You have perhaps noticed that we are living in an age of Völkerwanderungen. The German word means wanderings or migrations of peoples. To some English speakers, the word “wander” connotes aimlessness and lack of direction, but the word in itself means only unfixedness and mobility. This is why the planets were anciently called “wandering stars.”
An age of Völkerwanderungen is an age of unmoored peoples on the move.
Such ages are, of course, by no means new. The phrase Völkerwanderungen was first used to describe the wanderings of the German and Slavic tribes that pressed south and west into the pleasant, depopulated and undefended provinces of Rome. Here is John Ruskin describing the situation on the eve of this momentous movement.
North of [the] resident races, possessing fields and orchards, quiet homes of a sort, moralities and memories not ignoble, dwelt, or rather drifted, and shook, a shattered chain of gloomier tribes, piratical mainly, and predatory, nomad essentially; homeless of necessity, finding no stay nor comfort in earth, or bitter sky: desperately wandering along the waste sands and drenched morasses of the flat country stretching from the mouths of the Rhine to those of the Vistula, and beyond the Vistula nobody knows where, or needs to know.
And yet Ruskin admitted that it was these wretched men, shivering beside some frozen Baltic bog, who were “in all felt force, the living powers of the world.”
These starving troops of the Black forests and White seas, themselves half wolf, half driftwood . . . . you will hear of few besides them for five centuries yet to come”
John Ruskin, Our Fathers Have Told Us: Sketches of the History of Christendom, part 1, (1884), pp. 47-52.
The term Völkerwanderungen has also been used to describe the great westward trek of European peoples into the New World. Indeed, by some accounts the European conquest of the New World was simply the final leg in the journey that began, some two thousand years before, when those shivering Germans resolved to quit their frozen bogs and seek a better life in the sunny plains of Lombardy, or the fair green fields of France.
In an introduction to Francis Parkman’s great Oregon Trail, one editor described the trains of lumbering wagons that followed the valley of the Platte across the Great Plains in precisely these terms.
“It was the last great migration of the Aryan race; when it was accomplished, the Völkerwanderungen were over forever.”
In his first clause, this editor was correct; in his second, he was mistaken. That was the last great migration of what might be called, with a degree of poetic license, the Aryan race. But it was by no means the end of Völkerwanderungen.
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Today’s age of Völkerwanderungen differs from those of the past in a great many ways, but none of these differences is to my mind more remarkable than the sanguine outlook of so many in the “resident races.” These optimists believe that the only serious snag in mass migration is an unwelcoming miserabilism on the part of some other residents. If only this miserabilism were removed, the optimists are confident that all will go swimmingly. And this, so far as I can see, without anything in the way of a plan for assimilation, or even a common culture to which immigrants might, should they so choose, assimilate.
What the optimists seem to propose, in other words, is that we all keep smiling and hope for the best. As to the grounds for this cheerfulness and hope, we must, I’m afraid, look to our own good nature (in those cases where we have one), for we will not find them in history or philosophy.
Consider these lines from three translations of Aristotle’s Politics (Book 8, chap. 3). The emphasis changes from one translation to the next, but the central point does not. Were Aristotle to remark on our age of Völkerwanderungen, he would tell us to prepare for revolution and sedition.
“Nothing is more unfriendly to public tranquility than dissimilitude of character in the citizens. A heterogeneous assemblage of mixed tribes, cannot speedily coalesce into a nation; and communities, which have grown populous by sudden accessions, are generally torn by sedition . . . . Every promiscuous multitude cannot be fashioned into a commonwealth, the formation of which requires materials skillfully prepared, and must be the work of time; for the causes of dissention are innumerable.” Aristotle, (trans. John Giles, 1797)
“Another cause of revolution is difference of races which do not at once acquire a common spirit; for a state is not the growth of a day, neither is a multitude brought together by accident. Hence the reception of strangers in colonies, either at the time of their foundation or afterwards, has generally produced revolution.” (trans. B. Jowett, 1885)
“Diversity of race among the citizens is another cause of sedition, so long at least as different elements have not been welded together. For it is as little possible to create a State in any arbitrary period of time as to create it out of any arbitrary population. Accordingly the great majority of States to which a number of alien colonists have been admitted at the time of their foundation or at a later date have been scenes of violent sedition.” (trans. J.E.C. Weldon, 1901)