecessors’ settlements. In a well-researched examination of one better-known example of the phenomenon, Herwig Wolfram analyzed the inundation of the Roman Empire by Germanic peoples as a great migration.[1]

Christopher Beckwith goes counter-historians one better by treating the settled states of western Europe and eastern Asia as marginal players in his examination of the chariot warriors, movable hordes, enterprising traders, and dynamic empires of the Silk Road.[2] His broad historical sweep suggests a context of conflict and need that helps explain why migrants once again are on the well-trod path to Europe.

What they are finding there are those who since the 18th Century have considered themselves “Britons” [3] (but may do so no longer), post-Napoleonic French, re-invented Germans, and others who—ignoring their own origins as migrants—re-molded national histories and established so-called nation-states. After a thousand years of warfare, the political borders fought over by these one-time moving peoples seem finally to have been settled by the mutual destruction of the World Wars. That is not the case regarding the descendants of Albanians and Slavic communities who—surviving Avars, Pechenegs, Sarmatians, and other peoples—managed to settle and compete among themselves in a Balkan area in which everything remains up for grabs.

Serial mass movements into and around Europe have produced a situation where its denizens do not easily succumb to their elites’ efforts at re-direction. The same classes that once fashioned memories and myths into tales of original settlement and/or superior moral and material claims to pieces of Europe now tell people they still treat as inferiors to re-imagine something called “Europe.”

Having destroyed their own power during the last century the powers-that-continue-to-be insist that the values of justice and human rights they claim to hold dear mean they will not do anything to keep people from moving into Europe. They have no idea what to do about the migrants, of course, and are engaged in the usual Euro-elite wresting match over who should pay, who should take moral responsibility, and—in this case—who should serve as physical hosts.

It should be no surprise that the current and expanding migration of people from Balkan areas long marginal in Europe as well as from places outside Europe (but still recovering from time spent under European control or influence) is one of the multiple crises the tottering European Union is unable to manage. This latest in the millennia-long parade of migrants is another reminder that historical patterns do not change just because bureaucrats in Brussels tell them to. Just as war, class and racial conflict, and inter-communal rivalry are just as much pieces of the 21st Century as of previous eras, migration toward Europe’s compact collection of resources, navigable rivers, and the wealth accumulated by previous waves of immigrants and conquerors remains a rational choice for desperate people.

It is clear the Europeans have decided to ignore the question of how their ongoing inundation by people likely to maintain much higher birth rates than the natives will affect social, economic, and security conditions affecting the so-called Euriopean project. However things work out, these Balkan, African, and Middle Eastern migrants are going to complicate Euro-elites efforts to define “Europe” going forward. The decision that considerations of justice and human rights require Europeans to make room for the newcomers may be morally commendable, but it also means there is going to be a tug of war between modernity and honor-based loyalty systems in a context of growing economic under-achievement and social friction. The failure of the French model of immigrant absorption under slogans going back to the Revolution of 1789 should serve as a message to other Europeans that defining European futures—and they will be plural—will be an adventure involving opportunities and conflicts that cannot be foreseen today.

David B. Kanin is an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).


1) Herwig Wolfram, The Roman Empire and Its Germanic Peoples (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997

2) Christopher L. Beckwith, Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).

3) See Linda Colley’s entertaining book of that name, published by Yale University Press in 1992.

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