“Even If I Tried to, I Could Not Avoid to Work Transregionally“ – An Interview with Isabella Löhr

In the series “Feldman Fellows Revisited” we regularly interview former and current Feldman fellows on aspects of mobility in academia, transregional approaches abroad and where they stand on definitions of transregional studies as voiced in our series “All Things Transregional”. The Feldman fellowships allow young researchers to pursue research in two to three host countries with institutes and branch offices of the Max Weber Foundation.  Named after the American historian Gerald D. Feldman (1937-2007), these fellowships enable selected researchers to spend up to three months abroad to visit archives, libraries and other research facilities on site. With the format of the funding being already transregional, we are wondering: to what extend does transregional funding promote transregional research? Already published interviews in this series: Christoph Mauntel and Björn Siegel.

What project were you working on during your fellowship? Did you have any previous experience with the research facilities in your countries of destination?

A Nansen Passport, an internationally recognized refugee travel document that served as substiute passport for many European refugees from the 1920s onwards. This example was issued by France and includes Armenian renewal stamps. Image: World Digital Library | Public Domain.

My research project deals with the history of the so called ‘refugee scholars’ – academics who fled fascist Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. The project re-conceptualizes our understanding of the underlying dynamics that framed the forced migration of scholars. Instead of taking concepts such as exile or emigration into account, my research looks at pre-existing forms of professional mobility and asks how mobile academic trajectories and preexisting transregional scholarly networks prefigured the flight and forced migration during the 1930s and 1940s. To this end, the history of organizations that helped persecuted academics escape and find new positions at foreign universities, is re-read in terms of academic labor relations. These organizations needed to balance their rescue work and their humanitarian aid with a self-presentation as strictly academic organizations. A closer look reveals, however, that in their daily practice the assessment of individual careers and academic achievements were more important than humanitarian impulses. The project thus attempts to integrate histories of mobility, academic internationalism, forced migration and labor relations under one roof. My work during the Feldman fellowship in London and Paris allowed me to consult personal papers of leading figures and to visit archives of the involved organizations.

My research trip to London in 2012 led me to British archives for the first time. I especially enjoyed the fortunate coincidence that there were several exciting conferences at the German Historical Institute London during my stay. Moreover, I very much profited from the opportunity to discuss my project at the institute’s colloquium. In comparison, I was well acquainted with French archives. During my PhD I had spent several months in Paris to study documents at the Unesco Archives, at the Bibliothèque Nationale and at private archives of the French book trade agencies. I very much enjoyed the opportunity to be hosted at the German Historical Institute in Paris which has a wonderful library and lively community.

What role does mobility play for your research? How important is it for your project to work transregionally?

Hannah Arendt is one famous example for an academic, who – after she had fled to Paris from Nazi Germany – obtained a Nansen passport with the help of U.S. diplomats and managed to arrive in New York in 1941. Mural of Hannah Arendt in Hannover by graffitos BeneR1 and koarts, based on the famous photograph taken by Käthe Fürst. Image: Bernd Schwabe | CC BY-SA 3.0.

Mobility is of key importance for my research. As I have briefly outlined above, the sometimes seamless transition between forced migration and professional mobility is at the core of my research. The aim is to carve out different modi of mobility, to better understand how they were interrelated and to grasp the fine mechanisms that enabled people to migrate in certain scholarly networks along very specific institutional routes. I put a strong emphasis on academic and social path-dependencies. Looking at pre-existing institutional, social and scholarly networks and having a glance at the very concrete migratory or escape routes allows a deeper understanding why the people ended up at certain institutions, why others wound up at other places and what this meant for scholarly activities.

Even if I tried to, I could not avoid to work transregionally. This is due to the mobility of the historical actors, who are at the center stage of my work, travelling across continents. But first and foremost, it is due to my conceptual decision to follow their itineraries in order to get a comprehensive picture of their mobile live course instead of singling out selected moments of departure, arrival or attempts to re-forge a new life. The latter perspective is well established and we have tons of literature that spell out the dynamics at stake. Yet, the predominant perspective taken in this research is framed by a national point of view and its basic assumption that modern societies have developed within a stable territorial order and that being residential is the normal case whereas mobility and migration, at least in this perspective, are considered as disquieting exception. As soon as you turn this assumption upside down and assume sedentism only as one historical pattern among others, as many transregionally working historians or social scientists argue, working transregionally becomes the condition sine qua non.

Did you have a look into our interview series “All Things Transregional”, and if so, where do you position yourself within the debate on what our various interview partners defined as transregional research?

While reading the interviews a kind of productive disagreement became tangible for me. I agree with most authors that it is rather difficult to detect a field called transregional studies. Scholarly approaches are diverse and include a variety of terms and concepts. It does make a difference if you use the term global, transnational, transregional, transcultural or if you label a phenomenon as translocal. In each case historians put a different emphasis on the analytical importance of the national framework, on how to conceptualize agency, how to strike a balance between structure and historical actors, how to scale the micro and the macro level or how to conceive of what we mostly describe as globalized world. But even if these terms sail under different flags, they share major conceptual concerns, namely the vital interest to follow things, people, or ideas on their way around the world. The aim is to get hold of a fine instrument to understand what constitutes and characterizes transregional relations and to gain a better understanding of what these transregional connections meant for the contemporaries. I agree with the interviewees who stress that conceptualizing a problem as transregional means to acknowledge certain premises and to think anew about the driving forces of historical change. The most serious challenge might be to find an analytical equilibrium between border crossings and their repercussions on the resurrection of regional or national identities and to bear in mind that each transregional connection is not only a connection but also entails the creation of new differences.

Did you notice any differences in academic approaches towards transregional research in the respective countries you have visited?

Passport surrogates and visas were issued selectively and did not always guarantee a safe arrival, as the sad example of the MS St. Louis  illustrated. The ship’s passengers, 900 Jewish refugees, were denied entry to Cuba, the United States, and Canada in 1939 and the vessel had to turn arround and return to Hamburg, Germany.
Image: MS St. Louis | Public Domain.

I would agree with Michael Goebel’s point of view that transregional research originated in a specifically German context which was marked by controversial historiographical discussions about the place of German history in the twentieth century. Bearing this in mind, each transregional approach, no matter how it spells out its research design en détail, meant a shift away from a preoccupation with national histories to a historical view that perceived political entities, groups, economies or belief systems as outcome of long-term, complex and mutual transfers and interactions with other parts of the world. It is worth mentioning that this change of perspective was noticeably influenced by scholarly trends that emerged outside German academia: The vital landscape on cultural transfers that rooted in joint French-German initiatives and the emerging literature on the history of globalization during the 1990s which brought fresh insights from an Anglo-American perspective. Having said that, it is a rather difficult task to make out national stiles of transregional research. The field as such is highly transnational and a product of scholarly transfers. Therefore, I came upon many colleagues during my research trips who read the same books as I did and shared basic assumptions. Differences became obvious with regard to the choice of topics with which to exemplify what transregional can actually mean: Scholars in France or Great Britain have a different regional expertise which is mostly owed to the imperial trajectories of these countries and the therewith related memory politics. This can have an enormously stimulating effect on conversations. Of course I met scholars where there was no existing thread of conversation which I could have resumed. But again, this is not a matter of nationality but a matter of scholarly choice of concepts and themes.

Do you have any advice for young scholars who are interested in doing research in/on the same regions?

There is no specific regional advice I could give. To repeat a very common wisdom: Most important when planning a research trip to libraries or archives abroad is a thorough preparation which includes correspondence with the archives or libraries, a carefully compiled overview on the archival items and emails to colleagues who might provide you with valuable support. The great majority of people are open-minded to exciting research projects and are happy to assist in some way or other. Therefore, I can just repeat what Christoph Mauntel already said in this column: Go ahead and enjoy it!

Photo: Jakob Adolphi.

Isabella Löhr is senior researcher at the Leibniz Institute for the History and Culture of Eastern Europe (GWZO) Leipzig where she is co-editing a handbook on the role of Eastern Europe in the shaping of international law. She received her doctoral degree in history in 2008 for a study on the global implementation of intellectual property rights in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She is currently working on a book project which examines the global networks of academic rescue since the 1920s. Her fields of interest include European and global history in the 19th and 20th centuries, the history of international organizations and international law and migration and refugee studies.

The Gerald D. Feldman Travel Grants are awarded annually. Find further information on this fellowship program here.


Citation: Feldman Fellows Revisited: “Even If I Tried To, I Could Not Avoid to Work Transregionally” – An Interview with Isabella Löhr, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 22.03.2017, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/6158.


Max Weber Stiftung

The Max Weber Foundation promotes global research, focused on the areas of social sciences, cultural studies and the humanities. Our research is conducted at ten institutes in various countries across the globe with different and independent fields of focus. Through our globally operating institutes, we are able to contribute to the communication and networking between Germany and our host countries or regions. By promoting academic dialogue and merging academic and non-academic employees from several countries with different cultural backgrounds, the Max Weber Foundation is able to strengthen the internationalization of research.

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3 Antworten

  1. 12. Mai 2017

    […] research? Already published interviews in this series: Christoph Mauntel, Björn Siegel, Isabella Löhr, and Rouven […]

  2. 17. Mai 2017

    […] research? Already published interviews in this series: Christoph Mauntel, Björn Siegel, Isabella Löhr, and Rouven […]

  3. 20. Juli 2017

    […] und Stipendiaten sind bereits erschienen: Benjamin Möckel, Christoph Mauntel, Björn Siegel, Isabella Löhr, Rouven Kunstmann und Jan Simon […]

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