Via Aaron Bady, I saw a wonderful article by Imke Sturm-Martin about the challenges of integrating migration history into the mainstream of European historical consciousness. Europe is not the only place where migration history has complicated traditional narratives, and where migration history has contemporary political implications, but it is a bit ahead of the curve, thanks to the usual patterns of economic and social change, compounded regional integration. I don’t have time to give this the full treatment it deserves, but Sturm-Martin’s most interesting point is that the full integration of history into master national narratives is very much hindered by those national narratives.
Which migration should become part of a European narrative? The question is not an easy one – the only uncontroversial instances are migrations that lie so far back in time that all can agree on their consequences for European history. It is much harder to agree about migration in recent history and the present, and even individual national historiographies have trouble with such cases. Whenever and wherever the consequences of migration are felt in the present, questions arise of minority rights, group rights, inequality and discrimination, and demand that any “official” history be politically correct.
Like any other public presentation of history, the House of European History in Brussels, due to open in 2014, will be unable to avoid taking a political stance on such questions. … Visitors are to be told about the great migrations of antiquity, about migration from the countryside to the cities during the industrial revolution, and about the refugees and displaced or expelled persons who migrated after both World Wars. This list does not mention the “international” aspects of seasonal migration in Early Modern Europe, a well-researched topic by now; nor does it mention the vast scale of emigration to the Americas from various European countries, or the substantial migration from outside Europe at the end of the colonial era. Even the workforce recruitment campaigns in the southern countries during Europe’s boom years in the 1950s and 1960s is omitted. Such large-scale historical processes have fallen victim to the necessary selection process, but they might perhaps be part of the section “Questions for Europe’s Future”, which aims to throw up questions for visitors to ponder. One of these is, “How can the EU react to the demographic change affecting all its member states? Is encouraging immigration an effective response?”
There is a very powerful trend to turn history into a balance sheet of justice, which migration history often runs right into. But it’s also possible that migration history may make that kind of accounting impossible, done properly.