Forced Migrations, Lost Territories and the Politics of History. An interview with Catherine Perron and Anne Bazin

How to Address the Loss? Catherine Perron and Anne Bazin

Catherine Perron (Sciences Po, CERI) and Anne Bazin (Sciences Po Lille/CERAPS) have recently coedited a volume entitled, How to Address the Loss? Forced Migrations, Lost Territories and the Politics of History. A Comparative Approach in Europe and its Margins in the XXth Century (O.I.E. Peter Lang, December 2018). Gathering authors from various horizons and disciplines, Bazin and Perron question the issue of forced migrations, lost territories and politics of history, in Europe and its borders. They have accepted to answer our questions and give us some insight into their research focus and the objectives of this collective project.

The purpose of this edited volume, you write, is “to analyse how hosting states and societies, as well as the groups that were forced to leave, dealt with the memory of forced migration in the long term and how they addressed the different types of loss associated with these migrations.” Can you briefly tell us which case studies are presented in the volume and how they contribute to reaching the stated objective of this book?

The two of us have been researching for years on memory issues and politics of history about expulsions of the Germans from Central Europe after the Second world war. While working on this topic, we have noticed that the debates about the expulsion of the Germans often refer to other population exchanges: between Greeks and Turks in the 1920s, as well as other populations displacements during or after World war II in Italy, Finland, Poland, as well as in the USSR. We also noticed that comparisons were introduced by actors—sometimes for political reasons—between apparently quite different cases: German expulsion, the wars in Yugoslavia, French decolonisation, the French loss of Alsace and Lorraine in 1870, Palestinian Nakba…

Barely analysed in the literature, these comparisons served as a starting point for our questioning. Our objective was to confront different case studies in and at the margins of Europe, in order to contribute to a comparative research on the policies of the past and policies of history relating to forced migrations associated with the loss (of territory, homeland, culture, language…), and, if possible, to analyze the emergence of a new approach to collective memory and a culture of remembrance, which includes all forms of official representations of the past. Yet the issue of territorial loss due to movements of populations has been largely addressed by academia. There is however generally no question about how such issue interferes with the present and how it evolves with regard to the political constraints of good neighbors and (European) international standards that have emerged since the end of the Cold war.

In the cases studied in the book, territorial transformations have come along with forced migrations. Entire populations have been expelled or have had to flee from territories in which they had lived for centuries and have later had to integrate (or reintegrate) in a state considered as their homeland. The book deals with cases ranging from North to South and from East to Western Europe and beyond. It shows that forced migrations are not only an Eastern European pattern or experience. The volume starts with the case of German expulsions from Eastern Europe and the related issue of loss of territory and homeland (Heimat). It is a central case for our comparative study because of the intensity of debates on memory as well as the role played by politics of history in Germany or among German expellees after the war. Contributions then shed light on the issue of the “repatriation of the Poles from the eastern territories (Kresy) that were lost at the end of the war; the loss of Karelia, a region Finland gave up to the USSR after the Second world war; the “exodus” of Italians from Istria and Dalmatia are other cases directly connected with the war and post-war. The ties of Greek and Turkish “Exchangees” to their lost homelands, seen from both sides, as well as the case of the expulsions of Jewish communities from Islamic countries are the three other cases, set in very different political, geopolitical and historical contexts, covering almost the entire twentieth century and raising quite similar questions.


You mention that there is barely any debate at the European level on the issue of forced migration. This is striking indeed, given that this trauma, as you write « has been shared by many European communities and by millions of people ». Can you briefly explain if this issue is silenced and if so, why?

Well, it would be exaggerated to state that the issue is silenced. Neither at the European level nor at the national levels is there an active will to hinder any debate about the numerous expulsions and population transfers that occurred in Europe and at its periphery during last century, or to silence this past. Actually groups of expellees often refer—as show the German case or in the case of the Jews from Islamic countries— to the expulsion to claim a status of victims. However, it is truly striking that this painful memory, which remains deeply anchored in European memories, is not perceived as a shared one. Even though forced migrations are by essence transnational events, their memory is still cultivated within national frames.

At the EU level the inability or unwillingness to address this topic in public debates certainly derives from the fact that the topic is still likely to raise tensions between neighbouring states because numerous episodes of this painful past have not yet been worked through. The EU is yet not in the position to offer a consolidated space in which such conflictual past can be discussed.

Generally speaking, forced migrations are a challenge to historiography. This is true at the European Level as well as at the national level. Taking forced migrations into consideration requires questioning the time and geographical frames in which western history has been written.

But more so, this incapacity to cope with the memory of forced migrations at the European level may also derive from the fact that member states still feel uneasy with this past at the national level. The cases studied in this book show that expulsion (or population transfer) is a very intricated phenomenon, and that many of the states that host expellees have themselves practiced expulsions. Unsurprisingly, forced migrations do not fit in the unifying grand narratives presenting only the winner’s point of view. They shed a different light on some supposedly glorious episodes of national history, offering often a sort of counter history that calls for reconsidering national myths.


How can loss and trauma be measured, given that the phenomenon differs from one community to the other?

The groups that were forced to flee or that have been collectively displaced were generally displaced with a minimum of property. Not only did these people have to leave behind them their native land, their towns and villages with their monuments, but they also had to abandon their housing, their places of worship, of sociability, the cemeteries where their ancestors were buried, their archives and a whole set of objects of historical, artistic, ethnographic and/or religious value. Hence the category of loss is very much used to reflect this experience.

The rhetoric of loss is to be found in popular and political discourse, but also in the writings of many leading historians. Such rhetoric is however not devoid of ambiguity, as Eva Hahn and Hans Henning Hahn point in the German case study in the volume, by asking a few specific questions:

- “What is this loss exactly
- who lost what?”
- By virtue of what can we consider that which has been lost, to be of importance for national identity, as is often claimed?
- Who constructed this importance?

In short, loss and trauma are complex issues at the collective level. What has been lost collectively is often historically contested (as all the case studies in the book show). The repeated displacement of borders and sovereignty in some territories over the past few decades has made it difficult to answer the question of what belongs to whom and who belongs to what.

At the individual level, trauma and loss may seem easier to identify. People may have lost family members, often material goods. But they have also lost their social environment, links with their ancestors, sometimes a language or dialect, part of their traditions and customs, skills... and finally their Heimat. In short, a rootedness.

In the cases at hand, legitimacy of territorial losses has been put into question, as well as the question of ownership of the heritage—through requests for restitution and reparation. Interestingly, in addition to claims for restitution, hosting states and groups of expellees have worked towards patrimonializing what had been lost, trying to confer an “identifying” value to it. A more in-depth historical analysis can help understand how and by whom the identifying value of this heritage was constructed.


Why is the “politics of history” relevant to examine how the past has been addressed in the different European countries?

Various stakeholders have an interest in the memory of the loss and forced migrations. First of all, the groups expelled, but also historians and states and their governments. These actors interact at different levels. The concept of politics of history helps examining how they load history with their interests and try to use it for political ends. The concept thus helps to shed light on the way actors compete to impose their narrative and their interpretation of the past. It also permits to examine the institutional means by which the past is kept alive beyond the writing of history: celebrations, memorial days, museums, archives, institutions dedicated to the study of the past, and also the non-institutionalized memory related activities coming from civil society (films, novels, artworks, testimonials, etc). Because it includes all forms of representations of the past, this notion allows to overcome the binary opposition between the institutionalized forms of memory and the way ordinary people react to a vision imposed from above. Looking at the politics of history permits to highlight the conflicts, cooperation and competitions between multi-positioned actors in the field of memory.


Europe is built on a shared past, on shared wars and shared trauma. What would a politics of memory on forced migration have changed at the European as well as local levels? Would it have helped promote a common identity for European citizens?

It is obviously difficult to answer such a question. Today’s Europe has to a large extent been built on traumas of the (recent) past, especially the Second World War and the Holocaust. It is therefore interesting to question why the memory of expulsions and forced migrations was not associated to this founding body. As mentioned above, part of the answer is probably related to the fact that these are complex and intertwined memories, which confuse and mix the categories (winner/loser; perpetrators/victims…) and also because the memory of the loss associated with forced migrations refers to complex internal debates within the European nations that questions their identity.

It is therefore quite difficult to promote an appeased debate on these issues in the states concerned and mentioned in this book. Such debates, however, appear as a necessary first step before moving the debate to a transnational or a European level, which could indeed strengthen a European identity through the perception of a common destiny and the recognition of shared experiences.

Interview by Miriam Périer, CERI

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