Writing the Refugee: British Writers and the Displaced, 1920-50

My current project is called Writing the Refugee: British Writers and the Displaced, 1920-1950.

typewriter
Flickr user theloushe via Creative Commons

After World War One, Europe saw an unprecedented number of refugees fleeing political persecution, with an estimated 20 million people displaced by World War Two, many within the borders of their own countries (Gatrell, 2013). Amongst these were leading authors, academics and intellectuals such as Thomas Mann, the Freuds and Bertolt Brecht, all forced to move abroad, many passing through the UK. For certain British writers this persecution constituted an attack on European civilisation, as they understood it, and many, such as E.M. Forster, H.G. Wells and Storm Jameson –  to name only a few – came to write and speak in support of their displaced colleagues.

My project seeks to answer the following questions:

  1. Why were British writers so active in helping refugee writers?
  1. How did they work together and through organisations such as the PEN (Poets, Essayists and Novelists) Club to do this?
  1. How did their ideas about Europe and what it meant to be European galvanise them in this attempt somehow to “save” European culture through rescuing these writers?
  1. How did they advocate for this cause in their written work?
  1. What exactly do they mean when they refer to ‘European culture’ or ‘European civilisation’ and is it always the same thing?

The project will map the growing belief among writers and intellectuals following World War One that Europe was in a state of decline, and that the refugee represented both its fate at the hands of the Nazis and its salvation, at the hands of the British.

Initial research on this project is already underway.

It was presented as part of Durham University’s Late Summer Lectures Programme.

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