03.07.19 – « Transcending Memories through Pride: Migrants in Germany, India, and Pakistan between 1945 and 1949 » with Depraa Dandekar & Soňa Mekulová

Report by Christine Ludl

« Flüchtlinge und die Entstehung emotionaler Gemeinschaften »

Transcending Memories through Pride: Migrants in Germany, India, and Pakistan between 1945 and 1949

Deepra Dandekar (Center for the History of Emotions, Max Planck Institute for Human Development) and Soňa Mekulová (Centre for the History of Emotions, Max Planck Institute for Human Development)

On July 3, 2019, Deepra Dandekar and Soňa Mekulová, both researchers at the Center for the History of Emotions at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, presented their book project entitled “Transcending Memories through Pride: Migrants in Germany, India, and Pakistan between 1945 and 1949” at the bi-weekly seminar of the research group on “Mobility, Migration and spatial Reconfiguration” at the Centre Marc Bloch.

Deepra Dandekar and Soňa Mekulová first described the context of the book project, then introduced their case studies and clarified their methodology, namely the use of public history archives, personal interviews and written memoirs. They explained how the differences between the historical context and the sources of the two cases led them to focus on emotions and processes of memorialization in narratives. In particular, the book aims at showing how migrants use pride as an emotion to cope with migration and the experience of loss.

Context. Deepra and Soňa are historians and participate in the Research Initiative “The Challenges of Migration, Integration and Exclusion” of the Max Planck Society.[1] Deepra is working on migration and exclusion of refugees to India and Pakistan after 1947, Soňa on the integration of Sudeten Germans in Germany after 1945. Starting from their individual projects, they wanted to bring together their respective case studies in a joined book project.

Cases and sources: differences and similarities. While the two cases share a number of similarities, there are important differences not only between but also within the cases. In the Indian/Pakistani case, the independence of India from British colonial rule in 1947 led to a sudden two-way-migration of more than 10 million people, accompanied by intense violence and looting. In the German case, approximately 12 Million Germans based in Central and Eastern Europe fled the war or were expelled from their homes in a one-way-migration from 1945 to 1947. Amongst these regions, the Sudetenland, hadn’t been part of Germany until 1938 and, after the war, became part of Czechoslovakia.

In both cases, new boundaries were drawn where there had been none before. As a consequence, migrants were not strictly speaking “foreigners” at their new location, as they arrived in neighboring districts and shared a number of similarities with locals. Nevertheless, strong notions of where people should belong to existed, and the migrants experienced exclusion and discrimination upon their arrival. As a result, they developed a strong idea of a homeland in both cases.

In the German case, the migrants had identified with Austria or Southern Germany before the war. Once settled in Germany, they easily received German citizenship, but were frequently considered as 2nd class citizens. Yet, not all Germans experienced flight and expulsion the same way. Some fled before the end of the war, others were expelled and the first expulsions right after the end of WW II were often more violent than those which occurred in the postwar years.

Indians and Pakistanis also experienced migration differently. While migrants from India to Pakistan, the Muhajirs, conceived of their migration as the journey to a promised land, migration from Pakistan to India was perceived as entirely forced. In addition, “India” does not exist as a unified place, but is largely a product of British colonial rule. As a consequence, there exist important differences between villages in a same region. Hence, the meaning of home remained ambivalent in both cases, even in the absence of boundaries.

Methodology. As far as sources are concerned, there are important differences between the cases as well. The book draws on 4 interviews with migrants to Germany, India and Pakistan between 1945 and 1949 and does not aim at representativity in a statistical sense. Soňa uses personal interviews with two migrants she has collected herself and the written memoirs of one of the migrants. Deepra draws on recorded interviews with two migrants, one from India to Pakistan and one from Pakistan to India, from the 1947 Partition Archive available online at Stanford University Libraries. Due to privacy concerns, not all interviews of the collection are accessible. In this perspective, the archive is part of global oral history making, but also of public nation making as state representatives and bureaucrats use public images and narratives to foreground honor and glory, whereas potential shameful elements remain hidden. As a result, stories that portray migration as difficult and painful got silenced, while success stories are overly present in the accessible part of the archive.

Pride. Due to these limitations in terms of accessibility, the bias in the archive and the stark historical differences between the cases, Deepra and Soňa decided to focus on pride as a common element in their case studies. They are particularly interested in how self-achievement and pride as an emotion are memorialized and function as catalysts to cope with migration and the experience of loss.

In the German case, the interviewees relied on pride, grounded in their German origin and upper class status, to override humiliation, discrimination and the experience of loss.Similarly, in the Indian/Pakistani case, the notion of pride is connected to upper class status, but also to nationalism and the idea of an ideal citizen. This idea can be traced to the experience of migration, understood as the transition from one identity to another by passing through a corridor, that is to say by overcoming crucial difficulties. In the Indian/Pakistani case, the journey itself represents this corridor, namely a 70km train ride that usually took four hours but during the displacement lasted up to eight days. At each stop, lootings, violence, and rape occurred. As a consequence, those who survived the journey developed a strong sense of having passed a trial and of having earned the right to be ideal citizens. Thereby they used pride as a means to gloss over the forced nature of the displacement.

To conclude, Deepra and Soňa underlined that in both cases narration functions as a means of self-justification and the past as a constant comparative angle between the past and the (achievements of the) present. This leads to a longitudinal perspective with many layers where settling is never finished and the past, the present and the journey are closely interwoven.

DISCUSSION. The discussion centered on the use of concepts (memory, emotions) and terms (migrants), on the role of gender and the second generation, on the process of co-writing, as well as on further details on the sources such as representativity or processes of silencing in the archives (see above).

Memory and emotions. As for the concept of memory and the question whether, due to their fluidity, memories do not tell more about the present than about the past, Deepra and Soňa expressed their discomfort with binary conceptions of the past/the archive vs. the present. This particularly holds for colonial and post-colonial contexts where the voices of women or the poor have been silenced by public narratives. They referred to postcolonial studies which focus on these voices and introduced a methodological shift by taking into account sources such as oral histories, songs, memories, etc. Postcolonial studies are equally useful to account for cultural and historical shifts that affect culturally and historically situated emotions across, but also within specific contexts by focusing on overlapping categories, crosscutting dynamics and intersections.

“Migrants”. The decision to use the term “migrants” indicates a political choice. Deepra and Soňa wanted avoid the term “refugees”, which is both over-burdened today and historically connected to stigmas of disease and violence in the Indian context.

Gender and the second generation. India and Pakistan got divided along religious lines. Religion was ethnicized and nation-building processes in both states relied on these divisions, leading to strong feelings of animosity and hatred between the two groups. These divisions became particular salient in mixed relationships and have been transmitted to the second generation, which finds itself on neither side, on a line that keeps shifting. In the German case, a sense of pride and belonging to a specific group (“unter uns”) has been transmitted to the second generation, which participates however less in associations of expellees.

Gender became a conflicted issue in the partition and men and women certainly experienced the war differently. But in contexts of civil war, gender can also become an abstract category. There may be experiences where gender dissolves and the agency of individuals limited.

Distance from the subject and co-writing. Finally a number of questions concerned the process of co-writing and the distance between the researcher and his or her subject. Deepra and Soňa both come from contexts directly concerned by their research projects. On the one hand, this influences on relations to interviewees, as in Soňa’s case, and the ambiguities of this relationship have to be negotiated. She also tries to avoid the emergence of strong emotions in interviews as, not having been trained as a psychologist, she feels not to have the capacity to handle potential consequences. On the other hand, Deepra considers that there is no hard line between her and the data. Everyone reads himself or herself into the data, there is always a processes of interpretation. What enables her to work on the subject, for example understanding the (body) language, may also hinder her. However, being part of a wider interpretative zone within the WIMI initiative, and a process of close co-writing balances these issues. In particular, co-writing enables them to collectively moderate and mutually control their relations to their subjects.


Christine Ludl

[1] See http://www.eth.mpg.de/4397318/wimi

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