by Didem Uca (Colgate University)
Policy on immigration and asylum is one of the most divisive political issues in the U.S., Germany, and the E.U. Germany, under the leadership of Chancellor Merkel, has been both praised and challenged for its humanitarian approach during the height of the so-called refugee crisis in 2015–2016. In contrast, the past two years of the Trump administration’s immigration policy have created an absolute human rights catastrophe characterized by racist, xenophobic, and white supremacist rhetoric and actions. The apparently stark difference between the two countries’ contemporary approaches to migration and asylum can and should be analyzed within the context of historical continuities. In a recent post for this blog, my colleague Gizem Arslan compellingly writes that “[t]he reason is not that German Studies is uniquely suited to engage with migration debates in any narrow sense. Rather, it is that German-speaking thinkers and politicians, European colonial legacies and German-language authors have both formed and challenged the institutions and disciplines that frame migration today.” While I agree with the second part of this conclusion, I would like to argue that German Studies scholars are not only particularly well positioned to engage with migration and its discontents; given the history of German-speaking cultures and the dire situation for migrants and asylum-seekers in the U.S. and worldwide, condemning xenophobic, anti-minority, and racist discourses is also our most solemn duty.
As U.S.-based German Migration Studies scholars, our research on and teaching of German cultural heritage must be informed by insights from Critical Race Theory, Decolonial and Indigenous Studies, and Genocide and Holocaust Studies so that we may work towards drawing sometimes uncomfortable connections between the U.S. and German-speaking contexts. When we hear about the widespread family separation policy implemented by the Trump administration, the racial profiling and detaining of both U.S. citizens and non-citizens, the visceral “send her back” rhetoric targeting minoritized individuals, the removal of Latinx Americans’ passports, and the death toll of overcrowding, disease, and neglect at the hands of ICE, we are forced to draw comparisons to the Nazi era; and when such analogies are rejected by other stakeholders, such as the denouncements by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum earlier this year, it is our job to reiterate these parallels, as many of our colleagues did in an important open letter. When we say the names of the victims of police brutality and discuss how to address the mass incarceration of African Americans and other people of color in the U.S., we must acknowledge how this state of the “new Jim Crow,” to employ civil rights lawyer and legal scholar Michelle Alexander’s term, continues the white supremacy of the “old” Jim Crow, the same policies that, according to comparative legal historian James Q. Whitman, inspired Nazi Germany’s Nuremberg Laws. When we listen to countless speeches on the necessity of building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, we are reminded of the wall that formerly divided East and West Germany. This must also work in the other direction: How can we teach about Vergangenheitsbewältigungand not demand reparations for the descendants of enslaved people, and more robust support for Native Americans and Japanese internment survivors? Furthermore, how can we accept that families of victims of the Holocaust have had the opportunity to receive reparations whereas the families of victims of the German genocide in Namibia have not?
The Atlantic Ocean, the vast abyss that separates the U.S. from German-speaking Europe, is also what connects the two. To borrow German Migration Studies scholar Leslie Adelson’s term, the “touching tales” of the U.S. and Germany have been carried across these waters in so many ships, from the arrival of the first European settler-colonialists that displaced and led to the genocide of Native American populations to the enslavement of Africans from which German entrepreneurs benefited; from the tragedy of the St. Louis to the tens of thousands of asylum-seekers drowning in the Mediterranean Sea trying to escape conditions of war and genocide that have often arisen from or been exacerbated by U.S. and German foreign policy and the profitable international sale of weapons. These shared stories, sent back and forth like messages in glass bottles, demand to be unfurled, read, and retold.
Being U.S.-based German Studies scholars affords us an enormous opportunity and responsibility to draw connections to German-speaking and American legacies that go beyond washing down soft-baked pretzels from an Ohio Aldi with a pint of locally brewed Berliner Weiße. Migration Studies offer a lens through which the historical specificities of a time and place come into sharp relief, but they also serve as an analytical framework that demands diachronic, transnational, intercultural, and multilingual comparison through scrutinizing points of continuity and rupture. Focusing on these commonalities allows us to understand how many of the residents of an Indiana town that cherishes its strong German roots can simultaneously oppose immigration from Central and South America. Relatedly, we can identify the distinct combination of cognitive dissonance and overt racism that has allowed Donald Trump – himself a second and third generation immigrant whose grandfather, Frederick Trump (né Drumpf), came from Germany and struck gold in the American northwest as a brothel and bar owner – to build his base using rhetoric labeling immigrants from the global south as morally reprehensible. The fact that two of Frederick’s early establishments, The Poodle Dog and The White Horse Restaurant and Inn, bring to mind motifs from Goethe and Storm, might be fodder for future German Studies dissertations.
Recent attacks on German Studies, foreign language education, and the humanities have raised the following questions: How do we rethink the humanities curriculum in an anti-humanist academic landscape and an anti-intellectual political landscape? How do we articulate what our fields can do, what students in our fields learn, and why that matters? Responses to these urgent questions have taken the form of the American Association of Teachers of German Alle lernen Deutsch committee, the recent “Re-Imagining the Discipline: German Studies, the Humanities, and the University” conference at Cornell University, and the work of the DDGC. Since we are concerned about bolstering enrollment in our German Studies classrooms, we need to highlight how the lens of German-speaking cultures can expand our understanding of the U.S. and vice versa, not by merely glorifying early German-speaking settlers, but rather, by being honest about how these cultures borrowed from each other to create a grim dual-legacy of genocide and colonialism built on the same xenophobic, racist, antisemitic, and Islamophobic rhetoric that fuels today’s Trump supporters and the AfD. We, as German Studies scholars, whether or not we focus on migration or minorities in our research, must use our voices to loudly speak out against human rights violations and oppression. Furthermore, we must work towards restorative justice by committing to amplifying the voices of marginalized, minoritized, and underrepresented individuals on our syllabi, in our classrooms, in the field, and in our positions of institutional power. By taking an approach to our teaching, research, and advocacy that reflects on these shared histories, presents, and futures, we can show unequivocally why German Migration Studies, and, indeed, German Studies in the broadest sense, matter today.
Adelson, Leslie A. “Touching Tales of Turks, Germans, and Jews: Cultural Alterity, Historical Narrative, and Literary Riddles for the 1990s.” New German Critique, no. 80, 2000, pp. 93–124. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/488635.
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Revised edition, New Press, 2012.
Arslan, Gizem. “Reframing German Migration Studies: Challenging Institutions and Disciplines.” Diversity, Decolonization, and the German Curriculum Blog, 2019.
Whitman, James Q. Hitler's American Model The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law. Princeton University Press, 2017.