MIGRATION, OR IMMIGRATION, provokes passionate exchanges that extend far beyond a simple debate about what to do with the proverbial tired, poor, and huddled masses. When Donald Trump suggests that Mexicans crossing the US border could be rapists, the public is alternately appalled or enthused. When three-year-old Alan Kurdi’s limp body washed up on a Turkish beach, the sane were despondent, even as a commentator for the conservative British weekly The Spectator called the image a “snuff photo for progressives, dead-child porn, designed not to start a serious debate about migration in the 21st century but to elicit a self-satisfied feeling of sadness among Western observers.”

The often polarized nature of this debate does little to advance our understanding of the issues. Amid a dearth of reasoned analysis on what motivates people to migrate — be it conflict, poverty, or something else — and the ideas that underpin policymaking, Tara Zahra’s new book is particularly timely. The Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World, her third book, is a meticulous multilayered account of the relationship between physical mobility and political liberty, and the often fleeting manner in which one or the other is restricted out of expediency — showing that fear, calculated self-interest, and bombast are nothing new when it comes to migration issues.

Zahra examines the evolution of a 19th-century political innovation, but one with implications for our own time. “Emigration could be manipulated like the steam valve on a teapot,” she writes. “Encouraging people to stay or go could be used as an instrument of policy, to serve both domestic and international goals. People could be ‘scientifically’ managed, like any other natural resource.”

Though she only touches on current events in the book’s final pages — referring to the Mediterranean Sea as a “graveyard for desperate asylum seekers” and noting the “language of freedom and slavery continues to frame the debate in contemporary Europe” — there is little doubt that present political issues had a profound influence on her choice of subject matter. In the industrial and post-industrial ages, people are capital — be it for digging 19th-century trenches or writing computer code in the 21st — and competing narratives about the relative merits of migration are a constant.

In other words, Zahra’s discussion has wider implications than a standard historical survey. “Anxieties about emigration were bound up in a broader discussion of free labor, freedom and slavery in a global market,” she writes, in a passage that would need little more than a tweak in tense to fit today’s climate.

No less than Adam Smith, the father of capitalism, envisioned a marketplace where people as well as goods could move freely — something in which economic gatekeepers rarely show interest. Some 240 years ago, Smith warned of distortions that might occur from “obstructing the free circulation of labour and stock, both from employment to employment and from place to place.” Such gaps are what today’s multinationals are adept at exploiting, assembling an iPhone for cheap in China and selling it for a high margin in Paris — then stowing the profits in some Potemkin archipelago between tax regimes.

Zahra’s examination begins in late 19th-century Galicia, once a Jewish stronghold in the Austro-Hungarian Empire that now spans Poland and Ukraine. At the time, the Austro-Hungarian government sought to keep people inside the borders, not out. From 1876–1910 about eight percent of the population of the Habsburg Empire, a massive multiethnic state that included what are now parts of 13 different European countries, left home.

During the first decade of the 20th century, Austria-Hungary was the single biggest source of immigrants to the United States, and it is easy to see why this was cause for concern. Not only did it potentially weaken the country’s military strength but as economists Jeffrey Williamson and Timothy Hatton have demonstrated, in the locales most affected, employers were also forced to raise wages and compete in a global market for even the most menial workers. Then as now, the myth of global capitalism was predicated on curbing competition to selectively approved channels.

Divided into seven chapters, Zahra’s book runs just past the fall of the Iron Curtain. In the late 19th century, the United States thirsted for migrants before later tightening its borders. At the same time, most of Eastern Europe dedicated more and more resources to limiting movement. World War I brought migration to a standstill, and led to the collapse of the European imperial system. The resulting successor states were reluctant to lose citizens as they set about nation building. Later, when the Great Depression hit, states encouraged their citizens to move abroad — and also concocted a series of bizarre pseudo-colonial resettlement projects — but the United States, with unemployment soaring, was not all that happy to receive them.

Amid what were ebbs and flows in enthusiasm for migration, European political leaders were willing to part with Jews; pushing Jewish emigration was more or less a consensual European policy well into World War II. Up until 1942, much of the continent took a similar line to the Nazis, with emigration as the preferred course of ethnic cleansing. Jews were encouraged to go to the United States, Canada, Palestine, Madagascar — in short, anywhere else.

Concurrent American public opinion was not exactly progressive either. A 1938 Gallup poll taken after the November Kristallnacht pogrom in Germany and Austria found that 77 percent of Americans were opposed to taking in a significant number of Jewish refugees, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt maintained quota limits on German and Austrian migration.

The Great Departure tends to focus on the migrant experience itself, and this premise goes a long way to sobering romantic notions of liberation through emigration. For every comedy about triumphant success in the New World, there are scores of tragedies. Still, gloom and suffering does not overwhelm the reader — there are also bursts of humor in these stories. In but one example, later in the text, Zahra cartoonishly juxtaposes the fake letters that communist authorities presented in the press as being sent from exiles abroad, with genuine messages that ended up in the state security files.

A 1954 publication in the Czechoslovak communist mouthpiece Rudé právo reads:

Mom, I curse the moment when the thought arose in my head to emigrate. I will be cursing that moment for the rest of my life […] How I wish I could return home, but I can’t, because I can’t look all the people who I betrayed in the eyes.

The letter purportedly comes from a man named Dante Peklo — peklo meaning hell in Czech.

Meanwhile, a real 1951 letter from exiles that ended up in the East German intelligence archives, and not with its addressees, is almost whimsical in its dissent. “Dear Karl Meier, say hello to all our co-workers,” it reads:

The manager and boss are big nobodies and as for the money they still owe us they can stick it up their asses. We arrived here and immediately got work that pays 1.30 DM per hour. The food is wonderful.

Zahra’s section on Cold War migration is particularly effective at dissecting the connection — or lack thereof — between mobility and political freedom. In fact, both sides of the Cold War divide were peddling the same story. Communist authorities contended that life in the West was akin to wage slavery and exploitation by oligarchs, with state socialism playing the role of liberator. Meanwhile, Western governments portrayed escaping the Iron Curtain as synonymous with emancipation.

Though there is little doubt that the communist bloc took a lead role in restricting all sorts of citizen freedoms — including movement — the details show a more nuanced picture. A 1936 Polish law limiting access to passports was so effective that the communists kept it on the books in 1945. Next door in Czechoslovakia, tight restrictions on foreign travel were adopted by a democratic government in 1945 — three years before the 1948 communist takeover. The United States was happy to tout heroic stories of escape from communist Europe — and welcome these aspiring democrats and burgeoning entrepreneurs with open arms — until travel became easier in the wake of Stalin’s 1953 death and more people tried to come. This lead to firm distinctions between economic migrants and political refugees.

Zahra — a historian at the University of Chicago and a 2014 winner of the MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called “Genius Grant” — clearly conducted meticulous archival research, and it is difficult to find many faults with this book. There a few minor hiccups with details — she notes the Czech city of Opava as being in Bohemia, but it is in the Moravian-Silesian region; and refers to people fleeing the Czech Republic after the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion, but of course the country was still Czechoslovakia then — but those amount to little more than typos. Zahra’s examples largely come from Poland, Czechoslovakia, or the former Habsburg imperial lands — there is little about other countries in the region, like Romania, Bulgaria, or most of the former Yugoslavia — so the study is hardly comprehensive, but nor does she claim that it is. The biggest strength of this book, as in her other work, is that it pokes holes in assumptions that have codified into myth.

Though Zahra’s work focuses on what has been called “Eastern Europe,” she rejects its artificial boundaries, and the way in which they still persist in most historical discourse. She does not study Eastern European history but European history. Another of her books, The Lost Children, tracks the evolution of family structure in Europe after World War II, and examines stories from throughout the continent in equal measure. The Great Departure goes one step further by connecting Eastern Europe with North America via migration, a more than symbolic reminder of transatlantic civilizational kinship. In this way, she follows in the tradition of the late Tony Judt, whose landmark text Postwar weaves anecdotes and quantitative study into an interlocking story encompassing both sides of the Cold War divide.

The timeliness of Zahra’s latest book will no doubt bring it added attention, but it is worthy of acclaim for its content alone. The work is equal parts fascinating and discouraging when one sees how people in disparate places in completely different eras perpetuate the very same distortions.

Back in the 19th-century Habsburg Empire, so-called “travel agents,” Jewish smugglers, were said to be aiding and abetting emigration to the United States. The key transit hub was Oświęcim, now more commonly referred to as Auschwitz, where the rail infrastructure of the German, Russian, and Habsburg empires converged. The idea that nefarious human traffickers, rather than the drive for a better life, were the impetus for migration is a trope that repeats in contemporary Europe — where refugees from Syria and Afghanistan are not fleeing chaos, but mere pawns for profiteers.

When Zahra quotes the Austro-Hungarian foreign minister who in 1899 denounced “artifices of unprincipled agents who carry on a lucrative business in the new kind of traffic in human beings,” it is easy to find a corollary today. In March, Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, implored: “Do not come to Europe. Do not believe the smugglers. Do not risk your lives and your money.”

The implication by both men is that waves of human migration are law enforcement issues rather than a reason to question societal mores, foreign policies, economic assumptions, or other complicated issues. As in the definition of refugee itself, their thinking emphasizes political rights and ignores economic rights. And rhetoric in the United States is equally repetitive.

Back in 1950, speaking of migrants from communist Europe, Nevada Senator Patrick McCarran called his country “the last hope of Western civilization,” while warning of “hard-core, indigestible blocs which have not become integrated into the American way of life, but which, on the contrary are its deadly enemies.”

Four years later McCarran was out of office, but he looks to have been a man ahead of his time as talk of that nature makes for a White House contender today.

¤

Benjamin Cunningham is a Prague-based writer and journalist. He regularly contributes to The Economist, The Guardian, Politico, and is a columnist for the Slovak daily SME.