Historical Influences on Contemporary Immigration Discourses

by Sophia Kownatzki

On Tuesday, November 13th, Paul Voerkel, German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) professor at UERJ University of Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), delivered a lecture titled “Historiography and Migration: Explaining the Present through the Lens of History.” Voerkel gave a brief background on recent German history, particularly Germany’s history with immigration, and the recent shift to emotional rather than empirical public discourse surrounding migration and refugees. While he mainly used a historical lens to understand contemporary conditions, language studies, linguistics, and culture were also strong influences in his argument.

Voerkel focused primarily on German development in the 1990s: with German reunification came changing values, including an effort to “internationalize” Germany. Yet, immigration to Germany in the 1990s was not a “new phenomenon,” as Voerkel points out. After comparing facts and figures of migration patterns in Germany over its recent history, Voerkel transitioned to the recent 2015-16 “refugee crisis,” and the rapid shift from the early “refugees welcome” campaign to recent tense, xenophobic language used when discussing migration. Looking at the tendencies of language use, Voerkel connected language use in totalitarian regimes – such as enemy creating, devaluation of intellectuals, religious terms – to discourses surrounding refugees today. Using immigration data, he demonstrated that despite the focus of immigration discussions on people from Arab and African countries, this is not the largest demographic of immigrants entering Germany. Voerkel stressed the importance of looking to historical examples to help us understand current discourses, and concluded his discussion with significant works and scholars to look towards for guidance.

Voerkel’s lecture led to an in-depth Q&A session during which the 10 audience members asked about differences in refugee reception in rural and urban communities. Voerkel responded that this has less to do with the attitudes of people themselves in these regions, but more so with people’s prior exposure to foreigners. There was also a short discussion about the role of journalists in spreading (mis)information, in which Voerkel took an optimistic view, pointing to common fact-checking networks among German news outlets.