Fluid Boundaries?

Bridge connecting Zgorzelec (PL) and Görlitz (DE)

Few things represent the nature and implied permanence of the modern nation-state more effectively than its borders, which inscribe relationships between states into space and therefore into the everyday lives of citizens and non-citizens. Yet borders themselves are notoriously impermanent, and few within Europe more problematically so than those between Germany and its two largest neighbors, France and Poland. The border regimes established along the Rhine River and Oder-Neisse line after 1945 simultaneously constituted frameworks for reckoning with the Second World War, steps in the integration of each Cold War bloc, and sources of old animosities, new inequalities, and shared problems. How West German and French citizens on the one hand and East Germans and Poles on the other related to one another in everyday life within these border regions can tell us much about constructions of “Europe” from the bottom up—and about their limits.

This research project will focus on how French, Polish, and East and West German residents incorporated borders into day-to-day practices connected with work and leisure; how they appropriated state discourses and narratives of “Europe” or of “socialist fraternity” for use in local conflicts; and how they turned environmental, economic, and social problems in their immediate area into “international” issues. By bringing together examples from both Eastern and Western Europe, I will highlight similarities and unexpected entanglements that existed across the so-called Iron Curtain and which have subtly shaped contemporary understandings of “Europe.” This project will thus make an important contribution to the history of Europeanization, complicating straightforward narratives of progress (i.e. from Schuman to Schengen) by demonstrating how cross-border contact fostered resentment and indifference as well as reconciliation and by showing how relations developed in tandem in East and West (however unevenly and asynchronously). At the same time, it will engage with a growing literature on everyday life (Alltagsgeschichte), spatial and material appropriation, and transnational environmental history.

Recent activities related to this research project include the following: