University of Bayreuth, Press Release No 040/2022 - 25 March 2022

University of Bayreuth expert on when the willingness to take in refugees dwindles.

Prof. Dr Susanne Lachenicht is Chair of Early Modern History at the University of Bayreuth and studies the historical dimensions of migration and flight. In this interview, Lachenicht explains when the positive mood and willingness to help in receiving countries threatens to decline. Because, as different as refugee crises may be, there are always tipping points.

Are we now experiencing parallels to 2015, when thousands of war refugees last came to Germany?

In Germany, 2015 was initially marked by a great willingness to help on the part of many people, and by an overwhelming culture of welcome - to the great astonishment of all neighbouring countries, many of which were very sceptical from the beginning and blocked any system of distribution for the admission of refugees into the EU. Xenophobic, racist, and sexist stereotypes and prejudices against Muslim and male refugees then developed as a dominant media and public discourse, especially after New Year's Eve in 2015, when sexualised violence by migrants occurred in Cologne. In terms of media and discourse, this was certainly a tipping point, as often happens in so-called refugee crises: the transition from an initial great willingness to help refugees in an outpouring of hospitality, compassion, and mercy to fear, xenophobia, rejection, isolation, and even violence.

Why does it feel like there is more willingness to help in Germany now than in 2015? 

The reasons for the current willingness to help are certainly different: The war is closer. For many, it feels like a more immediate threat, not least because the war possibly spreading to other states, including Nato states, is repeatedly conjured up. This is mobilising a willingness to help, at least for a while. Solidarity and willingness to help also help in dealing with one's own fears. Furthermore, the media coverage is different than in 2015. You can almost follow the war and the flight on a live ticker - at least that's what the public media and social media suggest. This also creates more proximity, more fear, and more attempts to help people. What is really happening in the Ukraine and those fleeing is difficult to say.

Does it make a difference whether Orthodox or Catholic Ukrainians flee to neighbouring countries, so to speak, or Muslims from Africa to Europe?

It should not make any difference. The suffering of those who came, for example, from Aleppo, which was bombed by Russia, is the same suffering as those fleeing from Mariupol or Kiev. And in 2015, everyone was initially welcomed with open arms. As a migration researcher, one is currently worried about the next tipping point, when the willingness to take in people from Ukraine will dwindle. When will narratives involving negative stereotypes against Ukrainians appear? The argument that societies find it easier to accept refugees when they are women and children, when they seem to be "closer" to us, has often been used in recent weeks. But there is also xenophobia, conflicts, and violence against refugees even when they speak the same language, have the same religion, and close family ties. Displaced persons were not really welcomed with open arms in Germany after 1945. Quite the opposite.

Is it possible to prevent such "tipping points"?

There must be more dialogue in society - especially in this area of tension. No mere echo chambers, but a confrontation with the different positions by listening, understanding, and negotiating compromises.

The willingness to help was overwhelming when students and employees of the University of Bayreuth called for donations for Ukraine at the beginning of March.

Would it be important for the media and politicians to make the advantages of migration clearer?

Host societies get what the countries of origin often irrevocably lose, thereby falling into even more severe crises, especially the young people who have worked in agriculture, industry, crafts, the service sector, but who are often first placed in low-paid jobs in the host societies. There could be more innovation, more entrepreneurship. Indeed, statistics show that the proportion of business founders among people with a migrant background is very high. Refugees can be an enrichment for the host societies, economically, socially, and culturally. The question is always for whom specifically, or how various groups perceive this, just to name a few possible and often described effects.

What have we learned from 2015/2016? 

Hopefully better coordination between the federal, state, and local governments, and that there must be quick access to work, language courses, education, and decent housing for refugees. That we must think in the long term and do everything we can to ensure a lasting peace as soon as possible, not only in Ukraine. Only the next few weeks will show whether we have really learned anything. Unfortunately, far too little has been done worldwide in recent years to address the causes of flight and displacement. A stable international order of peace currently seems very far away for Europe. But we need it not only for Europe, but for the whole world, even if that sounds very utopian. And even more utopian is that we finally have to think about the climate crisis and flight in relation to each other, and do something about climate change and its consequences. Because it is intensifying political and economic crises, which in turn is causing even more fleeing.

Prof. Dr Susanne Lachenicht is Chair of Early Modern History at the University of Bayreuth. She combines political history, cultural, social, and economic history to provide an integrative understanding of historical change and its causes.

Can current events be compared with the flight from the East in the winter of 1944/45?

You mean with the expulsion of 12 to 14 million Germans from the so-called eastern territories of the German Reich? One can always make comparisons. But one should be careful of such comparisons. The question is, what do you gain from this comparison? What insights can be gained? What questions does one want to answer with it? Historical comparisons are currently often used for political statements that usually do not do justice to the suffering of refugees in wars and civil wars. Nor do they solve any problems.

Pure polemics then?

No, comparisons are often made in order to supposedly better assess an unassessable threat, to put something incomprehensible into words. It seems to me that the current comparisons made in the media, in politics, and in the private sphere to the displaced persons and displaced persons in the final phase of or after the Second World War(s) fall more into the realm of "it reminds me of…", where current war and flight awaken individual and collective fears. Fears such as "the Russians are coming", fears of bomb attacks, flight and expulsion, fears of deprivation or famine, but also fears associated with the Cold War era, of a Third World War, of a worldwide nuclear catastrophe.

What is the task of migration research and historiography now?

For political science and history, it is a matter of analysing the causes of the Ukraine war, how it came to pass, but also what historical images or constructions are used or misused as justification or legitimation. What kind of historical distortion can lead to sovereign states being denied their right to exist (although this was even guaranteed to Ukraine by Russia in 1991), and to nations no longer being recognised as nations.

Does this help in the search for solutions for the future? 

Looking into the immediate past, but also further back in time, cannot "unearth" ready-made solutions, but it can help in thinking about and finding a current political solution in a more informed way. For migration research, it is always a matter of identifying structural commonalities and problems that recur in variation, despite all the differences that exist in refugee movements. For example, the tipping points mentioned above, when the willingness of civil society to help, on which states depend, diminishes and state institutions have to intervene much more strongly to help and promote integration.

Personal background: 

Prof. Dr Susanne Lachenicht is Chair of Early Modern History at the University of Bayreuth. She combines political history, cultural, social, and economic history to provide an integrative understanding of historical change and its causes. In addition to the question of national characteristics in a comparative perspective, she also deals with transnational issues in research and teaching. Especially with regard to migration movements, she has dealt with a wide variety of epochs and spaces in order to gain more insights into structural commonalities and particularities. She is a member of the scientific advisory board of Institut Convergences Migrations (Paris) and the journal Diasporas (Toulouse), as well as of the international panel Historicising the Refugee Experience (Duisburg-Essen, GHI Washington). She has published on the topic for Oxford Bibliographies: Atlantic History (OUP), the Refugee Studies Centre in Oxford, Brill, Cambridge University Press, and Routledge, among others.  

What role do neighbourhoods or historical connections play in refugee movements?

Refugees often first go where there are already kinship or institutional links, including linguistic or ethnic ones, if these societies are willing to take people in. But they also seek shelter where there are connections through town twinning, work, associations, or church communities. Many former Eastern Bloc countries see themselves as a community of fate, i.e. they are countries that were either part of the Soviet Union or the Warsaw Pact. Here, i.e. in Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Romania, Moldova, solidarity with the victims of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is currently particularly strong. People fleeing wars often try to go to neighbouring countries first, hoping that the war will end soon and that they can return home quickly.

What effects do large groups of refugees have on the host society? 

In terms of migration studies, a number of factors play a role here, for example the assumptions, stereotypes, prejudices of the receiving societies towards refugees (and vice versa), and the effects of categorisations such as gender, ethnicity, religion, age, and health. An important question is also how prosperous the host society is, and how wealth and poverty are distributed. It is also important how long a so-called refugee crisis lasts, and how many people actually come. Is there enough work and housing for everyone? What is the perceived situation? Do social groups in the host society feel disadvantaged compared to refugees?

These are the factors that influence effects. What are the practical effects? 

Fears of "foreign infiltration" can arise. Fears that society is changing, that there could be a redistribution of sorts. Politically, xenophobic parties can profit from these fears. Pluralistic, liberal democracies can come under pressure when these fears are stoked. At the same time, there can be more solidarity. More willingness to help, a different self-understanding that plurality is in fact a social gain. That the other person is not so different, even if he or she belongs to a different religion, ethnic group, or language family.

Are there historical examples of flight movements that benefit all sides?

For decades, if not centuries, the example of the Huguenots has been used as a model case. After 1685, when Protestantism was banned in France by edict, 150,000 to 200,000 Huguenots emigrated despite the emigration ban. They were and are considered an enrichment for the receiving countries, economically, culturally, and militarily. Nevertheless, in many immigrant societies there was xenophobia, a halt to their admission, and massive conflicts between "natives" and "foreigners". Reception and integration dragged on here for almost 150 years. Today, Huguenots are considered "model refugees" in almost all former host countries. People in the USA, Germany, Great Britain, and South Africa are proud to have Huguenot ancestors.

Prof. Dr. Susanne Lachenicht

Prof. Dr. Susanne LachenichtChair of Early Modern History

Phone: +49 (0) 921 / 55-4190
Universitätsstraße 30, D - 95447 Bayreuth

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Anja-Maria Meister

PR Spokesperson University of Bayreuth

Phone: +49 (0) 921 / 55-5300