World War One Displacement: Europe on the Move

World War One Displacement: Europe on the Move

Europe on the Move: Refugees in the Era of the Great War is a new edited volume that provides a reflection on the twentieth-century experience of displacement. Here, contributor Rebekah Klein-Pejšová discusses the volume’s approach to writing refugee history.

How do we make sense of the refugee experience? How do we write about it? To paraphrase Eugene Kulischer, the sociologist who coined the term “displaced person,” humanity’s history is a history of its wanderings. Voluntary and forced, the movement of people creates history. We do not understand who we are until we reflect on our journeys. When we do, we must bear in mind the nature of movement by necessity. Becoming displaced, and then becoming a refugee is a condition created both by external circumstances and by individuals themselves who work through relations with the state, the surrounding society, and the institutions that transcend them, a condition Peter Gatrell (Manchester University) calls “refugeedom.”

We remind ourselves of the precarious physicality of that condition: one has fled, escaped, been expelled or evacuated, is likely to be hungry, tired, without ready access to adequate hygienic facilities, and deemed an undesirable presence by the state and surrounding society in which one finds oneself. The titles of classic works in refugee studies reflect these circumstances: Escape from Violence by Aristide Zolberg et al, The Unwanted by Michael Marrus. The contributors to Europe on the Move: Refugees in the Era of the Great War take a systematic approach to the nexus of “refugeedom”  to reveal how the experience of displacement framed central twentieth-century questions.

The literature of the First World War has been dominated by the narrative of the Western Front, trench warfare and bleak stagnation interrupted by large-scale bloodletting. Yet persistent movement catalyzed and exacerbated by war characterized wartime conditions in central, eastern, and southeastern Europe, that is, the majority of the continent. Europe on the Move shifts the center of the story eastward to recast First World War history as a history of movement. It examines the unprecedented displacement of at least 14 million people in territories extending from the Atlantic Ocean to the Black Sea, and the Mediterranean to the Baltic, and so contributes the first work of its kind to the global historical narrative of the Great War at its centennial.

The volume’s authors balance the shared and the particular in their case-by-case examination to create a cohesive comparative work that gives special attention to causes of refugees’ displacement and to the concept of their “helplessness.” This concept refers to the ways in which refugees became suddenly vulnerable to displacement, to their need for assistance, and to how they have been subsequently represented - areas that themselves emphasize refugee agency and their alternative strategies for self-representation (p.1). The authors consider conditions of movement for each case, including policy toward refugees, protections offered them, by whom and for what reasons, the sources and nature of humanitarian aid, the relative importance of diasporic ties, repatriation processes, refugee representation and self-representation, and the commemoration of the particular refugee experience with its multilayered meaning and function. 

Displacement entails removal from normalcy and a longing for the kind of self-sufficiency you would expect to have under usual circumstances. Providing for yourself and your dependents becomes a balancing act between desperate need and self-help. It requires an available information-based strategy and vigilance against exploitation. Gatrell concludes his introduction to the volume by quoting Vystavkina, a Russian woman writing in 1915 on the mass displacement she witnessed, to ready the reader for this theme in the authors’ contributions:

Now [the refugees] have lost the prerogative [to be indolent, rude, and ungrateful]; their poverty and helplessness oblige them to be meek and grateful, to smile at people they don’t like, to answer each and every question without the right to ask questions of their own, to submit to the authority of people they don’t respect and have no wish to know, to accept disadvantageous terms from those who wish to take advantage of their poverty and misfortunes. (p.17)

From the chaotic and improvised nature of refugee aid following the onset of wartime displacement (or the aggravation of preexisting displacement as in the Bulgarian case, as discussed by contributor Nikolai Vukov), patterns of assistance rapidly emerged alongside state decisions on refugee policy. Practices of state reliance on private aid for the displaced within its borders, especially through philanthropic and diasporic networks, went hand in hand with overarching repatriation goals. Resource distribution was closely tied to citizenship and other forms of belonging.

We learn from Ruth Leiserowitz that many self-funded private aid organizations and initiatives emerged to aid refugees from East Prussia in Berlin or elsewhere in Germany, where refugee assistance was understood as a critical national issue, while in the territory of Ukraine, according to Liubov Zhvanko and Oleksiy Nestulya, ethnic communities cared for the needs of their “co-nationals”: Poles, Latvians, Lithuanians, Jews. Newspapers in Istanbul, writes Uǧur Ümit Üngör, described the pitiful condition of the “poor souls” arriving by the thousands daily on the ferry from Salonica, while emphasizing the brutal treatment of Muslims by their Christian neighbors. In my contribution, I discuss Jewish refugees’ petitions for residency in Hungary, a self-help strategy in response to the wartime labor shortage, and the Hungarian government’s investigation of their entitlement to it. Klaus Richter reveals the dynamic between ethnic belonging, refugee treatment, and postwar state-building in Lithuania and the Courland, where repatriation policies meant permanent demographic transformation.

The refugee experience in the era of the Great War heightened international awareness of the need for rights protections beyond the state. The first mass civilian displacement of the twentieth century set in motion the creation of an international rights regime that takes into account changing concepts of citizenship and national belonging, challenges of resource distribution, and fluctuating borders. The book’s timely appearance coincides with the current struggles of the international community to cope with individual rights to asylum for unprecedented numbers of displaced civilians globally. Where and how we seek rights protections stands at the forefront of today’s most pressing dilemmas.


Kulischer, Eugene M. Europe on the Move: War and Population Changes, 1917-1947. New York: Columbia University Press, 1948.

Marrus, Michael. The Unwanted: European Refugees in the Twentieth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985, new edition, 2002.

Zolberg, Aristide, Suhrke, Astri, and Aguayo, Sergio. Escape from Violence: Conflict and Refugee Crisis in the Developing World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

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