The Peril from the East



I’ve been reading a collection of Joseph Roth’s newspaper journalism, came across a piece published in 1920, in which Roth visited a Berlin boardinghouse crammed with bedraggled refugees. In those days they were mainly Jews in flight from pogroms and the chaos of the Russian civil war. “We know them as ‘the peril from the East,’” Roth wrote, contrasting the panic in the press over hordes of savage and criminal migrants with the exhausted, broken bodies he found huddled together, “millennial sorrow” in their eyes.

The photo above is from Calais, the “new camp” in which the French government intends to house refugees who find themselves stuck on the coast while attempting to cross into England. As opposed to the old camp, which is referred to by both its inhabitants and those who wish them gone as “the Jungle,” as loaded a term as they get. My piece on Calais just went online in the London Review of Books. I was there two and a half weeks ago, a few days before riot police and bulldozers moved in and began demolishing the Jungle’s southern half, before French authorities blamed the clashes that followed on outside “extremists,” before several migrants protested their silencing by sewing their own lips shut and announcing a hunger strike, before Belgium partially closed its border with France to keep the Calais migrants out, before Slovenia closed its borders and Serbia, Croatia, and Macedonia followed suit, effectively shutting down the route through which more than a million migrants have sought refuge in Europe this last year. Thwock thwock thwock, the doors slam shut. Is it worth reiterating that there is something rather odd about this "crisis"? That most of the refugees have either fled countries visited in recent years by European and American troops and bombs or ruled by regimes that the US and the major European powers have happily and profitably armed? The “refugee crisis” works a neat bit of magic: Europe’s outside refuses to stay out, stubbornly streams back in. And so the fences go up and the gates shut, too late: all the violence and ethnic hatred that Europe liked to pretend existed only far outside its borders is now on full display in Brussels, in Vienna, in Paris, in Calais. Millennial sorrows all round. 

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