Posting on the wall in pre-digital times. Media and Communication Practices in Refugee Camps in Germany (1945–2000)

Philipp Seuferling Södertörn University

Lack of information, disconnectedness, not knowing the whereabouts of family and friends – these are central parts of the experience of forced migration. Here, means of communication and media technologies gain crucial importance for refugees. Practices of media and communication enable them to navigate, circumvent or subversively fight against “information precarity” (Wall, Otis Campbell & Janbek, 2017), which the situation of forced displacement puts upon forced migrants. Especially in the space of the refugee camp, scarce information and uncertainty affect how refugees communicate and mediate their experience and sociality.

The photos below, accessible in the museum exhibition of the refugee transit camp Friedland, Germany, show how camp inhabitants in the late 1940s literally “posted on the wall” and created a “newsfeed” on the camp’s notice boards and walls of buildings. The refugees and displaced persons created physical places of communication in order to maybe be able to get a tiny hint about where their loved-ones could be, how to get in touch or any other information important to them. The refugee camp was not only a hub for people of all kinds of origin, but also a communication hub, a space for the mediation of information, exchanging knowledge among its dwellers and possibly beyond. Later on, these announcements for missing persons were also broadcasted on radio regularly, organized by the Red Cross in cooperation with public service radio stations (Wagner, 2014).

Similarly, another source, a letter from February 1952, documents how refugee shelters in West Berlin, mostly accommodating refugees from East Germany, received 65 radios as a donation from the public service broadcaster NWDR in Hamburg. The government official and author of the letter asks for this donation as an “act of utmost philanthropy” and describes how the lack of radios and news magazines, of being connected and informed in the refugee shelters, created one of the biggest hardships: “Being cut off from the outside world hits the inmates of the camps especially hard”[1].

Historicizing the refugee and her smartphone

These sources flag up questions of how media and communication technologies and practices in settings of social arrest and uncertainty produced by the refugee camp were used and conducted in pre-digital media environments. They show that the need for communication in the situation of “refugeedom” (Gatrell, 2013) is not particularly new. In fact, the 20th century has been coined both a “century of expulsions” (Münz, 2002) and a “century of mass media” (Schildt, 2001). However, an ever-growing body of research on the interrelations of media and migration, especially on refugees and smartphones, often focuses on digital media, ending up in a rhetoric of newness or even of “digital exceptionalism” (Marwick, 2013), while arguing that digital technologies have changed the entire situation for refugees’ and migrants’ experiences (addressed e.g. by: Leurs & Smets, 2018; Morley, 2017; Hegde, 2016). In response to this, my PhD project wants to historically scrutinize how refugees were part and made sense of changing media environments before the internet, included different technologies into communicatory practices, or invented ways of remaining connected in times of scarce information.

Understanding histories of new media as histories of their uses, which are negotiated and embedded in social structures of the time they were established (see Marvin, 1990; Gitelman, 2006), the project uses the setting of the refugee camp to explore how the experience of refugeedom and information precarity was mediated and communicated in analogue media environments. Arguably, refugees in the exilic, transitory space of the camp, have always relied on communication and media practices to navigate this situation. This leads to the further argument that considering these questions in a time frame before digital media gives insight into alternative media histories growing out of the specific information situations at the margins.

Marginal media histories of forced migration

Refugees interned in camps and shelters are at the margins of communication. At the same time the camp might produce a new space which rather is a center of communication, at least a material communicatory hub for those dwelling in it. The spatial metaphor of marginality can shift attention to the construction of centers and peripheries and social processes of positioning subjects at social distance and hindering their mobility between centers and fringes. Refugees embody marginality through being the outcasts of “the national order of things” (Malkki, 1995).

Refugee camps, consequently, are institutions that organize modernity’s refugee and border regimes. They can be understood as heterotopian spaces in Michel Foucault’s (1997:332) sense, a “place that lies outside all places and yet is actually localizable”, a “counter arrangement”. Especially applicable to refugee camps, he continues his description: “Anyone can enter one of these heterotopian locations, but, in reality, they are nothing more than an illusion: one thinks one has entered and, by the sole fact of entering, one is excluded” (ibid.:335). Refugee camps are other spaces outside and inside the order of national spaces, they materialize “social imaginaries” (Taylor, 2004) of inclusion and exclusion, by ordering spatial relations between individuals at the center and the margins.

On this presumption, I want to explore histories of media and communication practices from the margins. If refugee camps are “counter arrangements”, this marginality creates a space where counter actions, alternativity and inventiveness can grow and be explored. Media and communication practices and technologies are part of the experience of being a forced migrant, the need for connected-ness and the experience of information precarity are central features (cf. Leurs & Smets, 2018) – and they are not particularly new. Hence, marginality is a key characteristic of refugee’s media practices, a factor that affects how media is used. Media and communication practices both reproduce and counter-act to imposed marginality. They can be hopeful mechanisms and facilitators of potential change and the production of “reclaimant narratives” (Bishop, 2018), while at the same time they are made part of power structures and the dynamics between periphery and center.

Vilém Flusser (2002:104) writes about exile: “Because it is unusual, exile is unlivable. One must transform the information whizzing around into meaningful messages, to make it livable. One must ‘process’ the data. It is a question of survival: if one fails to transform the data, one is engulfed by the waves of exile. Data transformation is a synonym for creation. The expelled must be creative if he does not want to go to the dogs”. Marginality and creativity and inventiveness are somehow linked, which should be paid more attention to in media history. Looking at marginal spaces and groups as historical media users can give us more nuanced insights into alternative, different media histories. When Carolyn Marvin (1990:8) states that “the history of media is never more or less than the history of their uses, which always lead us away from them to the social practices and conflicts they illuminate”, marginal spaces and subjects lead the path to new perspectives on how pre-digital media users made sense of and included different means and technologies of communication into experiences of information scarcity, that exile and escape are producing and have already produced in analogue media environments.

Photos © Swen Pförtner/Museum Friedland

References

Bishop, S. C. (2018). “Nobody Can Take Our Story”: Competing Representational Narratives of Immigrants without Legal Status. Communication & Society, 31(3), 159–173.

Flusser, V. (2012). Exile and Creativity. In A. Ströhl (Ed.), Writings (pp. 104–109). University of Minnesota Press.

Foucault, M. (1997). Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias. In N. Leach (Ed.), Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory (pp. 330–336). New York: Routledge.

Gatrell, P. (2013). The Making of the Modern Refugee. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gitelman, L. (2006). Always already new. Media, History, and the Data of Culture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Hegde, R. S. (2016). Mediating Migration. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Leurs, K., & Smets, K. (2018). Five Questions for Digital Migration Studies: Learning From Digital Connectivity and Forced Migration In(to) Europe. Social Media + Society, 4(1), pp. 1–16.

Malkki, L. H. (1995). Refugees and Exile: From “Refugee Studies” to the National Order of Things. Annual Review of Anthropology, 24(1), 495–523.

Marvin, C. (1990). When old technologies were new: thinking about electric communication in the late nineteenth century. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Marwick, A. (2013). Status Update. Celebrity, Publicity, and Branding in the Social Media Age. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Morley, D. (2017). Communications and Mobility: The Migrant, the Mobile Phone, and the Container Box. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Münz, R. (2002). Das Jahrhundert der Vertreibungen, Transit, 23, pp. 132–154.

Schildt, A. (2001). Das Jahrhundert der Massenmedien. Ansichten zu einer künftigen Geschichte der Öffentlichkeit, Geschichte und Gesellschaft, 27, 2, pp. 177–206.

Taylor, C. (2004). Modern Social Imaginaries. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Wall, M., Otis Campbell, M., & Janbek, D. (2017). Syrian refugees and information precarity. New Media and Society, 19(2), 240–254.

Wagner, H.-U. (2014). Vermisstenmeldungen im NWDR. Online: https://www.ndr.de/der_ndr/unternehmen/geschichte/suchdienst101_page-1.html

Endnotes

[1] Letter from Willi Eichler (SPD Berlin) to Adolf Grimme (director of NWDR), 18 February 1952. StA HH. 621-1/144. NDR. 11_712; translated by the author.

Photos

(c) Swen Pförtner/Museum Friedland

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