Hungarian policemen stand by the family of migrants as they wanted to run away at the railway station in the town of Bicske, Hungary, September 3, 2015. A camp for refugees and asylum seekers is located in Bicske. REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY Image Credit: REUTERS

When Sir Nicholas Winton died in July, he was widely celebrated for a few days. Obituarists eulogised his work in rescuing Jewish children from Germany and central Europe just before the Second World War. Then everyone went back to their everyday business. Few noted the contrast between Winton’s initiative and Europe’s own attitudes to the refugee crisis lapping its shores.

Winton was a banker who, in 1938-39, bankrolled and managed part of what became known as the Kindertransport, by which some 10,000 mostly Jewish children were moved and admitted to the United Kingdom.

The government was persuaded to waive immigration restrictions for the children (they had to leave their parents, most of whom would soon perish) if the rescue organisers promised to find housing and guarantee funds for repatriating the children later.

There is no comparison today with the Holocaust. But last week’s mass deaths in capsized boats and an abandoned lorry show the risks hundreds of thousands of families are prepared to take for a journey they find preferable to the desperation they flee.

They are just a few hours away by plane — quicker and cheaper than the train from Berlin to London in 1939. Children are in large numbers among them: More than a quarter of those applying for asylum in Europe last year were minors, and almost one-fifth less than 14 years old.

The two most welcoming countries in Europe are Germany and Sweden. Berlin is preparing for some 800,000 asylum applications this year, 1 per cent of its population and four times more than last year. Even in 2014, Germany received and granted more than 25 per cent of all asylum applications in the EU, far above its population share.

Sweden, with just 2 per cent of the EU’s population, last year accounted for 13 per cent of all applications and 18 per cent of all successful ones.

Twentieth-century history gives possible explanations for why these two countries stand out. Germany was responsible for the Second World War and much of the country’s current openness to refugees can be attributed to a sense of historic responsibility.

Sweden was one of very few European countries to pass through the war relatively unscathed. (Switzerland, too, accepted a disproportionate share of refugees last year, though at only half Sweden’s rate.)

Most of the others, however, are twisting themselves into contortions to avoid letting people in. It is hard to banish the thought that guilt motivates determined action, and empathy does not.

This is strange. What we know about moral psychology suggests that empathy should be a very strong motivator. One would expect people with a history of being under attack or living memory of fleeing persecution to be more eager to help those in such situations today.

Second, it is cheaper to extend a given amount of assistance today than 70-80 years ago. All of Europe is much richer and more productive. And, since the war, European states have built extensive welfare states.

The welfare state substitutes collective action for individual responsibility for the needy. That should have a practical effect and a psychological effect. The practical effect is one of efficiency. It is a lot more convenient for the state to provide for people in need out of taxes on those who are not than it is for the better-off to help the worse-off individually. Psychologically, the state transforms assistance from an arbitrary act of individual charity into the predictable impersonality of public provision.

Yet, these changes, which should have made it easier to rescue the needy on our doorsteps, seem to have had the opposite effect. Politicians who moralise in favour of their chosen policies on this issue go out of their way to display migrants as a cost and a threat.

Could part of the reason be the way the welfare state severs the link between private acts and effective help? If we think empathy need not trigger individual action because it is the state’s job to discharge our duties on our behalf, then we easily drop the pressure on the state to do just that.

And if anyone doubts that European culture has changed, consider how shocking it would seem were a banker today to pay to fly 10,000 children from camps in Lebanon to the UK, lobby the government to let them stay and advertise in the papers for private citizens to house them.

Yet something like it is happening in Germany, where politicians and young professionals have literally opened their homes. It is surely no coincidence that when private citizens show kindness to strangers, so does the government.

In this sense, the refugee crisis tells us at least as much about our own cultures as about the disasters the refugees flee.

— Financial Times