Environments of Exile: Refugees, Nature, and Representations

This article is part of the TRAFO series Emerging Topics. Insights from ‘Behind the Scenes’. Today, we put the spotlight on the conference “Environments of Exile: Refugees, Nature, and Representations”, which will take place on September 23 – 25, 2021 in Kingston, Ontario. We talked to the convener Swen Steinberg (Queen’s University, Kingston/German Historical Institute Washington, DC with its Pacific Regional Office) about the upcoming event. Find more information on the conference here. Please note that the conference has been postponed from September 2020 to September 2021 and the Call for Papers has been re-opened for new submissions.

Your conference will focus on the first half of the 20th century and, in particular, the flight from Nazi-occupied Europe. Why did you choose this focus and what makes this time period particularly interesting when working on the relationship between nature/environment and (forced) migration/flight?

Refugees flee Nazi-occupied Norway to neutral Sweden, the swath in the forest marks the border, ca. 1940. The National Archives of Norway (Riksarkivet).

In many cases, the escape from Nazi Germany and occupied Europe took place in nature: people were hiding in forests, fled across unguarded ‘green’ borders like the Erzgebirge (Ore Mountains), the Alps, and later the Pyrenees, or could not reach safety behind oceans. At the same time, people fled to climate zones and environments they weren’t familiar with. I have been following this particular relation between forced migration and environment for a couple of years because this has been – besides aspects like valid documents, status or self-identification – an essential issue for the people affected: refugees reflected changing environments in diaries or letters, later also in autobiographies and memories. We can find these adjustments to new environments in poems, songs or novels of refugees, and the escape through or into nature has been already pictured in movies like “Night Train to Munich” (GB 1939), “The Mortal Storm” or “Three Faces West” (both US 1940). The reflection of these experiences with nature for refugees in the 1930s and 40s is, in my opinion, highly compatible with many other refugee movements beyond the first half of the 20th century – including those triggered by nature, for example, disasters like floods, earthquakes or forest fires.

Your Call for papers mentions previously acquired environmental knowledge and knowledge acquired in migration: What role does knowledge play in migration processes with regard to nature?

For a couple of years and in close cooperation with the GHI Washington and its Pacific Regional Office at UC Berkeley, my research has focused on the intersection of migration and knowledge and especially migrant knowledge, including forms of forced migration. But refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe show developments we can also find in other forms of migration: on the one hand, refugees applied knowledge they had successfully brought with them – about cultivation methods, for example, or species, products, and sales markets. On the other hand, we can discover environmental knowledge that was acquired explicitly during migration or for it: Jewish refugees from Germany had been prepared for the natural conditions in Palestine in agricultural schools in France as early as fall 1933. For about a year, I have been working on a particular case here in Canada. After the failed uprising of 1956 in Hungary, the students and the professors of the school of forestry from Sopron fled to UBC in Vancouver. In this small project I try to trace forms of knowledge transfers, for example about forest management practices connected to this particular movement, – but also the transfers that did not take place. This is relevant because at the same time, the intersection of knowledge and migration is always connected to the absence of transfers – to oblivion and ignorance, or the failure of translation and adaption of environmental knowledge during and after migration.

Your conference seems to sit at the intersection between environmental history and migration history: How do you hope the event will contribute to the reciprocal engagement between these two fields of research?

Indeed, this is where environmental history and migration history come together as two already internationally established research fields. And their combination is anything but my invention: Marco Armiero and Richard Tucker already published their “Environmental History of Modern Migrations in 2017. The conference of the North American Society for Exile Studies narrows this general perspective a bit, by looking specifically at forced migration and refugees – with the aim of questioning the relation of refugees to nature, and to the environment in a broader sense. The questions connected to this perspective are manifold, both historical and contemporary: under what conditions do natural spaces protect, under what circumstances is nature not a refuge but rather a threat for refugees? What role did environmental aspects play in organizing resistance, and also rescue, relief, or solidarity? To what extent is environmental knowledge a resource of arrival and integration of forced migrants or persons displaced? This is what we want to address and discuss at the conference in September 2021 at Queen’s University – hopefully with impulses for both fields: migration history and environmental history.


Swen Steinberg has been a Post-doctoral Researcher at the Department of History at Queen’s University in Kingston/Ontario since November 2018. In addition, Swen is an Affiliated Scholar of the German Historical Institute in Washington/DC with its Pacific Regional Office at University of California Berkeley. Swen was Research Assistant and Post-doctoral Researcher at the Department of History at Dresden University 2010-14 and 2016-18 where he earned his Ph.D. in 2013. From October 2014 to October 2016 he was a Post-doctoral Fellow of the German Research Foundation with an affiliation at University of California in Los Angeles and his recent project: “A History of Knowledge on Mountains and Woods: Forestry and Mining between Europe and North America, 1860-1960”. Swen’s research is focused on the intersection of migration and knowledge, knowledge and young migrants, forestry and mining, exile and forced migration studies, religious corporate culture concepts and economic transformations. Swen is the author of three (German) monographs, including his PhD thesis on religious corporate culture concepts in the rural pulp and paper industry in central Germany, and numerous articles (in German and English). His recent publications are the special issues “Refugees from Nazi-Occupied Europe in British Overseas Territories” of the Yearbook of the Research Centre for German and Austrian Exile Studies (20, 2019, edited with Anthony Grenville) and “Knowledge and Young Migrants” of KNOW. A Journal on the Formation of Knowledge (3,2, 2019, edited with Simone Lässig).


Citation: “Environments of Exile: Refugees, Nature, and Representations”, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 25.06.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/24218.


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