Thinking about Refugees and, of course, Agatha Christie
Are you familiar with the book “All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten?” It was published by Robert Fulghum in 1990 and spawned a bunch of clones such as “All I Really Need To Know I Learned from Watching Star Trek” or “Being a Zombie” and so on. For years, I have threatened to write the “All I Really Need to Know I Learned from Agatha Christie” because I frequently bring an appropriate quote of hers into discussions. This is one of those times.
As of this writing, there is still fighting in Ukraine. I recently read an article about two young college men who have launched a website called Ukraine Take Shelter that is helping refugees find hosts who will take them in, at least temporarily. Since I have been neck-deep in Agatha Christie novels and World War I history over this past year, I can’t help but see the comparison between today’s situation and Hercule Poirot, who was a Belgian war refugee.
In comparison to Germany, Belgium was a small nation with an undeveloped army. No one, and especially not the Kaiser, expected to have any difficulty in taking over the country. Instead, King Albert and his compatriots fought back hard, drawing comparisons by more than one historian to King Leonides and the Spartans at Thermopylae.
Belgium’s resistance was instrumental in the success of the British and French at the Battle of Marne and King Albert’s forces hunkered down to defend a bit of the province for the rest of the war, but the country was mainly occupied by Germany, prompting many people to flee.
The “brave Spartan” comparison fired up the allies and England welcomed a large number of Belgians. Mini villages were hastily built or in-town lodgings made available. Some people even hosted refugees in their own homes. Torquay, where Christie lived, had a sizeable refugee population that inspired her to create the Hercule Poirot character. In her autobiography, she wrote:
“I remember our Belgian refugees. We had quite a colony of Belgian refugees living in the parish ... why not make my detective a Belgian?”
Unfortunately, warm feelings toward the Belgians faded rather quickly. Public opinion was that the war would be over in a few months when it in fact dragged on for years. The English began to grumble that the foreigners had worn out their welcome.
An alarming number of British soldiers were being killed or maimed on the continent while the refugees were safe in England and exempt from being called up. Belgians were also willing to work longer hours for lower wages, which didn’t endear them in to other laborers in the community. Locals complained that they talked too much, drank too much, laughed too much. That, instead, they should be more considerate, more grateful.
But that’s not really how things work, is it? In “Ordeal by Innocence,” Christie, through Dr. Macmaster, says:
“We all know what human nature's like. Do a chap a good turn and you feel kindly towards him. You like him. But the chap who's had the good turn done to him, does he feel so kindly to you? Does he really like you? He ought to, of course, but does he?”
I read that it’s hard to find vestiges of the Belgian refugees in England. Partly because at the end of the war, England was eager to send them home, even offering to pay for one-way tickets. That was probably not such a bad thing since Belgium needed to rebuild and many refugees were no doubt eager to be back in their homeland. Some Belgians stayed and, being white and Christian, were easily assimilated into society since they were.
We have all heard the warning about learning from history or being doomed to repeat it and it sure seems like this a good time to refresh our collective memories. Reality, of course, is different from fiction, even different from news reports, and certainly different from the picture we build up in our minds. War is not like an action movie. Sacrifices have lasting pain. Refugees are people like the rest of us. Soldiers are, too, for that matter.
The things we can’t control are overwhelming, but we have to try to control what we can, particularly within ourselves. Our society’s interest in Ukraine will wax and wane. The urgency and need of the Ukrainian people, however, may not match that rise and fall. Little lessons on human behavior, even in mystery novels, can help us learn what we need to know to do the right things by our fellow world citizens.