Professor Jan Plamper’s research focuses on the history of emotions and the senses and the history of migration. His new book, Das neue Wir. Warum Migration dazugehört: Eine andere Geschichte der Deutschen [The New We. Why Migration Is No Problem: A Different History of the Germans], was published in February this year, and is now being translated into English.
We asked Professor Plamper about his counter-narrative to the ‘migrant crisis’ and how his work has been received in Germany.
Sarah Cox: What is Das neue Wir about?
Jan Plamper: It’s a history of migration to post-1945 West and East Germany, told through the life stories of individuals who stand in for larger groups. It aims to be several things at once: a leftist narrative history targeted at a broad audience; an intervention in the migration debate in the wake of the Syrian ‘refugee crisis’; and a reconceptualisation of German civic nationhood. It’s divided into eight chapters—on the 12.5 million ethnic German expellees from Eastern Europe, the 14 million mostly southern European labour migrants in West Germany (11m went back to their countries of origin), the 200,000 from Vietnam, Mozambique and other socialist countries in the GDR, asylum-seekers, 4.5 million ethnic Germans and 230,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union, and more. Interspersed are two short sections on 1945 and 1989—the major breaks in immigration history.
SC: How has the book been received in Germany?
JP: Many people have commented on chapter one, which shows that until the 20th century Germans were mostly émigrés, leaving Germany and moving elsewhere. The problems they encountered, especially in the major destinations of Russia and the US, were very similar to those that immigrants face in Germany today. Others have said that they weren’t aware know how much immigration there was after 1945, and how untenable the myth of German ethnic homogeneity is.
Unsurprisingly, conservatives say that I ignore the real problems associated with immigration, and right-wing extremists have sent hate mail. But I’ve gotten flak from the German Left as well: to them the nation is forever contaminated by Nazism, and they have difficulty accepting the argument that abstaining from defining nationhood leaves the field to the extreme right, or to heritage countries, who are increasingly endorsing ethnonational definitions of nationhood (Erdogan’s Turkey, Putin’s Russia). Also, postnationalism is an elite thing: many who live precariously can’t afford to reap the benefits of global mobility. To them the nation continues to be an important resource for identity.
SC: The book explores the ‘salad bowl’ model of identity – what does this mean?
JP: It’s the model the US arrived at in the 1960s. A melting-pot assumes that you shed any other cultural baggage and melt into a homogenous American identity, but the salad bowl is predicated on the assumption that other attachments can comfortably co-exist with a collective American identity: of Chinese or Polish descent and American, Chinese or Polish salad leaves in a common American bowl. The bowl metaphor isn’t perfect, we need to come up with a more porous one that allows for the salad leaves affecting the collective identity, but all said, this is the most workable model in our—recent, historically speaking—era of modern nation-states.
One of the real surprises in my research was that West Germany developed a salad bowl model as early as 1950. The Silesian, Sudeten and so on expellees from Eastern Europe were first considered wholly ‘other’. Contrary to the later myth, people didn’t feel that Germans were returning to Germany, but that ‘potato beetles’ or a ‘mulatto race’—yes, Nazi terms!—were intruding. The state at first demanded that they fully assimilate. It didn’t work and they were so numerous and important as voters that by 1950 they were offered to unconditionally join the collective identity of Germans and retain their Silesian heritage. My point is that Germans only need to dig up this successful model from their own past and practice it for everyone, including the most recent arrivals from Syria and Afghanistan, some of whom are getting naturalised. It’s great to know Arabic or Farsi, these languages should be promoted in regular schools, and they can wonderfully go together with being unconditionally German.
In the book I explore the way that the identity of Germans with a background in other countries are referred to. Previously, the term ‘foreigner’ (Ausländer) has been used, even for second or third generation Germans. It’s terrible because it symbolically strips them of citizenship. New, alternative, self-descriptive terms are more empowering. I best like the self-descriptive designation of ‘Germans plus’ or ‘plus Germans’ (Plusdeutsche).
SC: The 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall is approaching. How was this a major turning point for German postwar immigration?
JP: In times of Brexit and Trump’s wall, I want to stress that extreme border regimes create extreme pushes and pulls. The ingenuity of East Germans to escape and eventually tear down the wall in their peaceful revolution serves as a powerful reminder. 1989 was a real turning-point. East Germans became internal labour migrants, commuting Monday-Friday from Thuringia to Bavarian construction sites. After Poland joined the EU in 2004, and especially after Poles gained full freedom of movement within the EU in 2011, similar labour migration began—say, from Western Poland to Berlin where Polish caretakers look after German retirees with Alzheimer’s. At the same time there was a series of racist attacks and pogroms in 1992—eight people of Turkish descent were killed in the West German towns of Mölln and Solingen. This mobilised civil society, with some 400,000 protesting racism in Munich in December. Finally, 400,000 remaining Red Army soldiers definitively left Germany in 1994. So 1989 accelerated patterns of mobility and migration to and within Europe and it changed the direction of migration: Europe opened towards the East.
SC: Your book moves away from the ‘refugee crisis’ narrative and presents a leftist counter-narrative. Why is it important to reclaim this narrative?
JP: Looking around, you get the impression that most Germans are anti-migration. But that’s not true. Even the most conservative polls estimate that, as late as 2018, 16 million people were engaged in pro-refugee activism. This is the largest social movement in post-war German history, larger than the early 1980s anti-nuclear movement in West Germany, larger than the 1989 demonstrations in the East that led to the fall of the wall.
These pro-migration attitudes have a long genealogy, for example, pro-asylum civil society initiatives during Kohl’s backlash in the 1980s and the unification of the refugee movement (The VOICE Refugee Forum, founded by Osaren Igbinoba in Jena in 1997, was key). It’s very important to me to frame 2015 not as ‘Merkel’s mistake’, as the Right would have it, or as a ‘refugee crisis’—that term is ambivalent anyway, since it intimates that the refugees might have been the crisis, whereas it was countries like Germany who caused the crisis by cutting their subsidies for the UNHCR refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon—but as ‘welcoming culture’ (Willkommenskultur). To me, this extraordinary time was an—all too rare—foreshadowing of genuine human solidarity regardless of the passports that artificially separate us. I hope some day national borders will seem like a relic from a bygone age, much like the exclusion of women from the right to vote in Europe. Such a new and, yes, utopian historical narrative is empowering for us as political subjects in the present.