HL90 FJ: Modern Europe and Migration

Don’t forget to apply to an HL90 seminar by August 24! Matthew Sohm told us more about his new course, “Modern Europe and Migration,” Thursday, 3-5.

Tell us about your class!

One of my abiding interests is how people relate to places (and how they relate to people from other places). And much of my own research is focused on the relationship between more prosperous and less prosperous places in Europe and the Middle East, particularly in and around the Mediterranean. So it’s not lost on me that, by some measures, the Mediterranean has become the world’s deadliest border as people from Africa, Asia, and beyond seek to cross the sea and enter the EU, often in inflatable rubber dinghies. For this reason alone (and there are plenty of others too!), the migration of people from poorer parts of the world to Europe is, I think, one of the central ethical issues confronting Europe (and places throughout the Global North) today. My belief is that, if we want to understand how wealthy parts of Europe have erected a (or, at least, attempted to erect) deadly fortress along their borders, and how they’ve attempted to exclude others from their prosperity, we have to turn to the continent’s (recent) past.

In another sense, the course is a response to my frustration in how the history of migration is sometimes depicted as marginal to the “big” topics of contemporary European history – as a subtopic or even niche area. I view this seminar as a workshop for students not only to explore questions related to migration, but to put it where I think it truly belongs – at the center of contemporary European history. It is my hope that students will not only learn a lot about people on the move in Europe, but that they will leave the course with a solid understanding of how Europe developed from the end of the Second World War up to the present day – that migration, in other words, will serve as a useful lens through which to understand a variety of other topics in the history and culture of contemporary Europe.

What’s a source you’re excited to share with students?

I’m excited about all of the sources that we’ll explore together, which showcase a wide-ranging array of perspectives. My hope is that they’ll introduce students to questions that they might not have thought about it before. For example, what was life like in West Germany for a Black German woman in the 1950s? What about a multicultural neighborhood in early 2000s Rome, as depicted by an Algerian novelist?

Since the seminar will take students on a journey across contemporary Europe, I’m especially excited about the two texts that bookend the course showcase two very different voyages. At the beginning of the semester, we’ll read The Truce – the account by the Italian-Jewish writer and Holocaust survivor, Primo Levi, of his long and winding return home from Auschwitz, across a continent in rubble that was being crisscrossed by people on the move (for very different reasons). We’ll conclude with the recently released memoir by the Canadian journalist and Afghanistan correspondent, Matthieu Aikins, who accompanied an Afghan friend on his own attempt to reach Europe (via Iran, Turkey, and across the Aegean to Greece) in order to claim asylum.

What’s something surprising students might not know about this topic?

That European countries like Germany, Austria, Belgium, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland are all home to a greater share of people born outside the country’s borders than the United States. If you ever hear the United States described as a country of immigrants in contrast to Western Europe, be skeptical! In fact, if you’ve ever heard Europe depicted as the “old continent” (with the implication that you’re only European if your distant ancestors are), then you’ve heard a political description rather than an accurate account of Europe’s present or past.

What kind of activities or assignments will you be doing?

The nerdy historian part of me finds writing research papers cool, but we’re also doing activities that encourage students to think in less traditional, and perhaps more creative, ways that I believe are equally important. Since we’ll be reading texts that ask us to think through the different perspectives of individuals and groups, in one assignment, for instance, students will invent an avatar to think through the experience of a specific migrant at a place and time of their own choosing. Again, though, I think the nuts and bolts of historical analysis and research are themselves really exciting, especially when applied to the diverse and wide-ranging sources that we’ll explore together!

What does your class help us understand about the present?

In a nutshell, the class helps us understand the ways that some of Europe’s key present-day challenges are rooted in the continent’s recent history of migration. It’s an attempt to answer the question of how we got “here” – to the refugee camps on Greek Islands housing refugees from Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan, and countless other places, to the scores of deaths in the Mediterranean, and also to the rise of anti-migrant far-right politics across the continent. It’s a way of answering a question that was on my mind this past winter as European countries welcomed white Christian refugees from Ukraine with an enthusiasm that was notably absent half a decade earlier when the refugees were Muslims from Syria. In the 2010s, Hungary built fences and Poland claimed it couldn’t take in even a few dozen refugees. In 2022, they threw open their borders with open arms. Superficially, the reasons are obvious (racism, xenophobia, etc.). But the history leading up to the present one is a complicated one, full of unexpected twists and turns.

It’s also worth asking, as I sometimes do, why a student at an American university might care about this subject (or care about Europe at all), beyond mere curiosity (and mere curiosity is of course a great reason too!). There are no easy answers, but I think that Europe offers a useful canvas for students in the United States. The two regions offer enough similarities for students to draw meaningful comparisons, but are distinct enough that you can’t simply assume that things had to turn out the way they did. It sometimes gets overlooked (at times for political reasons), but Europe and European identities are every bit as much shaped by people from all over the world and from every conceivable background as is the case in the United States. For those of us who live in the US, Europe offers a fascinating case study, full of lessons that might be applied to how we navigate the present moment on this side of the Atlantic.

Do you have any personal connections to the course topic, perhaps from your own experience doing research in Europe?

I’ve spent roughly a decade of my adult life living in Europe (mostly in Germany). Two years of that was for PhD research, part of which was focused on West German attempts to “encourage” mostly non-Christian foreigners to return to the places where (according to West German politicians and bureaucrats) they truly “belonged”: their countries of origin (but really anywhere outside West Germany).

But for a number of years prior to graduate school I lived and worked in Germany (primarily in German for a German employer), which has shaped how I study German and European history. Of course, I was and am acutely aware that, as a privileged white male foreigner from a country in the Global North, my experience was totally different from that of the vast majority of immigrants – indeed, the fact that I didn’t consider myself an “immigrant” (despite having an immigrant visa) was a reflection of the unusual privilege that I could and did return to my country of citizenship. So I certainly don’t want to suggest that I have any sort of insight into the immigrant experience in Europe from my years working in Germany. But what I did get was time to think about how history affected the places that I study, and also how people relate to place – what it means to be out of place, how our relationship to places change, who controls and defines our belonging, and how “home” can be such a capacious and fluid concept at times, but can also be defined in rigid and exclusionary terms at others. These are themes that, I think, are universal – that we can all relate to, regardless of our own personal experiences – and that we’ll explore together in the course.

How can students learn more?

Students can check out the course Canvas site and are welcome to apply here.

Published by Hist & Lit

Committee on Degrees in History & Literature at Harvard University

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