The enormous refugee crisis bequeathed by the cumulative events of the ‘Arab Spring’, the ongoing Syrian Civil War and the multiple collapses of civil authority across parts of Africa and the Middle East over the last decade challenges us, as professional historians of Germany and as politically sentient citizens, to respond. As scholars we are attuned to the ways in which past refugee crises have developed, variously, from the ravages of military action; from campaigns of political persecution; from bouts of ethnic or religious conflict; from implosions of state power; at moments of environmental catastrophe; or, as is often the case, from combinations of the above. Our historical expertise may – perhaps - help to inform those charged with dealing with the crisis of the present. As critically-informed commentators we can also confront those who would appropriate refugee histories for their own ends, challenging triumphalist narratives of past relief and rescue efforts that gloss over far more ambivalent histories of reluctance and refusal to help – the legacy of the British Kindertransport rescue programme during the Holocaust is but the most obvious such example. Yet discussing the catastrophes of the past can also feel depressingly irrelevant when we are confronted with the appalling suffering unfolding in real time on our television screens. In the face of contemporary crises such as this our discipline is called upon forcefully to articulate its own purpose in the world. This Virtual Special Issue of German History , which focusses on some of the refugee and migration histories of the most recent German past, is animated by the belief that such a sense of powerlessness, while understandable, is misplaced. On the most general level, recent German history provides numerous starting points for reflecting on the possibilities for action, and the determinants of inaction, at any given juncture; in showing us the range of responses reached for by actors in past crises it reminds us of the presence of choice in human affairs, of the fact that nothing is inevitable and that things could always therefore be different. The papers presented here, which represent recent examples of work on refugee and migrant experiences published in the journal, underline this forcefully. In juxtaposing papers on the refugee and expellee crisis of 1945–1946 with papers on aspects of economic migration in the post-war decades our purpose is not to reproduce the rhetorical distinction commonly drawn between the two categories in contemporary public debate. Rather, in foregrounding a set of papers which focus on the search for new forms of community and for the solidarity of new human ties at the moment of arrival; on attempts to build relationships between arriving and established communities as the former seek longer-term stability; on the struggles faced by the newly arrived in their encounters with local bureaucracies and a sometimes hostile established population; on the affective bonds that remained between refugees and their disparate lands of origin; and on the mix of excitement, adventure, anticipation, difficulty and hardship that characterized the journey itself we wish, using the examples afforded by German history, to underscore the multiple challenges, hopes and achievements experienced by refugees and other categories of migrant alike. Our final, reflective essay explores the challenges and limits of writing refugee history as conventional national history when, for obvious reasons, so many elements of the story explode those boundaries. The current crisis has witnessed the shameful resurfacing of dehumanising, and often overtly racist, vocabularies in relation to refugees and migrants, the ugly archaeology of which needs no adumbration here. Our choice of papers is also intended, therefore, to counter the alarming prevalence of that language by underlining the human experiences that lie at the heart of all stories of migration. Above all, by foregrounding papers that focus on the humanity of historical refugees and migrants we are asserting that History, as a discipline, has a valuable role to play in reminding us of the obligations that come with our own. © The Author 2015. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the German History Society. All rights reserved.
German History – Oxford University Press
Published: Oct 6, 2015
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