Books interview: Philipp Ther

The author of The Outsiders: Refugees in Europe since 1492 discusses tracing the rises and falls of empires in atlases, understanding the pain of mass displacements and the pleasure of simultaneously reading and listening to music

January 9, 2020
Philipp Ther

What sorts of books inspired you as a child?
I loved atlases, especially historical ones, and spent days looking through them. I was especially fascinated by the expansion, decline and fall of great empires, maybe because parts of my family came from the former Habsburg Empire.

Your new book examines ‘refugees in Europe since 1492’. Which books first piqued your interest in this topic?
As a student, I came across Michael Marrus’ The Unwanted: European Refugees in the Twentieth Century. It was published in 1985, but I think it is still one of the best books on the subject. As a child and a teenager, I also read quite a few literary accounts. I am sure that most of your readers know Judith Kerr’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago is full of the horrors of civil war, including mass displacement. There are also great German novels on this theme, for example by Siegfried Lenz and Christa Wolf.

Which books would you recommend as best making the case for the benefits of refugees to the countries that take them in?
There are a lot of books on single countries, but very few covering several countries or regions. Maybe the local level is the most important one, because that is where the impact of refugees is most tangible. Local politicians of all parties usually have an interest in solving problems and not in blowing them up like right-wing populists and nationalists. The lack of a comparative study on the impact of taking in refugees was one of my primary motivations for writing my book.

Which books offer the best overview of the recent refugee crisis and the ‘solutions’ policymakers need to adopt?
Although I don’t agree with every single detail and conclusion, I learned a lot from Alexander Betts and Paul Collier’s Refuge: Rethinking Refugee Policy in a Changing World. I also admire Betts’ path-breaking book on Refugee Economies: Forced Displacement and Development. Its great asset is that it focuses on refugees and their needs and creativity.

What is the last book you gave as a gift?
The last book I gave as a gift, during the Christmas season, was La scuola cattolica by Edoardo Albinati. There is little action in this novel of 1,200 pages, but like Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities it is a very philosophical book, and it is beautifully written. I hope that the English version, which was published last year, is as good as the Italian original. I read in various foreign languages in order to keep up my linguistic abilities and because I enjoy the specific qualities of each language.

What books are on your desk waiting to be read?
Two books on the Czech composer Leoš Janáček. One is on his music; the other is a memoir of his wife. And I have just started to read a great book on Mozart as an independent artist and musician. I want to return to my old passion for music, and there is nothing more relaxing than simultaneously reading and listening to music.

Philipp Ther is professor of central European history at the University of Vienna. His latest book is The Outsiders: Refugees in Europe since 1492 (Princeton University Press).


Print headline: Shelf Life: Philipp Ther

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