Europe faces a 1945 moment

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs 
August 28, 2015

Europe’s dysfunctional and divisive refugee policies have now collapsed entirely in the face of the onslaught of hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers from the Middle East and Africa.

Among the hundreds of people dying in the sinking of rickety boats being used by people traffickers to take refugees from Africa to Europe are many Eritreans. Italy / boat people / The Italian Coastguard ship Gregoretti disembarks refugees and migrants rescued from the Mediterranean. / UNHCR / F. Malavolta / April 14, 2015
Please visit our Subscribe page to chip in at least .27 for one story or $1 for a day site pass. Please tell others about us. The Italian Coastguard ship Gregoretti disembarks refugees and migrants rescued from the Mediterranean in April, 2015. UNHCR/F. Malavolta

The latest visible expression of that collapse is Hungary calling out the army and rushing to build a massive barbed wire fence along its southern border. The soldiers and the wire are intended to block the passage of the surge of refugees from wars in Africa and the Middle East who are travelling up through the Balkan’s to their imagined havens in the countries of the European Union (EU).

Less visible but far more pertinent was the announcement by the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, earlier this week that she is abandoning the so-called Dublin Convention, a feeble structure that passes for the EU’s migrant policy. People fleeing the civil war in Syria, Merkel said, will be allowed to apply for refugee status within Germany and not, as the Dublin Convention requires, in the EU country where they first land. Merkel undoubtedly thinks she’s being generous in taking the pressure off countries like Italy and Greece, which have proved incapable of processing the thousands of refugees that every day are clambering onto their shores from inadequate and make-shift boats. But the upshot of Merkel’s decision will only be to further encourage this floodtide of humanity and to add extra layers of chaos to an already collapsed system.

We have already seen the sort of obscenities this breeds in the thousands of people who have drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean from Turkey and North Africa, and the Hungarian truck found today in Austria containing the bodies of dozens of asylum seekers who apparently suffocated to death. There is no sign that the EU is ready to take any action that will end what is a heyday for human traffickers.

There is also the increasing probability of a popular backlash against the unwanted migrants, many of whom appear intent on making Europe their permanent home. There are already public protests in Germany, where 800,000 asylum seekers are expected this year, mostly Muslims from Syria and Iraq. Public discord is also rising in another favourite destination for the refugees, Britain. (The migrants head for the EU countries with the strongest economies and where the governments abide by the rules offering generous benefits for refugees.)

The migrant pressure has a particular political context in Britain where newly-re-elected Prime Minister David Cameron has promised an “in-or-out” referendum on the country’s continued membership of the EU. This vote will probably be held next summer. There is strong antipathy in Britain, and especially in Cameron’s Conservative Party, to the number of matters of national sovereignty that have devolved to the EU bureaucracy in Brussels. Control over immigration is high on the list.

The EU’s inability to organize a functioning processing system for the asylum seekers, much less agree a common desired outcome to the situation is astonishing. It is, after all, not the first time Europe has faced this kind of flood of displaced humanity and the political uncertainty that goes with it.

The last time Europe faced a similar crisis on this scale was at the end of the Second World War. The collapse of the Soviet Union and integration into the EU of Moscow’s former satellites was orderly by comparison.

The end of the Second World War and its aftermath were, of course, very different challenges from those Europe faces now. But that period from 1944 until about 1950 carries many experiences and lessons, some of which are worth examining in the light of what is happening today. Not least of the questions is whether the people fleeing the civil wars in Syria and Iraq, and the insecurity and lack of opportunity in northern Africa, are to be considered permanent migrants or only guests until peace and some order are established in their homelands? If they are to be temporary refugees in the true sense, then there is perhaps a duty to make it clear that permanent migration to Europe is not on the cards. This would instantly lessen the number of people heading for Europe and severely limit the traffickers’ evil trade. At the same time there should be an investment to ensure those people have a good chance of success when they do return home.

Some of these questions faced Winston Churchill and the British government in mid-1944. The eight-month long Battle of Stalingrad, the decisive battle of the war, had ended with the defeat of the German armies in February, 1943. The allied invasion of Western Europe in June, 1944, meant the end was in sight. Churchill and his advisers began thinking about the reconstruction of Germany when peace arrived. Particularly pressing was how to create a soundly based democracy in Germany so that its erratic politics which dominated the first half of the 20th century in Europe did not yet again threaten the peace of the world.

What was immediately obvious was that Britain had in its prisoner of war (PoW) camps the generation of young Germans who would decide for good or ill what sort of country their homeland would become. In a similar way, Europe has now among the hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Middle East and Africa the brightest and best of their generation. They are among the best educated of their countrymen and women and thus best equipped to establish sound and long-lasting political, administrative and economic systems in their home countries.

In 1945 and onwards, on Churchill’s instructions, the PoW camps in Britain became, in essence, de-Nazification centres. There was much more to the program than that. The camps also became university colleges where the inmates were offered tuition on how to build a democratic society, and, after the years of brainwashing under Adolf Hilter, the freedom to think for themselves.

Many of the key figures who inspired and managed this program were German Jews who had escaped to Britain in the 1930s. One was Herbert Sulzbach, who fought in the German army in the First World War, but fled to Britain to escape the Nazis in 1937. At the outbreak of war in 1939 he was interned on the Isle of Man as an enemy alien, but the silliness of that soon became evident. He first joined the Pioneer Corps, but in early 1945 began work as an interpreter in a camp for captured German officers at Featherstone Park in Northumberland in northern England. Sulzbach quickly extended his duties to trying to impart to the prisoners, many of them hardened Nazi SS officers, the virtues of tolerance, democracy and humanity. He was hugely successful and many of the thousands of PoWs who went through Sulzbach’s training sessions at Featherstone Park went on to senior positions in post-war Germany. He also inspired a good deal of affection. On November 11, 1945 –the first British Armistice Day after the Second World War – 4,000 German PoWs with whom Salzbach had spent the previous year, stood to attention with him and pledged to return home “to take part in the reconciliation of all people and the maintenance of peace.”

After the war former prisoners formed “Arbeitskreis Featherstone Park,” an association dedicated to improving relations between the British and German peoples. Sulzbach was honourary president of the association until his death in 1985.

Meanwhile, further south, another German Jewish refugee who had become a lecturer in history at Magdalen College, Oxford, Heinz Koeppler, was put in charge of organizing a more formal program among Nazi officer PoWs at a camp at Wilton Park in Buckinghamshire west of London. Between January 1946 and June 1948 more than 4,000 German PoWs attended Koeppler’s classes. His stature in British society was such that he could call on some of the leading figures of the age to give seminars. Among those who held classes at Wilton Park were the philosopher Bertrand Russell, the father of Britain’s “welfare state” William Beveridge and the first woman British Member of Parliament, Lady Astor. Graduates of Koeppler’s prison camp included the post-war German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and Willi Brundert, who went on to become Mayor of Frankfurt. Brundert wrote later: “I cannot describe the encouragement and confidence Heinz Koeppler and his colleagues gave us, German prisoners of war, by having ministers of the British Crown, leading Opposition speakers, economic leaders come and talk to us. He did not ‘re-educate’ us, he did not tell us how things ought to be handled in Germany, but he made us think for ourselves.”

Even before the last of the PoWs left Wilton Park in June 1948, the place had become an institution. It became so highly regarded that civilians from Switzerland, Finland and France talked their way into taking part in some of its courses from early 1947. Bowing to an intense lobby, mostly from former German PoW inmates, the British government agreed to keep funding Wilton Park. In 1951 it moved to another old country house, Wiston House on the Sussex Downs not far from the coast, where it continues to thrive to this day.

In the early years Wilton Park remained a forum dealing mainly with Anglo-German relations and the fundamentals of managing a democratic society. But in 1957 the Wilton Park conferences opened their doors to all the European countries, plus Canada and the United States who were members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Wilton Park’s horizon has continued to expand and participants now come from around the world to take part in what is perhaps the premier forum for discussion of social, economic and political issues among the people charged with making the decisions.

But the lesson from the early years of Wilton Park, Featherstone Park, and other PoW camps for German officers is that Europe today has among the hordes of Middle Eastern and African refugees the people who can make their homelands succeed.

Here is an opportunity to give them the encouragement and the tools to do it. But that needs resolve and investment, neither of which are in evidence among European leaders at the moment.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2015


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Related on F&O:

Refugees are now the biggest crisis facing the European Union, by Jonathan Manthorpe

Eritreans take perils of the Mediterranean over torment at home, by Jonathan Manthorpe

Ethnic groups flee as Syrian Kurds advance against Islamic State. By Humeyra Pamuk

Migrants: A Train Towards a New Life. Photo-essay by Ogden Reofilovski, Reuters


Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. Manthorpe has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.


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