“This is us” - Questions for Soňa Mikulová

May 03, 2024

Historian Soňa Mikulová from the Center for the History of Emotions focuses on the emotional integration of the Sudeten German expellees after 1945. In this interview, she discusses her research and what lessons we can draw for current integration debates, as well as her upcoming projects. In our series "This is Us," colleagues answer questions about their work and motivation. 

One of your research topics at the Center for History of Emotions is the emotional integration of the Sudeten German expellees after 1945. What exactly is your project about?      

Soňa Mikulová: The emotional dimension of integration, as I understand it in my research, goes beyond legal, social and economic integration, which are usually the ultimate goals of current immigration policies. Simply put, it deals with the process, in which newcomers start to feel at home in the new environment, including a sense of belonging to the host society and a sense of attachment to the new living space. The case of the German expellees, not only the Sudeten Germans, provides a unique opportunity for the investigation of this process.  

In the immediate post-war years, around twelve million ethnic Germans originally residing in the former German provinces, in present-day Poland, Czechia and other countries in south-eastern Europe came to Germany. The so-called Sudeten Germans, who had fled or been expelled from Czechoslovakia, formed the second largest group numbering around three million people.  

Although from a legal perspective, these so-called homeland expellees were equal from the beginning to the local Germans, and since the late 1950s, their social and economic situation has significantly improved, so that by the end of the 1960s, it was largely comparable to that of the local population, many of them still did not feel at home in the new environment until the end of their lives. The word "home/land" - in German, "Heimat" - was reserved for the place of their birth, the land of their ancestors, the city where they lived, or the intimately familiar landscape they had cultivated for many decades and centuries. 

The emotional attachment to the former homeland, which could have had various forms and intensities, even though the expellees otherwise felt content and fully integrated in their new home, is the focus of my research interest.  

Where did you get your research idea from?  What fascinates you about this topic?   

Soňa Mikulová: In 2017, Max Planck Society's research initiative Challenges of Migration, Integration and Exclusion was launched in order to investigate the so-called refugee crisis. I took part in this initiative as a historian with my study on Sudeten German expellees, particularly their integration into church communities. While analysing historical sources, I was struck by their relevance in the light of recent waves of migration; some parallels in contemporary political and media discourse were astonishing. At the same time, I was fascinated by the diversity and variability of these discourses over the decades; the presence of emotions (in narratives and experiences) of German expellees in the public sphere experienced a new boom after German’s reunification. I am still fascinated by the continuing media interest and the commitment of those affected, especially the last witness generation who experienced the expulsion as children and have only fragmentary or no personal memories of their former homeland. 

What is both intriguing and revealing is the fact that I, a Czech without family ties to Germans, whether expelled or not, am researching this history. Just thirty years ago, this would have certainly elicited negative reactions from both Sudeten Germans and Czech society. 

What are your sources and do you already have results that you can share with us?  

Soňa Mikulová: In West Germany, some expellees joined specific homeland associations and actively participated in political and cultural activities. This led to the creation of numerous written documents found in national media, self-produced periodicals, and archives. In contrast, in East Germany, the preservation of the expellees' unique regional cultural heritage was prohibited, and emotions tied to their former homeland were – if at all – expressed only in private settings. As a result, I heavily rely on semi-structured oral history interviews, personal records such as letters and memoirs, and expellee periodicals. Sometimes, surprising findings emerge, contradicting the prevailing narrative of tabooed and suppressed expellees in East Germany versus politically engaged and prevalent expellees in West Germany. Moreover, through analyzing these sources, I've concluded that because only a minority of expellees were involved in expellee associations, the majority of Sudeten German expellees in West Germany developed and maintained similar emotional practices within their families as those in East Germany. The similarities became even more pronounced after reunification.  

Why is it important to research and understand the history of the Sudeten German expellees for today's society? 

Soňa Mikulová: In today's world, where the phenomenon of migration is becoming increasingly relevant in everyday life, this study highlights that emotions are an important factor influencing migration and integration processes both before leaving the original home and after arrival to the receiving society, with very long-lasting repercussions. It also demonstrates the persistence of certain emotions and the transformation of others throughout the decades due to political, social and generational changes. Last but not least, it provides a unique complementary perspective on the German-German postwar history, both before and after the reunification, illustrating how different political and socio-economic regimes shaped the same emotions and thus the community building in both German states. 

Can we learn something for the integration of today's displaced persons/refugees?  

Soňa Mikulová: I admit that, sometimes, the parallels and analogies in different case studies are quite striking and obvious. Therefore, it is tempting to try to draw specific solutions from past experiences. However, as a historian of emotions, I want to emphasize the necessity of studying each case separately within its historical, social, and cultural context, where specific emotions are embedded. I am excited to announce that the anthology of articles Migrant Emotions: Inclusion and Exclusion in Transnational Spaces  I co-edited, which precisely illustrates this message, is almost ready to be published. 

What topic are you planning to investigate next? 

Soňa Mikulová: I am currently exploring the phenomenon of the so-called Heimat tourism od Sudeten Germans, trying to find out how these trips and regular visits have influenced the sense of belonging to the former homeland of those expelled living in West Germany and East Germany. However, I am also intrigued to learn more about the perspectives and experiences of Germans who could and had to stay in the postwar Czechoslovakia. Therefore, once I finish my current research, I would like to geographically shift closer to my own homeland and examine much broadly German-Czech relations through the phenomenon of Sudeten German expellees and their emotions from the end of the World War II until nowadays. 

Why did you choose science? Is there someone who inspired you? 

Soňa Mikulová: I can't recall any specific moment when I decided to pursue science, nor could I say when or why I started reading Sherlock Holmes stories, which I loved as a child. What I enjoy about studying history is that by systematically searching for evidence and examining it from various angles and sources, I have the opportunity, much like a detective, to uncover connections that would otherwise remain hidden beneath the surface. It's all the more fascinating because each era reacts to the preceding ones and, in some ways, builds upon them. While I don't believe history can teach us to avoid past mistakes since situations are never exactly the same, knowledge of history can certainly help us correct our beliefs and judgments about current events. This is evident in the many completely unbelievable events that have occurred in the past, where history has taken very unexpected turns. Consequently, it can be unsettling and yet reassuring to realize that history is not a single-perspective narrative and doesn't always unfold in a straightforward manner. 

What do you appreciate about the Max Planck Community?   

Soňa Mikulová: Speaking about the Max Planck Society, I was fortunate to experience both fruitful and enriching collaboration among junior and senior researchers from six MP institutes, which provided grounds for further research and intellectual exchanges, resulting in the aforementioned anthology. 

Speaking about our institute, I am very grateful that I could work in such a wonderful and unique environment. Not only was it inspiring due to the diversity of colleagues and visiting researchers, but also because of the opportunity to observe current research in other Centers. Moreover, this building, surrounded by a beautiful garden, offers additional opportunities and benefits, of which I joyfully took advantage. This includes professional support from non-scientific colleagues and student assistants, exceptional commitment from librarians, and the dedication of the canteen staff - all of which contribute to a vibrant community that gives work itself additional meaning and value. 

Further information:

Cancian, S., Leese, P., & Mikulová, S. (in press). Migrant emotions: Inclusion and exclusion in transnational spaces. Liverpool University Press.

Other Interesting Articles

Go to Editor View