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For Today's Migrant Crisis, Lessons From The Wake Of WWII


Many people have drawn those parallels between the end of World War II and today's refugee crisis. Ian Buruma wrote the book, "Year Zero: A History Of 1945," and he joins us from Brussels.


IAN BURUMA: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: We just heard from this gentleman who said that 70 years ago, his father was a refugee in Europe. How direct a through line do you see from the experience of his father to the experience of Syrians and others arriving in Europe today?

BURUMA: Well, it's not direct. To have been a survivor of the death camps or the concentration camps, and if you were Jewish, you were a survivor of an attempt to exterminate you for ideological reasons as a people. The Syrians and Iraqis and so on that are now trying to escape are escaping from an intolerable situation from a war, from a civil war, from ruined cities and so on. The misery can be compared, but the circumstances are rather different.

SHAPIRO: Some 10 million people were displaced at the end of World War II. It really does put today in a different perspective to think that in 1945, the numbers were 10 times as great.

BURUMA: Well, that is true, but the composition of the refugees was different. Many of those were ethnic Germans from places like Silesia and the Sudetenland in Poland and Czechoslovakia whose families had lived there for generations but who went to Germany, where they spoke the language. And other refugees too were all Europeans really, whereas today, there is the fear - often whipped up and manipulated by local politicians - that people from a completely different culture with a different religion, with different customs and so on will come in and cause social tensions. And if the people who want to come in are too many, this will become intolerable. Similar fears did not quite exist in World War II.

SHAPIRO: Well, this raises an interesting question. How much of the concern in Europe today is about there aren't enough jobs for everyone, there isn't enough infrastructure to accommodate everyone, as opposed to, these people are different from us, they come from a different religious background, they speak different languages and we're just not comfortable with that shifting of the cultural balance?

BURUMA: Well, it's interesting that the people who have been most vociferous in, as it were, the xenophobic approach - sort of saying that they couldn't absorb Muslims because they were a Christian culture and so on - were the Hungarians. Hungary, of course, was part of the Ottoman Empire. That aside, they're also poorer. Eastern Europeans are less equipped economically perhaps than, say, the Germans who are vastly richer. So the economic argument and the cultural one get mixed up, really.

SHAPIRO: Did the migration of people across Europe in 1945 reshape the makeup of the continent in ways that we can still see today?

BURUMA: Yes, very much so. Hitler's project was to create pure ethnic communities, exterminate the Jews and turn the Slavic peoples into slaves. Now, that didn't happen, but countries like Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and so on, Eastern and Central Europe, were much less ethnically mixed than they were before the war. And that was partly Hitler's doing, and partly, it had to do with expelling all the German - ethnic Germans from these same areas after the war, very much with the support of the allies.

SHAPIRO: Interesting that that migration crisis of 70 years ago made Europe less ethnically mixed and this one appears to be making Europe more ethnically mixed.

BURUMA: Yes. Most European cities now are very multi-ethnic, even sometimes small towns. And that's happened in the last 20 or 30 years.

SHAPIRO: Do you take any lessons away from your study of Europe's last major migration crisis that could be applied to today's crisis?

BURUMA: Well, lessons are often half-learned or not learned well enough, or the wrong lessons are learned. The Germans are now the keenest to help and try and absorb as many refugees as they can because they're very well aware of their awful history and want to make amends. On one hand, it's very heartwarming. On the other hand, they may be overdoing it and taking on more than they can chew, by doing so, causing problems for other Europeans. We will see. Until that time, there will be an awful lot of tension - and tension caused partly by good intentions.

SHAPIRO: Ian Buruma is a professor of democracy, human rights and journalism at Bard College, and he's the author of, "Year Zero: A History Of 1945."

Thank you for joining us.

BURUMA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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