Reading/Rethinking Refugees with Sebastian Wogenstein

Sebastian Wogenstein, professor of German and Comparative Literature, presented the fourth of this year’s LCL colloquia series lectures in a talk entitled Reading/Rethinking Refugees. He began with a breakdown of the numbers of current worldwide refugees to illuminate why the issue is such a pressing one. Wogenstein referred to the refugee crisis as “one of the most urgent and consequential issues of our time,” quoting the UNHCR (2015), saying that as many as 65.3 million people are forcibly displaced worldwide, 21.3 million of them, refugees. He noted that the reaction of most governments has been to close borders in order to limit influx and compares this practice to the closing of borders to Jews in World War II. Wogenstein highlighted the countries that are currently hosting large numbers of refugees, including Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Ethiopia, and Jordan.

Wogenstein reflected mainly on the works of two authors, German-born Jewish American political philosopher, Hannah Arendt, and the Austrian playwright and novelist, Elfriede Jelinek. Through his discussion, he showed the continued relevance of Arendt’s work, especially of We Refugees originally published in the Menorah Journal in 1943 to today’s refugee crisis. Arendt’s idea that refugees live and die without leaving a trace remains particularly relevant today, Wogenstein explained. He cited statistics of refugees who have drowned in the Mediterranean, numbers that are not complete of given our inability to recover every body lost at sea. What this means is that we do not know the identities of many of these victims.

Against this backdrop, Wogenstein then turned to Jelinek’s play, which draws attention to the refugee experience as an essential element of the human condition. Within Jelinek’s play, characters who are being persecuted are seen as “Jews”, though they are nothing but human beings. This points to the conclusion that in a world where only sovereignty counts, only your national belonging can protect you. “Human beings have ceased to exist in our society for a while,” stated Wogenstein, alluding to the claim supported by Jelinek’s play: national identity has taken precedence over humanity. Through his discussion of both Arendt’s and Jelinek’s work, Wogenstein forced us to rethink the refugee experience as well as the concept of human rights, both in history and the current political moment.

By Ayjan Arik