Statelessness and unsettlement in Europe, 1920s to the present: a reflexive history

Research project
Modern European History
Foreign nationals residing in France queueing in front of the Paris Préfecture de Police

In the last two decades, the study of statelessness in the twentieth history has attracted new scholarly attention. Historians of international law and intellectual historians have emphasized the emergence of a new figure, that of the person without nationality, in the wake of the formation of new nation-states following the decomposition of multinational European empires, after the First World War, and the new legal international codification following the Second World War. The history of the organizations managing the destinies of these people, at the international as well as the national level, has also begun to be written.

While I am inspired by these questionings, I come to this from a different perspective. I have worked on related issues, such as the history of international law, forced migrations, war incarceration, and the history of the state, for earlier periods. One of the questions that has structured my research from the beginning has precisely been to ‘denaturalize’ the nation-state, and to emphasize the haphazard character of the construction of state borders. The current project aims to understand, at the practical level, the legal and bureaucratic complexity of the status of stateless people in the twentieth century. As sociologists and historians of migration have shown, by necessity, refugees have to resort to strategies in order to survive, using multiple identities, changing their names or their birthplaces, altering their narratives or staying silent over the less avowable parts of their past. For these individuals, telling the ‘truth’ or ‘lying’ was not an ethical choice, but a matter of survival. In turn, this opens up fascinating questions about the nature of the historian’s investigation in these archives.

The second specificity of my take on the problem of statelessness in the twentieth century is the fact that it is a reflexive project. It focuses on the itineraries of Polish Jews between Warsaw, Paris, Barcelona, and Casablanca, who moved between internment camps, refugee camps, prisons and hiding places, before, during and after WW2. More broadly, the project is the product of my position as a European migrant in Britain, a country that is deeply divided over immigration issues. Instead of avoiding the elephant in the room, I believe that it is important for historians to engage, using their own tools, with the questions of the present, to interrogate what is genuinely new and what is old.


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Image: Foreign nationals residing in France queueing in front of the Paris Préfecture de Police (1938) © Eyedea/Keystone France