Passports and the Development of
Immigration Controls in the North
Atlantic World During the Long
In 1926, B. Traven, the German-speaking radical best known as the author of the Treasure of the Sierra Madre, penned a novellength screed against passports and other documentary requirements for ordinary travellers, which he regarded as one of the chief outcomes of the First World War. In his story of adventure on the high seas titled The Death Ship, Traven wrote: ‘It seems to me the sailor’s card, and not the sun, is the centre of the universe. I am positive that the great war was fought, not for democracy and justice, but for no other reason than that a cop, or an immigration officer, may have the legal right to ask you, and be well paid for asking you, to show him your sailor’s card, or what have you. Before the war nobody asked you for a passport’ (Traven 1991: 40f.).
Traven’s remarks concerning the official preoccupation with identity documents designed to regulate human movement marked the culmination of an era that had witnessed an extraordinary expansion of the capacity of states to control the migration of populations using documentary (and of course other) means. The growth of this capacity was, in fact, one of the central features of their development as states. Following a century of stagnation resulting from an unprecedented period of relative peace among European countries, the burst of state growth in Europe after the First World War derived from and bore witness to the marked expansion of the role of states in