Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster: Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration

The Figure of the Refugee in 20th-Century German Literature and Culture

Dr. Charlton Payne


No longer guaranteed the rights of a citizen of a nation-state, the refugee presents the international community with the merely human being of human rights. In legal terms, however, the human of human rights is itself only legible as a violation of rights. Refugees in other words paradoxically embody a mere human being insofar as they represent the inhuman in political life. The concrete representation of this paradoxical condition requires the complexity of perception and density of meaning found in literary narrative. Operating as a meta-text of the law, the literary fictions of refugee narratives analyzed in this study tell vivid stories of (in)human persecution and struggles for social integration. Literature and law rediscover their shared origins in the figure of evidentia, highlighting a communicative function of literature and writing a literary history of the refugee that combines local and global political imaginaries.

The project analyzes evidence of the (in)human in refugee narratives in order to investigate the communicative function of culture in the construction, acceptance, sublimation, and transformation of human rights norms. It does so by focusing on the way German literary texts and cultural production from the first world war to the present explore the psychological problems of refugees and questions of social integration and assimilation. It traces a genealogy within twentieth-century German literature which shifts between local and global confrontations with refugees and their stories of expatriation and integration. If the refugee’s loss of legal status can be regarded as a loss of the voice of the citizen, then refugee narratives can be seen in certain cases as giving a narrative voice to refugees and their experiences.
The question of voice – who speaks and what the narrating instance consists of – is one of the central objects of study for narratology, and is indispensable for a study of both fictional and factual refugee narratives. Moreover, genre criticism is necessary to explain what types of generic conventions are available for the telling of refugee stories, and why certain genres are favored in particular contexts over others. Within this conceptual and methodological framework, my project is more precisely concerned with expatriation narratives, on the one hand, and integration narratives on the other.

The section on expatriation and denaturalization narratives is devoted to detailed analysis of refugee narratives in the aftermath of WWI and the beginning of WWII, using primarily the methods of narratology and genre criticism.
The central texts include: Stefan Zweig’s Episode am Genfer See (1927), B. Traven’s Das Totenschiff (1929), Franz Werfel’s “Die vierzig Tage des Musa Dagh (1933) read alongside Johannes Lepsius’ Todesgang des armenischen Volkes (1919), Bertolt Brecht’s Flüchtlingsgespräche (1940/42) along with selections of his lyric poetry of the same period, and, finally, Anna Seghers’ Transit (1948). These texts use specific literary devices and genre conventions to bear witness to the psychological experiences of persecution at home and displacement abroad, with the goal of mobilizing their reading publics to recognize the threat to human dignity which such experiences entail. They narrate transnational accounts of modern political inhumanity. In order to address the shifting semantics and potential for political manipulation of refugee stories within changing political contexts, this section includes a chapter on Gerhard Menzel’s novel Flüchtlinge from 1933 and its film adaptation, both of which promote an anti-Bolshevik National-Socialist narrative of ethnic and political persecution.

The section on integration narratives applies narratology and genre criticism to analyze postwar and contemporary representations of refugee struggles to integrate in postwar German society. It starts with an investigation of DDR refugee narratives in the immediate postwar setting by Anna Seghers (Die Umsiedlerin 1953), Heiner Müller (Die Umsiedlerin 1961), and Alfred Matusche (Die Dorfstraße 1955/71).
The social problems of integration first staged in these DDR texts are thematized much later in BRD theater by Klaus Pohl’s Das Alte Land (1984). But it is really Hans Ulrich Treichel’s Der Verlorene (1998) that inaugurated the fascination within the contemporary literary landscape and German public with revisiting the earlier generations’ experiences as refugees. In addition to Treichel’s novella, this section analyzes Günter Grass’ novella Im Krebsgang (2002), Christoph Hein’s novel Landnahme (2004), and Treichel’s recent novelistic returns to the topic, Menschenflug (2005) and Anatolin (2008). Postwar Germany was truly a land of refugees, populated by as many as fourteen million displaced Germans at the end of the war, the majority of whom were expelled from Eastern European settlements dating back centuries, and hence provides an interesting case study of the efficacies and deficiencies of highly organized efforts to integrate or re-integrate refugees into postwar society with its newly codified juridical commitments to human rights. Here a new globally-oriented system of human rights norms takes on local valences.