Bursting the disciplinary boundaries in the humanities and the natural sciences: a modest proposal

Preliminary editorial remark:

One of the aims of the founding of the Wissenschaftskolleg in 1981 was to give Jewish scientists and scholars who had been forced to emigrate the chance to return to Berlin and thus to Germany for longer research stays. Especially in the first two decades of its existence, invitations were repeatedly made to Jewish researchers who had left Germany before or during the Hitler era, including personalities like Leo Loewenthal, Albert Hirschman, and Isidor Levin. With these invitations, the Wissenschaftskolleg also wanted to create visibility and resonance in Germany for the directions of research these personalities had shaped.

Alfons Söllner, a Fellow of the year 1990/91, is one of the protagonists of so-called exile research in Germany. His article draws a kind of summary of his field.

From “Exilforschung” to „Emigrationsforschung”? A Journey in Memory

Alfons Söllner

At the beginning of May 1991, the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin hosted a conference titled “Changes in Science through Emigration” where researchers from different countries gathered to summarize their work so far. The participants’ disciplinary affiliations were as many-faceted as the methods they employed, but their common goal was to present the expulsion of Jewish and politically unwelcome scholars after 1933 as a process that contributed to the cumulative and long-term constructive change in the research landscape in the 20th century, however destructive and painful the consequences were for the individual researchers.

From the distance of a generation, this conference can appear as a milestone in what in Germany has come to be called exile or emigration research. In addition to the published results,(1) two other circumstances can be mentioned. Wolf Lepenies, as Rector of the Wissenschaftskolleg, pointed out in his annual report that the conference uncovered motifs that had already had positive effects in the founding of the Wissenschaftskolleg – and indeed, the Fellow class of 1990/91 had two prominent emigrants, Albert O. Hirschman and Juan Linz. And Herbert A. Strauss, the retiring founding Director of Berlin’s Center on Anti-Semitism Research and an emigrant himself, called for establishing a dedicated institutional place for the research field at German universities.

As is well known, this wish found no fulfillment. I had the good fortune to play the Benjamin, so to speak, of the Fellow class of 1990/91 and to organize the aforementioned conference together with the American historian Mitchell Ash; so I feel the impulse, if not the obligation, to formulate a kind of personal summary: how did so-called exile research arise in the 1970s in the first place, and to what purpose was it invented? Was this direction of research prima facie merely the product of the “German Sonderweg”? – or has it resulted in consequential developments that result, for example, in an interdisciplinary and international opening?


Perhaps the fastest way to approach an answer is to recall the subtle quarrel, still not entirely resolved within the field, over how our activity should even be named: should it be called “exile research”, which places the accent on the literature and politics of the exile epoch, or should one speak of “emigration research”, which moves the sciences and professions into the foreground. Indeed, since the 1990s, there has been a noticeable shift not only in the emphases of this research, but also, and connected with it, a marked change in the view of it, i.e., a reversal in the methods and central concepts with which these emphases are investigated. How can we describe the “before” and “after”, to lend contours to this development?

A look at the then-contemporary historical circumstances from which exile research arose in the early 1970s reveals a very specific constellation: the political culture that had crystallized in Germany’s postwar epoch, roughly coinciding with the Adenauer era, had been in upheaval for some time, but near the end of the 1960s this came to a culmination. This situation left unmistakable traces in exile research: it arose as a decidedly political project, had many personal and substantial points in common with the student revolt, and clearly profited from the changes that the revolt triggered in the overall cultural climate. In the background was a powerful generational conflict that was carried out especially at the universities and that pushed to break through the spiral of silence about the Nazi past. In connection with this was a regular rediscovery of the exile culture, for example a wave of reception of the Frankfurter School, a wave that swept me, too, along with it.

In the beginning phase, the primary research interests were in two thematic fields: so-called exile literature, and here of course the great names like Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht; and political exile, and here in turn the workers parties and the leftist splinter groups so typical of exile. What initially was merely a special field within Modern German Philology or the training grounds for an emerging Contemporary History now experienced a veritable explosion, not least financially fueled by a long-term research emphasis of the German Research Association (DFG), in which, for example, working contacts formed in countries like Sweden and the United States, where emigrants were still active.(2) 

The political conditioning of exile research and its thematic concentration both resulted in a powerful focusing on what we would today call the “discourse” of the loss of homeland and living in a foreign country. Typical were also the temporal limitation to the “actual epoch of exile”, i.e., the years between 1933 and 1945, as well as the gesture of re-appropriation, which had a recognizable connection with the so-called Wiedergutmachung, but also pursued an unmentioned additional interest: exile research presented a kind of national “loss accounting” for lost cultural goods that one wanted to recover. An especially crass variant of this kind was the exile research beginning at the same time in communist East Germany, which was entirely fixated on the communists’ heroic struggle against Hitler and whose central concept of antifascism was openly made to fit the communist state’s desires for legitimation.(3) Let’s not pass silently over the price for this, in East and West: blocked off for the most part remained the Jewish exiles, and the longer-term effects of exile past the year 1945 were hardly considered.

These aspects, on which I have perhaps put too fine a point, throw into high relief the changes already presaged in the 1970s in the field of exile or emigration research and that then had their breakthrough in the 1980s – with the result that the entire design of research was reshaped. This process had many fundamental preconditions, in which research-policy decisions played as much a role as organizational and personal interweaving that, in the course of two decades, added up to a consequential and successful enterprise. I can only name some of these factors:

At the top of the list are financial, research-policy, and science-organizational measures: the DFG extended its exile research emphasis once more, and with the Volkswagen Foundation, a second financially strong actor was added. On this basis, an intensive cooperation between Jewish-American and German research groups developed, from which the three-volume International Biographical Dictionary of Central European Emigres resulted as a collective publication.(4) In addition, already existing institutes (like the Munich Institute for Contemporary History) took a new orientation and new special institutes (like the Berlin Center for Anti-Semitism Research) were founded. Let’s not forget the exile researchers’ effective self-organization: the founding of the Gesellschaft für Exilforschung (Society for Exile Research) in 1984, which holds annual conferences and continues to bundle research results in the Jahrbuch für Exilforschung (Yearbook for exile research).

On this professionalized basis, a new type of research could now develop that placed much more emphasis than before on the discussion of theory and methodology, on systematization, and on an overview. Perhaps the most palpable change consisted in a certain tendency toward quantification, for which the aforementioned biographical handbook had created the precondition. Now, for the first time, a solid overview of knowledge was accessible, providing reliable data on both the quantitative dimensions of the “exodus of culture” (Horst Möller) and its international distribution and on its political, social, and professional structure. The project on which I myself was able to work at the Berlin Center for Anti-Semitism Research was typical of this. The aim was a systematic survey of three examples of researcher groups – the emigrated physicists, the scholars of Judaism, and the political scientists – and to work out their significance for their respective disciplines and the long-term history of their effect.(5)

Paralleling this thematic readjustment, for which the name “emigration research” is a better fit, a greatly altered research design prevailed; and perhaps its tendencies can be best grasped if we confront its main thrust with the central terms that had characterized the first phase of exile research. While the literature had earlier been examined in terms of homeland, foreignness, and identity or political exile had been analyzed “with one’s face turned toward Germany”,(6) now the paths of wandering and the countries that accepted the emigrants moved into the foreground: “arrival” and “transit” became more important than “origin”. The focus was on the social and political integration that had to be managed (or could also fail), on examining the professional fields and social milieus, in short on the whole complexity with which the emigrants’ lives was shaped beyond the year 1945 and what long-term effect it had. The new central concepts were no longer aesthetic or psychological, but came from sociology and theory of science: acculturation, “brain drain”, and knowledge transfer.

In the 1990s, the fruits of emigration research ripened: the most important indicator of this is the cumulative and synthetic drive it showed in many publications around the turn of the millennium; now an equally complex and historically critically broken scenario of the exile epoch is emerging. Typical is the simultaneity of two tendencies whose constructive interplay can be accepted as an admittedly conventional criterion of the maturity of a direction of research: on the one hand, unbridled continuation of the specialized research whose new questions uncover ever new details; and on the other hand, the publication of collected editions that permit a systematic or even encyclopedic overview.


In a personally colored retrospection, I’ll guard against making a concluding judgment about the literature, which by now can no longer be surveyed; a highly competent summary already exists.(7) Instead, I would like to use three or four texts as examples to demonstrate how the image of the exile epoch has changed in the last two decades. To nonetheless enable certain conclusions, I will also concentrate on a single country – and why not take our European neighboring country as the test case and concertedly pursue the question whether France, and in particular the metropolis Paris, after and despite all the differentiation of research, should still be considered the locus classicus of the epoch of exile?

As is well known, the French capital was always not only a sentimental component of every ambitious German educational career, but also the political vanishing point of German leftist intelligentsia. But only the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the onset of National Socialist persecutions gave rise to that new, equally fascinating and terrifying scenario in whose depiction contemporary history and specifically exile research necessarily had to participate; for the history of ideas, the “capital of the 19th century” (Walter Benjamin) had become the quarry from whose fragments the so-called interwar period had to be put together in a strenuous look backward.

I’ll begin with the “Handbuch der deutschsprachigen Emigration 1933-1945” (Handbook of German-speaking emigration 1933-1945), which was published in 1998 and follows a six-part matrix. After a general introduction, the countries of refuge are treated, then the issue is subdivided into political exile, academic emigration, and literary-artistic exile, and finally the topics of remigration and the reception of exile after 1945 are addressed. On France, the article by Barbara Vormeier is pertinent; it is based on a bibliography of more than 100 titles and is also far and away the longest of the 36 country descriptions (longer than the section on the USA!):(8) How does this book present France as a country of exile?

Beginning with the waves of flight since 1933, the estimated numbers, and the attempt to divide exile into periods, first French asylum policy is sketched: from the initial openness, through the “normal” frictions of integration and labor in the mid-1930s, to the step-by-step tightening of regulations, and finally to the policy of internment starting in 1939/40. Presented in detail are the emigrants’ political and social organizations whose spatial center was in Paris: their common aim was the political struggle against Hitler, while the means of that struggle were of a limited, cultural kind.

The spectacular cultural-political actions are depicted in detail – from the “Schutzverband deutscher Schriftsteller” (Protective association of German writers), through the “Kongress zur Verteidigung der Kultur” (Congress for the defense of culture), to the briefly successful establishment of a “deutschen Volksfront” (German popular front). But there remains no doubt, not least because of the concealed dominance of the communists, that this coalition across the political camps was already illusory in the middle period and then became even more illusory after 1938, when international politics had shifted to a defensive course against Hitler’s plans for expansion. The brief flare-up of the Paris-centered cultural struggle against Hitler thus ended in defeat and collaboration, which left the emigrants, and especially the Jews among them, only the alternative between a second flight and deportation to be killed.

The historical-political compactness of this depiction of countries by a German scholar of German philology in France is impressive. But the volume “Fluchtziel Paris” (Flight destination Paris),(9) published in 2002, was both at once: first, the entire spectrum of the methods and perspectives now available in research and, second, their concentrated use to emphasize Paris as a center of European exile. For that is the unambiguous message of this volume gathering the results of an international congress: that Paris was indeed, for example in comparison with Prague or Moscow, the most spectacular location of everything that the German exile community had to offer in political and cultural prominence and above all in hopeful cooperation between politics and culture. But this is just one side of things.

The other side is equally present, or even becomes obtrusive, when the gleaming surface of feverish activity and the cultural-political declarations are punctured. And here the doldrums of the everyday life of exile, the worries and straits of survival, but also the never-ending distrust among the leftist groups and the Moscow-obedient Comintern’s external control precisely over the communist actors show that, while the “myth of Paris” existed as an initial wishful projection (whether as a relic of the 19th-century educated classes or as identification with the bohéme in the cafés of Montparnasse), its gruesome disenchantment was not long in coming. The euphoria of the Front populaire between 1936 and 1938 and the final phase of the Third Republic were equally brief: the Grande Nation was no longer able to recover before the Wehrmacht marched into Paris.

It is revealing to cast a glance from the standpoint of this disillusionment onto the 2012 yearbook for exile research, not least because here, after almost 30 years, the editors sum up and pass the baton on to the younger generation of researchers. The title of the volume as such – “Exilforschungen im historischen Prozess”(10) (Exile researches in the historical process) – is already interesting; significant are both the plural, which once more reconstructs the various national traditions from which exile research arose, and the increased will to further “historicize” the epoch, which does not mean making the singularity of the exile epoch as a whole disappear, but letting its colorful aspects and the possibilities of interdisciplinary interconnection blossom.

The summarizing article “Exil in Frankreich”(11) (Exile in France) is especially significant in this regard, because, without much regret, it leaves behind the political exile so typical of Paris and the political research on it, shifting to an almost overwhelming culturalism: culture transfer and international comparison are the key words, and even a “spatial turn in the cultural and social sciences” is spoken of. Of course, if such perspectives have to be limited to the years before 1939, then their contrast to the constricted war years is all the more palpable, since after all the research on this has shown how stringently the system of internment camps was constructed after 1940 in both occupied and unoccupied France and how effectively the Eastern European annihilation camps were “supplied” from here.

This moves the fate of the Jewish refugees into the center of attention once again and shows the close relationship between exile research and Holocaust research. Another question is whether women’s studies research, which has long since become a vital component of exile research activities (three quarters of the authors of the cited volume from 2002 were already women!), can really lead to a repoliticization of historical exile, as the final paper by Wiebke von Bernstorff(12) calls for.

Acculturation and knowledge transfer, transdisciplinarity and international comparison, hybrid formation and histoire croisée, everyday culture and the role of women – these are the key words under which exile/emigration research is currently trying to come together. Will this enable it to succeed in this renewal – or is it merely making concessions to a postmodern Zeitgeist for which the concept of culture has turned into an all-purpose weapon, the idea of actor and author are completely dissolved, and all social reality is only “text” anymore? How can the singularity of exile be prevented from disappearing in a broad historical horizon that has, however, become ungraspable in a diffuse context that may be global, but that no longer displays any structure, for example in order to distinguish culture from politics and to bring them together again with differentiation?


If we reconstruct the “logic of research” (Karl Popper), as this essay has done, then it is in danger of succumbing to a problematic normalization, if not to a perspective of placation. Against this danger, we must muster the besetting political and social conflicts from which a seemingly “pure” history of science must not be allowed to steal away. When the conference mentioned at the beginning was held, Berlin was still in the ecstatic paroxysms of reunification, but a few months later, the political refugees who had lost their homeland in the Yugoslavian War streamed into the country, and German domestic policy was shaken by an aggressive and even murderous “asylum debate”.

If we view Europe’s current situation from this standpoint, then a hurricane appears to be brewing on the periphery – in the Maghreb, in the Middle East, and in the Black Sea region – that no longer leaves the center of the continent untouched. However dissimilar the world’s situation and the final phase of the interwar period may be, there is an obvious parallel in the dramatization of movements of flight and migration, triggered by violence and war. So must we once again reverse the logic of research “from emigration research back to exile research”, because only in this way is its continuing relevancej manifest, even if it is appalling and desolate?

1) Published in: Ed. Mitchell G. Ash, Alfons Söllner, Forced Migration and Scientific Change, Cambridge University Press 1996, paperback edition 2002.

2) Typical products were Hans Albert Walter, Deutsche Exil-Literatur 1933-1945, 3 volumes, Darmstadt, Stuttgart 1972 and John M. Spalek, Joseph Strelka (ed.), Deutschsprachige Exilliteratur seit 1933, 4 volumes, New York, Bern 1976-1989.

3) Published in West Germany by Röderberg Verlag under the title: Kunst und Literatur im antifaschistischen Exil 1933-1945. Seven volumes, Frankfurt am Maim 1981.

4) Ed. by Herbert A. Strauss and Werner Röder, 3 volumes. Munich 1980-83.

5) The results were published in: Herbert A. Strauss et al. (ed.), Die Emigration der Wissenschaften nach 1933. Disziplingeschichtliche Studien, Munich 1991; Klaus Fischer, Changing Landscapes of Nuclear Physics, Berlin 1993; Alfons Söllner, Deutsche Politikwissenschaftler in der Emigration. Akkulturation und Wirkungsgeschichte, Opladen 1996.

6) Erich Matthias, Mit dem Gesicht nach Deutschland. Eine Dokumentation über die sozialdemokratische Emigration, Düsseldorf 1968.

7) Terse but highly concentrated is the retrospect from the Chairman of many years of the Gesellschaft für Exilforschung (Society for exile research) and editor of the Jahrbuch für Exilforschung: Klaus-Dieter Krohn, Exilforschung, Docupedia-Zeitgeschichte 20 Dec. 2012.

8) Claus-Dieter Krohn et al., Handbuch der deutschsprachigen Emigration 1933-1945, Darmstadt 1998, in it: Barbara Vormeier, Frankreich, columns 213-250.

9) Anne Saint Sauveur-Henn (ed.), Fluchtziel Paris. Die deutschsprachige Emigration 1933-1940, Berlin 2002.

10) Exilforschung Band 30: Exilforschungen im historischen Prozess, Munich 2012.

11) Hélène Roussel, Lutz Winkler, Exil in Frankreich. Selbstbehauptung, Akkulturation, Exklusion – über einige Themen der Forschung, in: ibid. p. 166ff.

12) Wiebke von Bernstorff, Geschichte(n) machen. Für eine Wiederaufnahme der historisch-politischen Perspektive in der Exil(literatur)- und Genderforschung, ibid. p. 304ff.