Few subjects arouse such atavistic emotions as migration—whether the arrivals come as conquerors or as kin, fleeing ordeals or seeking opportunities. For incomers, migration can represent a dream, a rational choice, an urgent necessity, or a last hope. For recipient countries, it can be an infusion of energy, a reunion, a social challenge, or an existential threat. By drawing parallels between today’s immigrations and earlier upheavals, Peter Gatrell seeks to prove that modern migration is a continuation of a generations-long process, just “another iteration” rather than a replacing revolution.

The author is an economist at Manchester University, and an historian of modern migration, with a special interest in Russia. As one might expect from a denizen of the city that produced economic reductionists like John Bright, Richard Cobden, and Friedrich Engels, as well as the leftist newspaper The Guardian, Gatrell believes economics are of prime importance in understanding human affairs. He’s also politically progressive, and has a moral code influenced by certain nonconformist strains of Christianity.

That being said, Gatrell writes well and with good faith. He handles statistics assuredly and evinces unfailing interest in even the most turgid academic analyses, or the provisions of some country’s long-scrapped immigration legislation. He has a highly-developed sense of duty in his research into migration, for which he doggedly recorded ethnic slurs of yore, viewed “political performance art,” and visited a museum devoted to the Schengen Agreement—the 1985 treaty that abolished border checks between many European countries.

He has subjected himself to such earnest films as 1979’s Le Coup de Sirocco, about displaced pieds noirs (“black feet,” the name given to migrants of European ancestry who fled Algeria after it gained independence) entering the couscous-canning business. Another, 1974’s Angst essen Seele auf, chronicles the relationship between a Moroccan mechanic and an older German woman. Gatrell notes the film climaxes with the Moroccan developing a stomach ulcer brought on by the stresses he experienced as a migrant. Perhaps these films are not as woodenly didactic as they sound, but recounting their overly sympathetic plots makes this book useful as a summation of how the modern narrative about migration has evolved.

Gatrell personalizes a phenomenon about which there is too much generalization. Mass migrations are made up of many individual choices, or lack of choices. He provides powerful stories to show why some people come, or go, or stay. Readers cannot fail to be impressed, or moved, by the courage, ingenuity and resilience of many migrants. Any of us could be aliens in certain contexts, and clearly we should empathize with those affected by disasters or war.

The book’s chief value may lie in its description of the “violent peacetime” after World War II—a time of displaced and traumatized millions, returning exiles, hasty border redrawing, and bloody score-settling. The erstwhile Allies were facing off and the Iron Curtain would soon descend. It was a time when countries were remade, revenges exacted, geostrategies plotted, and ideologies given statehood. The author summons up tattered, phantom populations little known, or long forgotten, to mainstream Western history: royalist Serbs; anti-communist Croats and Slovenes; Balts; Cossacks and Ukrainians who had fought for the Germans; Armenians; and (later) Bulgaria’s Turkish minority. These groups were often held in former Nazi concentration camps (certain places seem preordained to be places of permanent transit, and deep sadness).

Ethnic Germans embraced by Hitler found themselves after WWII expelled from territories they had held since the Middle Ages, their lives and property menaced by mobs, or soldiers, or both. Millions of them trekked west, a sad reversal of the epic 4th-to-6th century Völkerwanderung, in which the migration of German peoples energized Europe’s heartlands. When these ethnic Germans “returned” to Germany— which many had never even visited—they frequently found themselves unwelcome. Locals resented these “Volksdeutsche” as economic rivals and sneered at their provincial manners. Leftist Germans regarded them as rebarbative reactionaries, while rightists viewed their presence as a reproachful reminder of national abasement.

We also learn of smaller but equally painful stories about the deportations, forced assimilations, liquidations, repatriations, and transfers of Romani, and ethnic subgroups such as Ingrian Finns, Lemkos, Pontic Greeks, Székelys, and others, as more homogenous republics emerged from the postwar dust. The Soviets were active ethno-social engineers, “encouraging” internal migrations of able-bodied Russians to farm what they called the “Virgin Lands” of Central Asia, or to Russify the Baltic coast.

Unsettling went on elsewhere as Europe’s empires fell to “winds of change.” Ethnic Belgians, British, Dutch, French, and Portuguese came, or were chased “home,” from colonies, where they found themselves suddenly of lower status and leading more straitened lives. Many would translate their sense of loss into political conservatism, and discontent about non-white immigration.

Dark-skinned ex-colonials had it harder, especially Muslims. Islam has always presented particular problems for Europe, especially on its historically Moor- and Ottoman-menaced edges. When French intellectual Éric Zemmour in 2019 compared Islamic dress to the uniforms of an army of occupation, this was (to borrow Gatrell’s earlier phrase again) “another iteration” of an emotion that goes back to the time of Charlemagne. This is very hard on those Muslims who have actually demonstrated commitment to their new countries—like the harkis, pro-France ex-soldiers who fled Algeria with the whites after its independence.

European migration fluctuated, and took multiple forms, from the influx of penurious Cape Verdeans in Lisbon to English ex-bankers turning Tuscany into Chianti-shire. It also occurred within countries as local populations moved from countryside to city. Migrants could be simultaneously wanted and not welcome. They were cheap labor, consumers, and workers for ever-expanding welfare states. They were also pawns used by Gramscian ideologues to remake or undermine national identities—although earlier leftists had often been the first to sound the alarms against migrants, seeing them as rivals, and a buttress for capitalism.

Popular majorities of most countries did not want them. Politicians accordingly promised curbs, but these promises were rarely kept. Over decades, a democratic-demographic deficit—a refusal by governments of all kinds to take public worries about immigration seriously—helped erode public trust in all parties, all institutions.

Discontent over migration occasionally took focused form, as in Enoch Powell’s 1968 “Rivers of Blood” speech, Jean Raspail’s 1973 novel The Camp of the Saints, the 1981 Heidelberg Manifesto in which German professors warned about the “infiltration of the German people,” Thilo Sarrazin’s 2010 book Germany Abolishes Itself, and in the rise of populist parties, and the Brexit referendum of 2016. Each instance was hysterically condemned, as political correctness moved from joke to religion. Leftist politicians increasingly embraced the incoming tide, blustering about diversity equaling strength, while mainstream conservatives retreated to the position that migration didn’t matter as long as the economy worked.

Europe’s left and right politicians blithely expected civil servants to administer, and institutions to adjust to, ineffectual and endlessly altering policies to integrate migrants. Governments were hypocritical, exemplified by the brutal way the morally self-preening British government expelled the Chagos Islanders from their islands in the Indian Ocean between 1969 and 1973 to make way for an American airbase, and forbade them ever to return. It was not until 2002 that they were even offered compensatory accommodation in Britain.

The cultural mood of total support for migration began to shift slowly, and then quickly after 9/11. Conservatives found they could complain about multiculturalism without damaging their careers. But beneath this muted white noise of growing conservative protest, Europe continued to metamorphose. If current trends continue, many European countries will have changed their character completely before the end of this century, and probably forever.

Gatrell acknowledges the generally disconcerting nature of migration, and the problems with some individuals. But he believes any disturbance is counterbalanced by the economic prosperity and widening of cultural horizons that migrants bring. But the difficulties are greater than he allows.

Migration is literally dislocating. It makes the familiar surreally strange, turning national communities into industrial estates, and homes into rented accommodation. The island of Lampedusa could stand as emblem. It was once the magnificently lonely, near-legendary setting of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s 1958 novel The Leopard but is now merely a staging post for Africans passing through to Europe.

Europeans whose ancestors have been present since prehistory may now find themselves the only indigenes on their streets. They are social animals suddenly stripped of a support network—a kind of cultural bereavement made worse by the fact that their new neighbors often flock together unembarrassedly along lines of birthplace, race, or religion. Those who question these tendencies of the new arrivals, or symptoms like higher crime, female genital mutilation, limits on free speech, or the incubation of terrorist cells, face everything from social media browbeating to persecution, legal sanctions, and even physical attack.

The migrants are also often unhappy, finding out that local customs don’t always suit their needs, and aware they are there on sufferance. As one Italian journalist reflected ruefully in 1991, as Albanians descended in droves, “The dream of the Albanians has dissolved, but so too has that of the Italians.”

Politics in diverse states often degenerate into a tense 24/7 balancing act in which relative discomforts are weighed. This group contends against that, this political consideration or cultural tradition vies against another, big business demands for free movement of capital and labor while ordinary people want safety and stability. New sources of grievance are overlaid on older ones, like class, and left permanently unaddressed because policymakers are distracted by more colorful cultural interest groups.

Maybe the worst discomfort of them all is ideological, as leftist demands seem unassuageable. Gatrell is a moderate leftist, but even he indicates that whatever politicians do to help migrants, it will never be enough. Far to his left are ignorant and violent absolutists who in another age might have been Anabaptists, but now devote their passionate intensity to causes like Antifa.

When Vietnamese boat people were admitted to the UK on the basis that they were good workers, Gatrell sees this as “barely disguised racism directed at Afro-Caribbean and South Asian migrants.” When the Dutch gave asylum to Christian Turks in the early 1980s, Gatrell believes the offer “came with a message about the cultural backwardness and religious extremism of people of Islamic faith.” French universalism and secularism likewise amount to racism in his view, and French TV programs for migrants are “patronizing” and “depressing,” while a psychologist who wrote feelingly of migrants’ vulnerability was “blaming the victims.”

That’s just the beginning of Gatrell’s displays of virtuous concerns over what might be called microaggressions toward the migrants. When Russians complimented Chechens on their command of Russian, it “concealed more than a hint of menace.” The Italian Mare Nostrum operation to pick up Mediterranean migrants was “a reference to Mussolini’s grand vision of Italian supremacy,” Gatrell said. He complains that a monument to Albanians sunk by the Italian navy in 1997 failed to “include any discussion about how the migrants lost their lives…there was not even a plaque to explain why it was there and what it stood for, let alone any indication of the names of the people who drowned.” Leftist filmmakers “appropriated migrants’ experiences.” Travel writer Bruce Chatwin was guilty of “exotic depictions” even while writing movingly about anti-Algerian racism. When a German undercover journalist passed himself off as a Turkish job applicant to expose German racism, he “perpetuated a stereotype about ill-educated and slow-witted Turks and of reinforcing the view that guest workers were passive victims.”

Gatrell, humanely sensitive to migrant feelings, is more dismissive of European concerns. Europeans have generally peacefully accepted the dwindling of their status, but for him, anti-immigration voices are an angry “brigade.” He criticizes white “imaginary ethnic homogeneity”—forgetting that nations, like individuals, exist partly in the imagination. He condemns an Austrian restaurateur for feeling scared by the 2015 migration surge that dashed by her front door. He scorns a Greek journalist who said Muslims on the island of Chios could constitute a fifth column or be used by Turkey as a pretext to invade, as had happened in Cyprus in 1974.

He doesn’t mention free speech. He puts “threatened” in inverted commas when discussing the feelings of indigenous populations, even though, objectively, host communities may lose as much as, or more than, they may gain from immigration. Angela Merkel was praised for her supposedly pragmatic 2015 comment about Syrian refugees, “We’ll manage.” But can we? And, after a while, who are “we” anyway?

Oddly for an economist, Gatrell shows little interest in the subjects of economic models that prioritize national workers over migrant workers, or the effects of technological innovation, or what happens to Third World countries that lose their best to the West. Nor does he take a break from virtuous scolding to provide any policy suggestions. Having opened with a metaphor about boats, he closes with one about bridges. Perhaps he should have considered another metaphor for civilization-building: that of the wall.

Without migration, he concludes at last, Europe would be “greatly diminished.” Might it not just have been different? It all feels unsatisfactorily inconclusive—but unsettling is unfinished business, after all.

[The Unsettling of Europe: How Migration Reshaped a Continent by Peter Gatrell (Basic Books) 548 pp., $35.00]