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Rethinking Central Europe as a Migration Space: From the Ottoman Empire through the Cold War and the Refugee Crisis

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 April 2022

Michelle Lynn Kahn*
University of Richmond, Richmond, VA, USA


What is central Europe? As I write this article in 2021, three decades after the fall of communism, this question seems as salient as ever. I am not the only Central European History reader to think about this topic in recent years. In a 2018 CEH article, provocatively titled “Habsburg History, Eastern European History … Central European History?,” Chad Bryant argued that scholarship on these three nominally distinct fields had become blurred in the wake of the post-communist opening of archives and the transnational turn. It was time, Bryant insisted, not only for CEH readers to reconsider the category of “central Europe” itself, but also to engage with a new set of questions, ones that would move beyond the predominant emphasis on “how and why regimes collapsed.” Compellingly, he advocated for studies that would help us understand the post-1989 era, such as the long-term legacies of communism, the integration of individual countries into the European Union, and present-day migration to the region.

Featured Essay: The Present is History
Copyright © The Author(s), 2022. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of Central European History Society of the American Historical Association

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1 Bryant, Chad, “Habsburg History, Eastern European History … Central European History?Central European History 51, no. 1 (2018): 5665Google Scholar.

2 Geyer, Michael, “Where Germans Dwell: Transnationalism in Theory and Practice,” German Studies Association Newsletter 31, no. 2 (2006): 2937Google Scholar.

3 See, among others, in order of publication: Susanne Zantop, Colonial Fantasies: Conquest, Family, and National in Precolonial Germany, 17701870 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997); Lora Wildenthal, German Women for Empire, 18841945 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001); Adam A. Blackler, “Heathens, ‘Hottentots,’ and Heimat: Colonial Encounters and German Identity in Southwest Africa, 1842–1915” (PhD diss., University of Minnesota–Twin Cities, 2017); Steven Press, Rogue Empires: Contracts and Conmen in Europe's Scramble for Africa (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017); Sean Andrew Wempe, Revenants of the German Empire: Colonial Germans, Imperialism, and the League of Nations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019); Jeremy Best, Heavenly Fatherland: German Missionary Culture and Globalization in the Age of Empire (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2021).

4 Tara Zahra, The Great Departure: Mass Migration and the Making of the Free World (New York: W. W. Norton, 2016); Benjamin Peter Hein, “Emigration and the Industrial Revolution in German Europe, 1820–1900” (PhD diss., Stanford University, 2018).

5 Alongside fellowships and workshops, one new initiative of the German Historical Institute is the network and blog Migrant Knowledge, established in 2019 (

6 On perceived patriarchal gender relations, see Rita Chin, “Turkish Women, West German Feminists, and the Gendered Discourse on Muslim Cultural Difference,” Public Culture 22, no. 3 (2010): 557–81.

7 Milan Kundera, “The Tragedy of Central Europe,” trans. Edmund White, The New York Review, April 26, 1984, 33–38.

8 Mark Mazower, The Balkans: A Short History (New York: Random House, 2007), xl.

9 Suzanne L. Marchand, German Orientalism in the Age of Empire: Race, Religion, and Scholarship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009). The German fascination for Ottoman culture stems further back to the early modern period. See Stefan Hanß, “Ottoman Language Learning in Early Modern Germany,” Central European History 54, no. 1 (March 2021): 1–33.

10 Edin Hajdarpašić, “Out of the Ruins of the Ottoman Empire: Reflections on the Ottoman Legacy in South-eastern Europe,” Middle Eastern Studies 40, no. 5 (2008): 716.

11 Emily Greble, Muslims and the Making of Modern Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021). Throughout this article, I cite numerous other examples of Europeanists who have engaged these questions.

12 See, in order of publication, among others: Molly Greene, A Shared World: Christians and Muslims in the Early Modern Mediterranean (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000); Walter G. Andrews and Mehmet Kalpaklı, The Age of Beloveds: Love and the Beloved in Early Modern Ottoman and European Culture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005); Giancarlo Casale, The Ottoman Age of Exploration (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011); Sibel Zandi-Sayek, Ottoman Izmir: The Rise of a Cosmopolitan Port, 1840–1880 (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2012); Halil İnalcık, The Ottoman Empire and Europe: The Ottoman Empire and Its Place in European History (Istanbul: Kronik, 2017); Gábor Ágoston, The Last Muslim Conquest: The Ottoman Empire and Its Wars in Europe (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2021).

13 As Ottomanists have rightly contended, Braudel's influence on the field must be tempered by his Eurocentrism and “relative ignorance of Ottoman history,” which imbalances his interpretation. Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, vol. 1, trans. Sian Reynolds (London: Collins, 1972), 14; Gabriel Piterberg et al., eds., Braudel Revisited: The Mediterranean World, 1600–1800 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010), 5.

14 Rita Chin, The Guest Worker Question in Postwar Germany (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

15 Holly Case, The Age of Questions: Or, A First Attempt at an Aggregate History of the Eastern, Social, Woman, American, Jewish, Polish, Bullion, Tuberculosis, and Many Other Questions over the Nineteenth Century, and Beyond (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018).

16 Sabine Siebold, “Merkel Says German Multiculturalism Has Failed,” Reuters, October 16, 2010 (; Thilo Sarrazin, Deutschland schafft sich ab. Wie wir unser Land aufs Spiel setzen (Munich: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 2010). On Sarrazin, see Michael Meng, “Silences about Sarrazin's Racism in Contemporary Germany,” Journal of Modern History 87, no. 1 (March 2015): 102–35.

17 Brittany Lehman, Teaching Migrant Children in West Germany and Europe, 1949–1992 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018); Brian Joseph-Keysor Miller, “Reshaping the Turkish Nation-State: The Turkish-German Guest Worker Program and Planned Development, 1961–1985” (PhD diss., University of Iowa, 2015); Jennifer A. Miller, Turkish Guest Workers in Germany: Hidden Lives and Contested Borders, 1960s–1980s (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018); Christopher A. Molnar, Memory, Politics, and Yugoslav Migrations to Postwar Germany (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2018); Lauren Stokes, Fear of the Family: Guest Workers and Family Migration in the Federal Republic of Germany (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022); Sarah Thomsen Vierra, Turkish Germans in the Federal Republic of Germany: Immigration, Space, and Belonging, 1961–1990 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018); Brian Van Wyck, “Turkish Teachers and Imams and the Making of Turkish German Difference” (PhD diss., Michigan State University, 2019).

18 Karin Hunn, “Nächstes Jahr kehren wir zurück….” Die Geschichte der türkischen ‘Gastarbeiter’ in der Bundesrepublik (Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, 2005).

19 Claus Hecking, “Secret Thatcher Notes: Kohl Wanted Half of Turks Out of Germany,” Der Spiegel International, August 1, 2013 (

20 Rita Chin et al., After the Nazi Racial State: Difference and Democracy in Germany and Europe (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2009).

21 Murad B., interview by author, Cologne, Germany, 2017.

22 This idea echoes the call to “Europeanize” German history. Ute Frevert, “Europeanizing German History,” Eighteenth Annual Lecture of the German Historical Institute, November 18, 2004, reprinted in Bulletin of the German Historical Institute 36 (Spring 2005): 9–24.

23 Mirna Zakić and Christopher A. Molnar, eds., German-Balkan Entangled Histories in the Twentieth Century (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020), 8.

24 Necla Ö., interview by author, Şarköy, Turkey, 2014.

25 On the related concept of “transit migration,” see Aspasia Papadopoulou-Kourkoula, Transit Migration: The Missing Link Between Emigration and Settlement (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008).

26 For previous work on the Europastraße 5, see Ruth Mandel, Cosmopolitan Anxieties: Turkish Challenges to Citizenship and Belonging in Germany (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 232–47; Manfred Pfaffenthaler, “Die Gastarbeiterroute. Zur Geschichte eines transeuropäischen Migrationswege,” in Mobilitäten. Beiträge der Vortragenden der Montagsakademie, ed. Ulrike Bechmann and Christian Friedl (Universität Graz, 2012), 154–64.

27 “E 5: Terror von Blech und Blut,” Der Spiegel, August 25, 1975, 92–101.

28 Elif Batuman, “Ottomania,” The New Yorker, February 10, 2014 (

29 Palmira Brummett, Mapping the Ottomans: Sovereignty, Territory, and Identity in the Early Modern Mediterranean (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

30 Božidar Jezernik, ed., Imagining “the Turk” (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010).

31 Maria Todorova, Imagining the Balkans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 180.

32 Deniz Bingöl McDonald, “Imperial Legacies and Neo-Ottomanism: Eastern Europe and Turkey,” Insight Turkey 14, no. 4 (Fall 2012): 101–20.

33 Vladimir Hamed-Troyansky, “Imperial Refuge: Resettlement of Muslims from Russia in the Ottoman Empire, 1860–1914” (PhD diss., Stanford University, 2018).

34 Max Bergholz, Violence as a Generative Force: Identity, Nationalism, and Memory in a Balkan Community (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2016); Emily Greble, Sarajevo, 1941–1945: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Hitler's Europe (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011).

35 Norman Naimark and Holly Case, ed., Yugoslavia and Its Historians: Understanding the Balkan Wars of the 1990s (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003); V. P. Gagnon Jr., The Myth of Ethnic War: Serbia and Croatia in the 1990s (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013).

36 On Jews before the Holocaust, see among others: Israel Bartal, The Jews of Eastern Europe, 1772–1881, trans. Chaya Naor (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002); Marc David Baer, The Dönme: Jewish Converts, Muslim Revolutionaries, and Secular Turks (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009). On Roma, see Will Guy, ed., Between Past and Future: The Roma of Central and Eastern Europe (Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press, 2001); Carol Silverman, Romani Routes: Cultural Politics and Balkan Music in Diaspora (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012); Can Yıldız and Nicholas De Genova, Roma Migrants in the European Union: Un/Free Mobility (New York: Routledge, 2020).

37 Tomasz Kamusella, Ethnic Cleansing during the Cold War: The Forgotten 1989 Expulsion of Turks from Communist Bulgaria (New York: Routledge, 2018).

38 Ayşe Parla, Precarious Hope: Migration and the Limits of Belonging in Turkey (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2019), 47.

39 Vera Mutafchieva, “The Notion of the ‘Other’ in Bulgaria: The Turks, A Historical Study,” Anthropological Journal of European Cultures 4, no. 2 (1995): 53.

40 Parla, Precarious Hope.

41 Jan T. Gross, Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland (New York: Penguin, 2002); Bergholz, Violence as a Generative Force; Greble, Sarajevo, 1941–1945; Naimark and Case, Yugoslavia and Its Historians.

42 Theodora Dragostinova, Between Two Motherlands: Nationality and Emigration Among the Greeks of Bulgaria, 1900-1949 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011).

43 Milena B. Methodieva, Between Empire and Nation: Muslim Reform in the Balkans (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2021).

44 Theodora K. Dragostinova, The Cold War from the Margins: A Small Socialist State on the Global Cultural Scene (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2021); Astrid M. Eckert, West Germany and the Iron Curtain: Environment, Economy, and Culture in the Borderlands (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019); Yuliya Komska, The Icon Curtain: The Cold War's Quiet Border (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2015); Edith Sheffer, Burned Bridge: How East and West Germans Made the Iron Curtain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

45 Şaban Halis Çalış, Turkey's Cold War: Foreign Policy and Western Alignment in the Modern Republic (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016).

46 Mehmet Döşemeci, Debating Turkish Modernity: Civilization, Nationalism, and the EEC (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

47 On Yugoslav guest workers, see Molnar, Memory, Politics, and Yugoslav Migrations to Postwar Germany.

48 “Ayhan (1971), Karlsruhe-Istanbul, 2.250 km, Ford Taunus, Ford Granada,” (

49 Michael Holzach and Tim Rautert, “Ahmets Heimkehr,” Zeit-Magazin 41, no. 1 (October 1976): 28–45.

50 Gülten Dayıoğlu, Rückkehr zwischen zwei Grenzen. Gespräche und Erzählungen, trans. Feridun Altuna (Berlin: ikoo, 1986), 136–47.

51 Nursemin Ö., interview, 2004, Dokumentationszentrum und Museum über die Migration in Deutschland e.V., Cologne (DOMiD-Archiv), R0015.MS 04 R, 185.

52 United Nations Refugee Agency, “Syria Refugee Crisis,” (

53 United Nations Refugee Agency, “Syria Regional Refugee Response” (

54 Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, “Bevölkerung mit Migrationshintergrund,” September 19, 2019 (

55 Öğr Üyesi, “Turkey's Refugee Policy Under the Shadow of Neo-Ottomanism: A Source of Silent Conflict?” Journal of Academic Inquiries 14, no. 1 (2019): 189–214; M. Hakan Yavuz, “Erdoğan's Ottomania,” Boston Review, August 8, 2018 (

56 Max Bearak, “The Shifting Sea Routes of Europe's Refugee Crisis, in Charts and Maps,” Washington Post, May 2, 2016 (

57 Zainab Salbi, “Syrian Refugees Explain Why German Is Top Country in Which to Seek a New Life,” Women in the World, September 9, 2015 (

58 Nevena Nancheva, “The Common European Asylum System and the Failure to Protect: Bulgaria's Syrian Refugee Crisis,” Southeast European and Black Sea Studies 15, no. 4 (2015): 439–55.

59 Davide Denti, “Serbia, the Unexpected Friend of Syrian Refugees,” Boulevard Extérieur, September 3, 2015 (

60 Anemona Hartocollis, “Traveling in Europe's River of Migrants,” New York Times, September 5, 2015 (

61 Marton Dunai, “Hungary Builds New High-Tech Border Fence—With Few Migrants in Sight,” Reuters, March 2, 2017 (

62 Nikolaus Blome et al., “‘You Wanted the Migrants—We Didn't!” Bild, January 9, 2018 (

63 Zoltan Pall and Omar Sayfo, “Why an Anti-Islam Campaign Has Taken Root in Hungary, a Country with Few Muslims,” Visegrád Revue, September 14, 2016.

64 “They've Escaped from Aleppo, But the 60,000 Syrian Refugees Living in Bulgaria Still Feel Far from Welcome,” The, August 27, 2017 (

65 Narzanin Massoumi, “Why Is Europe So Islamophobic?” New York Times, March 6, 2020 (

66 Andreas Rinke and Michelle Martin, “Merkel: Refugees Must Return Home Once the War Is Over,” Reuters, January 30, 2016 (

67 Benjamin Bathke, “Very Few Syrians Accept German State Support to Return Home,” InfoMigrants, April 23, 2019 (

68 “REAG/GARP,” International Organization for Migration (

69 Choukri Chebbi, “Syrian Refugees in Germany Contemplate Return Home,” Deutsche Welle, January 27, 2017 (

70 Çiğdem Akyol, “Die hungernden Gäste von Istanbul,” Die Zeit, November 25, 2014 (; “Syrische Flüchtlinge in der Türkei: ‘Uns sind alle Türen verschlossen,’” Der Tagesschau, August 7, 2020 (

71 “‘Es dauert Generationen, bis Deutschland Heimat ist,’” Die Welt, November 30, 2015 (

72 The phrase “pulling up the ladder,” which applies not only to migrants but also to women and racial minorities, appears far more pervasively in English-speaking popular media than it does in scholarly literature. The most commonly cited scholarly essay on the topic is Brugge, Doug, “Pulling Up the Ladder: The Anti-Immigrant Backlash,” The Public Eye 9, no. 2 (Summer 1995): 113Google Scholar. Other scholars have engaged with the concept indirectly in describing interactions among old and new immigrant groups. See, among others: Carling, Jørgen, “Making and Breaking a Chain: Migrants’ Decisions about Helping Others Migrate,” in Beyond Networks: Feedback in International Migration, ed. Bakewell, Oliver et al. (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 156–82Google Scholar.

73 Koca, Burcu Togral, “Urban Citizenship and the Spatial Encounter Between Turkish Migrants and Syrian Refugees in Berlin,” Spatial Research and Planning 77, no. 6 (2019): 567–81CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

74 Ian Traynor and Helena Smith, “EU Border Controls: Schengen Scheme on the Brink after Amsterdam Talks,” The Guardian, January 26, 2016 (

75 European Commission Directorate-General for Migration and Home Affairs, “Temporary Reintroduction of Border Control” (