Polak-Springer on Panagiotidis, 'The Unchosen Ones: Diaspora, Nation, and Migration in Israel and Germany'

Jannis Panagiotidis
Peter Polak-Springer

Jannis Panagiotidis. The Unchosen Ones: Diaspora, Nation, and Migration in Israel and Germany. Indianopolis: Indiana University Press, 2019. xvii + 363 pp. $40.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-253-04362-7

Reviewed by Peter Polak-Springer (Qatar University) Published on H-Diplo (August, 2020) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55111

Scholarship on European state patronage of national (ethnic) kin living abroad, particularly in neighboring contested borderlands, has seen a flourish in the last decades. In the late 1990s, political scientist Rogers Brubaker coined a term for it: “external homeland nationalism.” Moreover, he connected it to another one of his well-known concepts, (national) “unmixing,” referring to the movement of people from the foreign lands in which they are ethnic “minorities” to their “motherland,” where their ethnicity forms the core group.[1] In recent decades, historians have taken a strong interest in the longue dureé of Central and Eastern Europe’s unmixing—the era that began with carving up of former monarchical imperial domains into nation-states in 1918 and culminated in a whirlwind of violence and ethnic cleansing-driven flight and expulsions of millions in 1939-50.[2] As a nation with a long history of ethnic-based political outreach to its minorities in Eastern Europe, and as a prime target of expulsions at the end of World War II, Germany has been the center of scholarly focus. Scholarship on the continuation of this unmixing of presumed Germans, who continued to live in a region that spanned from East-Central Europe to the Balkans and the Soviet Socialist Republics from the 1950s and into the 1980s and 90s is still quite limited.[3] These official “resettlers” (Aussiedler), or “late resettlers” (Spätaussiedler) as they were called in later decades, were allowed to emigrate to the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG or West Germany) to reunite with family members within the motherland or to escape persecution or forced assimilation as Germans in their homeland abroad. 

The Unchosen Ones is the main title of a thrilling and insightful new study by Jannis Panagiotidis that takes an entirely different approach to studying these issues. His work marks the first extensive monographic comparison of “resettlement” (Aussiedlung) to the FRG with “ascent” (Aliyah), the term denoting the migration of Jews from around the world to Israel.[4] To Panagiotidis, both these emigrant nations have looked on their newcomers not just as any other migrants but as ethnic kin living abroad, whose welfare and ethnic identity need to be protected by the state and national community of their motherland. Certainly, Israel has promoted an official mission of being a safe haven for Jews under persecution. However, Germany’s history of state outreach to German minorities abroad quite blatantly connects to interwar revanchism and Nazi expansionist politics. Indeed, one needs only to recall how Adolf Hitler called for the rights of Sudeten Germans in Czechoslovakia and the German minority in Poland as a pretext to annex their homelands. After World War II, expellee associations and the Federal Ministry Expellees in the FRG represented a hotbed of border revisionism, political activism by former Nazis, and denial of Nazi-era crimes against other nations. Even until today, the expellee (Vertriebenen) politics, which Aussiedlung was always inherently entwined with, raises controversy as the preoccupation of the right wing.[5] 

Without ignoring them, Panagiotidis’s work challenges these political and historical memory barriers, which for long have stood in the way of scholarly efforts to de-provincialize this and similar aspects of twentieth-century German history. He is quite right to stress that strong similarities and entwinements warrant a comparative and transnational treatment of the FRG and Israeli experience in that main topic of his work, co-ethnic migration. Moreover, only such an approach also allows for the analysis of critical differences between the two cases, to which he also gives extensive attention. As Panagiotidis points out, both Aussiedlung and Aliyah are part and parcel of a Cold War-era history of unmixing. Moreover, these are not just two separate case studies of a common phenomenon, each with its own individual historical narrative running parallel to that of the other, but rather in many respects represent a histoire croisée (entangled history). For one, to some extent both shared roots in European ethnic nationalism as well as the crimes of Nazism. Jews who made attempts to migrate to both Israel and the FRG, as well as those coming to Germany as “Jewish quota” refugees, mark a key subject of Panagiotidis’s discussion. In another aspect of entwinement, both Aussiedlung and Aliyah drew their co-ethnics from a common Eastern European geographical sphere that included Poland and Russia.

Panagiotidis addresses how postwar Aussiedlung has its roots in interwar, Nazi, and wartime-era German Volk politics (Volkstumpolitik). However, he also stresses that it was something different from this. It was not based on any Nazi ideas of biology or race and it was significantly removed from more traditional nationalist tenets of German national belonging (Volkszugehörigkeit) that stress German blood, soil, and culture (Blut, Boden, und Kultur). According to Panagiotidis, Aussiedlung “was not simply based on ascriptive criteria of descent or culture” but rather on a subjective “self-avowal or Bekenntnis” to belonging to the German nation (pp. 318-19). In this regard, he characterizes it as a “Renanian” process of conceptualizing nationality as a type of (daily) plebiscite. To further set Aussiedlung apart from prewar Volkstumspolitik, Panagiotidis emphasizes that it was based on an applicant selection process, or “ethnic screening,” that was flexible, “dynamic and relational” and became particularly inclusive from the 1960s to the 80s (p. 316).   

As part of one aspect of his two-pronged major argument, Panagiotidis ascribes this flexibility and dynamism to what he emphasizes was an interplay of actors involved in the selection process. He refers to these as “gatekeepers” and “gatekeeping institutions,” or in other words those in charge of defining national belonging and the ethnic screening process (pp. 4, 316). These “bouncers” of the border gates, as Panagiotidis refers to them (pp. 7, 314), included state representatives, experts, and civil society actors. In Israel, rabbis and doctors, and in the FRG, Vertriebenen associations played a prominent role. They were part of a multifaceted “migration regime” that guarded two major “gates” for co-ethnic applicants, an “external gate” (the “first point of control”), which was usually in their country of origin, and an internal gate in their place of final destination (p. 315). By no means were Aussiedlung/Aliyah applicants passive bystanders; rather, they took an active role in “performing” the narratives (in the FRG case) or even forging the documents (in the Israeli one) needed so as to adjust to a shifting criteria for co-ethnic membership to each of these countries. Panagiotidis argues that all of this made ethnic selection as well as notions of who is and is not German/Israeli “not unilateral acts of definition, but part of a multilevel, transnational politics of identification” (p. 314). This point situates Panagiotidis in accord with Brubaker’s constructivist notion of ethnicity being a product of bureaucratic classification.[6] According to Panagiotidis, the “interplay” of variegated “actors” and active role of migrant applications that constituted the “migration regimes,” coupled with a dynamic, negotiated, and “never absolute” ethnic screening processes, made the category of national (co-ethnic or member of the national community) a relational category (pp. 7, 316).   

The second part of Panagiotidis’s argument emphasizes that despite the above factors, which were common to the two cases, there was a major ideological difference between them. Aussiedlung remained tied to the tenets of the lost German homeland of Eastern Europe. This meant that its mission was “providing welfare and safe-haven” (p. 20) and even a social setting where the Aussiedler can live “as Germans among Germans” (p. 252), but not—officially at least—a new homeland altogether, which would have meant forfeiting Germany’s claims and ties to that in Eastern Europe from which they came. This was contrary to Aliya, which was fundamentally about gathering global Jewry in Israel. There was also a contrast in the ideal types of co-ethnics for which each nation searched. According to Panagiotidis, particularly in the early postwar decades, “the selective Aliyah regime strove to keep out those deemed a burden on society, the sick and poor—who often were identified with ‘oriental’ Mizrachi and in particular, Moroccan Jewry—and allow entry to those considered useful” (p. 85). This is because the “traditional Zionist ideological project of pioneer settlement combined with the creation of an urban middle class, which was deemed indispensable for a modern nation-state” (p. 85). By contrast, the FRG made no selection based on youth, body, fitness, or utility, but rather chose applicants with a demonstrated “self-avowal” (Bekenntnis) to Germandom. Based on these different policies, Panagiotidis wittingly draws a juxtaposition of the ideal Aussielder to the ideal Oleh (Aliyah migrant): “in contrast to the bodiless Aussiedler, the Oleh was very much a physical being—a ‘muscle Jew’ and ‘pioneer’ (halutz), as it were” (p. 130).

Much of Panagiotidis’s work demonstrates that the actual practice of co-ethnic applicant screening and selection often did not conform to ideological tenets. While chapter 1 elaborates on the core ideological difference that remained a constant behind each case’s co-ethnic migration politics, chapter 2 emphasizes the “huge room for arbitrariness” (p. 84) in the evaluation of Aussiedlung/Aliyah applications. Nevertheless, the 1950s marked a time of subjecting applicants to particular scrutiny, rigid criteria, and distrust. The typical criteria for co-ethnic recognition in the FRG included having relatives in West Germany and knowledge of German. Moreover, as part of Panagiotidis’s wider observation of the impact of the political Zeitgeist on each country’s selection policies, he notes that the politically conservative 1950s put an applicant from Croatia to the FRP, who had been a soldier in the Wehrmacht, in better standing than one who fought against the latter in the resistance. In contrast to these criteria, the new nation-building Israelis erected a “‘medical border’ (p. 108)” in search for the fittest, most useful, and finest (in the cultural/racial sense) Oleh. As Panagiotidis points out, North African Jewish Aliya applicants faced the most likely rejections due to “cultural imagery representing oriental immigrants as backward, lazy, and prone to sickness,” while Ashkenazy Jews from Poland were favored as “diligent and productive members of the middle class” (p. 109).

Chapter 3 offers more of a bottom-up view of the selection process, in that it examines how actual cases of applicants were handled. Panagiotidis focuses on marginal or ambiguous cases in a wider effort “to spell out border belonging and not belonging” (p. 4). He takes particular interest in applicants that highlight the transnational connection between his two case studies, such as German Jews who applied for Aussiedlung to the FRG after they made Aliyah to Israel, and who tended to be treated as belonging to Jewish rather than German nations. With regard to the Israeli case studies, he looks at a case of Brother Daniel, who applied for Aliyah as a former Jew and descendant of Jews, but was rejected on grounds of being a Christian convert. Based on such cases, Panagiotidis argues that in neither of the two case studies was ethnicity or descent sufficient for applicant acceptance. In the FRG, cultural elements, such as language, and German descent were neither enough nor as important for acceptance as Bekenntnis. In the case of Israel, being a descendant of Jews also did not suffice if the applicant was not Jewish.

In chapter 4, Panagiotidis looks at the era from the mid-1960s to mid-1970s marked by Ostpolitik (in the FRG) and détente, which he refers to as a “watershed in the history of co-ethnic immigration to West Germany and Israel” (p. 196). The turning point was the liberalization of admission policies in both states, whereby both came to resemble one another more than ever before in this regard. Both now allowed for descendants of their target group (Germans/Jews abroad) to be admitted as Aussiedler/Oleh, and in this and other respects became “more inclusive, less selective, and focused on migrants with conceptually more remote links to each nation,” which Panagiotidis refers to as “derived Germans and Jews” (pp. 196-97). During this era, both cases also commonly drew from Eastern Europe and the USSR. In fact, Israel changed the Law of Return, which was at the crux of its co-ethnic regime, so that descendancy “could be claimed from any Jew, anytime, anywhere, down to two generations” (p. 237). In contrast, the FRG restricted its inclusion of descendants to only the first postwar generation of those of self-avowed Germans from Eastern Europe. Nevertheless, this bold move turned German co-ethnics in this region into “‘long-distance’ citizens” of sorts and thus gave co-migration to the FRG the “return” character of its Israeli counterpart (p. 204).

The fifth and last chapter focuses on the 1980s and the first post-Cold War decade. In contrast to the preceding era covered in chapter 4, in this one the two cases became different from one another. However, Panagiotidis sees this as a continuity rather than an alternation in the “political, ideological, institutional, and legal developments in both countries” due to the unique condition each faced after the “breakdown of the common Cold War framework” (p. 248). This chapter allots the bulk of its space to official debates on co-ethnic migration within the (the pre- and post-unification) FRG and Israel. In the former, migration based on Aussiedler status became a tenet of the center-Right and expellee associations, while the Left sought to remove the ethnic basis of migration in general. Moreover, the FRG made substantial policy changes, which Panagiotidis characterizes as a greater “ethnicization” of migration requirements (p. 248). This includes a ruling on the wartime (Nazi) Volksliste, especially category 3 thereof, that excluded it as a basis for proving national belonging. In that respect, he claims that this “implied being ethnically more selective than the Nazis: Slavs who were German enough to be included in the Volksliste and received conditional citizenship in the Second World War were not German enough to be recognized as German Volkszugehörige in the late 1980s” (p. 274). Finally, in the early 1990s, Germans enacted a forthcoming end to Aussielder migration by making 1992 the birth year cutoff for anyone eligible to claim this status based on descent. In the Israeli case, Panagiotidis examines debates between Orthodox, secular conservatives and liberal factions over issues such as who is a Jew and whether a Jewish convert should qualify for Aliyah. At one point, he notes that the Israeli-Palestinian demographic struggle drove secular conservatives to drop their former “puritan practice” of calling for restriction and embrace loose criteria to acquire “a better biological stock for the country from Russia in the 1980s” (pp. 227-8). Unlike in the FRG, no change was made to Israeli policy from the previous decades, and thus co-ethnic migration was left to continue indefinitely. However, in practice, Panagiotidis points out that “due to domestic problems” Aliyah encountered a serious slump in the 1980s and 90s, unlike Aussiedlung (p. 277). Moreover, Jews from the former Soviet Union preferred to come to the FRG as “Jewish quota refugees,” a migrant category the German government created as part “ethnicization” of applicant acceptance (p. 248).

The conclusion provides an extensive summary of the major comparisons and contrasts between the two cases, the major arguments, and the overarching context of ethnic nationalism and unmixing. The chapter endnotes and bibliography demonstrate the extensive research Panagiotidis undertook in German and Israeli archives, where he examined records, which included, but were not limited to, those of ministries, parliaments, immigration courts.

Overall, this is work is pathbreaking in its painstaking efforts to comparatively analyze two case studies, which were quite different on account of their global location and their internal affairs. Panagiotidis’s major contribution is the offering of a useful analytical framework for the study of ethnic nationalism, and particularly, state migration policies based on notions of belonging to the nation. The terms he coins, for example, gatekeepers (“bouncers”) and external and internal gates, as well as his deep insight into the multifaceted nature of policymaking and selection practices will surely be of interest not just to historians but anthropologists, sociologists, and political scientists. The intensity of the analysis of this study makes it an important contribution to studies on nationalism, comparative world history, Europe and the Middle East, Jewish history, European, German, and Israeli history, in addition to, as Panagiotidis claims, scholarship on “citizenship, migration control, medical borders and national building through immigration” (p. 21). Although he does emphasize the importance of migrant experiences, especially borderline cases, the vast majority of this book takes a top-down (official policy) focus. Nevertheless, this extensive transnational treatment of migration to (West) Germany and Israel is a welcome contribution to a scarce literature connecting Central Europe with the Middle East. However, in this regard, its author tends to hold back from any extensive critical engagement with the Israeli “nation building” he commonly cites it as a motive for policies marked by racial discrimination (e.g., preference for white Aliyah applicants from Eastern Europe over nonwhites from Africa). This notwithstanding, Unchosen Ones is a masterfully analyzed, well written, and pathbreaking contribution to global and comparative history of ethnic nationalism and return migration.

Peter Polak-Springer is Associate Professor of Modern History at Qatar University and works on borderlands, contested spaces, and forced migration in Central Europe and the Middle East during the twentieth century.   


[1]. Rogers Brubaker, “Aftermaths of Empire and the Unmixing of Peoples,” in Nationalism Reframed: Nationhood and the National Question in the New Europe, ed. Rogers Brubaker (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 148-78.

[2]. Examples include Omer Bartov and Eric Weitz, eds., Shatterzone of Empires: Coexistence and Violence in the German, Habsburg, Russian, and Ottoman Borderlands (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013); Pieter M. Judson, The Habsburg Empire: A New History (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2018); Tara Zahra, Kidnapped Souls: National Indifference and the Battle for Children in the Bohemian Lands, 1900-1948 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008); Timothy Snyder, Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999); Alexander Prusin, The Lands in Between: Conflict in the East European Borderlands, 1870-1992 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010); Steven Béla Várdy, T. Hunt Tooley, and Otto von Habsburg, eds., Ethnic Cleansing in Twentieth-Century Europe (Boulder, CO: Social Science Monographs, 2003); Hugo Service, Germans to Poles: Communism, Nationalism and Ethnic Cleansing after the Second World War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013); Gregor Thum, Uprooted: How Breslau Became Wroclaw during the Century of Expulsions (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011); Eagle Glassheim, Cleansing the Czechoslovak Borderlands: Migration, Environment, and Health in the Former Sudetenland (Pittsburg: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016); and Peter Polak-Springer, Recovered Territory: The German-Polish Conflict Over Land and Culture, 1919-1989 (New York: Berghahn Books, 2015).

[3]. See David Rock and Stefan Wolff, eds., Coming Home to Germany?: The Integration of Ethnic Germans from Central and Eastern Europe in the Federal Republic (New York: Berghahn, 2002); and Manuel, Borutta and Jan C. Jansen, Vertriebene and Pieds-Noirs in Postwar Germany and France: Comparative Perspectives (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

[4]. See R. K. Silbereisen, Peter F. Titzmann, and Yossi Shavit, The Challenges of Diaspora Migration: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Israel and Germany (London: Routledge, 2016); and Takeyuki Tsuda, Diasporic Homecomings Ethnic Return Migration in Comparative Perspective (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009).

[5]. See Pertti, Ahonen, After the Expulsion: West Germany and Eastern Europe 1945-1990 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010); and Andrew Demshuk, The Lost German East: Forced Migration and the Politics of Memory, 1945-1970 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

[6]. See Rogers Brubaker, Ethnicity Without Groups (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006).

Citation: Peter Polak-Springer. Review of Panagiotidis, Jannis, The Unchosen Ones: Diaspora, Nation, and Migration in Israel and Germany. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. August, 2020. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55111

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