Before the Great War, people travelled freely without passports or identification


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The First World War had a profound impact on western life, big and small. A century ago, the war triggered a rash of security concerns, which led to the widespread use of passports and entrance visas.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/08/2014 (3210 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The First World War had a profound impact on western life, big and small. A century ago, the war triggered a rash of security concerns, which led to the widespread use of passports and entrance visas.

“Before 1914, the earth had belonged to all,” recalled the Austrian-Jewish writer Stefan Zweig in his autobiography, The World of Yesterday (published after he and his wife committed suicide in Brazil in 1942). “People went where they wished and stayed as long as they pleased. There were no permits, no visas, and it always gives me pleasure to astonish the young by telling them that before 1914 I travelled from Europe to India and America without a passport and without ever having seen one.” (In the late 1890s and after, Canadians required a single piece of paper designating them a “British Subject” for international travel.)

The Great War and its aftermath increased what Zweig calls “a morbid dislike of the foreigner, or at least fear of the foreigner…. The humiliations which once had been devised with criminals in mind were now imposed upon the traveller, before and during every journey.” Thereafter, everyone required official photographs, certificates of health and vaccination, letters of recommendation and invitations, and addresses of relatives and friends for “moral and financial guarantees.”

Tom Hanson / The Canadian Press

After the Nazis came to power in Germany, Zweig, fearing the worst, first moved to England in 1934. His Austrian passport became “void,” as he puts it after the Anschluss, the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938. He was forced to ask British authorities for an emergency white paper, “a passport for the stateless.” He came to understand what an exiled Russian acquaintance had once told him: “Formerly man had only a body and a soul. Now he needs a passport as well for without it he will not be treated like a human being.”

Official travel documents or “safe conduct” papers dated far back to the Middle Ages and likely earlier. The word “passport” is derived from 17th-century France, when Louis XIV signed travel documents for his officials known as “passé port” so they could “pass through a port” easily on their journeys.

That safe-conduct request exists to the present day as Passport Canada’s website notes. The inside cover of a Canadian passport has a request from the minister of Foreign Affairs in the name of the Queen that the holder of the passport be permitted “to pass freely without let or hindrance and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary.”

Early passports had no photographs, of course. Nevertheless, as Craig Robertson, a professor of communication studies at Northeastern University in Boston and the author of a history of American passports, points out, it was routinely accepted by the authorities that “the person presenting (a pre-modern passport) was the person named in the document.”

In the late 18th century, the newly formed federal government of the United States as a sign of its sovereignty issued French-style passports as most European countries did. Still, any passport or visa requirements did not halt the persecuted — the term réfugié was first used to describe the flight of the French Huguenots in 1685 when their religious rights were revoked — from seeking asylum in foreign lands.

From 1815 to 1913, the advent of the Industrial Revolution and the improvements in shipping and the construction of railways led to both the mass emigration of millions of people around the globe in search of work and freedom as well as to the birth of leisure travel. Only immigration restrictions such as, in the 1880s, the Canada’s notorious Chinese head tax and the U.S. Chinese Exclusion Act prevented this movement.

War naturally made governments nervous about permitting everyone and anyone across their borders. During the U.S. Civil War, for instance, the American government insisted British North Americans living in the Province of Canada and the Maritime Provinces have proper documentation before entering U.S. territory. And paranoia about spies and revolutionaries during the First World War made passports with photographs mandatory — a system worked out further at international gatherings in the 1920s.

Upper- and middle-class travellers soon loathed what the press of the day called “passport nuisance,” as Robertson writes; even the railway magnate W.K. Vanderbilt was hassled on a trip in 1915. Yet for those uprooting their lives for employment, religious or other reasons, economic and social considerations soon also meant that besides a passport, a traveller or immigrant often needed a visa or permit to stay in a foreign country for any length of time and to be able to work there. The onset of the Depression only made matters worse.

As Stefan Zweig discovered, being stateless meant you had no rights. Zweig, at least, had the resources and celebrity that allowed him to leave Europe. However, as is well documented, a majority of German-Jews attempting to escape oppressive Nazi rule had far fewer options with countries like Canada and, to a lesser extent, the U.S. keeping their doors closed to them.

Sometimes, too, entrance visas could be rescinded as the 907 German Jewish refugees on board the SS St. Louis in May 1938 learned to their dismay. The ship was bound for Cuba. The passengers each had paid the $150 the Cubans charged for the visa. Yet when the ship arrived, Cuban officials, believing Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda the Jews were criminals, revoked the visas (22 of the Jewish passengers with U.S. visas were allowed to disembark).

The ship languished for a week, but no South or North American country including Canada or the U.S. would let them land. The St. Louis’ captain had no choice but to return to Europe, though not to Germany. Great Britain, France, Belgium and Holland finally gave them sanctuary. Of the 908 on the ship, 254 perished in the war.

After 1945, as countries continued to strictly guard their borders, regulations governing passports and visas were rigidly enforced — a reality that has taken on a whole new meaning in the post-911 age.

Like anything, routine passports have seemingly outlived their purpose and in the near future are bound to be replaced with retina scans or face recognition technology. At the same time, as is evident by the current tragic plight of thousands of refugees in war-torn Iraq and Syria, humanitarian, political and security concerns continue to be weighed against each other with the lives of the helpless victims hanging in the balance.


Now & Then is a column in which historian Allan Levine puts the events of today in a historical context.

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