Crossing the Political Divide: Transborder Workers during the Cold War between Eastern, Western and Southern Europe

Crossing the Political Divide: Transborder Workers during the Cold War between Eastern, Western and Southern Europe

Sarah Lemmen, Universidad Complutense de Madrid
Vom - Bis
24.03.2022 - 25.03.2022
Florence Klauda, Institut für Zeitgeschichte, Universität Wien

In recent years, calls for a more diversified approach to Cold War History have multiplied. Reaching beyond the traditional narrative of the bipolar conflict in a divided world and acknowledging the agencies of widely overlooked actors within the Cold War context have become central aims of a growing number of research projects and platforms as György Péteri’s „Nylon Curtain“ metaphor keeps gaining traction. The present workshop brought together scholarship on Eastern and Southern Europe and put forward an actor-centred perspective on the divides and interactions that shaped Cold War realities all across Europe. Focussing on transborder workers, whose activities are defined by their crossing of borders relevant to the Cold War context, the workshop participants discussed four different kinds of crossborder interactions as well as their potentials to contributing to a more nuanced and complete understanding of Cold War realities.

The first panel centred on illegal and informal relations and raised the question whether researchers should view transborder actors as individual actors or if they must be considered within their wider networks to comprehend their agencies and constraints. In his account on seafarer’s smuggling and trading activities between the Polish Republic and the West, their material impact and the economic opportunities smuggling presented for Seafarers and Polish Society, ROBERT ANDRZEJCZYK (Rzeszów) emphasised that the Seafarers’ professional traits and customs of secrecy was beneficial for illegal smuggling.

Similarly, MATTHIAS KALTENBRUNNER’s (Vienna) account on Vienna’s informal car market in the 1980s featured former racing drivers and mechanics as its key actors and pointed to the importance of the smugglers’ biographical backgrounds and informal networks in understanding their entanglements with Polish Security Services and the dynamics of the illegal car trading system. Kaltenbrunner also raised the question whether bringing the objects’ agencies into the fold might offer clarification on the actual impact of the crossborder relations entertained by transborder workers.

SANA BENBELLI (Casablanca), who talked about the role of women workers in the postcolonial crossborder mobility between Ceuta and Morocco, showed how informal and illegal trade networks between these two territories relied on familial ties, responsibilities as caregivers and dependencies of this system’s mostly female foot workers. This not only highlighted the significant gender imbalances that emerge in the study of transborder workers but also added nuance to the discussion of their in-between-positions granting access to goods and contacts and of their actual agencies.

With her study of the Czechoslovak port zone in Hamburg, SARAH LEMMEN (Madrid) presented a slightly different approach to transborder workers as her primary focus lay on their interactions with actual space that represented a socialist enclave on Western territory. Lemmen discussed the Czechoslovak port workers' access to the West as well as the strategies developed within the port zone to accommodate Eastern workers in order to limit the appeal of the West.

In the discussion of these four papers, it became apparent that investigating transborder workers involved in illegal or informal relations bares the challenge of incorporating the actors’ perspectives due to lacking source material and to their own reticence to share their stories.

The second panel turned towards (legal) professional border crossings between East and West and discussed the challenges these posed for individual actors in terms of their countries’ political agendas or of cultural discrepancies they had to face. MARIIA ZIMINA (Giessen) presented the inner workings of the 1950s Soviet correspondence network abroad. According to Zimina, cultural aspects and language skills were largely disregarded in the recruitment of journalists, who also served as cultural diplomats within the Soviet embassies, up until the mid-1950s. Along with the incapacity of bridging the spatial and intellectual distances between them and their audiences this undermined the networks efficacity and reputation.

In his analysis of the Czechoslovak travel agency ČEDOK and its branches abroad between 1948 to 1989, PAVEL MÜCKE (Prague) focussed on their employees’ travel and working experiences. Mücke showed that the mostly young and female employees often saw these stints abroad as professional opportunities. To preserve the brand’s reputation the ČEDOK’s foreign branches political instrumentalisation was severely reduced from the 1970s.

The discussion of an architecture competition for a new opera in Madrid from 1964 to 1966, won by Polish architects who were then prevented from building the Spanish opera house, allowed JOSÉ M. FARALDO JARILLO (Madrid) to raise the question whether cultural differences at times were harder to overcome for transborder workers than the political ones. He argued that it might have been the miscommunications and distinct working cultures that impeded the project’s realisation by the Polish architects, rather than political considerations, as there is no evidence supporting the latter explanation.

The workshop participants went on to discussing the reliability of archival source material – or the lack thereof – when it comes to evaluating the political agendas of autocratic regimes that did or did not constrain professional transborder workers’ activities as well as defection or flight as side products of these relations.

The third kind of crossborder relations discussed was the one entertained by Eastern and Southern guest workers. CARLOS J. SANZ (Madrid) presented the opportunities that arose from the post-war guest worker programmes for Spanish migrant workers, who experienced democratic participation in West Germany between 1960 and 1980. Their interactions with workers’ unions and other migrant workers allowed them to become politically active and to express their disagreement with Franco’s rule from another country.

Focussing on a variety of source material through which Yugoslav guest workers expressed themselves with regard to their everyday life, BRIGITTE LE NORMAND (Maastricht) discussed the complex relations between guest workers, their host and their home countries. Often, they formed attachments to their host countries between culture shocks, hostility, and improved living conditions all the while being faced with rejection and a sense of non-belonging in their home countries and struggling with their personal identities.

LUIS G. MARTÍNEZ DEL CAMPO (Madrid) explained how Franco’s coercive migration diplomacy led to complications in the daily border crossing of migrant workers between Spain and Gibraltar, resulting in the closure of the border in 1969 and the subsequent exchange of the migrant workers for those from the African coast.

In their exchange on these contributions, the workshop participants stressed the need to further develop both gender-specific aspects of guest workers’ crossborder relations and the different forms of agency guest workers could develop depending on their interactions with unions and with other migrants.

Finally, the fourth panel focussed on Southern and Eastern European academics and their temporary research stays abroad, and on the institutions that enabled these academic exchanges in East, West, and South. Western German fellowships such as those given out by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, the Deutsch-Akademischer Austauschdienst (DAAD) and the Goethe Institute and their distribution to academics from socialist countries were at the centre of IRINA NASTASA-MATEI’s (Bucharest) presentation. She focused on the difficulties that academics faced in the application process due to the involvement of the socialist countries’ secret police and to the German institution’ changing prioritisation policies with regard to Eastern applicants.

SŁAWOMIR ŁUKASIEWICZ (Lublin) presented the case of the Catholic University of Lublin and of the foreign stipends specifically funded for its professors and lecturers in the Cold War years. These stipends grew out of partnerships with several universities and libraries in Western European countries. They allowed for academic stays abroad of approximately 40 researchers and also generated book transfers.

CAROLINA RODRÍGUEZ LÓPEZ (Madrid) then turned toward transatlantic academic mobility between the European South and the West in her presentation on the Fundación del Amo’s Scholarships and Projects. The Del Amo Foundation funded mostly male, Spanish scholars whose loyalty to the Franco regime was unquestioned and whose work was deemed useful to the Spanish state’s development.

The discussion of these papers circled around the questions of cultural and ideological transfers in the context of these academic exchanges, of the restricted access to information on these funding options that excluded certain actors from partaking in them and of the possibility to investigate individual actors who went through these funding programs.

In the closing discussion, the workshop participants agreed that transborder workers constitute a productive category of analysis in the disentangling of transnational Cold War realities. They direct our attentions to several different levels of agency and to networks that circumvented traditional divides. The joint analysis of Eastern and Southern European case studies further showed that borders and their respective importance in the Cold War context need to be reconsidered. The fruitfulness of the exchanges as well as the shared enthusiasm for the common research interests made this a particularly rewarding and entertaining event. It is safe to say that the outcome of the participants’ further collaboration can be awaited with great anticipation.

Conference overview:

Panel I: Informal and Illegal Cross-border Relations

Robert Andrzejczyk (Rzeszów): Seafarers as Liaisons between the Polish People's Republic and the West. Smuggling and Trading Activities

Sarah Lemmen (Madrid): Up and Down the River Elbe: Czechoslovak Bargemen between East and West

Matthias Kaltenbrunner (Vienna): Racing Drivers and Mechanics: Vienna as Hub of the Informal Car Market in the 1980s

Sana Benbelli and Abdallah Zouhairi (Casablanca): Postcolonial Mobilities: Cross-border Women Workers between Ceuta and Morocco

Panel II: Professional Border Crossings between East and West

Mariia Zimina (Giessen): Think Globally, Act Locally: Soviet Correspondent Network Abroad in the 1950s

Pavel Mücke (Prague): Czechoslovak Introducers to the Cold War International Reality/ies: A Short Look at ČEDOK’s Tourism Branches Abroad and their Staff (1948–1989)

José M. Faraldo Jarillo (Madrid): Disappointments at the Other Side. Working on a New Opera in Madrid (1964–1966) #

_Panel III: Guest Workers between East and West

Brigitte Le Normand (Maastricht): Everyday Life of Yugoslav Guest Workers, in their Own Words

Carlos J. Sanz (Madrid): Spanish Migrant Workers in West Germany between Dictatorship and Democracy (1960–1980): a Microhistory of the Cold War

Luis G. Martínez del Campo (Madrid): Caught in the Crossfire. Spanish Cross-Border Workers and Franco’s Coercive Diplomacy in Gibraltar, 1945–1975

Panel IV: Academics Abroad

Irina Nastasă-Matei (Bucharest): Cold War Mobilities: Students and Researchers from Socialist Countries in West Germany

Sławomir Łukasiewicz (Lublin/Harvard): Foreign Stipends Founded for the Professors and Lecturers of the Catholic University of Lublin during the Cold War

Carolina Rodríguez López (Madrid): Creating Experts for Francoist Spain: Scholarships and Projects of the Fundación del Amo in the United States in the Cold War