“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 →
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 →
“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 →
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 →
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 →
The international Global Humanitarianism | Research Academy(GHRA) offers research training to PhD candidates and early postdocs. It combines academic sessions at the Imperial and Global History Centre at the University of Exeter and the Leibniz Institute of European History in Mainz with archival sessions at the Archives of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva. The Research Academy is for early career researchers who are working in the related fields of humanitarianism, international humanitarian law, peace and conflict studies, human rights covering the period from the 18th to the 20th century as well as the institutional history of the ICRC and the development of its fundamental principles. It supports scholarship on the ideas and practices of humanitarianism in the context of international, imperial and global history thus advancing our understanding of global governance in humanitarian crises of the present.
In July 2019, the Global Humanitarianism | Research Academy
will first meet for one week in Mainz for academic sessions of lectures, class
meetings and discussions, including study time (the academic meetings rotate
annually between Mainz and Exeter; in the previous year this meeting took place
in Exeter). PhD students will have the chance to sharpen the methodological and
theoretical focus of their thesis through an intense exchange with peers,
postdocs, and established scholars working in the same or related field of
humanitarianism. The postdocs
will benefit from discussing their research design and publication strategy
with established scholars.
The academic session at Exeter or Mainz is each year followed by a one
week archival session at Geneva. Here the archives of the ICRC offer a unique
insight into humanitarian action during the past 150 years. The holdings provide
rich material, including visual material, for the history of international
affairs in the ages of nation states, empires and global governance,
particularly the study of humanitarianism, humanitarian law, conflicts studies
as well as related issues such as human rights. Under the guidance of
experienced archive staff, the members of the Research Academy will study
primary sources related to the previous discussions at Exeter as well as to their
own research projects if applicable.
Opportunities may also be provided for intensive discussions with active
members of the ICRC staff and other Geneva based humanitarian organisations.
Each selected academy fellow receives the cost of travel to Mainz
and accommodation in Mainz and Geneva. Academy fellows will be asked to
purchase their travel to Geneva as proof of their commitment to attending the
The Research Academy
invites applications for the 2019 Global
Humanitarianism | Research Academy (GHRA) from PhD students and early
postdocs. The Steering Committee will select up to 12 participants. Applicants
must be able to certify that they are fluent in both written and spoken English,
the Academy’s working language. Participants of the international Global Humanitarianism | Research Academy will be chosen
by the Steering Committee on the basis of
a cover letter (maximum 350 words) setting out the applicant’s motivation for participating in the academy and indicating the anticipated outcome of their research;
a statement (maximum 1,000 words) summarizing their research project;
a brief curriculum vitae (maximum 2 pages);
two supporting letters from appropriate referees.
This application should be compiled by the applicant and the whole set of papers including reference letters should be submitted as a single PDF, with the file saved as ‘LASTNAME_FIRSTNAME.PDF’. To apply, please send your application consisting of one pdf-document with the Subject “Global Humanitarianism | Research Academy” to the organisers at firstname.lastname@example.org by December 31, 2018.
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
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.