The Crisis of Multiculturalism in Europe: A History

The Crisis of Multiculturalism in Europe: A History

by Rita Chin


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A history of modern European cultural pluralism, its current crisis, and its uncertain future

In 2010, the leaders of Germany, Britain, and France each declared that multiculturalism had failed in their countries. Over the past decade, a growing consensus in Europe has voiced similar decrees. But what do these ominous proclamations, from across the political spectrum, mean? Looking at the touchstones of European multiculturalism, from the urgent need for laborers after World War II to the question of French girls wearing headscarves to school, The Crisis of Multiculturalism in Europe examines the historical development of multiculturalism on the Continent. Rita Chin argues that there were few efforts to institute state-sponsored policies of multiculturalism, and shows that today’s crisis of support for cultural pluralism isn’t new but actually has its roots in the 1980s. Contending that renouncing the principles of diversity brings social costs, Chin considers how Europe might construct an effective political engagement with its varied population.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691192772
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 06/11/2019
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 760,306
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Rita Chin is professor of history at the University of Michigan. She is the author of The Guest Worker Question in Postwar Germany and the coauthor of After the Nazi Racial State. She was recently awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship.

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The Birth of Multicultural Europe

If multiculturalism ultimately became the primary trope through which Europeans debated ethnic diversity, it seems important to understand how this diversity developed in Europe in the first place. When, in other words, was multicultural Europe born? What economic and political motors drove large numbers of non-Europeans to settle in post–World War II Europe? And in what ways did different national histories, traditions, and ideas of belonging shape the diverse societies that developed — as well as the distinctive state responses to cultural diversity?

The standard answer to these questions is that Western European countries became diverse in the aftermath of the Second World War. Between the late 1940s and the early 1970s, colonial and former colonial subjects arrived in their European motherlands, while other European governments simultaneously recruited guest workers. In most cases, newcomers were welcomed — or at least tolerated — because they provided much needed manpower to help rebuild from wartime destruction and filled the massive labor shortage created by the subsequent economic boom. By and large, however, European states expected these labor migrants eventually to return home. That most remained took Western leaders by surprise. This unforeseen development, the narrative goes, forced European countries into the thankless position of having to absorb large numbers of people with foreign cultures, traditions, and religions.

Western European societies have a heavy investment in this version of the story. Before 1945, the account implies, countries in Europe enjoyed social cohesion and harmony, with few — if any — divisions. European nations were largely homogeneous and so had little or no experience dealing with cultural differences. Unlike the United States or Canada, European countries maintained neither a tradition of immigration, nor concepts of the nation that would facilitate incorporating significant foreign populations. The onset of postwar immigration, by contrast, introduced for the first time large numbers of non-Europeans into the demographic mix, which in turn forced a difficult learning curve for managing ethnic minorities and their cultural particularities. Within this narrative, the end of World War II represents a radical rupture in European society, one that helps to explain both native Europeans' resistance to the influx of immigrants, as well as the lack of preparedness among European leaders and governments to handle this social tinderbox. If 1945 marked a fundamental shift from homogeneity to diversity — and the first waves of nonwhite and non-Christian populations — then who could reasonably blame Europeans for the difficulties — and various forms of resistance — that often ensued?

The truth, however, is that this dominant image of European homogeneity was largely a myth. In fact, many scholars now argue that Europe has always been a study in contrasts, a continent marked by intense internal differences. European states accommodated — or at least, confronted — many kinds of diversity at multiple points in their histories: regional differences, religious differences, and ethnic and racial differences. In Germany, for instance, anxiety about foreign populations emerged as soon as the nation-state was established in 1871, with the incorporation of Danish Schleswig-Holstein and French Alsace-Lorraine into its territories. A diversity of religious confessions, too, was a concern for the new state. Chancellor Otto von Bismarck went to great lengths to monitor the Catholic population and ensure the dominance of Protestantism. Meanwhile, the "Jewish question" was already a major topic of debate in the German states well before unification, leading Karl Marx to pen his famous essay of the same title in 1843. Late nineteenth-century Germans, moreover, routinely worried about the flood of Polish laborers who crossed the border to work in the coal mines of the Ruhr Valley and the agricultural estates of East Prussia.

This long-running experience with ethnic and religious diversity holds true in France as well. In 1870, leaders of the Third Republic were sufficiently alarmed at the lack of social cohesion among the nominally French population that they undertook a major effort to define and inculcate a national culture. The goal was to transform peasants and regional minorities such as Basques and Bretons into "Frenchmen." In addition, France faced two substantial waves of immigration before the postwar period, one that brought Belgians and Italians at the end of the nineteenth century and another that created Polish, Czech, and Russian communities in the 1920s. The number of immigrants was so great, in fact, that by 1930 France boasted the highest rate of foreign population growth in the entire world.

The patterns in the United Kingdom were similar. If the mid-nineteenth-century Great Famine in Ireland prompted hundreds of thousands of refugees to flee to the United States, it also drove them to new parts of the British Isles: Liverpool, Birmingham, London. This mass immigration not only brought a huge underclass of laboring poor (whose "savagery" was said to rub off on English workers), but also reintroduced Catholicism as a potentially divisive factor into English society. The question of religious difference was raised in somewhat different form with the arrival of a sizable contingent of Jews around the same time. Significantly, the country's first immigration law, the 1905 Aliens Act, was aimed primarily at preventing the arrival of Jewish refugees fleeing the pogroms in Russia's Pale of Settlement.

In contrast to most other European nations, the Netherlands actually welcomed immigrants prior to World War II. Between 1590 and 1800, newcomers relocated there in such numbers that the foreign-born population was never less than 5 percent, a sizeable figure compared to France, where foreigners composed 1.05 percent of the total population in 1851. The country's relative freedom and wealth attracted those fleeing religious persecution such as French Huguenots and Jews, as well as those seeking economic opportunity. In this way, the Netherlands embraced multiple types of migrants and made the tradition of accepting new arrivals an important part of its national identity.

Most European countries, in other words, dealt with questions of immigration and cultural difference well before the Second World War. Demographic diversity was not new. Nor were tensions around ethnic and religious difference a novel development in Western Europe. Yet this master narrative of postwar rupture contains at least some seeds of useful contrast. What is perhaps most significant here is that those living through the postwar transitions perceived the demographic transformations unfolding around them as qualitatively different — a new kind of diversity. As European governments struggled to confront and negotiate these differences, moreover, many of them framed their efforts as a debate about something called "multiculturalism," a novel term in the social and political lexicons of Western Europe. Before we can grasp the significance of this linguistic shift, however, we must delve into the processes by which demographic diversity was changing on the ground, as well as how European states initially responded to these newcomers.

Empire and Labor

By most accounts, postwar immigration to Britain began on 21 June 1948, with the arrival of the SS Empire Windrush, to the Tilbury Docks near London. This former German troop vessel carried 492 passengers from the Caribbean, most of whom had set sail from Kingston, Jamaica, after seeing an advertisement in a local newspaper for cheap transport to England. For the costly but manageable sum of £28.10, the men and two women aboard sought economic opportunity and — above all — work in the imperial heartland.

The arrival of the Empire Windrush did not go unnoticed in Britain. Less than two weeks before its expected approach, the British tabloid Daily Express reported that Minister of Labour George Isaacs stood before the House of Commons and "confessed his worry to MPs yesterday" about the imminent landing of "500 West Indians, all seeking jobs in Britain." On the day the ship made port, the tabloid announced, "Empire Men Flee No Jobs Land: 500 Hope to Start New Life Today." While the steamer chugged up the Thames toward its final destination, a film crew from the British Pathé News service waited on the shore to document the boat's docking. Once the ship was moored, the reporter solicited a number of interviews, asking several young men why they had come to England and what kinds of jobs they hoped to obtain. He then turned to their fellow traveler, the Trinidadian calypso singer Aldwyn Roberts known professionally as Lord Kitchener, who offered an a cappella version of his new song, "London Is the Place for Me." The resulting newsreel explained that the West Indian arrivals were citizens of the British Empire. Many of them were former servicemen who had fought with the Royal Air Force during World War II. "They served this country well," explained the narrator, "and they know England." Lord Kitchener also emphasized the special ties between those on the ship and Britain. "Well believe me, I am speaking broadmindedly," he sang, "I am glad to know my mother country. I've been travelling the countries years ago, but this is the place I wanted to know. Darling, London is the place for me."

What this short film repeatedly underscored, in short, were colonial connections. These long-standing ties meant that the Windrush passengers saw themselves not as foreigners imposing on a strange country, but rather as members of the empire setting out for the motherland. Their legal standing confirmed the perception: they were British subjects and thus fully entitled to seek work and settle in England. Many of those who had fought in the armed services had actually spent time training in the British Isles. Presumably, they felt an even deeper bond, having risked their lives to safeguard Britain and its larger empire. But virtually all of the migrants viewed their journey less as a voyage into the unknown, and more as a kind of homecoming. After all, they had spent their grammar school years in the West Indies learning British history, geography, and literature. Their arrival in London was thus a completion of the imperial circuit.

The colonial connections were not lost on British government officials. It was the Secretary of State for the Colonies who first learned about the Windrush's imminent arrival through a telegram from the Acting Governor in Jamaica. The matter then became the subject of furious correspondence among these two offices, the Colonial Office in London, the Privy Council, the Ministry of Labour, and ultimately Prime Minister Clement Attlee himself. Throughout these exchanges, civil servants worried that the arriving West Indians lacked both skills and money. But the main concern for the Privy Council and Secretary of State for the Colonies was whether those aboard the Windrush had decided to come to England on their own or were responding to a locally organized movement in the colonies. After deciding on the former explanation, an official from the Ministry of Labour admitted, "There is no logical ground for treating a British subject who comes of his own accord from Jamaica to Great Britain differently from another who comes to London on his own account from Scotland." Well aware of the open-door policy established between Britain and its imperial possessions, the prime minister echoed this position: "It is traditional that British subjects, whether of Dominion or Colonial origin (and of whatever race or colour), should be freely admissible to the United Kingdom. That tradition is not, in my view, to be lightly discarded."

In most of the press coverage, however, these longer historical connections (and entitlements) were largely obscured. Rather than describing the Windrush passengers as imperial subjects who were undertaking an internal migration from one part of the empire to another, the media generally cast them as foreigners looking for employment in Britain. While the Daily Express announced "Empire Men Flee No Jobs Land" (a headline that at least acknowledged these migrants' link to Britain through the empire), the article's larger emphasis was the flight from "no jobs land" and the description of these newcomers as "five hundred unwanted people ... [who] are hoping for a new life." In a short notice from its "News in Brief" section, the Times of London informed readers that "492 Jamaicans had come to seek work." As these depictions suggest, the "unwanted" arrivals appeared to be random strangers in search of a better life in the United Kingdom. Their long-standing ties to Britain were largely pushed into the background. For the most part, as historian Wendy Webster has argued, British perceptions of Commonwealth migrants "scarcely acknowledged the imperial history that connected them to Britain."

Although the Windrush would later be described as the starting point for postwar immigration to Britain, early media coverage gave little hint of the occasion's larger implications. Most reports treated the ship's arrival as a one-off, a curious episode rather than a trigger for a massive influx of immigrants. What seemed to capture public attention, above all, were the questions of where to house the passengers and how to find them jobs. The Times reported that 236 of the Jamaicans "were housed last night in Clapham South deep shelter. The remainder had friends to whom they could go with prospects of work." Among the passengers, it noted, were "singers, students, pianists, boxers, and a complete dance band. Thirty or forty of them have already volunteered to work as miners." Brief notices like this made the uninvited appearance of these immigrants seem like an anomalous event.

Government officials, though, were at least vaguely cognizant of the fact that the Windrush passengers might presage a larger flood of non-European colonials. In its article on the Labour Minister's anxiety, the Daily Express quoted his hope that "no encouragement will be given to others to follow them." An internal memo from the Privy Council office to the Colonial Office expressed fear that "successful efforts to secure adequate conditions for these men on arrival might actually encourage a further influx." Indeed, the Colonial Office was right to worry. It certainly knew that the Caribbean islands were among the poorest of Britain's colonial possessions. Jamaica's economic situation was particularly wretched, with an unemployment rate between 25 and 30 percent. Clement Atlee likewise understood the potential complications presented by the West Indies' dire economic circumstances, the United Kingdom's nationality policy that allowed free colonial migration, and the added factor of postwar Britain's need for manpower. It would be particularly difficult to "discard" the tradition of open borders within the empire, he admitted, "at a time when we are importing foreign labour in large numbers."

Britain, of course, had emerged from the Second World War victorious. But within a few months of the conflict's end, it became clear that the country was suffering from a severe labor shortage that threatened to exacerbate the problems of an economy already saddled with massive national debt and a skewed balance of payments. An October 1945 report of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) stated that numerous industries were encountering "the problem of manpower scarcity at every turn, and the whole of the vital services of this country [were] very near breaking point." British rebuilding efforts quickly absorbed hundreds of thousands of prisoners of war, and the TUC estimated that another half million laborers would be required in order to prevent a serious disruption of basic services. By January 1946, the government identified manpower as the most pressing national problem, especially because the lack of labor was acute in the crucial industries of coal mining, textiles, agriculture, steel, and construction. All in all, it anticipated a shortage of between 600,000 and 1.3 million workers.

As first steps to address the issue, the Ministry of Labour launched a "domestic productivity drive" to urge all able-bodied citizens back to work, even granting Scottish children a fifteen-day exemption from school to pitch in with the annual harvest. It also organized a publicity campaign to encourage women to rejoin the labor force, while some members of the Cabinet pressed for a reduction in the armed services to relieve the pressure on the civilian labor force. More radical solutions involved importing POWs from the United States and Canada, as well as developing resettlement schemes for European refugees and displaced persons that would eventually bring Poles, Balts, and Italians to Britain. Indeed, government leaders actively recruited Europeans to fill the labor rolls, not just as temporary sojourners, but as immigrants who would help replenish the British stock.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

The Multicultural and Multiculturalism 1

1 The Birth of Multicultural Europe 23

2 Managing Multicultural Societies 80

3 Race, Nation, and Multicultural Society 138

4 Muslim Women, Sexual Democracy, and the Defense of Freedom 192

5 The “Failure” of Multiculturalism 237

Epilogue The Future of Multicultural Europe? 287

Notes 307

Suggestions for Further Reading 347

Index 353

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“Chin has produced a well-researched and readable study of policies toward immigrant communities in Great Britain, France, and, to a lesser extent, Germany, from immediately after WWII to the present.”Publishers Weekly

“Chin analyzes the current debates in Europe over immigration and Western values to create a vivid picture of a continent consumed by social tensions. The questions [she] poses have never seemed more urgent.”—Radhika Jones, New York Times Book Review

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