Denmark hit the pages of the international press before Christmas when Integration Minister Inger Støjberg’s proposal to have asylum seekers searched and stripped of any valuables (the corresponding bill is due to be passed by the Folketing by a broad majority in January 2016) was compared to the German government’s confiscation of Jewish property, including stripping Jews of jewelry, before eventually deporting them to extermination camps, before and during World War II. Given that Danish politicians since 1945 have made the most of the rescue of Danish jews in 1943 – while at the same time conveniently forgetting the, mostly succesful, attempts by Danish governments to block the migration of German jews and other political refugees in the run-up to the war – this was obviously a story which had the potential to tarnish the reputation of Denmark in general and the Danish government in particular.
It should be no surprise to observers of Danish politics that Danish public opinion has been dominated by anti-immigrant sentiments since the 1990s and that an anti-refugee and islamophobic stance these days is a winning formula in national elections – not just for the Danish People’s Party: The Liberals, the Conservatives and the Social Democrats have all wanted a piece of the action. Even if xenophobia and islamophobia are dominant phenomena in contemporary politics in most of Europe, the crudeness of the Danish debate now makes it noteworthy internationally.
Still, I would argue that comparing the Danish bill and the policies of the Nazi government is leading us down the wrong track. If anything, Denmark of 2015 should be compared with Denmark and other countries of 1938 which refused to receive German Jewish refugees, rather than the government which persecuted the Jews. On the other hand, the Støjberg proposal does have some interesting historical parallels and examining them may yield some insights into how governments handle new social problems.
If we go back to the 19th Century, this was a period characterized by massive social changes – most notably industrialization which again led to an unprecedented growth in population in Europe and North America, urbanization and the emergence of an urban working class. Even if industrialization led to an overall increase in living standards, it was followed by massive and especially visible poverty while large groups of the population at the same time enjoyed a new degree of geographic mobility.
All of this had effects on the political system and legislation as economic and political elites began to fear the destructive effects of poverty and mobility on society. The solution was not the introduction of measures to alleviate poverty or encourage mobility, rather “the pauper” emerged as the major threat to society in academic and political discourse.
Paupers not only were mobile but also unwilling to work – in this era poverty was seen as a result of individual failure and relief seekers were by definition undeserving poor – and the political solution to the pauperism problem consisted in excluding the poor from society by denying them political and economic rights and in introducing draconian measures designed to deter people from seeking public assistance. Poor houses as we know them were a creation of the 19th Century, not of traditional poor relief systems, and the mid- and late-19th Century saw a wave of poor houses (or rather: work houses) being erected throughout the country.
Even if a pauper wasn’t detained in a poor house, he or she was still at the mercy of local authorities. The first action was – you’ve guessed it – to search a relief applicant’s body and home for any valuable objects which could be used to pay for food, clothes and housing. As a pauper, you basically lost all rights to your entire property. You also lost the right to live with your family as authorities could separate spouses.
The 1891 Poor Law eased the regime somewhat as the political understanding of the causes and effects of poverty had begun to change and politicians began to distinguish between deserving and undeserving poor but it was only in 1961 that the last remnants of the strict 19th Century regime ware removed from the Danish social legislation and we may argue that the image of the undeserving poor has made a comeback in the social policy of the 21st Century.
The parallel between paupers and asylum seekers (note that the term “migrant” is used by a large section of Danish media and politics, implying that asylum seekers in general do not seek so escape political persecution) is by no means perfects but the proposals of 2015 have an uncanny similarity with the policies of the 19th Century:
First, social change (globalization) have created new groups of people who do not fit the categories of the existing social order – in Europe religion (Islam) has been the major factor of stigmatization. Refugees are generally described as uncontrollable in numbers, unwilling and unable to fit into the fabric of the existing social order (an individual failure) and as putting an unreasonable economic and administrative burden on society.
Second, the solution is to restrict political and economic rights of asylum seekers in an attempt to deter them from seeking support. If a person despite these attempts manages to pass the gates of the asylum system, he or she is then systematically stripped of rights, including access to his or her property and family, in the hope that asylum seekers will return to their homelands.
Research into the creation of modern social policy has shown that it wasn’t the socio-economic factors like the level of poverty or the degree of urbanization or industrialization which led governments to adopt more liberal policies. Rather it was a political factor – authoritarian governments’ fear of political rebellion by the emerging working class – which caused governments in countries like Germany and Denmark to be frontrunners in the introduction of reformist social policies.
Unfortunately, as the European countries of 2015 are fully democratized, this historical parallel suggests that the chances of governments opting for more liberal policies in the face of increasing numbers of refugees are slim.