Monthly Archives: March 2014

Heroes of the Questionnaire

I’m going to try something new here. I’m giving a talk in a couple weeks at Texas A&M, to the Department of History’s Working Group on War, Violence, and Society, on my refugee research. Rather than just start throwing bits and pieces of notes and dissertation into a file, I’m going to work out my ideas here (where nobody reads them).

The big idea that I’m trying to get across here, and in my research in general, is that while we might valorize cold-war era migration in retrospect (“voting with their feet”, brave escapees, tunnels under the Berlin wall, and all that), in the early 1950s, the West Germans didn’t much like their refugees. The expellees were bad enough, but at least they had some pretty good reasons for fleeing East Prussia, the Sudetenland and elsewhere, namely the Red Army and anti-German retribution on the part of the other locals. The refugees, arriving after 1948 or so, don’t have this pressure, they’re not escaping overt violence and this isn’t during wartime (secondary question–is the Cold War a war?). Nobody’s denying that conditions might be pretty bad–economically speaking–in the Soviet Zone/East Germany, but that means that the real question here is whether these refugees are actually refugees, or if they’re just mis-categorized economic migrants.

This is where we come to the title, from a great radio editorial by the editor-in-chief of Bavarian Radio, Walter von Cube, broadcast in February 1953. Von Cube lays into the refugees, along with the group within the West German government that wants to allow them into West Germany, accusing the latter of “suicidal humanitarianism” and the former of being “heroes of the questionnaire” (i.e. they know the right answers to the questions about political persecution, but they’re not actually fleeing persecution). As with any debate over migration policy (not just in 1950s Germany), the edges of the spectrum are essentially “let ’em all in” and “keep ’em all out, and kick out the ones we already let in”, and von Cube is nailing down that second position pretty strongly here.

So the questions I’m looking to answer, in no particular order, are these (luckily, I’m pretty sure I have answers to all of them):

What is the generally-accepted definition of ‘refugee’ at this time, and how does the idea of economic migration affect that? How has that definition shifted since the end of World War II, with the onset of the Cold War. Are refugees only produced by wars, and if so, is the Cold War a war?

How do West German (and West Berlin) institutions transfer that definition into action when faced with tens of thousands of refugees asking to be let in to the country (city)? (those who know me know, of course, how fastidious I am about keeping those two political entities separate…because they are)

How do critics like von Cube challenge accepted ideas about refugee status, and did anyone listen to him?

Perhaps there are others, but now that I’m in the right mindset, I’m going to go start writing the actual talk.

Thursday translation #1

See, it’s all in the title–now I’m ahead of the game!

On to Erich Fried, from the Reclam edition that I bought for 4 DM (about $2.50) back in 1997.

Where do we learn?


Where do we learn to live

and where do we learn to learn

and where to forget

in order to live not only as the learned*


Where do we learn to be smart enough

the questions to avoid

that make our love not peaceful together**

and where

we learn to be straightforward enough

despite our love

and for the sake of our love***

the questions not to avoid.


Where do we learn

to defend ourselves from reality

that wants to cheat us

from our freedom**** 

and where do we learn to dream

and wake ourselves for our dreams

to do something with them

for our reality.*****


*Man, this loses something in translation, mostly because in English we don’t capitalize nouns, so it’s hard to tell the difference between learned (past tense of to learn) and the learned (noun, i.e. people who are learned, that being, of course, an adjective–note that it’s possible, in English, to say “The learned learned learned to learn” and have it make sense, at some level). As I see it, the sense of the line is that we shouldn’t always be know-it-alls.

**This is another awkward moment that works well (and scans really nicely) in German, but doesn’t really translate literally. Were I going for poetic-translator’s license, I’d probably go with “that make our love not grow apart”.

***One of my favorite aspects of German is how the same “word” (sound, really) can be repeated, sometimes multiple times, with a prefix or series of adjuncts, to say a complete thought (in this case “unserer Liebe zuliebe” (this is why German is, despite what one may think, a great singing language; see also “Gewinner”, by Clueso, which is pretty much an entire song full of such phrases)…on second thought, this is pretty much the same thing I complained about with English a couple notes above, so make of that what you will.

****Had to switch two lines here, “that from our freedom/wants to cheat us” just doesn’t work in English. The mechanics here are what is untranslatable, with the verb-complex “betrügen will” hitting you after the “Freiheit” in the previous sentence.

*****The bookending here isn’t as evident in English, between the reality of the second line (which is a problem) and the reality of the last line (which really means something more like groundedness, as far as I would say).

Not a hard translation, but one that I do think doesn’t work quite as well in places as the German. It might take some polishing to return the poetry to a few of those lines.

Trying again

Now that this site is listed on my CV, I should probably do better at writing here. I thought that I would have a bit more time this semester, but it turns out that even the second go-round of the US History survey is pretty time consuming when you’re a) not an American historian and b) a perfectionist. And while getting the opportunity to spend two weeks in central Europe with a RU alumni group in May is going to be excellent, it turns out writing five lectures on a part of the world that I could easily talk about for several months is also time-consuming.

While writing here may be my fourth or fifth priority (probably closer to eighth or ninth, if I include things like eating), and despite the fact that very few (if any) others will actually read this, I will do better.

Given my upcoming trip to Vienna I think I’ll put aside Robert Gernhardt for a while and try my hand at some Erich Fried.