Refugees and citizens in East-Central Europe in the 20th century

Detailed project

The following is an excerpt from the ERC project proposal, part B1.

Unlikely refuge? Refugees and citizens in East-Central Europe in the 20th century


  • Principal Investigator: Mgr. Michal Frankl, Ph.D.
  • PI’s host institution for the project: Masaryk Institute and Archives of the Czech Academy of Sciences
  • Proposal duration in months: 60

Refugee studies between “West” and “East”

Terminology offers a good point of departure for the exploration of normative views of the “East” as a place of refuge. Even though the terms describing people escaping persecution share a common etymology by including “flight” or “escape” (derived from the Latin fugere, German flüchten, or similar terms in Slavic languages, as well as in Hungarian), terminology might well support the perception of a cleavage between the “West” and the “East”. The terms refugee in English or réfugié in French carry different connotations by implying search of a refuge and of protection from persecution. The terms used in East-Central Europe (such as Flüchtling in German, uchodźca in Polish, uprchlík in Czech, begunec in Slovenian, izbeglica in Croatian and Serbian, or menekült in Hungarian), on the other hand, capture the state of displacement rather than a necessity to protect and shelter people in need.

In many ways, the history of “refugeedom” (Peter Gatrell) has been studied along the West-Eastern political, economic and cultural cleavage. The “Eastern” failure to adequately write refugees into the national and regional history has had its counterpart in linking refugee protection to the very nature of liberal democracy. The larger and tone-giving part of the existing historiography on European refugees (especially the studies on the Nazi period) examines refugee policies as a “Western” question and criticises the attempts to control and restrict the refugee flow (for instance Caestecker and Moore 2010). While the “West” was measured against a high moral standard, and criticised for its – alleged or real – failure to offer protection, the “East” was considered no viable refuge.

The “Western” concepts of Communist “totalitarianism” contributed to this perception. In the inter-war period, the very limited readiness of the USSR to open doors for Communist refugees (and their often tragic destinies in case they managed to get to the land of socialism) hardly helped to consider Communist countries a place of asylum (for instance: McLoughlin, Schafranek, and Szevera 1996; McLoughlin and Schafranek 1999). The unrelenting, even if uneven, flow of refugees from Communist countries to the “West” and images of people climbing the Berlin Wall, escaping in balloons or leaving their trabant cars in Prague to reach the West German embassy deeply informed the popular historical consciousness. Eastern Europe was a place to flee from – not to seek refuge.

This sense of a gulf separating the “East” from the “West” was embedded in the post-WWII construction of a new international refugee regime, with its original focus on European refugees and “the last million” lingering in the displaced persons camps. The “East”, under the influence of the Soviet Union, insisted on obligatory repatriation, labelling those reluctant to comply as collaborators and traitors. In contrast, as part of the new emerging international arrangements which resulted in the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, “Western” diplomats and commentators defended the individual freedom of decision (with the exception of proven war criminals and “quislings”). The integration of the DPs in Northern America, Western Europe and in Israel, as well as the eventual liberalisation of immigration policies after the WWII was indeed seen as a proof of the association of liberal democracy with refugee protection. In short, refugee protection came to be seen as a function of “Western” values. The post-war construction of a refugee, formally introducing political or racial persecution as legitimation for refugee status and also linked to the language of human rights (Cohen 2012), was, moreover, refused behind the Iron Curtain: faithful to Moscow, the Communist states refrained from joining the 1951 convention. From the countries included in the comparative matrix of this project, only Austria and Yugoslavia (acting independently of Moscow) signed.

Hence, when Eastern Europe figures in the historiography, it is mostly as a “refugee-producing” region. Numerous historians, writing especially after the demise of Communism in East-Central Europe, focused on its history of ethnic cleansing and population transfers. Writing against the backdrop of war and ethnic cleansing during the dissolution of Yugoslavia, the post-WWII expulsion of most of the German-speaking population from Poland and Czechoslovakia seemed to be even more important. Therefore, a large body of historiographic work, supported also by the work of government sponsored transnational commissions of historians, was informed by the interest in the multiethnic character of the region, the protection of minorities and its failures, forced migration and ethnic cleansing (representative of a much more extent historiography: Brandes, Sundhaussen, and Troebst 2010; Sundhaussen 1996; Melville, Pešek, and Scharf 2007; Brunnbauer, Esch, and Sundhaussen 2006; Neutatz and Zimmermann 2006; Böhler, Borodziej, and Puttkamer 2014; Naimark 2001; Ther 2011; Siljak and Ther 2001). Even though these subjects are essential for the region to critically reflect its own history, this focus made the enquiry about refugee policies less relevant, if not beyond imagination.

Another, even deeper historical layer, favours the perceived absence of refugees in East-Central Europe: Traditionally, millions of people seeking better and safer life departed from this region to Western Europe or across the Atlantic. States in the region often spent considerably more resources on taming, encouraging or directing emigration, rather than on refugee protection and welfare. Until today, the “brain drain” caused by outmigration continues to receive significant attention (see for instance Gałka and Dorocki 2013). Historians have recently directed attention to the ideologies and techniques by which states aimed to control citizens’ freedom of movement and noted that government attempts to guide migration often unfolded along ethnic lines, supporting the departure of minorities while controlling the migration of the “state nation” (Green and Weil 2007; Lohr 2012; Zahra 2016).

Rethinking the “East” as a place of refuge

This project provides a reverse perspective: it examines East-Central Europe as a destination of refugee migration and a space where protection was negotiated, contested and – at least in some forms – granted. The absence of the region in refugee studies and of refugees in the region’s historiography doesn’t fully stand up to historical scrutiny. To start such enquiry, we can follow in the footsteps of John Hope Simpson, a British civil servant who, at the end of the 1930s, conducted a survey mapping European (and “non-Moslem Ottoman”) refugees and their global places of refuge. Travelling through most of the East-Central Europe, Simpson’s researchers documented the numbers of Russian refugees who fled the Communist revolution and the civil war as well as German refugees from Nazism. Meeting refugee representatives, querying relief workers and examining refugee archives, they apparently considered Europe’s East an important stage on which refugee trajectories unfolded and policies were formulated (Hope Simpson 1939). The governments of this region often considered the stay of refugees temporary – yet, in this they hardly differed from their “Western” counterparts. To a different degree, these countries participated in the negotiations of first refugee conventions, especially under the auspices of the High Commissioners for refugees of the League of Nations.

Neither did the reception of refugees terminate with the post-WWII ethnic cleansings and the imposition of Communist governments. While many desperately attempted to make their way to the “West”, tens of thousands of refugees also headed in the other direction. The countries of the Communist bloc helped to evacuate and distribute those fleeing from civil wars in Greece and North Korea and housed Italian, Spanish, British, French, US and other Communist refugees who were allegedly persecuted for their political identity. Yugoslav anti-Titoist Communists who found refuge in Communist countries after the split between the Cominform and Tito’s Yugoslavia in 1948 make a special case, but also highlight the expected connection between asylum and ideological purity. The examination of refugees in the Communist bloc is less significant for their numbers, but for probing how a right of asylum, and its practices, was guided by international Communist solidarity (Vojtěchovský 2012; Olšáková 2007).

During the post-Communist transformation and in expectation of joining the European Union, East-Central Europe became again an important destination for refugees displaced by the conflicts surrounding the decomposition of the Communist bloc and the return of the nation (and sometimes strongly nationalist) state. In the 1990s, having finally joined the 1951 convention, East-Central Europe hosted, without major social and political conflicts, tens of thousands of refugees from the former Soviet Union and from the disintegrating Yugoslavia (see for instance Gałka 2009; Dragoš 2016).

While a number of – mostly factual – studies on refugees in the region exist (details in section B2), refugees still appear marginal and not integrated into the core master narratives of national history. Not pursued over a longer time-span, nor in a comparative way, the historiographic accounts remain divided into individual instances of displacement, typically rendered as group histories, centred around the fates, ideologies and identities of particular ethnic groups (such as the inter-war Russian and German refugees, or Greek children in the 1950s).

The project is designed as both a contribution to regional history and to global history of refugees. While recognising East-Central Europe as a space where trajectories of flight unfolded and means and meanings of protection were negotiated, this project does not aim to endow the region with a more tolerant historical master narrative. On the contrary, it will result into a critical and comparative history of refugeedom, probing its features and functions in the environment of multi-ethnic nation states struggling with authoritarian politics and “totalitarianism”. The outputs will contribute to the much needed integration of refugees into national historical narratives and to the development of transnational scholarly perspectives on the region as a space struggling with difficult decisions regarding assistance and eventually citizenship.

At the same time, the examination of East-Central Europe feeds into the emerging global history of refugeedom as it presents the possibility to study refugee policies under varying political systems. The regional focus will help to elucidate how refugees were managed and negotiated outside of “Western” liberal democracies and their moral framework. Over the period examined here, the countries under scrutiny transformed from nationalist democracies, as constructed after 1918, through authoritarian nationalist regimes reducing democratic processes to a mere facade (Oberländer 2001), to – with the exception of Austria – state socialism (or “totalitarianism”). Finally, the post-Communist transformation towards liberal-democratic political, economic and social order often referred back – even if in a different framework – to the democratic and nationalist construction of these states in the interwar period.

Understanding how refugeedom is negotiated in a variety of political orders spanning from democracy to dictatorship is essential, as most refugees (and “internally displaced persons”) today live outside of a democratic order and often in settings where ethnic identity plays a major role in framing protection and citizenship. Moreover, in a broader sense, it relates to the current debate about a reform of the post-WWII international refugee regime incapable of coping with recent challenges. Increasingly, a broader definition of refugees is raised (“environmental refugees”, “survival migration”) and instead of binding the concept of safe countries exclusively to liberal democracy, many scholars and politicians today believe that assistance to refugees should be provided closer to their countries of origins, just across the border and often outside of democratic political and legal frameworks (Collier and Betts 2017). Examining East-Central Europe as a refugee region helps to put the construction of the post-WWII international assistance and management into a perspective and contribute to a timely scholarly debate about such a reform, and its possible pitfalls.

Comparative framework

Historians have recently pointed out that a systematic, global examination of refugee history is still in its infancy and remains disconnected from contemporary multidisciplinary scientific approaches. “The multi-disciplinary field of refugee studies lacks a reflection on conceptual, theoretical and methodological challenges of its historical perspective,” complained J. Olaf Kleist in his recent reflection on the state of the field (2017, 161; see also Gatrell 2016b; Frank and Reinisch 2017). This project aims to contribute to this emerging historiography by taking an ambitious comparative perspective on (dis)continuities of refugeedom in East-Central Europe. Combining methods of historical research with social sciences and other disciplines, it aims to overcome the fragmentation of research and the predominance of ethno-national and ideologically informed narratives. To make this ambition feasible, the project relies on a carefully set up comparative framework with a well calibrated definition of its geographic scope, selection of temporal-thematic focus areas as well as of research questions and methods.

While covering a relatively large and varied region, yet for the implementation to remain feasible, the project will focus on the WWI Habsburg Monarchy, nation states created from the territory of the empire by as of its dissolution in 1918, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary and Yugoslavia, as well as their successor states. This allows to analyse refugeedom against the background of forging nation states out of the common political space of the imperial state and its subsequent transformations. The inclusion of Austria and Yugoslavia complicates the all too easy acceptance of the “East/West”, Communist/Democratic cleavage. The neutral Austria, increasingly “West”-oriented, as well as Yugoslavia, after split from the Stalinist Communist bloc, housed 1956 Hungarian refugees. In Yugoslavia, this refugee incident unfolded at the same time as its own citizens were fleeing over the porous Austrian border (Kovács et al. 2009).

To overcome the episodic and group-related character of research up-to-date, a systematic diachronic examination of refugeedom is necessary. In order to cover the whole 20th century, from WWI, through the construction and demise of nation states, their reconstruction after WWII, the political systems of the Cold War until the post-Communist euphoria, the project is organised around thematic-temporal focus areas. Aiming at representativeness rather than exhaustive treatment, the four “refugee moments” will allow both synchronic and diachronic comparative analysis for all included countries:

  • Dissolution of empire during the WWI and construction of nation states (roughly 1914 into mid-1920s)

  • Crisis of the nation state: refugees, citizenship and the expansion of Nazi Germany (roughly 1935-1939)

  • Cold war solidarity: refugees between “West” and “East” (roughly 1950s)

  • Post-Communist refugees and the re-emergence of the nation state (1990s)

The research will be conducted, under the leadership of the PI, by an international team of mostly early career researchers consisting of one full position of a historian per pre-1989 country and a 0.5 position per country (including the new states) for the 1990s. The composition of the team will support cooperation of historians with ethnographer(s), sociologist(s), expert(s) on migration, legal expert(s). The integration of approaches from social sciences and other disciplines is important not only due to the impossibility to conduct archival research for the post-1989 period, but is also a part of the strategy of fostering multi-disciplinary exchange within the team and to encourage joint, multi-disciplinary publications. The team will meet at least twice a year, for one internal and one open, international, thematic workshop.

Methodological challenges

Hannah Arendt (1973), Giorgio Agamben (2011) – and many other authors, including the PI (Čapková and Frankl 2012; Frankl 2014) – have examined the fundamental effects of state policies on people fleeing persecution: from restricting and controlling refugee movement, exclusion from labour market to containment in refugee camps. Subject to police arbitrariness, rather than law, refugees are commonly thought of as stripped even of the right to have rights, or delivered to the state of exception and reduced to “bare life”. While Arendt’s and Agamben’s perspectives are powerful devices in the critique of refugee exclusion and management and have influenced a significant body of research, they do not fully address the issues and complexities of administrative policies in 20th century Europe and beyond. In the Arendtian world, refugees are subordinated to the state and stripped of their agency – their exclusion from society inevitably leads towards totalitarian concentration camps.

Yet, current research on refugees challenges this view in at least two ways. First, it highlights how refugees take responsibility and act, make sense of their fates, and confront, interact, but also cooperate with the state (Gatrell 1999). Hence, examining individual agency also complicates the perception of an omni-present and all-powerful state standing against an utterly powerless refugee. Second, critical histories of humanitarianism step beyond celebratory accounts of relief work of the aid agencies and make it possible to examine the role of the non-state actors in structuring responses to refugees (Cohen 2012; Zahra 2011; Gatrell 2016a; Feldman 2012, 2007). While the nation state remains a central category for any meaningful research on 20th century refugees, this project analyses the state, aid organisations and civil society, and the refugees within one interpretative framework. The term refugeedom can serve as a point of departure for the integration of often divided strains of research: coined by the British historian Peter Gatrell, it encompasses “a matrix involving administrative practices, legal norms, social relations and refugees’ experiences, and how these have been represented in cultural terms” (Gatrell 2016b, 170). In a similar way, Saul Friedländer’s call for “integrated history”, weaving together histories and narratives of victims and perpetrators, made significant impact on Holocaust research (Friedländer 2007).

This project aims to develop a more dynamic examination of the role of refugeedom centred around three interconnected facets of citizenship, humanitarianism and space (as described in more detail in B2). To tackle the challenge of an integrated refugee history, the project will deploy different methods to analyse the production of refugees in the destination countries. Refugees do not simply come into existence as a result of forced migration, but the (self-)ascription as a refugee is always a result of administrative processes and/or public negotiations. In short: The decision on who merits this special form of protection is always subject to values and political persuasion. As Zolberg at al argue, disagreement about refugee policies is inevitable since their “implementation requires a political choice and an ethical judgement” (Zolberg, Suhrke, and Aguayo 1989, 4). The production and application of categories and their long-term implications for state policies, relief and group identity received much attention in the current research on refugees (Zetter 1991, 2007; Glasman 2017). In the 1930s in Czechoslovakia, for instance, relief organisations played an important role in carrying out the identification of “real” refugees and in crafting the informal categories on which refugee protection was based (Čapková and Frankl 2012).

In contrast to most of the existing research (details in section B2), the research team will not only examine the exclusion of refugees, but also probe how refugees were written into the very citizenship and practices of the new nation states created in 1918. How did these categories function in the context of the multi-ethnic societies and amid the nationality conflicts which occupied the minds and informed practices of politicians, state administrators, journalists and activists alike? We will analyse the relationship between the option treaties and exchanges of population and the definitions and appropriations of refugees as well as the nexus between minority protection (which applied to the states under survey in the inter-war period) and refugee policies.

Shifting scales of analysis will likewise help to put the nation state into perspective. The participation of nation states in the international refugee regime (Skran 1995) and in international organisations, in particular the inter-war High Commissioners for refugees, as well as the post-war interactions with UNRRA, IRO and the UNHCR was never examined for most of the countries compared here. Moreover, international dimensions of Communist refugee policies should be probed (without any glorification) as an attempt to offer an alternative international refugee regime guided by ideological solidarity with revolutionaries world-wide, opposed to the “Western” adoption of human rights and refugee protections.

Scaling in opposite direction, refugee microhistories play an essential role in reorienting our perspective beyond the state and the national master narratives. As Clair Zalc and Tal Bruttmann remind us, the plurality of microhistorical methods are not only the little pieces from which “grand history” is assembled, but the “change of scale entails a change of paradigm in the way of writing history” (Zalc and Bruttmann 2017, 2). Microhistories make it possible to recover the plurality of views and actions of the actors, from refugees to policemen, and to reflect family and gender aspects. Instead of focusing on the reproduction of touching refugee stories or the dissection of their identities, the project will deploy methods from spatial studies and combine traditional historical enquiry with digital humanities methods. Microhistorical studies of refugee spaces (for instance border interactions and refugee camps) and analysis of life trajectories of selected samples of refugees will provide new insights about the interactions between the state, society, humanitarian organisations and refugees themselves, beyond the narratives driven by state-created documentation.


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