Denmark’s quest to socialize the “ghettos”: The dark history of forced assimilation in Europe

Denmark’s quest to socialize the “ghettos”: The dark history of forced assimilation in Europe

Sara Salem

Recent Danish laws purportedly targeting families who have “failed to integrate” have caused an uproar, seen as further proof of the turn to the right in Europe. Low income neighbourhoods, made up of mostly immigrants and referred to as “ghetto neighbourhoods” – in itself a shocking term – have become further entrenched within racialized neoliberal logics of social control. According to the New York Times:

Starting at the age of 1, “ghetto children” must be separated from their families for at least 25 hours a week, not including nap time, for mandatory instruction in “Danish values,” including the traditions of Christmas and Easter, and Danish language. Noncompliance could result in a stoppage of welfare payments. Other Danish citizens are free to choose whether to enrol children in preschool up to the age of six.

Targeting 25 neighbourhoods—made up of mostly low-income and racialized populations—new laws aim to force assimilation, the government now claiming that “integration” has failed. Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen has claimed that “ghettos could reach out their tentacles onto the streets” by spreading violence, and that because of ghettos, “cracks have appeared on the map of Denmark.” These laws range from doubling punishments for citizens who live in one of the 25 targeted neighbourhoods, to imposing a four-year prison sentence on immigrant parents who force their children to make extended visits to their country of origin. One proposal – rejected for being too radical – was to confine “ghetto children” to their homes after 8 pm, by attaching an ankle monitor to them at all times. The overall thrust of these laws is to increase the surveillance of these populations, seen as refusing to become part of the national fabric.

This move to regulate the lives of those considered outside of the national fabric in order to force them to assimilate is nothing new, however. Although laws such as these are often framed within the “recent” turn to the right in Europe and seen as further proof that extremist right-wing governments are turning European social democracies into fascist utopias, these policies have a much longer history. Europe has a long history that ties together race, welfare, nationalism and the family in an attempt to socialize people seen as not “European” enough. Reading about these new Danish laws, I couldn’t help but see parallels with the Netherlands, where my recent research on race and welfare suggests similar understandings of national belonging and the role of state surveillance in reproducing these. In this piece I draw on examples from the Netherlands and other European countries to suggest that recent laws around the continent targeting the everyday habits, norms and values of racialized others is not a result of a “recent” shift to the right – they have a much longer history and should instead be seen as a typical rather than atypical European response to the problem of difference.

Creating a gardening state

What we see here is a ‘gardening state.’ All the weeds had to be eliminated from the national garden in order to ensure the creation of an exclusive national identity.

— Leo Lucassen (1)

The disciplining of “problematic” families into the national fabric was part and parcel of the emergence of modern European nationhood. The family thus has a longer historical trajectory as a specific site of intervention, and this has particularly been the case with families who over the years “have been described variously as inadmissible, anti-social, socially ill, unsocial, socially maladjusted, deprived, underprivileged, and problem and multi-problem families.” (2) These types of discourses and social interventions are interesting because of the ways in which they travelled across the continent, and because of the similarities in approach that we can see from Scandinavia and Germany to the Netherlands and France.

Many of these discourses and policies originated in Scandinavia, where a strong eugenicist discourse – moving between positive and negative forms of eugenics – emerged. (3) In 1909 in Sweden, for example, the Swedish Society for Racial Hygiene was founded, followed in 1910 by the Mendel Society, the first Swedish genetics association. Even before World War I, leading doctors including Herman Lundborg, a prominent figure in racial biology, saw eugenics as a means to counter the problem of immigration, and there was a widely held opinion that the racial unity of the Swedish people was threatened. (4) Just as under the Nazis, the welfare state in Sweden had to be protected from ‘‘unproductive anti-socials’’ and so it became a ‘‘eugenic welfare state of the fittest.” (5)

Similarly, in Switzerland, eugenics became the most popular “solution” to protecting the national social body from families and communities that were seen as “problematic.” The quest for moral improvement came down to a “civilizing offensive” based on such themes as order, neatness, industriousness, thrift, and devotion to duty. Jan Rath writes: “Municipal authorities used their responsibility for social housing to come to grips with ‘socially weak families’. These families went straight into “housing schools,” special residential areas under the supervision of wardens, who educated them into being respectable people.” (6)

In the Netherlands, state intervention against “problematic” families also took on a spatial dynamic: these families were segregated in certain parts of the city or village, often at the outskirts of major urban areas – not coincidentally, these spaces are often where recent migrant arrivals are housed. Until late in the 1950s, for example, whole families were transferred for treatment into separate hostels or encampments in the countryside. “During the interwar period, they laid the groundwork for the so-called woonscholen (literally, housing schools), small isolated complexes on the peripheries of cities (Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht, and The Hague), where slum dwellers were accommodated and taught by social workers how to lead a ‘decent’ life.” (7)

Race and class: the hegemony of the white middle class

What is important here is that institutions that were set up to fulfill these various forms of moral improvement, such as Family Institutions for Socially Maladjusted Families in the Netherlands, were the precedents for Ministries of Social Affairs or Social Work. These are the institutions that have become responsible for the “integration” of racialized families in many European countries. Although these civilizing missions happening within Europe have often been understood as targeting the “white working class,” they also had an imperial dimension. (8) The idea of what constitutes a “healthy, proper family” emerged against Europe’s interior—the “white working class”—as well as its exterior—the colonies. As Robbie Shilliam has argued, race and class cannot be neatly separated in attempts to understand the emergence of welfare in Europe. It is this connection that is emerging very clearly in contemporary state interventions against racialized bodies.

Take, for example, the ways in which immigrants to Europe were pulled into this complex web of surveillance and state intervention, and how neatly they fell into the category of “problematic families.” When Indonesian migrants began arriving in the Netherlands in the 1950s, a process of forced assimilation was implemented that very much drew on a similar logic of socializing Indonesians into “proper Dutchness,” namely white Dutch middle-class norms and values. Concerns about the maladjustment of Indonesians resulted in their categorization as a problem, and a program of regulation, re-education and confinement was put in place to address this.  Regular visits to Indonesian households to check whether they were eating potatoes instead of rice and whether they were dressing appropriately, among other things, meant a constant regime of surveillance whose ultimate aim was to socialize migrants into the national fabric (Wekker 2016).

What is key here is that the construction of Indonesians as a problem was represented largely through the discourse of “culture” whereby immigrant culture was seen as a barrier to civilized ways of living. As has been noted by Gloria Wekker in particular, the tendency in Europe to use culture as a code word for race has meant that racist statements often pass under the guide of constructive criticism towards certain cultural behaviours. (9) Culture became the vessel through which racial difference was understood. This is exactly what we see with these new Danish laws: they are justified on the basis of the cultural “backwardness” of racialized (and classed) others. Because of the centrality of culture, the family becomes a key site of intervention. Children are being taken away from their parents for 25 hours a week in order to be socialized into “Danish values” – it is precisely the language of socialization and values that recalls previous programs of nation-building.

Why does recalling this history matter? The construction of racialized families as problems that need to be solved did not emerge recently with the surge in far-right support; it has roots in a variety of historical projects where state interventions against such groups have moved to reform and “fix” them in order to make them embody white middle class respectability and become productive citizens. While some draw connections between these new Danish laws, and especially the use of the term “ghetto”, and the German Nazi past, there is another past that is closer to home. It is this past I have alluded to in this article.

Europe is not descending into a chaotic situation in which racism and the far-right have won. Europe today is the outcome of centuries of social engineering that have consistently constructed the nation as a space that has excluded certain groups, who then have to be either eliminated or forcibly included through assimilation. The family has been central to this, as has the state and its many social institutions. In some ways, these laws are representative of the current climate in Europe that is anti-immigration; but they cannot be simplistically reduced to this alone. The laws are equally a product of a history of state intervention against racialized and classed others in order to reproduce a certain idea of what Europe is – as contradictory as this construct remains. If we are to fight against such draconian laws, we cannot do so by romanticising a European past that never existed. Instead, it is time to truly understand the social, political and economic tendencies that consistently lead to approaching difference as a problem.

Footnotes and References:
1. Lucassen 2010, 267.
2. Van Wel 1992, 149.
3. See: Broberg, G. and Roll-Hansen, N., 2005. Eugenics and the welfare state: Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland. Michigan State University Press; Hansen, B.S., 1996. Something rotten in the state of Denmark: Eugenics and the ascent of the welfare state; Turda, M., 2007. Eugenics and the welfare state: sterilization policy in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland. Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 81(4), pp.894-895.
4. Lucassen 2010, 273.
5. Ibid, 277.
6. Rath, 1999.
7. Lucassen 2010, 292.
8. For more, see Robbie Shilliam’s forthcoming book
9. Wekker 2016.

Lucassen, L., 2010. A brave new world: the left, social engineering, and eugenics in twentieth-century Europe. International Review of Social History, 55(2), pp. 265-296.
Rath, J., 1999. The Netherlands: A Dutch treat for anti-social families and immigrant ethnic minorities. The European Union and migrant labour, pp. 147-170.
Wekker, G., 2016. White innocence: Paradoxes of colonialism and race. Duke University Press.
Wel, F.V., 1992. A century of families under supervision in the Netherlands. The British Journal of Social Work, 22(2), pp. 147-166.


Sara Salem is based at the University of Warwick. Her research interests include postcolonial theory, Marxism, global history, and empire/decolonization. She tweets at @saramsalem.

Image Credit: A “woonschool” in the Netherlands. Source