Escape Assistance in the Course of Time: From Lisa Fittko to Carola Rackete

Julian Kaiser/Marieke Wist

“We couldn’t judge anymore how people would react. For example, from the beginning there were people who said that they would go on hunger strike. Or we had people who, after there was a partial evacuation, asked if they would all have to get sick first or jump overboard to be rescued. And then you have to ask yourself if this could become real. No one can think clearly in such a situation.”

Sea-Watch Captain Carola Rackete

By recounting this emergency situation, the captain Carola Rackete justified her decision to call at the port of Lampedusa and bring 43 remaining refugees ashore on the night of 29 June 2019, after 17 days on board the “Sea Watch 3.”Rackete’s solo efforts created a media and political storm: Italy’s Minister of the Interior, Matteo Salvini, described her as an “accomplice of human traffickers” as well as a “rich and spoiled German communist” and a “criminal captain.” Right-wing populist parties in Europe, like the Lega Nord and the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), did not hold back harsh criticism of Rackete and the refugee phenomenon itself. Different attempts were made to delegitimize her actions.

Others expressed support for Rackete’s decision by providing financial support in the form of massive donations (a total of almost 1.4 million euros was raised by 9 July in Germany and Italy alone). NGOs like “Sea Watch” were recognized as necessary in maintaining a minimum of humanity when dealing with refugees. Thus, effective publicity campaigns questioned European laws and procedures and worked to legitimize Rackete’s actions.

The ambivalent and contradictory responses to Rackete’s actions in today’s Europe reveal just how controversial the subject of escape and escape aid is. Furthermore, these responses reveal underlying questions, and evaluations, about the significance of human rights in relation to one’s own political community.

However, seen from a historical perspective, neither migration nor refugees are surprising or new phenomena. On the contrary, their significance in human history is underlined by established migration and refugee research.

A prominent example of this is the flight the Nazi regime and its fascist supporters. Without the help of third parties, it would have been impossible for many of those seeking protection to escape, and to find their way to freedom.

The escape agent Lisa Fittko, for instance, played a decisive role in the escape of the philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin. In 1940, she led him and numerous other refugees across the Pyrenees to the Catalan town of Portbou. Lisa Fittko herself was a refugee and, as a resistance fighter against the Nazi and Vichy regimes, she supported Benjamin and other refugees. Her explanation is no less convincing than that of Rackete:

“We have a mission. Our mission now is to escape from this trap. We must save ourselves… we must try to save each other. So that we can be present and help to free Europe and the world from barbarism.”

Even though almost 80 years have passed between the escape aid provided by the two women, and their circumstances are undoubtedly different, Fittko and Rackete are united by the decision to disregard (in)justice and, in clear contrast to the profit-oriented business of smuggling, to bind their own reputation to that of the refugees. Only because of this reason, the two women should not be described as smugglers, but rather as escape agents and as life-savers, in view of the numerous deaths across the Mediterranean Sea and the mountains. Thus, both protagonists are comparable in terms of the interpretation of their actions and their own self-conception, despite their historical uniqueness and temporal difference.

Consequently, those who consider calling the young captain a “human smuggler” must also have the courage to refer to Fittko as such, an opponent of one of the cruelest regimes in history. Only representatives of the right-wing populist to the right-wing radical camp would probably dare to do so.


Lisa Fittko, Mein Weg über die Pyrenäen. Erinnerungen 1940/41, München 1985.

Lisa Fittko, Solidarität unerwünscht. Meine Flucht durch Europa. Erinnerungen 1933-1940, Frankfurt am Main 1994.

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh/ Sigona; Long/ Loescher (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Refugee and Forced Migration, Oxford 2016.

Rackete über Seenotrettung. Seehofer reagiert “einfach auf den Gegenwind“, in: (zuletzt abgerufen am 28.09.19).


This blog post is part of the series “Following the Fugitive.” It is the result of the Master’s seminar “Der Chemin Walter Benjamin – oder: Auf dem Weg zu einer digitalen Fluchtgeschichte” (The Chemin Walter Benjamin, or: Towards a Digital History of Escape) at the Justus Liebig University Gießen, organized by Anne Friedrichs (Mainz) and Bettina Severin-Barboutie (Gießen) in Summer 2019. It was funded by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and the North Rhine-Westphalian Academy of Sciences, Humanities and the Arts. We thank Fatin Abbas for linguistic support.

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
anneieg (December 2, 2019). Escape Assistance in the Course of Time: From Lisa Fittko to Carola Rackete. Europe Across Borders. Retrieved July 23, 2024 from

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