“New Perspectives, New Contexts, New Colleagues and New Challenges Always Open up New Paths of Thinking” – 5in10 with Sarah Lemmen

Sarah Lemmen (Picture: private)

Sarah Lemmen is a historian of Eastern Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries, specializing in the history of the Bohemian lands/Czechoslovakia. With a strong focus on cultural history, her expertise includes transnational and global history, the history of travel and tourism, Cold War Border Studies, and the history of exile and migration.

After holding various research positions at GWZO Leipzig, Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for European History and the Public Sphere, the University of Vienna and the University of Bremen, Sarah Lemmen is currently assistant professor at the University of Kiel. In September 2017, Sarah Lemmen was awarded a longterm visiting fellowship in the history of migration at GHI Washington, DC.

How do you explain your current research projects to your students?

As a historian, I am interested in cross-border phenomena: I look at travelers, migrants or ship-crews crossing the borders of their nation-states. Some of these crossings are legal, some are illegal, but they all tell us about border regimes as well as about cultural, economic or migratory transfers.

In my current research, I am looking at political émigrés from Eastern Europe in the West during the Cold War as a specific cross-border phenomenon. I am interested in their networks, their influence on Western public opinion, and their role in Eastern European opposition movements behind the “Iron Curtain”.

What were academic or personal inspirations that led to your current research?

Even before I started this project, I regularly came across traces of Eastern European émigrés, their publications and networks, often by chance in the cities where I lived or worked: in Vienna or London, in Berlin, Prague or Bremen. The research literature, however, concentrated mainly on the most renowned émigrés, while leaving out the broad networks, the everyday experience, or their potential influence in the West. This actuality of the topic is further enhanced by questions strongly related to political emigration which are highly up-to-date: When is it time to protest a political government and what personal consequences am I willing to take?

How are you ‘doing’ research? What are your most important research methods (interviews, archives, excavations…?)

As a historian, I work mostly with written sources, which include both archival and published material. For my current projects on contemporary history, however, I also conduct my own oral history interviews. Whether political émigrés in the USA or Western diplomats employed for the smuggling of dissident material: they all have their own story to tell about the chances and risks of border crossings and what that implied for other spheres of their lives.

Which publications or academic events (workshops, conferences, lecture series…) did inspire you recently?

Two publications inspired me recently which are only marginally related to my research topic, and not even particularly recent. Both monographs are about the German Democratic Republic: one on the construction and implementation of the German-German border (E. Sheffer: Burned Bridge. How East and West Germans made the Iron Curtain, Oxford 2011), the other on the local implications of the fall of the Berlin wall at the German-German border (D. Berdahl: Where the World ended: Re-Unification and Identity in the German Borderland, Berkeley 1997). Both monographs – besides being meticulously researched and well written – demonstrate how substantially historical research can be informed by oral history and anthropological methods, and how the focus on a micro-study – such as a small village at the German-German border – may explain how border regions came to life and how concepts such as power and “Eigen-Sinn” or resistance were implemented in everyday life.

Do you think that academic mobility changes the way in which research projects are conceptualized? What are your personal experiences in this regard?

Especially cross-border phenomena such as migration or exile, but also the cultural transfer of knowledge and goods are virtually impossible to study from only one side of the border. The research of these phenomena is based on the ability of academic mobility as well as on the accessibility of archival material, often in various countries. While this is aimed at a specific topic, I strongly believe that a change of scenes is worth it for any topic (and not only for researchers): New perspectives, new contexts, new colleagues and new challenges always open up new paths of thinking.


Citation: “New Perspectives, New Contexts, New Colleagues and New Challenges Always Open up New Paths of Thinking” – 5in10 with Sarah Lemmen, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 16.08.2018, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/11643.


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