Movements of Peoples

The partition of India which saw Pakistan, including East Bengal, depart from the remnant mother country in 1947 unleashed an astonishing movement of people from one side of the borders to the other. Estimates of the number involved vary widely, but are generally upwards of ten million; some authorities go as high as 18 million, the number of Muslims moving into Pakistan being approximately the same as that of the Hindus and Sikhs going in the other direction. The Punjab was a flash point: according to Perry Anderson, ‘Four and a half million Hindus and Sikhs were driven out of their homes to East Punjab, five and a half million Muslims to West Punjab, in a communal inferno.’

But this was only one of many similar outbreaks during the twentieth century. The treatment of the Armenians at the hands of the Turks was followed by the movement in 1923 of one and a half million Greeks moved out of Turkey, at enormous cost to those who received them (the entire population of Greece in 1928 was only six million!), and that of half a million people who moved in the other direction; 100 000 Greeks remained in Constantinople, but their number has new shrunk to several thousand at most. The  removal of Jews from areas occupied by the Nazis that rendered them Judenrein (a sinister word, the sense of which points to ethnic cleansing), was of unparallelled evil, but there were also the movement of Jews from Islamic countries and Palestinians from Israel (the Nakbah) and the displacement of various groups within Europe after World War II. There were the massacres of Serbs during World War II and the frightening events when Yugoslavia broke up; those in East Pakistan as it became Bangladesh in 1971 and the subsequent migration into India; those  in Rawanda in 1994. The list could easily be extended, and whatever dispute there may be as to whether some of these events qualify as acts of genocide, the record is a grim one.

Some time ago historians moved away from understanding the so-called fall of the Roman Empire in the West in terms of barbarian invasions towards thinking of it in terms of migrations of peoples (Volkerwanderungen). This way of thinking has itself become outmoded, as the period has come to beconsidered one of integration between groups that were more stable than used to be thought. But forced population movements were certainly a feature of the past century. What was it about the twentieth century that unleashed such outbreaks of communal hatred and so many tears? It is hard to see this as anything other than a falling away from entities like the ‘Holy Roman’ Empire, in which separate groups could live in mutual respect. One looks at contemporary polities like the United States, migration into which has changed the ethnic composition in a manner which is clearly reflected in voting patterns, and wishes them better luck.

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