In her book, Andrea Althaus examines the life-stories of female working migrants from Germany and Austria who went to Switzerland to work in domestic service and in the hotel and restaurant industries during the inter- and post-war period. The study sheds light on a significant female migration system of this era, which has been neglected by (traditional) histories of migration due to its focus on the (male) guest worker of the 1960s. Based on a vast number of oral history interviews, the study sets out to include the narratives and experiences of female working migrants within the history of migration. The book also contributes to the historiography of domestic service and female work during the inter- and post-war era. So far, German-speaking historiography on domestic service has focused primarily on the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Thus, this study offers important insights into a scarcely researched era. Althaus aims at linking personal narratives with structural, political and discursive contexts. She argues that the interpretation of migration narratives is enhanced by taking biographical as well as historical contexts of life-stories into account. By analysing the structural and political preconditions and discourses of migration, she shows that invoking foreign infiltration was not only connected to Italian immigration in the 1960s: it is rooted earlier in the century and was then aimed specifically at Germans. German (and Austrian) women constituted the majority of the German workforce coming to Switzerland at that time. By linking ‘gender’ and ‘nation’ as analytical categories, the study highlights a discourse of migration and foreign infiltration that was not only a nationalized one (against Germans), but also a highly feminized and sexualized one. The main focus of the study lies on the numerous German and Austrian women who, at the time, found work as servants or waitresses, and on how they relate their migration and working experience in Switzerland in the context of their biography. For this, Althaus has gathered a considerable number of interviews, written biographical accounts and other personal documents of contemporary witnesses. The focus on personal biographical accounts allows her to go beyond traditional narratives in the historiography of domestic service and migration. First, the social background of migrating women proved to be very diverse. Second, economic motives for migration put forward by previous works are questioned. Economic push and pull models have dominated the field, although oral historians have begun to criticize these in recent years. In contrast, Althaus shows that not only money, salary and job opportunities influenced young women to leave their home towns and countries to go to Switzerland, but also a variety of other reasons only observable on the level of collective biographies: images of Switzerland, personal networks as well as more individual motives. In the first chapter, the methodological as well as epistemological stakes of oral history for a cultural history of migration are discussed. Althaus references debates on memory, remembrance, narration and the writing of history. The second chapter provides a convincing and well-researched overview of migration politics and discourse in inter- and post-war Switzerland. In a time of a more or less permanent shortage of domestic workers, the close link between residence permits and work permits, as well as the special treatment of work permits for female waitresses and servants was vital to the emergence of a ‘migration system’ of young German and Austrian women travelling to Switzerland. Furthermore, it enabled and structured their migration experience to a great extent. Personal networks both at home and abroad encouraged and facilitated migration. The following three chapters show various moments in which the two levels—historical context and narration—seem to collide in an interesting way. When looking at the migration stories of the interviewees, the author notes that the complicated application process for permits is only referenced in passing, whereas the journey to Switzerland, their arrival and the process of settling in seem to be elaborated on extensively. The interviewees describe it as difficult, but something they ultimately managed on their own, and with confidence. This stands in stark contrast to contemporary beliefs of women’s organizations, who primarily considered young women arriving in unknown cities to be vulnerable and dependent on (their) help. Further, Althaus shows that the stories deviate from the classical narrative of economically driven migration: although economic motives are referenced by about 25 percent of the women, other motivations, such as the need of a room of one’s own, to be free from familial or religious ties or simply the wish to break free are found and sometimes even placed first by the women. Lastly, migration before and after 1945 was not the same: sanitary examinations at the border (institutionalized after 1945) are recalled vividly as aggravating and unpleasant, whereas beforehand, the crossing of the border was barely mentioned. The experience of these measurements structured the way the women narrated the process of migration: they divided ‘inside’ from ‘outside’, and made ‘nation’ a concept they drew upon. This linkage of migration to ‘nation’ manifests itself less on a structural level, but more on the level of individual experience and recollection. Ultimately, however different their social and economic background, their motives and the duration of their stay, when looking back, an overwhelming majority of the women describe their time in Switzerland as a positive experience, especially when judging the relationship with their employer favourably. When describing difficult job situations, women coming from rural areas draw on narratives of endurance, which can be traced to biographical as well as political reasons: their upbringing trained them in a specific work ethic. Also, job change was prohibited and could endanger their permits. Althaus’s analysis is strongest in the last chapter, in which she evaluates the experience of migration in the context of the whole biographical narration. Here, she distinguishes three types: stories of emancipation, of education and of success (or social decline). These types of migration stories are each illustrated with only five biographical accounts, which makes it easier for the reader to differentiate and follow the different stories of the women. It is particularly sections like these that make this book a valuable, insightful and highly informative source not only for historians but also for a broader audience. However, a concluding discussion of the ultimate value of micro- and macro-level sources for historical explanation as well as the relationship between ‘context’ and narration would have helped to connect the first parts of the book with the analytical results. In this book, ‘theory’ and ‘practice’ as well as ‘context’ and (individual) narration largely remain two separate worlds. In conclusion, Althaus’s study is not only an important contribution to the oral history of migration, but also brings the topic of domestic service as a particularly feminine line of work and as part of a highly feminized migration system to the fore (again). The study works out the discursive and political background of this migration system. It also provides a new and highly nuanced picture of the very different ways in which mid-twentieth century young women grew up, lived, worked and experienced migration and service, and of what they wished and aimed for. For most of them, working as a servant or waitress was an important stage in their lives and offered the best possibility to work and live abroad at that time. These findings contribute to a more complex understanding of female migration and domestic work at the time, and will certainly inspire further research on the topic, especially on the decades after the Second World War. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the German History Society. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
German History – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 18, 2018
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