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The History of Integration in Europe and America

When I wrote a couple of days ago that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is wrong to blame immigrants to Germany for failing to adapt to German norms quickly enough, one commenter said that I was wrong to say that American history shows that integration is possible. He also argued that the history of Europe for the last few hundred years has been “wrapped up in the useless suppression of minorities.” In fact, for the most part both European and American history show just how well integration works, and just how quickly the cultural conflicts of the past can be forgotten.

Obviously, there are longstanding cultural and ethnic conflicts in Europe, between, for example, the Flemings and the Walloons in Belgium, or with the Basques in Spain. But the mere fact that we think of people as being German, or French, or Italian at all—rather than as, say, Bavarian, Breton, or Sicilian—shows just how quickly groups can integrate. Two hundred years ago, Germany, France, and Italy weren't really nations in the modern sense, but were loose confederations of ethnically, linguistically, and culturally different groups. Where once we would have had to distinguish between Alsatians, Normans, Bretons, Provencals, and Occitans, today we see only French people.

The same process has been at work in the U.S. It struck me as ironic that the commenter who objected to my claim that American history shows integration is possible should have an Irish name. In the middle of the 19th century, Irish immigrants were widely seen as different and unwilling to integrate in much the same way as Hispanic immigrants are today. Likewise, as I have written, Catholics were viewed with much the same suspicions as Muslims are today. Just a hundred years later we elected an Irish Catholic President in John F. Kennedy. Today it wouldn’t even occur to most Irish Americans that they were ever second class citizens. The process of integration can be painful, but it is forgotten soon enough. A generation from now, it may be just as normal to see someone wearing a headscarf as it is to see someone wearing a cross.

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