The mass migration of hundreds of thousands of people from war-torn areas to Europe has drawn comparisons to the chaotic movement of millions after World War II. Professor of History Richard Soderlund says while people are escaping devastated lands, this migration stands apart.


Most have little appreciation of World War II’s almost unimaginable destruction and loss of life. Conditions were particularly grave in Eastern Europe. There, Hitler’s New Order—defined by the extermination, deportation, and transfer of entire peoples—had led to the decimation of whole ethnic groups. The brutal fighting between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, almost apocalyptic in nature, uprooted the very foundations of society, leaving a shattered landscape of hunger, disease, and despair. In all, the numbers of those either killed or displaced in the war (civilians and soldiers) reached 90 million.

The end of the war and the subsequent months saw vast population movements. By late 1945, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) had helped six million displaced people to return to their homes, including great numbers of French, Belgians, and Greeks, who had worked as forced laborers in Nazi Germany. Several millions of other displaced persons, unable or unwilling to return home, would eventually find new homes in western European countries, the United States, Canada, and elsewhere.

Like the post-WWII years, the current movement of hundreds of thousands of refugees into Europe stems from great suffering, and poses major challenges for Europe and the West. But the differences between the post World War II years and today are surely far more important than the similarities.

Driving everything in the latest push is the almost bewilderingly complex civil war in Syria, a conflict that has displaced 12 million people. In addition, great numbers of refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, and many other countries, escaping civil war, violence, persecution, and chaos, have also poured into Europe.

While we focus on Syria, the flow of refugees into Europe is just one aspect of a much wider global refugee crisis. According to the UN, almost 60 million people on the earth have been forcibly moved from their homes.

The issue today is very different in nature than Word War II. The violent, post-war population movements made most European states far more ethnically homogenous, and wiped out “minority” populations. The refugees and migrants coming into Europe today are non-Europeans, creating a more multi-ethnic population.

The refugees have very different ethnic, racial, cultural, and religious differences from the populations of the various states of the EU. Given the fact that the traumatic movement of populations after the war is in literal living memory (at least for many), one might expect sympathy from the countries of Europe. And in fact, countless thousands of Europeans, in Germany, Austria, Sweden, France, and elsewhere, have shown enormous generosity, welcoming refugees and providing essential aid and support.

That being said, the great number of refugees who have entered Europe—a movement that shows no signs of slowing down—has triggered a significant crisis. The costs of caring for refugees, many of whom are destitute, are fairly staggering. It has placed great financial strain on some states, including Greece, which can ill afford it. Many European states, particularly those in the East, have also balked at the prospect of taking in significant numbers of refugees. The far-right wing government in Hungary, for example, has presented the crisis as a great threat to Europe and presented itself as a defender of Christendom against Islam. Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, and the Baltic states have all rejected proposals to share the burden.

The crisis will remain a major challenge, posing serious complications for the ability of EU nations to work together constructively and to the ideals and values that the EU represents.