Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster: Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration

The Figure of the Refugee in German Literature


Narratological and Political Challenges to the Discourse of Human Rights

Dr. Charlton Payne


The project investigates efforts to narrate the stories of refugees within German literature, and analyzes how the phenomenon of refugees influences the very definition of human rights within the German-language context from the French Revolution to the present. 

The right of asylum, as defined in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789), combines the universal protections of international human rights with the assumption that citizenship belongs to people of the same national origin within a nation-state.  Wholesale population transfer, however, gave rise to the startling phenomenon of “statelessness”, which the refugee embodies.  The figure of the refugee reveals how integration on the level of human rights — supposedly universal in extent — presupposes integration on the level of national community. Likewise, the disintegration of the nation-state threatens the cosmopolitan guarantees of human rights. The refugee thus functions as a crucial liminal figure, along whose lines fundamental categories underlying national and international community are defined.

As the embodiment of statelessness, refugees present not just a challenge to the tenants of human rights, but also threaten the very notion of the individual as a fundament of political life. The mere fact that humanity has been defined as constituted by a family of nations undermines the role of the individual.  No longer belonging to a nation-state, stateless individuals are not safeguarded by human rights. Attempts to correct this deficit in the international legal system have resulted in a definition of human rights as a state of exception to protect those who are no longer recognized as citizens of a sovereign state. Refugees thus inhabit the very border along which the meaning of human rights is articulated. The fundamental perplexity at the core of the historical definition of human rights exposed by the phenomenon of refugees is not that they are deprived of rights, but rather that they do not even belong to a community which could grant or deny them such rights. Refugees expose the limits of human rights to the extent that they are evacuated of all specific relationships and confront the proponents of human rights with a being that is merely human.

Hannah Arendt’s alarming diagnosis of the paradox that refugees pose for human rights supplies the theoretical point of intervention for the project’s analysis of efforts within German literary history and theory to narrate the precarious stories of refugees. I contend that similar problems for the articulation and application of human rights to refugees within political discourse arise within literary attempts to represent figures of refugees within narrative fiction. This is evident in Goethe’s Hermann und Dorothea, where Rhineland refugees fleeing the French Revolution are figured as an anonymous "multitude" („Menge“) — figures not embodied in distinct images or voices but rather forming an amorphous cluster of noise. The narratological problem driving Goethe’s narration is how to tell the refugees’ story and at the same time give distinct voice to the protagonist Dorothea’s character, who is herself one of the refugees; that is, the goal of the narrative is to re-inscribe Dorothea’s character within specific historical relations. The paradox underlying this representational strategy is that Dorothea can only emerge as a complexly voiced individual character against the backdrop of an anonymous multitude (of refugees). For narrative fiction, in other words, refugees emerge as both a thematic and formal perplexity, and it is my aim to analyze how this perplexity is then reflected on a meta-theoretical level within narrative form. Such narratives at once register the refugee’s loss of specific communal ties and try to re-inscribe refugees within a community by seeking narrative techniques capable of telling their stories.

The study is above all an investigation of the dialectic between literary form and the discourse of rights, for refugees pose a number of problems for the representation of human beings in both political and literary narratives. The focus will be to examine the narrative structures underlying figurations of refugees within texts by Goethe, Stifter, Arendt, Franz Werfel, Hans-Ulrich Treichel, Günter Grass, and the television film, Die Flucht, and to place these narratives in dialogue with transformations within the political and legal discourses surrounding refugees and human rights.