Tag Archives: Berlin

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.