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The Great Departure book review

It's been awhile since I've read anything noteworthy enough to recommend in an extended-review kind of way. But my current find is shaping up to be well-written, timely, and a great book on a variety of levels. I'll try to avoid the type of information you can find on Google here in exchange for a different analysis.

The Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World is a 2016 book from University of Chicago professor Tara Zahra. She's a professor of modern European history and a recent winner of the MacArthur Fellowship. And notice there I said European history--not American history. The story she tells is, most definitely, the stereotypical history of American immigration...Ellis Island, ethnic neighborhoods, the search for opportunity...but her version departs (pardon the pun) from the usual and covers a more global, balanced, and policy perspective. As Americans, we usually hear the immigration story of the 19th and early 20th century as positive, hopeful tales of people traveling to make a better life. Zahra tells the big picture of emigration which means sometimes a darker, more cynical story of regret after arrival and the racial, economic, and political reasons behind the departure in the first place.

Between 1876 and 1910, Austria-Hungary lost 3,547,000 emigrants to overseas destinations. This time period around the world was filled with competing claims and motivations surrounding the gain/loss of people. All of it was backed by the general understanding that migration was a human right. That idea may be somewhat controversial today, but we're living in a similar period of globalization forcing a re-evaluation of nationhood and ethnicity. The previous era's struggle for migration was really a struggle for human capital. Armies needed to be formed. Coal mines and factories needed employees. And nations had the desire to form homogeneous identities around a native group of people...and to expel non-native groups. Whether that be non-speakers of a given language, other races, or to eliminate social friction between groups within the nation.

The global competition for people wasn't limited to America. Yes, between 1846-1940 fifty five million Europeans moved to North and South America. But during the same period 48-52 million people moved from India and Southern China to Southeast Asia and islands in the Indian Ocean and South Pacific. It was time of global population upheaval. And the United States was more than happy to play along to fill our dual role of filling our industrial urban jobs and using our acceptance as a propaganda tool for ideals like freedom and democracy. Of course, when immigrants arrived to the US many were miserable. Some even chose to go back home. We tend to think of the idealized vision of the "golden country" but the reality was that peasants came from, say, Eastern Europe for their own reasons. The work in an American factory was not necessarily better than farm life back home. Visitors would return to Eastern Europe wearing fancy American clothes telling tales of making it. But even within one family, there were vastly different results. Some family members vanished. And Zahra discusses Upton Sinclair's The Jungle as a great example. Sure, it can be read as the food reform book we know it as. But it can also be read as a cautionary tale. Everyone in the main character's family dies from accident, disease, death in childbirth, cousins as prostitute, rape, and being chewed by rats on the floor of a meatpacking facility. Zahra notes that there is a reason social reformers took on immigrant conditions. She covers the shipping lines who lured emigrants to the point where laws in their native countries were created to regulate unscrupulous businesses. At one point, near-violent sanitation stations were set up in Europe to clean and scrub emigrants leaving for the United States (to prevent them from being returned back--in many cases they were being de facto expelled).

So far, I'm about 100 pages into the book and especially fascinated by the chapter titled, "The Man Farthest Down" which chronicles the search for the people who had it "worst" in Europe during this time. And to compare them vis-a-vis the former slaves of the South in the United States. It wasn't pretty. The conclusions about race and economics equate to concerns about modern slavery. Which brings us to Jewish emigration.

Zahra has an extensive and fascinating look at Zionism and the competing claims for late-Colonialism during the era. Nations late to the colony-forming game were trying to set up semi-autonomous regions in Africa, South America, and more. Yes, we hear about Jewish emigration to the United States...bagels and Yiddish and urban neighborhoods. But there were corresponding movements within Zionism to move European Jews to, say, rural America in isolated pockets (they found it hard to maintain identity). Or to setup African Jewish settlements. There were many proponents of Jewish settlement in Palestine but they had ongoing competition and the views of Arab reaction to Jewish settlement were naive and very wrong. While Jews in Argentina failed from yellow fever, mosquitoes, flies, rats, scorpions, and hostilities with the native population, Labor Zionists in Palestine were criticized for their "muscle Jews" way of displacing Arab workers and landowners in an effort to employ "Hebrew labor." It was not the Arab welcome some anticipated.

All in all, The Great Departure is an amazing bird's eye perspective on the forces that gave us (from an American history view) our melting pot of urban-focused modern industrial state. But it also has insight for 21st century globalization, the rise of reactionary anti-immigrant ideologies, and some brief insights into the economic forces asking for anti-trade or protectionist policy changes. I highly recommend you read...291 pages before end notes.

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