I want to write refugees back into the history of the East-Central Europe, says historian Michal Frankl

Two years ago, his ambitious project to research refugees in East-Central Europe in the twentieth century received an ERC consolidation grant. Historian Michal Frankl of the Masaryk Institute and Archives of the Czech Academy of Sciences thus became the first humanities scholar affiliated with a Czech research institution to be given this prestigious grant by the European Research Council.

Read the story in Czech translation here.

We commonly tend to perceive Central Europe as a place people flee from – to evade political persecution, totalitarian regimes, or ethnic cleansing.

Historian Michal Frankl has decided to flip the perspective: “We’ve been examining this region as a place people have fled to – a place where, throughout the twentieth century, the recurring question was who should be considered a refugee and how such people should be treated.”

His team of researchers is looking for connections that might enable them to compare the reception of refugees across the region in different historical periods. What interests them is how refugees were perceived by society, how they were treated by the authorities, how and whether they were helped by the state and civil society. And also how refugees were written about – by the press and by historians.

 “What predominates is largely a nationalist perspective, or considerations related to class struggle. Such categories helped shape attitudes towards refugees, and they’ve continued to do so to this day. Take the – often unspoken – segregation of ‘genuine’ refugees from the other kind – ‘economic migrants’. And it’s always in relation to these categories that we think about otherness, while refugees themselves and their own voices are often sidelined.”

The ambitious project called ‘Unlikely refuge? Refugees and citizens in East-Central Europe in the 20th century’ started last autumn, and Frankl’s survey of the history of refugees in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Austria, Yugoslavia and (for the sake of comparison) partly also in the area of the former GDR, is scheduled to continue for four more years. His team consists of eight scholars from six countries.

They focus on four periods, and simultaneously four key issues related to refugees: World War I and the creation of nation states; the 1930s and the rise of Nazism; migration in both directions across the ‘Iron Curtain’ in the 1950s; and post-communist refugees in the 1990s.

The big picture and the view from below

In addition to regional diversity, Frankl also strives for variety in terms of methodology: his team does not consist exclusively of historians, it also includes a social anthropologist, for instance. “Anthropology seeks to grasp the condition and behaviour of people in particular situations, it’s not confined by a historian’s distance, which relies on what’s handed down through written sources; anthropologists help write history from below and from the inside, introducing questions that we might not have asked. In recent years, though, historians have been gradually embracing this approach, too – by studying the history of everyday life, for example, and through oral history,” Frankl explains.

The criterion of diversity also applies to the historians on his team, each being an expert on a slightly different area. “One of them studied diplomatic history with an emphasis on the Cold War, another is an authority on social history, another specialises in oral history and she’s capable of processing refugee narratives, while yet another is proficient in statistical analysis.”

“I want everyone on the team to be happy – meaning they know their job and why they’re with us, that they understand the long-term goals, and that they’re well motivated,” the team leader describes. “I’ve no reason to complain, I’ve still got time left for my own research despite having to juggle paperwork and logistics on a daily basis. The team is very committed, I don’t have to babysit anyone, push or prod them on. I’m mostly there just to make sure that the different strands of the research stay connected and that we deliver results.”

Hearing about the breadth and depth of his international project can leave a layperson feeling giddy. Does he sometimes wonder whether he has bitten off more than he can chew?

“Oh yes, every day,” he laughs. “But it’s not getting me down or making me feel like giving up. The project isn’t supposed to be an encyclopaedia. We’re not going to write a paper on each refugee group or about each of the periods in each of the countries, that’s never been the point. What we did want, though, was to pose ourselves a sufficiently ambitious question.”

A history jukebox

This text does not hope to provide an exhaustive report on Frankl’s history project – its scope is really too broad for that. The best way to approach it is to describe a few concrete examples and situations.

This is not my first encounter with Michal Frankl – a year and a half ago, I interviewed him for Deník N. Back then, it turned out that pressing any button on the refugee-themed history jukebox prompted the historian to deliver a vivid narrative interspersed with remarkable little details. He is even capable of suggesting bold analogies and coming up with surprising questions. The space allocated to this profile, however, will let us drop only a few coins in the machine...

I wonder, for instance, which of the insights yielded so far by his research strikes him as the greatest taboo in the history of refugees.

“I wouldn’t use the word ‘taboo’ in the sense of something that’s off limits, but you can stick a large question mark over any of the topics. One of the topics that challenged our expectations was that of people migrating to communist countries, like refugees fleeing the civil war in Greece, or staunch communists coming over from Italy. If I were to choose one now, though, I’d say that it’s high time historians tackled the nineties,” he reflects.

Although historians have been increasingly covering the dynamic period of the 1990s, there are still very few studies discussing the development of Czechoslovak and Czech policies on refugees after 1989. So far, the issue has received more attention from anthropologists and other social scientists. Also, it often seems that the story of Czech policies on refugees did not begin until then, except perhaps for aid addressed to ‘political’ refugees during the First Republic – as if nothing existed in the intervening period.

“Also, there’s a lack of studies integrating the voices of refugees into the official historical narrative; similarly, the history of NGOs who look after them is also absent. And knowledge on the connection between refugee policies and emerging citizenship in the newly formed Czech Republic is limited as well,” he enumerates.

The people in question were refugees from the wars in Yugoslavia and those fleeing conflicts in the Caucasus. When I discussed the period with representatives of Czech NGOs involved with this wave of refugees – Martin Rozumek, head of the Organisation for Aid to Refugees, and Dana Němcová from the Counselling Centre for Refugees – they told me that their work had not attracted much public attention, there was little fuss, nobody had tried to undermine their efforts and they had not been attacked. Are they seeing the past through rose-coloured glasses or was the general attitude actually more empathic at the time?

“Conflicts most certainly did occur, refugees weren’t universally welcomed even then, and public opinion wasn’t always on their side, not at all, but a political consensus existed that it was right to help those people and take them in, and that it was important for us, too, as a democratic country wishing to be a part of the Western world,” Frankl believes.

What role is played by fear?

“Fear of refugees – and, by the same token, the reaction against them – is always much stronger when the incoming group is depicted as ethnically, nationally, racially or culturally different” Frankl answers. In contrast, if from the very outset refugees are described and perceived as people the locals can identify with, as people who are fleeing their homeland because of political violence, for instance, reactions are not nearly as negative and are not associated with conspiracy theories – as was seen in the acceptance of people from the war-torn Yugoslavia of the 90s, despite the fact that there were many Muslims among them.

“The fear of refugees keeps coming back, but it’s neither omnipresent nor inevitable – we know that it can be avoided. Nonetheless, it always speaks volumes about ourselves, about how we imagine our own society.”

Hence, one of the issues he and his team are going to survey is the opening up of asylum policies in the early 1990s, so that they can analyse their subsequent tightening around the year 2000. “If we succeed in describing this, we should also be able to contribute to the ongoing debate about the year 2015 – why this region in particular began acting so negatively and why refugees are such a resonant political issue. Stoking the fear of refugees isn’t an exclusively post-communist phenomenon, but it’s also possible this region is experiencing a resurgence of worries about the nation perceived in ethnic terms, about its cultural as well as biological integrity.”

Not mere passive victims

If he were to give a lecture to popularise his research, which aspect would he choose?

“One could come up with any number of such lectures! Right now I’d choose refugees in no man’s land, a topic that’s on my mind at the moment and one that I care deeply about. Or World War I. First World War refugees aren’t a particularly well-known group, although it comprised thousands of people fleeing from frontline areas of the Habsburg Empire.”

This was a period when the first forms of aid were taking shape, too, at the level of the state as well as civil society. “I’m interested in the emergence and structuring of humanitarianism, the degree to which it was organised along ethnic and religious lines, and how it differed between regions.” In Austria-Hungary, these refugees were citizens entitled to help, yet in the new, post-1918 nation states they were undesirable aliens – unless they belonged to the ‘state nation’.

He ponders how to go about reconstructing the voices, worries and attitudes of the refugees themselves, largely absent in the profusion of state-produced documents. Recently, for instance, he has studied interesting sources from Prague after the Great War, where fierce anti-Semitic campaigns were waged against Jewish refugees.

“They were accused of undermining the splendid new Czechoslovak state, they were the ones scapegoated for the poor economic situation and for food and housing shortages. The authorities were trying to banish them, send them back to Galicia. I found a body of written protests filed – mainly through lawyers – by families that had received an order to emigrate. It’s an exceptional source, in which they describe their situation, but also the trajectories of migration, their family networks, occupations… And it’s very interesting evidence of activity on the part of refugees themselves, who were exercising their own agency, refusing to be mere passive victims of an omnipotent state.”

Did any good come of it? “They were mainly stalling for time, but some, a minority, managed to stay. Decision-making at the Ministry of Interior wasn’t entirely a tick-box exercise – Jew/non-Jew, alien/non-alien – they actually showed some consideration for the petitioners’ schooling arrangements or health issues as reasons for deferring emigration.”

Looking back at history, does he find any instances of surprisingly strong solidarity from Czechs?

“I’d look for such instances mainly in the tenacity of civil society. There’s a lot of talk about humanitarianism in relation to large Western aid organisations, while little is known about local people and organisations,” says Frankl. The interwar state, for the most part, simply ‘put up with’ refugees without providing them with any kind of systematic aid.

“There were exceptions, like when presidents Masaryk and Beneš used their funds to make one-off donations to refugees, but this help mainly concerned social elites – exiled politicians or famous artists. Or those fleeing civil wars or the Communist Revolution in Russia.”

Yet the state in this era was already expected to provide baseline social welfare for its citizens – which, however, did not apply to refugees. “Still another way of asserting that they didn’t belong,” adds the historian, proceeding to talk about the emergence of a number of small organisations based on some form of solidarity: political, ethnic, religious. “They were helping refugees with housing, food and with paperwork, too.”

Marie Šmolková, an unsung heroine

Initially, he says, the idea of helping garnered some enthusiasm, but few volunteers persisted in their efforts. Frankl stresses the importance of Marie Šmolková, who dedicated a large part of her life to humanitarian work, not only helping Jewish refugees. She even represented the state at negotiations between aid organisations and the office of the high commissioner for refugees from Germany, and was chairwoman of the national coordinating committee.

“You see, I have deep appreciation for Nicolas Winton, but the way he’s commonly presented has turned him into something of an empty idol. He was a marvellous person who came here and within weeks had managed, with the assistance of international organisations, to send children out of the country, saving them from suffering and death. His story, however, has been much trivialised, so that now he’s seen entirely out of context, as a stand-alone heroic figure. Without the work of Marie Šmolková and others like her, Winton’s brisk rescue operation would have been absolutely impossible – I think they’re at least as inspiring as he is.”

And we could go on like that forever…

“But I’m repeating myself here: we’re not compiling a multi-volume encyclopaedia and we’re not trying to be exhaustive either; what we want is to highlight connections and long-term trends,” says Frankl. “We’re at a point when I’m articulating many things in a rather abstract way and a majority of our studies are still at an early stage. We mainly spent the first year reflecting on existing research, building the basis for our first comparative texts.”

The epidemic has given me a fresh perspective

We are talking after a second wave of the coronavirus epidemic has struck the Czech Republic, which is why we have decided to meet over a video call. The team head has just been dealing with the fallout from a cancelled meeting of his international group in Prague: his co-workers from abroad are being advised not to come over.

He was making hasty arrangements to move the meeting to Vienna, only to write to me a few days later: “I didn’t go anywhere, after all. And it’s a good thing that we did the interview online. Me and my whole family are in quarantine, working hard on acquiring immunity,” he quips. The whole Frankl family fell ill with COVID-19. “Fortunately, we’ve only got mild symptoms, but the workshop was held as a videoconference.”

Nonetheless, he sees the difficulties caused by the epidemic as something of a blessing in disguise. “The epidemic, as well as the quarantine I’ve been going through with my family, have given me a slightly different perspective on my research. In the past, quarantines for migrants and refugees were a common occurrence, well-known to historians, but since I’d never experienced this, I wasn’t able to imagine what it was like, and I didn’t in fact see it as anything particularly important. I see things differently now, and it’s very interesting. During the first lockdown, I managed to go over some literature on transatlantic migration from a different angle, and cram up on studies concerning epidemics, migration, and quarantine.”

Moreover, he says, building his team as early as spring and summer 2019 (after a relatively large and demanding selection process) has been a silver lining: members have had a chance to get to know one another a little better before meeting and travelling became difficult.

“I have people in Vienna, in Frankfurt an der Oder, and in Budapest; at one point a member of my team was staying in Regensburg, and there are co-workers based in Milan and in Brno. The closed borders this spring were a problem, but we’d been meeting every month before that, we’d been seeing one another face to face, had got to know one another at thematic workshops, you might say we’d bonded, and we’d meet for drinks, too – so that in March, when we switched to Zoom, things went pretty well. After you’ve had a beer or a coffee with somebody, even remote collaboration works out better.”

Bloodstained hands and the usual suspects

In late 2018, when he received the prestigious ERC grant, he also experienced the downside of publicity. His project coincided with the heated debate about refugees, whether and how the Czech Republic ought to help.

After press headlines such as “50M for studying refugees” (Lidové noviny), “Historian Frankl acquires prestigious grant for a project on refugees worth nearly 52 million” (iRozhlas), he became a target for accusations claiming that “outrageously, Brussels is paying a Czech scholar to bring refugees over here and destroy Europe.”

Even Jiří Ovčáček, the presidential spokesman, put in his two cents, tweeting: “Wasting 50M on thousands of words about how we should be taking in Muslim migrants? That kind of money could have paid for massive aid to Syrian children!”

At the time, Frankl commented that Ovčáček’s statements were again based on a conspiracy theory of some sort. “For him, just mentioning Brussels and refugees in the same sentence spells subversive activity.” The historian says he has been extremely careful not to make too many direct remarks on current refugee issues. His critics, however, were upset by potential analogies with the past – such as the possibility of likening the current furore to anti-Semitism and border closures during the Holocaust.

To an extent, he was expecting some kind of reaction – he used to receive occasional anti-Semitic letters in the past. But the intensity of the response, amplified by social media, did take him aback. People who help refugees face such attacks constantly. Fortunately, the hateful emotions were counterbalanced by some positive responses.

“I tried not to take the backlash personally. Cries that I have blood on my hands because I’m a neo-Marxist trying to bring terrorists into the country, and racist arguments about the innate criminal tendencies of black migrants – you can hardly turn that kind of thing into a topic for rational debate. On the other hand, judging also from e-mails whose writers signed their name, I can see that people are worried by both imaginary and actual dangers of migration, and they’re simply afraid.”

And he thinks it is important to take such fears seriously – not to ridicule but to allay them with arguments. “And to keep showing that this seemingly alien mass in fact consists of actual people with their own stories and agency.” This is what he has attempted on many occasions in his previous work, and this is the point of his current large-scale project.

Tell stories, rather than polarise

Meanwhile, the media surge has subsided. “It’s a relief,” he says today. “Since then, I’ve stepped back a bit, and indeed the media interest in what I do has also taught me a lesson: I’m giving a lot of thought to how we communicate our project to the outside world.”

What has he come up with? “I’ll admit that I don’t have a foolproof recipe yet,” he shrugs. “I’m a historian, I’m trying to write history from a critical standpoint while taking a critical perspective on ‘grand narratives of the nation’, which often exclude refugees.”

It was in writing a critical history of refugee policies that he came into his own as a scholar. “While we celebrate our response to some refugee groups as a manifestation of democracy and compassion, other groups become marginalised, they’re ‘forgotten’. Their story often ends with closed borders.”

He sees the example of Jewish refugees in the latter half of the 1930s as a fitting illustration of this phenomenon. Their status was very complicated. In January 1939, for instance, Jews fleeing from our borderlands became refugees, although they had been Czechoslovak citizens prior to the Munich Agreement of 30 September 1938, which ceded the area to Nazi Germany. “Instantly, based on ethnic sorting and a hefty dose of anti-Semitism, they were no longer considered citizens. Overnight, by the stroke of a pen.”

It is troubling to admit, in hindsight, that Jews on Czech territory were being deprived of their rights by the Czech authorities, even before the country was declared a German protectorate. “The authorities wasted no time… And in many respects, the Protectorate simply built on the persecution of the post-Munich period. I think, moreover, that this rejection and persecution of Jewish refugees was a preliminary test, a trial run for the subsequent social exclusion of Jews and the way they were deprived of citizenship.”

This perspective, according to Michal Frank, should lead us towards critical reflection on the past as well as the present. “Society is already so polarised, though, that we should try and avoid exacerbating the situation and instead introduce insights from diverse sources into the debate. Insights that will surprise, perhaps, and disrupt stereotypes. I’d like to show that public debate and disputes about who should and who shouldn’t be considered a refugee are a long-standing part of the democratic debate, while always being a discussion about who we are. Refugees help us define solidarity: of the ethnic, political as well as economic sort.”

This is exemplified by the period of the First Czechoslovak Republic, when there was no valid, widely accepted definition of a refugee, at least not in the country’s legal system. “Discussions and disputes about refugees contributed to the definition, if often in a negative way: the communists, for instance, disapproved of aid – and fairly generous at that – offered to anti-communist refugees from Russia and the Ukraine, while right-wing and nationalist parties saw danger in left-wing – and German-speaking to boot – refugees from Germany.”

All of this is evidence that these people were regarded mainly in national and political terms, i.e. that refugees sought a temporary asylum, hoping to return to their nationally or politically restored homeland. “The question remains to what extent such mindset holds sway over our present-day understanding of the issue,” Michal Frankl reflects.

“This search for a definition, however, was also advanced by ordinary citizens – through their engagement, financial donations, and small-scale material aid. Their readiness to sacrifice their time or money helped define who was considered entitled to help.”

No man’s land

Frankl has authored a number of publications, but the road to his current project was paved by a study on Czechoslovak refugee policy in the 1930s, co-written with fellow historian, Kateřina Čapková.

They were trying to demonstrate that the much-touted First Republic was not black and white either: while some ‘political’ refugees were enjoying a privileged status, others were living in insecurity and poverty. In the late 1930s, Czechoslovakia was sorting refugees on ethnic lines, closing its borders to Jews.

Alongside his ERC project, he is now finishing a book on refugees in no man’s land in 1938, on people trapped between borders – a project funded by the Czech Grant Agency. “Entire groups of Jewish refugees, from single families to hundreds and even thousands of people, were stranded between the borders, and not just for days, but weeks or months. Like this group of about fifty Jews from the Austrian state of Burgenland, who, one night in April 1938, were forcibly transported over the Danube to Devín on Czechoslovak territory. The Czechoslovaks helped them that very morning, but then they sent them straight back to Austria, which in turn banished them to Hungary,” he describes.

But Hungary, too, refused to take them in, so they had to scrape by in the frontier zone along the Danube. Eventually, the orthodox Jewish community of Bratislava provided them with a ship moored on the river, in international waters. “There they passed several dreadful months. Cases like this one were by no means a rarity.”

People trapped between lines on a map, he says, are a symbol of the dramatic downturn in the status of Jews in 1938: banishments, closed borders, and ethnic filtering of refugees. Even prior to that, it was not easy for displaced people to find a refuge, but sealing the borders was new. “Moreover, no man’s land not only resembled the frontlines of World War I, it was also a spatial manifestation of exclusion from citizenship: people deprived of passports and state protection were now ending up between the lines – physical as well as the mental ones.”

Slightly atypical career

A large project that would portray East-Central Europe as a place of refuge was on his mind for several years. Originally, he wanted it to focus on the pre-WW2 era in the broad area of the Central and Eastern Europe.

He consulted the idea at the Technology Centre of the Czech Academy of Sciences, which helps with participation in European research projects. “Their sceptical reaction made me realise that I should aim higher. I deliberated how I might expand the project so that it would have greater impact and allow me to grow as a scholar. I decided I’d cover the whole post-war era up to the 1990s, including refugees to communist countries in the period of post-communist transformation. On the one hand, this makes things more complicated – just describing the project in a few sentences is hard – but this approach has enabled us to look at the phenomenon from a long historical perspective.”

Michal Frankl is convinced that his critical approach to historical topics and his capacity for project work are a product of his “slightly atypical career”.

What does he mean?

“So far, my professional career hasn’t been exclusively scholarly (see his Biobox). I was very much involved in education about the Holocaust at a time when it was by no means the generally acknowledged issue it is today. My work at the Jewish Museum in Prague, in particular, included a lot of hands-on experience with raising awareness about the Holocaust, with collections and data, and with the day-to-day running of the museum. It was very rewarding and it made me realise I was interested in historical topics that are still relevant today.”

He also realised that he is well suited for the role of a team leader: he likes connecting people and developing worthwhile projects, which he considers more important than ‘accumulating’ formal academic titles.

When he speaks, he gives the impression of being contented and calm, of having things under control – as opposed to some other researchers I’ve met, who were also in charge of large-scale projects, and who instantly struck me as frazzled and stressed out.

“I’ve participated in a number of projects, so I expected it was going to take a lot of work and that it wasn’t going to be easy, though of course there’s no way I could have anticipated everything that has come my way. But the work itself, and the teamwork in particular, is immensely gratifying, I don’t see it as a burden. I’m getting a lot from it – both research-wise and on a personal level, too.

The author is an editor of Deník N.

Translated by Petr Ondráček

Vlajka Evropské unie

This project has received funding from European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 955326.