The Path of Escape in the Age of Touristic Reproduction

Phil Kuehlthau

Graffiti at the wayside (photo: Phil Kuehlthau)

Walter Benjamin’s last resort for escaping the National Socialists in the autumn of 1940 was a path across the Pyrenees, which led from the French village of Banyuls-sur-Mer to Portbou in Spain. However, this path ended in a “situation with no way out” (Brodersen, p. 245). After Benjamin arrived in Portbou and was forced to return to France by Spanish authorities, he committed suicide.

Since 2007, Benjamin’s escape route has been marked as the Chemin Walter Benjamin. It invites those interested in cultural history to follow the path. But what exactly is marked by the Chemin Walter Benjamin?

The source material is problematic. Our knowledge depends on the memories of Lisa Fittko, Walter Benjamin’s escape agent, who described the path they took together in her memoirs. Her autobiography was written 40 years later, based on blurred and overlain memories, after her innumerable ascents of the Pyrenees. In historical science, one has to treat such a record as a questionable source. Continue reading

Pursuing the Past on the Spot as a Historiographical Method?

Alexander Milešević

The Pyrenees, 2019 (photo: Alexander Milešević)

It is difficult, almost impossible, to experience the past in the present, and this might be one of the reasons why historical methods usually do not include the after-perception of previous experiences. Sometimes, people try to experience the past via the method of re-enactment. Re-enactment is a social practice through which people attempt to recreate aspects of historical events. One the one hand, this practice enables one to experience and retrace the past. On the other hand, it is problematic because of the limited awareness about differences between the actual past and its faithful reproduction through re-enactment. Can empathizing thus lead to a better understanding of the past and of the decisions people took in their lifetime? Should we use such methods even in historical research to understand the past in a better way? The case of the German philosopher Walter Benjamin is a good example for discussing these questions. His flight from France to Spain across the Pyrenees in 1940 can be experienced by hiking from the French village Banyuls-sur-Mer to Portbou on the Spanish side of the border. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Escape Assistance: An Enterprise with Varying Risks

Filip Schuffert

(photo: Filip Schuffert)

What in the photograph looks like a beautiful landscape today, used to be a dangerous border crossing zone between France and Spain in the first half of the 20th century, which many people crossed in flight.

Flight refers to escape by way of physical movement. However, people are not always able to flee by relying only on themselves. In some cases, people are locked up, as in the case of prison inmates, and perhaps hope for the aid of guards. Others stand in front of seemingly insurmountable seas, mountains or rivers and depend on the help of people who know the landscape and its secret pathways. One such example is Walter Benjamin, who fled across the Pyrenees, this beautiful landscape depicted above, in September 1940 with the help of Lisa Fittko. Others are confronted with “closed” borders and need the support of border guards. People who flee with the help of others take risks. They have to trust others out of necessity, and thus put their destiny in their hands.

Escape assistance can take various forms. Those who provide aid can furnish provisions and hide refugees, they can also issue new passports or lead refugees across a mountain range – as Lisa Fittko did. She not only helped Walter Benjamin but also numerous other refugees to cross the Pyrenees. Escape aid is any action that is carried out to help those escaping risk of death by persecution, torture or death. Escape assistance should not be considered as lugging (Schlepperei), which is motivated by enrichment, in principle. It can be an act of resistance against a political regime, but can also be carried out for humanitarian or altruistic reasons without material motivation (even today, human trafficking without intent to enrich goes largely unpunished). Continue reading

Memory-Work in Process? The Internment Camp in Gurs

Sarah Noske

Memorial site in Gurs (photo: Dennis Riemann)

In 1939, around 100 internment camps were created in France, among them the one in Gurs at the bottom of the Pyrenees. Originally, this camp was built for refugees leaving Spain in the context of the Spanish Civil War. Under the Vichy Regime, the camp was used primarily for the internment of German Jews, fighters of the Résistance, and so-called hostile foreigners. During this time, the camp consisted of 428 huts, which were composed of little “ilôts” (islands), each “ilôt” separated from others by barbed wire. In 1944, the camp was used for the internment of fleeing Spanish refugees and about 300 members of the Wehrmacht. Because of the bad hygienic conditions, more than 3000 humans died in the internment camp in Gurs.

Gate of the cemetery (photo: Sarah Noske)

The “memory work” at the camp in Gurs began very early, shortly after the end of the Second World War. In 1945, the Jewish communities of the Basses-Pyrénées set up a monument to remember the Jews who had suffered or died in Gurs. In 1957, the mayor of Karlsruhe became aware of the dilapidation of the cemetery in Gurs. As 6504 Jews from Baden had been deported to Gurs in October 1940, he pleaded for the reconstruction of the cemetery. The rebuilt cemetery was officially opened in March 1963. Other communities of Baden were also involved in the renovation of the cemetery. Furthermore, two steles were erected on the grounds of the cemetery: one in the middle of the cemetery in order to commemorate the Jewish victims and another one in the entrance area. It remembers the victims of the International Brigades.

Cemetry (photo: Sarah Noske)

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The “Chemin Walter Benjamin” in the Competition of Remembrance

Sarah Noske

“Passages” by Dani Karavan (photo: Dennis Riemann)

“Schwerer ist es, das Gedächtnis der Namenlosen zu ehren als das der Berühmten. Dem Gedächtnis der Namenlosen ist die historische Konstruktion geweiht.“

(“It is harder to honour the memory of the nameless than that of the famous. Historical construction is dedicated to the memory of the nameless.”)

“Passages” by Dani Karavan (photo: Phil Kuehlthau)

These two phrases are written on the monument “Passages” created by the artist Dani Karavan in front of the Mediterranean Sea in the bay of Portbou in memory of Walter Benjamin. They are drawn from Benjamin’s last essay “On the Concept of History,” written in 1939, one year before he committed suicide in Portbou, Spain. Both phrases give an idea of what historical work should be dedicated to according to Benjamin: to the remembrance of the nameless, whose memory is more difficult to honour than that of the famous.

Memory is closely linked to oblivion: According to Aleida Assmann, oblivion is, in contrast to memory, the norm. In communities such as societies, not everything can be remembered, and that is the reason why such communities need to decide what (events, experiences, acts etc.) and who (individual persons or collective groups) to remember. But who are the agents of remembrance? Continue reading

A View from the Past of the Flight across the Mediterranean Sea: Walking the “Chemin Walter Benjamin”

Phil Kuehlthau

View of the Mediterranean Sea (photo: Phil Kuehlthau)

Walking the Chemin Walter Benjamin means commemorating both the escape of Walter Benjamin from National Socialist Germany and further movements of flight and migration in the 20th century. Besides, connecting the chemin to our present day can hardly be avoided. The view of the Mediterranean Sea, which slips constantly into the visual field while one hikes to Portbou, provides access to Benjamin’s notion of the relationship between past and present.

Why do we hike along the Chemin Walter Benjamin just at a time when there is a lot of migration and movements of escape towards Europe? At a time when people put their lives at risk at sea? At a time when there is a contentious debate about the legitimacy of sea rescue?

According to Benjamin, interest in historical events is fed by a feeling of recognizing oneself and one’s own fate in the past. Only in specific ages are specific historical knowledge and perceptions intelligible. Any historical knowledge refers to its origin in time. Our 2019 view on German Unification, for example, differs from that of twenty years ago. Awareness of a phenomenon like the success of a right-wing extremist party – not only, but especially – in the eastern Federal States of Germany, has led us to think differently about politics and its possible failures in the last decades, or the social and cultural legacy of the German Democratic Republic. Without the appearance of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), we would not have thought of those aspects. Continue reading

Following the Fugitive: Reflections on the Concept of Memorial Routes and the Possibilities of Representing Escape

Anne Friedrichs & Bettina Severin-Barboutie

Multilingual remembrance of the escape situation in Portbou, Spain (photo: Anne Friedrichs)

As recently as 2015, travellers to Turin and eight other south and west European cities (Milan, Genoa, Florence and Rome, Paris and Marseille, Valencia as well as Lisbon) could take advantage of a special offer: a city tour provided by migrant residents. This initiative, co-funded by the European Union, aimed to allow visitors to experience the city “through different eyes.” The tourists took on the role of migrants whereas the latter functioned as locals. Thus, different forms of mobility – such as migration and travel – and their appendant overlaps and effects could be explored conjointly.

But the question arises: Can we indeed trace the historical experiences of heterogeneous migrants through such participatory tourist practices? Can we apply the public enactments and shared personal experiences of guided tours likewise to forms of mobility such as escape, which are associated with existential threat and which have been controversially discussed and managed, for instance since 2015? What can historians contribute in view of recent disputes in Europe and elsewhere, particularly given the necessity of balancing different historical experiences, interpretations and memories?

Following a frequently used refugee route

In some regions, refugee movements form part of public commemorative culture. Among numerous other memories, histories of flight and escape are thus immediately visible there. As part of a curricular excursion, we travelled to such a region, namely the French-Spanish Pyrenees, along with students of the Justus Liebig University Giessen in the summer term of 2019. Our focus was a 15 km trail that cuts through the mountains. This trail follows the refugee route taken by Walter Benjamin in his attempted escape from French Banyuls-sur-Mer to Portbou in Spain. Continue reading

Bomber’s Baedeker

Rare edition of the 1944 edition of “Bomber’s Baedeker” has been digitalised. The volumes from the Leibniz Institute of European History are now available through Gutenberg Capture, the online portal of the University Library at Mainz.

“Bombers Baedeker” (1944) – copy held at the Leibniz Institute of European History

In 1943 the British Ministry of Economic Warfare published a “Guide to the Economic Importance of German Towns and Cities” listing bombing targets in Germany. An enlarged second edition came out in 1944. One of the very few copies is held by the library of the Leibniz Institute of European History. It has now been made available online as the original can no longer be used for reasons of preservation.

 

Open acess to digital edition https://visualcollections.ub.uni-mainz.de/urn/urn:nbn:de:hebis:77-vcol-20056

Bomber’s Baedeker lists German cities with an evaluation of their importance for the German war economy, the available infrastructure und transport facilities. The first edition focused on cities witth 15,000 or more inhabitants; the second edition included locations with less than 1,000 inhabitants if they appeared important for the war economy. Targets were asigned “priorities”.

A seminar on the digital copy and its potential for digital history will be held at the Leibniz Institute of European History on 15 October 2019 at 4 p.m.

Continue reading

The Other Side of Terrorism

Out Now – Open Access

New issue of the European History Yearbook published on “Victimhood and Acknowledgment: The Other Side of Terrorism”

 

ed. by Petra Terhoeven, with contributions by:

The history of terrorism has been largely a history of perpetrators, their motives and actions. The open access volume anaylses the other side of terrorism, which has always seemed to be of secondary importance. But terrorism is communication by violence, and its efficiency depends significantly on the selection and the treatment of the victims by the perpetrators, on the one hand, and the perception and acknowledgement of victimhood by the public, on the other. How does it affect our picture of the history of terrorism then, if the victims are moved centre stage? If the focus is put on their suffering, their agency, their helplessness, or on how they are acknowledged or exploited by society, politics and media? If the central role is taken into account which they play in terrorist propaganda as well as in the emotional response of the public? The contributions to this edition of the European History Yearbook will examine such questions in a broad range of historical case studies and methods, including visual history. Not least, they aim at historicizing the roles of survivors and relatives in the social process of coming to terms with terrorist violence, a question highly relevant up to the present day.

Table of Contents EHY 19, 2018 pdfDownload


					

Present Threats to Democracy – Resolution by the German Historical Association (VHD)

The German Historical Association (Verband der Historiker und Historikerinnen Deutschlands) passed a resolution on present threats to democracy at its bi-annual meeting in Münster

The German Historical Association (VHD) held its bi-annual meeting, the Historikertag, from 25-28 September in Münster, Westphalia. The 3.700 visitors debated the theme “Divided Societies” (“Gespaltene Gesellschaften”) in almost 100 sessions and panels ranging from ancient to contemporary history. The topic was also intensively discussed with regard to historians’ role in the present. Initiated by Dirk Schumann and Petra Terhoeven from Göttingen and supported by a group of a dozen historians, the General Meeting on 27 September passed a resolution on the present threats to democracy (“Resolution des Verbandes der Historiker und Historikerinnen Deutschlands zu gegenwärtigen Gefährdungen der Demokratie”). An overwhelming majority of the several hundred members present voted in favour of the Münster declaration (pdf german) (pdf english)

The resolution defends key principles against present-day threats posed by populists’ voices and activities. It argues amongst others for a historically sensitive language against discriminatory cries like “Volksverräter” or “Lügenpresse” reminiscent of the anti-democratic rhetoric in Germany during the first half of the twentieth century. It further appeals to hold up humanitarian principles and international law with regard to asylum seekers and refugees calling to mind past German deeds and experiences. The declaration also mentions the search for European cooperation that emerged from the bitter strife and conflicts during period of two world wars as well as the principles of debating in pluralist democracies. The resolution concludes with an appeal to study the past critically so that political abuse in the form of fake history can be rejected based on scholarship.

The resolutions has already attracted comments in the press. See for example

https://www.welt.de/kultur/article181717830/Vergangenheitsforscher-vs-AfD-Wie-politisch-darf-ein-Historikerverband-sein.html

https://www.welt.de/kultur/history/article181702310/Deutscher-Historikertag-Als-Japan-den-Islam-einfuehren-wollte.html

http://www.faz.net/aktuell/feuilleton/debatten/historikertag-stellt-sich-gegen-die-afd-15812149.html

https://www.bild.de/politik/inland/politik-inland/52-historikertag-ist-unsere-gesellschaft-wieder-so-gespalten-57539680.bild.html

https://www.tagesspiegel.de/wissen/deutscher-historikertag-in-muenster-raus-aus-der-komfortzone/23123400.html

During the General Assembly and in a panel discussion on the previous evening, members of the German Historical Association discussed not so much the detailed points in the draft resolution, nor did they question the exact wording. A large majority appeared to support the key principles. The foremost question was whether and how historians should intervene in political debates. Some argued against a resolution on particular political issues although they generally supported the ideas and values of the text. They preferred to focus on threats to freedom of research and the democratic conditions necessary to maintain that freedom. Few saw the resolution as a party political statement or pointed out that a rhetoric of crisis might fuel the danger. That the declaration was also directed against the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) was plain without that party being explicitly mentioned. Nevertheless, most recognized that the text was on the defence of principles rather than policies and does not support positions of any single political party.

Those in favour agreed that historians should give guidance based on their scholarly expertise. Historical guidance for the public usually takes the form of analysis and historical explanations. However, it seemed to the majority that present threats called also for normative statements. One speaker reminded the assembled historians of Theodor Mommsen’s intervention in the anti-Semitism debate in 1880 and declared that Mommsen’s principled stance may serve as a positive reference for today’s German Historical Association. Distinguishing between the historian as scholar and expert on the one side and the historian as citizens on the other was described as a moot and artificial point under present circumstances. It was felt that historians should explicitly defend those principles of pluralist society under attack from populism at present. One speaker from Chemnitz and another one from a memorial site (Gedenkstätte) in Lower Saxony strongly urged those present to pass the resolution because they needed this kind of support by the professional organisation against the current, sometimes daily threats to their freedom of research. The final vote by showing of hand demonstrated that German historians as an organised profession overwhelmingly recognized the present threats and saw the need to defend key principles of pluralist and democratic society.

Re-Inscribing Islam into European History

European History Yearbook 2018: Forum Essay by Manfred Sing

Against All Odds: How to Re-Inscribe Islam into European History 

The central place that Muslims and Islam are accorded in the European media and public debates today contrasts with their near-complete absence in parts of European historiography until recently, Manfred Sing argues in his recent essay on Islam and European History.

Participants of the first congress of European Muslims, Geneva 1935. Picture: Van Beetem’s Family Archive (The Netherlands) – ERC Starting Grant “Muslims in Interwar Europe”, University of Leuven – n° 336608.

 

While right-wing demagogues campaign against refugees, Muslims and the supposed Islamization of Europe, their argument that Islam does not belong to Europe is, at least partially, supported by the rather patchy awareness of a continuous and multi-facetted Islamic history in European societies and, horrible dictu, even in some history departments. Recent research challenges this neglect, tries to overcome the “Othering” of Islam, and demands a new conceptualization of European history that leaves behind the Europe/Islam binary. As the construction of a European identity and a European space is based on “Othering” – a definition of what is not European -, the conscious and visible integration of Muslims into European history poses a systematic challenge to narratives of Europeanization. The article draws attention to the difficulties that spring from this challenge and discusses new approaches in scholarship that try to overcome them.

Manfred Sing’s essay is published open access in

 

 

 

 

 

European Memory: Universalising the Past?

A new special issue of the European Review of History, edited by Friedemann Pestel, Rieke Trimçev, Gregor Feindt, and Félix Krawatzek.

European Memory has become an omnipresent phenomenon of our times. Both scholarship and the public sphere frequently refer to the European quality of something past or a specifically European way of remembering. It is, however, especially in Europe’s present crisis that these discussions on European memory reveal conflicts and a broad, often contradictory meaning of ‘Europe’. Practices of universalising the past are central to these conflicts and allow for an in-depth understanding of European Memory.

Invoking ‘European memory’ promises to overcome such conflicts by acknowledging difference and relating particular memories to other memories, i.e. those of different experiences or those of different people. This process of universalizing memory reduces difference, omits contexts, and eventually diffuses conflicts. To confront this bias, future research needs to employ an understanding of European Memory as a discursive reality rather than a normative ideal. In a new special issue of the European Review of History recently published, we – Friedemann Pestel, Rieke Trimçev, Gregor Feindt, and Félix Krawatzek – have taken up this challenge and confronted our discursive approach towards ‘European Memory’ with a set of empirical examples, ranging from the early modern memory of ‘Turk’, Versailles and French May 1968 to the massacre of  Srebrenica. This blog post outlines ideas and central findings from the Special Issue ‘European Memory: Universalising the Past?’. Continue reading