Exile studies in Germany

Opening of the exhibition Exil-Literatur, 1968
Opening of the exhibition Exil-Literatur 1933-1945 on 18 January 1968 in the National Museum of Luxembourg attended by Foreign Minister Willy Brandt (front row, third from left)
Photograph: René Weydert, © Luxemburger Wort/www.wort.lu

Exile studies in Germany

Aufgabe der Exilforschung scheint mir demnach zu sein, das kommunikative und das kulturelle Gedächtnis zugleich an einem historisch und anthropologisch verbindlichen Gegenstand zu schulen. Eine solche Exilforschung [...] würde gehört und verstanden werden, weit über die Kreise der „Betroffenen“ und die Fachkreise hinaus.

 [Accordingly, it seems to me that the job of exile studies is to train both the communicative and cultural memory using a historically and anthropologically relevant object. Studying exile in this way [...] would be listened to and understood far beyond the circle of those “affected” and outside of academic circles. (ed. trans.)]

Wolfgang Frühwald, Die „gekannt sein wollen“. Prolegomena on a theory of exile, 1995

What is it that exile studies deal with? The question about what subject matter exile research should deal with is one that has to be asked again and again. Today, in an era of migration, in which almost 3 percent of the world population is made up of international migrants according to the German UNESCO Commission, issues such as the impact of exile on the countries of origin and the receiving countries, and the transfer of knowledge and culture are matters of interest for the world of research. The beginnings of exile studies are to be found in the early post-War period. Back then, it was those in exile who took it upon themselves to draw attention to the topic by providing overviews and anthologies about it.

With the onset of the Cold War and the founding of two German states, research work became restricted by political and ideological influences. In the GDR, where top political and cultural posts were filled by returned emigrants, research work focused on communist resistance and anti-fascist exile. In the Federal Republic, by comparison, a phase began during which public discussion was suppressed. Instead of looking at exile, West German historians concentrated on the civilian, church and military opposition to the Nazi regime.

It was not until the middle of the 1960s that the changing social and political climate saw the beginning of a new phase of critically examining the Nazi past. The German Exile Archive of the German National Library laid down the groundwork for dealing with the subject in its 1965 exhibition Exil-Literatur 1933-1945. Research began by looking at literary and political exile in congresses, symposia and some initial publications. In 1969, the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (German Research Foundation, DFG) provided funding and soon put together a programme of selective measures in the area of exile studies. The “other Germany” and the definition of anti-fascism were core aspects in the West German research work. Werner Berthold wrote that what was needed, was something usable that went beyond the theoretical and he pointed out that there was a risk in this process of only seeking what one wants to find and only seeing part of the complex reality (in: Nach dem »Paradigmenwechsel«. Brita Eckert and Harro Kieser in conversation with Werner Berthold, 1996). The mid-1980s saw further change and subjects like academics in exile (and in connection with this a turn towards acculturation research), exile among “normal” people (Wolfgang Benz) and research into women’s issues and gender came into focus. The expansion in research work to include Jewish exile was also down to a change in public awareness. The television series Holocaust (1979), the documentary film Shoah (1985) and the controversy among German historians in the 1980s are all evidence of this change in perception. The distinction, which had prevailed for many years, between political exile on the one hand and non-political – mainly Jewish – emigration on the other was abandoned.

In 1984 the Gesellschaft für Exilforschung (German Exile Research Society) was set up with Ernst Loewy as its first chairman. For many years now, the field of exile research has been receiving input from the newer cultural studies, which critically re-examine terms like identity and homeland and are oriented towards the future we will be facing due to migrational movements. What exile studies still have to do is render the results of decades of research into German-language exile from 1933 to 1945 usable for studies of contemporary migration and exile and to bring its area of study into line with new research approaches.

Further reading:
Krohn, Claus Dieter: Exilforschung. Version: 1.0, In: Docupedia-Zeitgeschichte, www.docupedia.de (20.12.2012)
Krohn, Claus Dieter / Winckler, Lutz (Hg.): Exilforschungen im historischen Prozess. München: edition text + kritik 2012
Langkau-Alex, Ursula: Geschichte der Exilforschung. In: Krohn, Klaus Dieter u.a. (Hg.): Handbuch der deutschsprachigen Emigration 1933-1945. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft 1998, p. 1195-1209