What the history of immigration teaches us about Europe’s future

Immigration is a political hot potato. It is hard to talk about it in the West without appearing to be uncaring at best or racist at worst.  That is a problem as it is an important subject: not discussing it does not make the issue go away and leaves control of the subject to extremist views on the far left and far right.  History Future Now has looked at emigration before, from the perspective of colonisation in the past.  This time we are going to look at the historical impact of immigration on the indigenous population.

This produces some interesting results.

There are many different examples that we could look at.  History Future Now has selected thirteen examples from different time periods and different parts of the world. This is to highlight that immigration is not a modern phenomenon, restricted to movements of people from the south to the more affluent north, and that it can be completely disconnected from the issue of race.

We have have put these thirteen examples into the following broad categories:

  1. Immigration that crushes the indigenous population.
  2. Immigration that topples an elite, but leaves most things unchanged.
  3. Immigration that is permitted or encouraged by the indigenous population.

We conclude by looking to the future and possible scenarios for immigration to Europe over the next few decades.  These scenarios are frightening.


Immigration that crushes the indigenous population.


A face only his mother could love.

A face only his mother could love.

Much has been written about the disappearance of Neanderthal man, a species of human that lived, successfully, in Europe for over 200,000 years.  This is an unimaginably long time.  They survived multiple ice ages proving that they had a very high capacity to adapt. Neanderthals had larger brains and were significantly stronger than modern humans.

Yet they vanished around 20,000 years ago. Their disappearance coincided with the disappearance of other ice age megafauna, such as woolly mammoths and woolly rhinoceroses, and the appearance of our species of human, Homo Sapiens. For decades the working assumption was that Homo Sapiens drove Homo Neanderthalensis extinct, either killing them outright or out competing them for resources. More recent evidence, using  reconstructed Neanderthal DNA, suggests that these two groups were successfully able to breed and that many modern Europeans have up to a 3% overlap in DNA with Neanderthals.  Whether they were killed, lost their lands and died or were bred out of existence is intellectually interesting but the fact remains that Homo Sapiens, who came out of Africa much later, exist today and Neanderthals do not.

From a Neanderthal perspective Homo Sapiens immigration did not end well.


In 376 AD a group of Germanic people, called the Goths, were pushed out of their native lands and arrived on the banks of the river Danube. The Romans on the other side of the river were used to such groups arriving. A large part of their army was now made up from recruits from Germanic tribes who had settled in the empire in previous decades.

The Roman Empire had grown rapidly on the back of territorial conquest. Each victory over new barbarian tribes resulted in a huge, one off, transfer of wealth from the conquered people to the Romans. Slaves and treasure kept the economy going and kept its professional army loyal.

As Rome ran out of worthwhile adversaries military conflict changed from being a boost to the economy to being a major burden. Victories in foreign lands did not recoup the cost of war and constant attacks from German tribes into the Roman Empire itself meant that even a Roman victory was a financial loss. Worse still, Roman defeats resulted in the loss of property, enslavement of Roman citizens and the payment of huge ransoms to keep the barbarians from attacking again. Which they invariably did.

By 410 barbarian tribes were roaming freely within the core of the Roman Empire. Vandals and Visigoths travelled through Gaul and Hispania (settling for a while in Vandalusia) before crossing the Straights of Gibraltar and taking over the valuable grain producing lands of Roman controlled northern Africa. Central control was lost and the Roman Empire in the west, always poorer relative to the Greek dominated Eastern Roman Empire, crumbled, to be replaced by chaos and warlords.

From a Roman perspective Germanic immigration did not end well.


In 711 an army of Muslim horsemen and footsoldiers successfully crossed the Straights of Gibraltar into the Christian Visigothic Kingdom of Hispania, in what is now southern Spain. Internal infighting meant that there was very little to stop their advance and they marched all the way to the Pyrenees. They crossed this mountain range and were stopped by the Frankish king Charles the Hammer (Martel) in 732. They retreated across the mountains and would then dominate all of Spain until 1492 when the reinvigorated Christian armies of Isabel and Ferdinand captured Granada, ending Muslim rule. The indigenous Spanish (whoever they were- they had been invaded by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans and the Germans) were forced to convert to Islam or lose their properties and their possessions. Many were killed or went into exile.

From the perspective of the indigenous Spanish Muslim immigration did not end well. From the perspective of the Muslim ruling class the Christian re conquest did not end well either.


In 1492 the geographically challenged Genoese navigator Cristoforo Colombo arrived at a small island in the Bahamas, rather than his intended destination of China or Japan. Unimpressed by the evident lack of Asian wealth that he had been expecting, he seized on the tiny amount of gold worn by the Taino natives (forever known, erroneously, as Indians) as proof of the tremendous wealth waiting to be exploited. Had he actually arrived in China he and his small band of Europeans would have had no military advantages over the Chinese. Instead, he brought guns, steel armour and swords, horses and old world disease – including smallpox which helped to wipe out much of the Taino population. Most died and the remnants were enslaved. By 1519 nearly the entire indigenous population of the island was dead. They were eventually replaced by immigrant African slaves.

From a Taino perspective European immigration did not end well.

American Indians

In 1890 the US frontier was officially closed, the continent was criss-crossed by railways and Europeans dominated the North American continent.

English settlement in America did not start off well. The first English colony of Roanoke disappeared without a trace in 1590. Subsequent colonies suffered terrible hardships that were only endurable by those who believed they were doing God’s will. Unlike South American colonisation, which was primarily driven by resource exploitation of locals commanded by Spanish males, English colonisation was dominated by family groups. These families had huge families and the English population grew rapidly, to the detriment of the indigenous population.

After the American Civil War new waves of family groups from other European countries, such as Ireland, Italy and Eastern Europe, arrived and made life for the indigenous American Indian population even harder. After the Wounded Knee Massacre in December 1890 the remaining native population was relocated to special reservations.

From a Native American perspective European immigration did not end well.


Immigration that topples an elite, but leaves most things unchanged. 


Next, we have examples where the indigenous population may lose control but is sufficiently populous and robust that they can co-opt the incoming immigrant population.


Ancient Greeks

Greece today is a tiny country and is an economic basket case.  This is a sad state to be in for a country that was once one of the most vibrant powers in the world.  Most people know of Alexander the Great (technically a Macedonian not a Greek) and his conquests of all of the eastern Mediterranean and lands as far as Afghanistan and India.  They are also aware of the Roman Republic’s take-over of these Greek dominated lands – including Greek ruled Egypt, under Cleopatra.  What they forget, however, was that the Roman occupation of Greece, modern Turkey and the entire eastern Mediterranean was an occupation of predominantly Greek lands.

The Romans became heavily indebted to Greek culture.  The elites all spoke and read Greek.  Their children were taught by Greek slave tutors.  Their origin myths, such as Aeneas, and religion were heavily reliant on Greek archetypes.  Even Christianity was Greek: the New Testament was written in Greek, not Latin.  Judaeo Greek thought dominated its pages, not Roman thought.

Throughout the Roman Empire the eastern, Greek, part was always the richest and most influential.  When Emperor Constantine created his new capital, Constantinople, it was in the heart of the richest part of the empire.  Latin was not the primary language there, it was Greek.  And when the empire was split in two, to aid in governing such a huge area, it was the western, Latin, part of the empire that fell first.  The Greek Eastern Roman Empire, later known as Byzantium, lasted all the way until 1453 – almost 1,000 years later, when it was finally crushed by the Muslim Turks.

Greek culture and language survived because it was more sophisticated and its population was larger than that of the Roman immigrants.  Clearly the Roman invasion was not great for the Greek elites.  But Roman immigration did not result in the end of the Greeks as an ethnic and cultural powerhouse.  That job was left to the Ottomans.

Anglo Saxons

In 1066 England was invaded by Harold Hardrada, the King of Norway, and Tostig Godwin-son, the rebel brother of King Harold of England. Their invasion was repelled. Harold had only recently been crowned king after King Edward, who hated Harold’s entire Godwin family, died at the end of 1065. William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, who had family ties to Edward, claimed that Harold was a usurper and the end of the summer the country was invaded for a second time. Harold lost  (his body so badly butchered that it was unrecognisable by all except his mistress) and William became the Conqueror, King of England.

What is interesting is that French-speaking William was actually part Viking, whose pagan Norse ancestors had invaded the northern part of the Frankish Kingdom only 150 years previously. They had good Viking names like Hrólfr (Rollo). Yet they had been absorbed by the local population and the fierce sea-faring Norsemen married local women who taught French to their half Norse children. They converted to Christianity and started to give their offspring Christian names such as Robert and William.

After the Norman invasion of Britain a similar thing happened- there was a brief period of French linguistic dominance by the Norman elite at official government levels before they too started to intermarry with the indigenous Anglo Saxon locals. Official documents, previously only written in English, were now written in Latin, which both the English elite and Norman conquerors could read and write. Within a generation, however,  English (though by now heavily infused with parallel French loan words- think “pig/pork”, “cow/beef”) resumed it’s place as both the common language and official language.

From the perspective of the Anglo Saxon ruling elite, who saw most of their lands taken away by Norman supporters loyal to William the Conqueror, the Norman invasion was a disaster.  For much of the common people it was very harsh as well – much of the north of England in particular was “harried” by Norman soldiers and it took generations to recover.  But a strong Anglo-Saxon core remained.


China likes to project the image that it is a country with a long, uninterrupted, history. The reality is quite the opposite. It has been split up into warring kingdoms many times and has been repeatedly invaded by nomadic steppe people from Central Asia.

The Mongol hoardes remain frightening memory to many Eastern Europeans. During the 1230s and 1240s they were attacked repeatedly by superb Mongol mounted archers who also employed local subjugated peoples to provide siege technology to take large cities.  But what Europeans forget is that they were attacked by nothing more than a scouting party.

The Islamic Empire was far more seriously affected and was crushed by the Mongol forces.  The fall of Baghdad, the capital of the Islamic Empire, in 1258 is considered by many historians as the beginning of the end of Islamic dominance of the early medieval world.

However, it was China that was subjected to the full brunt and terror of the Mongol armies. The horsemen were fast and could survive off the milk and blood of their mares. This meant that they required almost no supply lines dragged by slow wheeled vehicles. The Mongols comprehensively crushed the Chinese, slaughtering on a scale that would not be seen again until the Second World War.  They established themselves as the new ruling class, the Yuan Dynasty. But China’s population remained so big, its culture and language so dominant, that it was the Mongols that were absorbed by the Chinese.

While China’s culture was to endure, from a Chinese perspective forced immigration from Mongol armies was truly horrific.

Indians and Africans

After Britain officially lost its thirteen North American colonies in 1787 it shifted its imperialist attention to other parts of the world.  Unlike American colonisation, which was dominated by large family groups, this new empire building process was done by very few people and was more similar to the exploitation model pursued by the Spanish and Portuguese in previous centuries.

Britain’s Indian and African colonies started off as trading posts. The trading centres needed to be defended and it was helpful to control the local population. Superior European weapons and wealth funded armies of locals who were led by British officers. Over time Britain dominated not just the coast but also all of the lands in the interior.  Eventually they were able to create entire nation states out of Africa and dominate huge countries such as India with populations that were several orders of magnitude greater than the colonial forces.

Pragmatic local elites learned English- the language of their masters- and adopted superficial English customs and dress. English law and eventually parliamentary democracy became prevalent.  This type of immigration had little to no impact on the ethnic make up of the colonies. Long standing cultural norms and religions were marginally affected, certainly compared to mass immigration changes. Arguably British dominance was just a different elite to the old native elite.

Despite the limited ethnic and cultural impact, British colonialism in Africa and South East Asia- and other European colonialism as well – had huge long term political ramifications.  Almost arbitrary demarkations on the map of Africa resulted in countries being established that were significantly divided from the very beginning.

Thus if you look at Africa from an African perspective British and wider European immigration did not end well.


Immigration that is permitted, or encouraged, by the indigenous population

There does appear to be a third, more modern, type of immigration where the indigenous population willingly permits immigrants in.


The early “permitted” immigration period probably started with the English in North America.  Clearly they were allowing more of their own kind across the Atlantic.  What is interesting is that they also encouraged the immigration of Africans, to be used as slaves.  These immigrants formed very large minorities in many southern English colonies and had a radically different cultural and ethnic background to their English slave masters.  The fact that they had been imported as beasts of burden and were barely treated as human has had a multi-generational negative impact on the relationship with Europeans and Africans in North America.

After the American Civil War America started to allow other European immigrants to the country.  They predominantly came from Catholic Southern and Orthodox Eastern Europe.  Culturally they were quite different from earlier welcomed immigrants, such as the Scandinavians who had settled the Mid West and the Germans and Dutch who had settled parts of the North East. Most were poor when they arrived and poorly educated.  They quickly filled the most undesirable posts in society, which also contributed to a multi generational distinction between the Anglo-Germanic “natives” and the new incomers.  In the run up to the Second World War and its aftermath large numbers of Jews also made it over to America.

Over time a similarity in culture and Caucasian ethnicity has meant that they have been absorbed reasonably well into the mainstream European culture of America.

In contrast, however, the attitude of modern day Americans to immigration from Mexico and other parts of Latin America, highlights that even in high immigration countries there is a limit to what is politically acceptable.

Post Colonial British

As Britain wound up its colonies after the end of the Second World War it wanted to ensure that British subjects that had emigrated to its colonies in the past would be allowed to return home to Britain and not remain stuck as a tiny minority in a predominantly foreign country.  So it passed a law, the British Nationality Act of 1948, that gave British Citizenship to all of its colonial subjects.

What had not occurred to the legislators at the time was that non-white, non-ethnic British citizens would use this open policy to emigrate to Britain. Which they did.  It was during this period that large numbers of immigrants from Pakistan, India, and Jamaica moved over to Britain.  In 1962 a new law, the Commonwealth Immigrants Act, was passed, partially closing this unintended loophole.  However, since family reunification was still permitted, those immigrants that had established a foothold in the country between 1948 and 1962 were able to bring their family members over.  And since those family members had family members of their own they could bring in their extended family members as well.  This explains why British immigrants are predominantly from the three countries that used the 1948 British Nationality Act most effectively.

France had a similar policy, which explains much of the non ethnic French population in France today.

The fact that the British Government changed its immigration policy to stop mass immigration from former colonies speaks volumes about whether this policy was deemed a success, or sustainable.

Post War Germans

Unlike Britain and France, Germany did not have major non-European colonies and so it never had any obligation to allow in immigrants from former colonies.  And yet it has a large non-German population that arrived in the post war period.  How did this happen?

During the 1950s and 1960s the German economy was booming and it was running out of low skilled labour.  Initially it signed up bilateral agreements with the governments of Italy (1955) and Greece (1960), in order to recruit workers on short term gastarbeiters (“guest workers”) contracts.   Turkey, a key NATO ally during the Cold War, tried to get a similar arrangement in place.  This was initially rebuffed by the Germans as they thought that the cultural gap between Turkey and Germany was too large and that the labour shortage was ending anyway.  The US, however, keen to provide as much help to its Turkish NATO ally as possible, persuaded the German Foreign Ministry to get involved and an agreement was signed between Germany and Turkey in 1961.  Similar agreements were signed with Portugal in 1964, Tunisia in 1965 and Yugoslavia in 1968.

Within a short period of time Turkish gastarbeiters, who mainly came from poor rural areas of Turkey,  became the largest immigrant group in Germany.  This was supposed to be a temporary arrangement with, mostly male, workers allowed to work in Germany for one or two years before returning home.  Many did so.  Most did not.  The gastarbeiter agreement ended with Turkey in 1973 but by that stage workers had settled in the country and had brought their wives and families to the county.  By 2012 over 4 million people, around 5% of the German population, were of Turkish descent.

As with previous modern examples, the fact that Germany has closed down its mass immigration policy suggests that countries will not willingly allow in large numbers of immigrants with different cultural, religious, ethnic and linguistic backgrounds.


Time for a recap

Time for a recap.  Looking at the historical record there are three main types of immigration:

  • The first type is when a very large group of immigrants come into a territory and take all of the land and displace most, if not all, of the natives and radically change the culture, religion, ethnicity and language.
  • The second type is when a small, technically superior (in military technology, organisation etc), group of immigrants takes over a country but leaves much of the underlying culture, religion, ethnicity and language intact.
  • The third type is when a group of immigrants are deliberately or accidentally let into a country, for a short period of time, before the gates are slammed shut by the indigenous population.  These groups have limited impacts on the underlying culture, religion, ethnicity and language of the entire country but may dominate in those areas in the major cities where they congregate.


So what? 

All of what has been written so far may be interesting.  For most people there will be certain “facts” that they were unaware of and it is fun to see world history presented in this fashion.


But so what?

The real question is what are the lessons that can be learned from history and how do they apply to the world today and in the future?

So here is the “so what?”

The population of Africa is expected to rise from 1.1 billion today to 2.4 billion in 2050 and then jump again to between 4.2- 6 billion in 2100.  The population of Europe, in the meantime, is expected to shrink from 742 million today to 709 million in 2050 and to be between 639 million and 1 billion in 2100 (source: UN World Population Highlights 2013).

Screen Shot 2013-10-24 at 17.26.31


The chart above looks at the population of Africa and Europe. The data up to 2013 is historic.  You can see that in the 1950s Europe’s population was 2.4 times greater than that of Africa.  Sometime in the mid 1990s the population equalised and by 2013 Africa’s population was 50% higher than that of Europe.  Under all future scenarios Europe’s population is not expected to rise that much, in most scenarios it actually drops.  Under all scenarios the population of Africa is expected to increase dramatically.

The reason why is due to fertility rates, as the charts below demonstrate.

Population Growth rates

These two populations are separated by the Mediterranean Sea, which is a mere 9 miles apart at its narrowest point, at the Pillars of Hercules between Morrocco and Gibraltar. Scattered along the coast are islands owned by European nations, such as Italian owned Lampedusa, and small European outposts, remnants of European colonies, such as Spanish owned Ceuta.

As the population of North and Sub Saharan Africa increases, life there will become harder. North Africa is already unable to feed itself and relies on imports to keep its population alive. This, in itself, is not a problem.  Many rich countries are not self sufficient in food. However, as the world’s population increases and parts of it become more affluent, buying food from the international commodities market will become almost impossible for poorer economies. Given the current political and economic turmoil of much of North Africa and damage done to their infrastucture during recent civil strife it is hard to see North Africa becoming rich any time soon.  Global warming is only going to add fuel to this bonfire of unemployment, poverty and huge population increases.

Parts of Europe already have very large North African immigrant populations. Over 70 percent of school age children in Holland’s two biggest cities, Amsterdam and Rotterdam, are from North Africa or Turkey. If their extended family members in North Africa get into trouble it is only natural that they will want to aid and encourage their relatives to join them in Europe.

Thus it is inevitable that Europe will experience significant immigrant pressure from Africa.  The historical analysis provides some scenarios of what it might happen.

  1. Will Europe be simply overwhelmed by waves of immigrants and be wiped out ethnically, culturally and linguistically? Will Christianity be replaced by Islam? This is what happened to the Neanderthals, the Romans, the Visigoths, the Taino and American Indians.
  2. Will a few immigrant elites topple the existing structures of government and dominate society before being absorbed into European society? This is what happened to the Ancient Greeks, the Anglo Saxons, the Chinese and Africans and Indians.
  3. Will Europe allow waves of immigration in, in the hope that immigrant populations can be kept under control.  This is what happened in America, Post Colonial Britain and Post War Germany.

Which scenario is more likely?

First we need to understand the possible scale of immigration.  How many people will want to emigrate? This is a very hard question and may be unanswerable.  However, given the fact that the population of Africa is expected to go from 1.1 billion in 2013 to 2.4 billion in 2050 and up to 6 billion in 2100 the answer is probably “a lot”.  If 10% wanted to make the move, that would be 240 million by 2050 and 600 million by 2100.

That is a lot of people and would firmly put African immigration into the first category.

Bye bye Europe.

But then we need to work out how many will be able to emigrate? The Mediterranean is a formidable barrier, despite the number of successful crossings of illegal immigrants each year.  It is much harder to cross than the Rio Grande, for example, that runs along much of the boundary between Mexico and the United States.  It would require a significant amount of logistical coordination on the part of the immigrants for millions of them to cross the sea every year.

In turn, this would have to be matched by a significant lack of coordination on the part of the Europeans to stop them.  This is not impossible to imagine.  For all of the criticism about Europe being a super state and taking away sovereignty from national governments, Europe remains extremely inept at producing a coordinated foreign policy.  Internal political divisions, compounded by the existing large immigrant populations , who are incentivised to rescue their family members from turmoil, may make this part of foreign policy impossible to coordinate.

European incompetence still points to a category one immigration impact.  After all, there were not that many Germans compared to the Romans.

It might be a category two immigration impact, where unwanted immigrant groups are absorbed by the larger, culturally and linguistically dominant population.  This is uncertain.  In a number of European cities the indigenous population is already a minority and a very small minority at school age – suggesting complete dominance by immigrant groups in those cities within a generation.

With an increased ability to stay in touch with what is going on in their ancestral lands the need to assimilate into wider society is lower than in previous eras.  It also makes it easier to bring in brides from your country of origin, enabling them to become family members and all of their family members to become citizens under family reunification laws.  And this happens when only a relatively small percentage of the population (e.g. 5% Turkish in Germany) is from immigrant stock.  What if the immigrant population was 10-30% across the nation?

Finally, it might be a category three immigration impact, where they are invited in or are let in by mistake (due to lack of coordination) but are insufficiently numerous to wipe out the native culture, religion, language and ethnic groups completely.  Europe plays the part of Ancient Greece, China or the Anglo Saxons. Humanitarians, who are mainly on the left hand side of the political spectrum, will push to allow as many of the suffering masses in as they can, in a repeat of what happened in Post Colonial Britain and Post War Germany.


Which path will Europe choose? 

The future has not yet happened.  But policies that are put in place today will largely determine what the future will look like.

For Europeans it is too terrible to imagine the first category, where their culture, language, religion and ethnic group is effectively wiped out by huge numbers of immigrants.  It is rather like an individual contemplating their own mortality: they are alive today.  After a full life that has existed for as long as they can remember, it is hard to imagine being dead tomorrow.  But death happens, whether you can imagine it or not.

Many will argue that the historical analogs are flawed and do not relate to Europe today.  The Neanderthals don’t count as they existed too long ago and we don’t really know what happened.  The Taino were wiped out predominantly by disease.  The North American Indians were also badly affected by disease and still exist, albeit in isolated Reservations. The Romans did lose their lands and culture but Christianity dominated long after they lost territorial superiority.

But burying your head in the sand is not really a policy.  What could Europe do to ensure that few, if any, of these scenarios comes to pass?

  1. As a minimum it needs to ensure that North Africa is stable and well governed.
  2. North Africa needs to be rich enough to import its own food and needs to provide worthwhile jobs for its armies of young men.
  3. Support for women will help reduce fertility rates and will reduce the cultural gap between Europe and North Africa.
  4. A strong North Africa can help provide a buffer zone with Sub Saharan Africa, from which it is separated by a desert that is almost as formidable a barrier as the Mediterranean Sea.

Ultimately, people don’t really want to emigrate if they don’t have to.  Make North Africa appealing for North Africans.  This requires cultural, economic and political tools and not military might. Remember, during the Roman Empire North Africa was more important to the financial well being of the empire than Britain, Gaul and Hispania.

Humans coming out of Africa wiped out the indigenous European population 20,000 years ago.  Europe needs to take a proactive approach to Africa while it still can.




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Chart below shows UN forecasts for Europe and Africa up to 2100.  The Constant fertility is the “business as usual” case.  Which gives Africa a population of over 17bn by 2100. Europe and Africa population

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