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The Great Departure

Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World

Tara Zahra (Author, University of Chicago)

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“With a combination of deft historical analysis, sparkling prose, and careful attention to individual stories, both poignant and instructive, The Great Departure is brimming with important and suggestive lessons from the past for thinking about the worldwide dynamics of emigrants and refugees in our own day.”—Norman M. Naimark, Stanford University

Between 1846 and 1940, more than 50 million Europeans moved to the Americas, irrevocably changing both their new homes and the ones they left behind. In this groundbreaking study, Tara Zahra explores the deeper story of this astonishing movement of people—one of the largest in human history.

The great exodus out of Eastern Europe hollowed out villages with dizzying speed. As villages emptied and the fear of depopulation ran rampant, anxiety over “American fever” prevailed, leading to the scapegoating of Jewish emigration agents. Yet others saw vast opportunity: to seed colonies of migrants like the Polish community in Argentina, to gain economic advantage from an inflow of foreign currency, or to reshape their communities in a new land. In the United States, their migration fostered the notion of the “land of the free.” Globally, the policies that gave shape to this migration provided the precedent for future events such as the Holocaust, the closing of the Iron Curtain, and the tragedies of ethnic cleansing.

A sweeping history of the most consequential social phenomenon of the twentieth century, The Great Departure gives poignant attention to the individuals whose lives were transformed by these decades of mass departure, and a keen historical perspective on their continuing legacy.

Book Details

  • Hardcover
  • March 2016
  • ISBN 978-0-393-07801-5
  • 6.6 × 9.6 in / 400 pages
  • Sales Territory: Worldwide

Other Formats

  1. Book CoverThe Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World


Endorsements & Reviews

“Erudite and exciting, Zahra’s book recounts how enormous numbers of eastern Europeans migrated to the Americas between the mid-1800s and the second world war. In a work with obvious resonance for our times, Zahra . . . combines analytical depth with an impressive breadth of personal human stories.” — Tony Barber, Financial Times

“A perceptive history of migration and eastern Europe.” — Economist

“Provocative….[Zahra] has uncovered a narrative that is complex, multifaceted.” — Julia M. Klein, Chicago Tribune

“Zahra handles this immensely complicated and multidimensional history with remarkable clarity and feeling.” — Robert Levgold, Foreign Affairs

“A significant work of social history bound to please serious readers and scholars. ” — Kirkus Reviews (starred)

“[An] absorbing and comprehensive history.” — Library Journal

“In this riveting book, Tara Zahra takes the story of immigration that Americans know so well and weaves it into a larger story of emigration that we have long neglected. Full of hope and promise, of desperation and tragedy, it is perhaps the most important story of the twentieth century. With all the drama of a novel and all the nuance of history writing at its best, The Great Departure is a must-read.” — Alison Johnson, Harvard University

“In this spare, deeply researched, and unfailingly analytical book, Tara Zahra frees the great migration of Eastern Europeans to the West from romantic myth and dissects all its human and moral complexities.” — Robert D. Kaplan, of In Europe’s Shadow: A Journey Through Two Cold Wars in Romania and Beyond