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Key to Transformation is Understanding the ‘Fatherland’

The parallels between the political environment of the “Arab Spring” countries and Cold War Germany can be striking, according to Alexander Clarkson, author of Fragmented Fatherland: Immigration and Cold War Conflict in the Federal Republic of Germany, 1945-1980. In these cases, when diaspora communities returned to their countries of origin, there was an energy for activism and a flurry of political activity. Following, Clarkson notes that taking a page from West German history could prove useful in modern Libyan, Syrian and Tunisian politics.




In the chaotic days after the Ghadaffi regime lost control of the city of Benghazi in February 2011, hundreds of exiled Libyans returned to the liberated parts of their country to help play a role in the transformation of a state that had been under authoritarian rule for more than forty years.


Faced with the task of organizing military defense against the old regime and restoring stability to cities that had fallen out of its control, a newly established National Transitional Council (NTC) opened itself to any experienced, popular or well-connected individual who could help the revolt succeed. In this febrile environment dozens of returning émigrés such as Ali Tarhouni or Ali Zeidan, as well as defectors from the regime who had spent most of their careers abroad such as Mahmoud Jibril, maneuvered themselves into senior positions in the NTC, a platform which enabled them to take a prominent role in the highest levels of the post-revolutionary Libyan elite.


As in Libya, over the past three years returned exiles and immigrants have played a key role in all the states that have experienced turmoil as a consequence of the political turmoil that spread from Tunisia from January 2011 onwards.


Many prominent Islamist leaders such as the current Tunisian Prime Minister Rachid Gannouchi spent decades in exile in London or Paris, while secular leaders such as Mohammed El Baradei or Mohammad Magariaf also built entire careers in various European or North American countries of settlement.


Yet this reconnection between diaspora communities and the politics of countries of origin is not just a characteristic of Middle East and North African societies in the aftermath of the uprisings of 2011. After the collapse of Soviet-backed regimes in late 1980s Eastern Europe, returning exiles and even second-generation members of diaspora networks came to play a political role in their countries of origin. While in Poland or Hungary such figures had limited impact, returning exiles played a key role in a turn to nationalist politics in Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia that helped to tear the Yugoslav Federation apart.


While many prominent former exiles went on to build more or less successful careers in their countries of origin, in the preceding decades they often lived in semi-obscurity in the United States and Europe. Despite the need to find regular employment, in their spare time most of them engaged in intensive political activity.


Often, this work proved fruitless, barely garnering the attention of European or North American governments more interested in maintaining day to day relations with established regimes in the Middle East and the Balkans. Yet at times of heightened tension between Western states and their countries of origin, diaspora activists and the organizations they helped establish would often kick into high gear with the aim of using such a crisis to help bring down their political opponents in their “homeland.”


Though these efforts often proved fruitless, as we have seen in the Western Balkans of the early 1990s or the Middle East and North Africa after 2011, sometimes a particular historical juncture has given members of such diaspora networks the opportunity to return and play a major role in a process of political transformation. In such moments when entire political systems are in flux, the political experience and social links such figures have developed in the societies to which they were exiled can give them a particular advantage during fraught political transitions.


In Fragmented Fatherland Immigration and Cold War Conflict in the Federal Republic of Germany 1945 – 1980, I explore how such political leaders and movements within diaspora communities tried to promote their own particular ideological agendas in post-war West Germany. Exploring the experience of different political networks within the Ukrainian, Spanish, Greek, Iranian, Algerian and Croatian communities, my book examines the reasons why certain groups successfully influenced West German foreign policy towards their countries of origin, while others failed to make a lasting impact. Hostility or support for ideologies that could be construed as being potentially pro-Communist often determined whether the West German state would support or suppress immigrant political movements. Yet the exact nature of West German state responses could differ markedly depending on the internal social structures of immigrant communities.


Over time, activist networks within each of the communities examined in Fragmented Fatherland developed their own complex relationships with West German state institutions and political milieus. While some groups, such as Spanish Socialists or Ukrainian émigrés managed to draw on the support of West German political parties at the heart of the state establishment such as the SPD or CDU, other activist networks within the Iranian and Croatian communities built alliances with extreme left- or right-wing movements hostile to the constitutional order of the Federal Republic. Yet whatever kind of political engagement immigrant movements developed with the West German political scene, their involvement with various German ideological networks during the Cold War did not leave them unaffected. Over the course of the 1970s and 1980s the links immigrant activists developed with their West German counterparts helped interweave the domestic politics of the Federal Republic with that of their countries of origin during a period in which “homeland” states such as Greece, Spain or Croatia were experiencing wrenching political transitions.


While Fragmented Fatherland largely focuses on the beginnings of this process during the height of the Cold War, there are fascinating parallels with the biographies and fate of former exiles that have come to play a leading role in Middle East and North African states experiencing political turmoil in the wake of the (half-) revolutions of 2011. Just as many of the leading figures influencing the development of Greece and Spain in the mid-1970s or Ukraine and Croatia in the early 1990s had a range of contacts and enemies in the countries that had been their refuge, so many of the key players in Libya, Syria or Tunisia have their own links with various political milieus in Europe, North America and the Gulf states. While exploring interactions between immigrant movements and West German milieus can provide fresh insights into the politics of Cold War Europe, perhaps greater attention to how exile shaped the worldview of key groups in a post-“Arab Spring” world can therefore provide us with a better understanding of the political dynamics of states such as Libya, Syria or Tunisia.




Alexander Clarkson studied Modern History at Balliol College, Oxford, where he completed his doctorate. He is currently Lecturer in the German and European Studies Departments at King’s College London.