Rumor and Displacement: A History of Forced Migration under the Third Reich, 1938-1948

Employees (IfZ):  Dr. Caroline Mezger

During the twentieth century, forced migration, deportation, flight, and ethnic cleansing affected the lives of over thirty million Europeans. The gruesome pinnacle of European states’ ambitions to conquer, “renationalize,” and ethnically cleanse great swathes of the continent occurred during World War II and its immediate aftermath, as National Socialist rule and occupation unfurled mass projects of population engineering, antisemitic violence, civil wars, genocide, and devastating acts of retribution.

Despite a growing literature on the ways in which Nazi Germany provoked, planned, and carried out projects of ethnic cleansing, “Germanization,” and the Holocaust, few studies have taken a trans-European perspective to analyze together cases of forced migration and violent translocation under the Third Reich. This project investigates forced migration in its various guises, under the Third Reich and in its immediate aftermath, in different European territories and moments in time. It takes an entangled, transnational approach by highlighting individuals’ experiences, actions, interpretations, and memories of (forced) migration across the continent, by looking at one phenomenon in particular: rumor. At the crossroads between state policy and official communications “from above” and social dynamics, individual subjectivity, and collective agency “from below,” rumors became a crucial means by which authorities tried to motivate individuals to comply; by which individuals (if they had a choice) decided to stay or to leave, and where to go; by which social dynamics and categories were perpetuated and reshaped even in the midst of displacement and flight; and by which individuals perceived and later reflected upon their experiences of war and occupation. Rumors shaped the dynamics of displacement and (forced) migration, and informed contemporary, historiographic, and personal accounts thereof.

“Rumor and Displacement” asks several questions. What were the specificities of (forced) migration as perpetuated by the National Socialist regime? To what extent can different experiences of forced migration, displacement, and deportation even be compared and/or linked? How did individuals shape, communicate, and interpret these? What are the relationships between individual biographies, collective narratives, and larger historic circumstances? To explore these themes, the project investigates three case studies of (forced) migration, as implemented by Nazi Germany or in response to it: the 1939 “Heim ins Reich” campaign to “resettle” ethnic Germans from South Tyrol; the flight and deportation of Jews from Vienna between 1938 and 1945; and the planned evacuation and flight of the Vojvodina’s ethnic Germans after 1944.


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