The Great War's great alteration

From the age of mass migration to the era of refugees


A century ago, the nature of international migration changed fundamentally as world war erupted. Early indications came in neutral countries even before hostilities commenced between the major powers.

by Drew Keeling

July 23, 2014


(See also: Outbreak of World War I and shift away from open border policies -or see: here)

(Other WW I links)


Notwithstanding recent liberalization within the European Union, worldwide cross-border migration today remains largely shaped by legal barriers, heeded or evaded, and by refugee flows. Statistics released in June, 2014 by the Swiss-based UN refugee agency showed a record 50 million international displaced persons worldwide. Within Switzerland, authorities have been working to prepare accommodation for an expected increase in asylum-seekers from Africa and the Near East. Switzerland’s well-developed facility for assisting the uprooted is based on longstanding humanitarian traditions and the commercial functions of a small, internationally-connected and neutral state, but the country’s significant role in handling international refugees was to no small degree thrust upon it by the First World War.


The outbreak of a general European war in August, 1914 marked the end of a century of generally peaceful transnational relocation, largely motivated by market incentives. Over the century since 1914, politically-determined restrictions and flight from war, oppression or similarly fearsome dangers and disasters have been more salient.


Within the cascade of interrelated blunders preceeding the war which historian Niall Ferguson has called the “greatest error of modern history,” Germany’s early twentieth century naval expansion was not itself a cause. It nonetheless amounted to a major strategic misstep. Without overturning Britain’s oceanic dominance, the naval arms race increased the odds of Britain abandoning traditional neutrality, and aligning itself against Germany. The entry of Britain in the war in early August altered the balance of forces, especially on the western front, and made it much less likely that German forces could repeat the sort of swift victory achieved against Austria in 1866 and France in 1871. All-out conflict between Europe’s dominant naval power and its foremost land power also replaced their peacetime commercial competition for transatlantic migrant traffic by wartime shipping dominated by cruisers and troop ships, and by supply convoys for Britain; blockades, interned vessels, torpedoes and submarines for Germany.


As a consequence of the Titanic disaster two years earlier, North Atlantic passenger ships in early summer 1914 were all equipped with radio. On July 31, when Germany’s ultimatum demanded that Russia stop military mobilization, German merchant vessels were directed to stay in, or head towards, friendly or neutral ports. Vaterland, the largest passenger steamship of the Hamburg-American Line and of the world, cancelled its scheduled departure that day, remaining instead in New Jersey. Passengers aboard the Bremen-bound Kronprinzessin Cecile, second largest vessel of the Norddeutscher Lloyd line, noticed the moon on the “wrong side” of the ship, after it reversed course to return to neutral New York, where most of the company’s other large express liners were already docked. An exception was one of Kronprinzessin Cecile’s sister steamers. In the fifteen years before the war, Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse had been the largest transporter of European migrants to America (over 250 thousand). In August, 1914, it was quickly transformed in Bremerhaven to a commerce-raider, and -within a few weeks- sunk off the coast of Africa.


German and Austrian ships already enroute before August mostly still reached North America. Nevertheless, two weeks into the war, (and still a week before direct engagement between the armies of Germany, France and Russia), westward steerage arrivals to the United States were already 30% lower on UK vessels, and transatlantic voyages from Germany had all but ceased entirely. Eastward steerage traffic swelled with returnees to Europe, however, especially to Italy.


Within Europe, war-driven return migration developed even more quickly and dramatically. In the first two weeks of World War I, some one hundred thousand Italians poured through Switzerland in a sudden and unexpected homebound flood. Most were expatriate workers in Belgium, France and Germany, and traveled through Basel. The “invasion” began already on August 3, the day after Italy declared its neutrality in the war. Italians had for many years often returned home after stays in the Americas, in many cases having already planned to do so when first leaving Italy. In contrast, the attitudes of those in the “Italian column” herded into crowded waiting rooms and onto packed trains in Basel in August of 1914 were, as described by historian Peter Manz, more often characterized by shock or even panic. Not infrequently the coming war had immediately impacted their workplaces; many Italians had to leave in a hurry without time to gather belongings or even collect wages due. At the other end of what was soon to become the dominant European front, neutral Netherlands was by October coping with a million Belgian refugees fleeing the direct onslaught of the war itself.


There were refugees before 1914, and labor migrants after 1918, but the First World War was nonetheless a historical watershed. By the late 1920s, most countries had replaced open borders with quota systems, and the first official international refugee organization had been established under Geneva-based League of Nations.


Recent shifts back towards the unrestricted international labor movement of the pre-1914 era have been limited, tentative, and dependent upon wobbly political coalitions. Unlike flows of goods and money, cross-border population movements transform those migrating, their sending locales, and their destinations, and engender feedbacks, side effects and second thoughts.


In the long run, large-scale voluntary demographic reallocations rarely persist for many generations. But, as it turned out, unrestricted transnational migration did not gradually decline in the twentieth century (as it gradually developed in the nineteenth century). To a substantial and lasting extent, its relatively swift demise was signaled by the march to world war in August, 1914.

                                            minor corrections made on 10-Jan-15