Contested Borders? Practising Empire, Nation and Region

Migration Museum London (Foto/s: Levke Harders, 2018) CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 DE

Migration Museum London (Foto: Levke Harders, 2018) CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 DE

In April 2018, my colleague and friend Falko Schnicke and I organised this conference at the German Historical Institute London (GHIL), bringing together scholars from Germany, Great Britain, Western Europe, and the United States. The following notes lack chronological order, but are grouped thematically as short summaries of the meeting’s main topics. A longer conference report by two attendees can be found at HSozKult (link added in October 2018). You can also search the hashtag #BordersConf on Twitter for fellow participants’ reflections. I shared some pictures of the beautiful location, stimulating lively discussions, on Instagram on the first day and on the second day. The conference was made possible through the generous funding and the logistic support by the German Historical Institute London and the Max Weber Stiftung as well as through the inspiring contributions by all speakers. Thank you!

The Call for Papers and the programme (PDF-file) reflect that borders, their construction and their crossing were at the centre of the conference. The nouns in the title—empire, nation, region, and border—do not refer to historical “facts,” but should be analysed critically, e.g. by asking: what is a border? What factors defines it? When and why were borders established? How were they transformed? And who was involved in their construction? Although the contributions covered two centuries and a wide array of case studies, all speakers demonstrated how complex border-making actually was.

Belonging as an analytical concept

After the director of the GHIL, Andreas Gestrich, welcomed all participants, the conference started with two conceptual papers on belonging. Timothy Baycroft presented five models of belonging in history, inviting us to reflect how our own research makes use of, for example, either concentric circles of identity from the local to the supranational level or of a “hierarchy of otherness.” Ursula Lehmkuhl linked practices of belonging to place-making, emphasising local actors and their strategies to shape social configurations. Later, sociologist Floya Anthias examined “Belonging as an Analytical and Political Prism” in her keynote lecture. In criticism of the term “identity” and of a more traditional understanding of “ethnicity,” Anthias (and others) developed the concept of belonging. By accounting for practises of bordering, belonging can be used to study and pose questions about differences and membership. It was a pleasure to follow Floya Anthias’ theoretical considerations, because her work influences my own understanding of of exclusion and inclusion in migration processes.

The invention of (non-) belonging

The second day started with Michael Rowe describing the attempts to create a regional self-understanding in the notoriously contested borderland of the Rhineland in the nineteenth century. Both religious festivities and material culture were important factors in producing an image of the region. Maiken Umbach, too, explained the invention of belonging and of Heimat, comparing private photography of a German Jewish family of the 1930s in Germany and of the 1940s in the United States. She fruitfully connected visual history and migration history. These papers showed the interrelatedness of nation, region, and belonging despite the different time periods and different source material. Another session also focussed on belonging and non-belonging: Anne Winter clearly demonstrated how migration and expulsion regimes in Belgium were connected to short-distance-migration, to poor relief, and to local interests, diverging from the central state’s policies. I presented a case-study on a Bavarian cross-border migrant in Alsace to argue that borders were produced not only by states, but also by migrants (see the blogpost on my research in Strasbourg).

Migration, “Britishness,” and citizenship

Heavy rain notwithstanding, we left the ivory tower—or rather the GHIL—to follow Nadia Valman’s walking tour on London’s migration history. She reminded us to the vibrant intellectual energy of the international migrants to Bloomsbury during the 1920s and 1930s. The tour was held in cooperation with the Migration Museum Project (by the way, their current exhibition is very much worth a visit!). I posted some pictures of the walking-tour. In the evening, Philip Murphy‏ resumed the subject matter of British migration history in his keynote lecture. He emphasised the significance of the late 1970s for debates about British identity and nationality, analysing the Conservative Party’s arguments of what defined “Britishness” in the context of empire, commonwealth, and processes of decolonialisation. Furthermore, the very last session of the conference dealt with questions of migration and settlement, too. Amanda Behm evaluated the discourse on Americanism around 1900, illustrating that California was constructed as Anglo-Saxon space, i.e. as white and “British”. Almost a century later, “Britishness” within Great Britain was shaped by immigration legislation as well as by the Brixton riots in the early 1980s, as Almuth Ebke argued.

Borders and Border-Practices

Three sessions dealt with the practices of border-making. Cindy McCreery and Falko Schnicke presented empirical studies on royal tours in the 1900s and 1960s. Both discussed borders in connection to imperial and decolonial politics and practices, deriving from different regions within the British Empire and the Commonwealth. The next day, Benjamin Hopkins spoke on global frontier governmentality demonstrating that frontier concepts travelled within the British Empire—and beyond. Sarah Frenking studied the process of border-making and the professionalisation of the border police at the Franco-German border around 1900, using a microhistory approach. These two papers illustrated that border constructions were influenced by politics and administrative routines, but also by local residents. In a similar vein, Julio Decker analysed the different spatial regimes in the German colony Southwest Africa. The economic exploitation could only be realised by violence—and was met with resistance. In the postwar era, European and African leaders and intellectuals debated the idea of Eurafrica. Anne-Isabelle Richard focussed on African delegates and their perspectives on this project of interregional cooperation between Europe and Africa. All examples underlined the importance of actors in bordering processes.

The purpose of this conference was twofold: First, we hoped to bring a historical perspective to the field of Border Studies.1 Second, we aimed at strengthening methodological and theoretical debates. For example, research on borders, empire, nation, region, migration, and belonging should include gender, sexuality, body, class, and race as analytical categories. Moreover, the contributions to the conference did not only analyse border and belonging systematically, but did so mostly “from below” and with a focus on practices.

1 Cf. Akbari, Suzanne Conklin et al.: AHR Conversation: Walls, Borders, and Boundaries in World History, in: American Historical Review 122 (2017) 5, 1501-1553;

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Levke Harders (2018, 16. Mai). Contested Borders? Practising Empire, Nation and Region. Migration and Belonging. Abgerufen am 19. Mai 2024, von

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