Post-Socialist Britain: Memory, Representation and Political Identity amongst German and Polish Immigrants in the UK

Lead Research Organisation: University of Birmingham
Department Name: Languages Cultures Art History & Music


What happens to the connection between collective memory and political identity in the process of migration? 'Post-Socialist Britain' takes as its point of departure the growth in support for anti-immigrant and Eurosceptic parties across Europe. Our focus is on post-socialist countries - that is, those with experience of state socialist rule. The support for right-of-centre and xenophobic politics has frequently been explained in these contexts as being underpinned by collective memory of authoritarianism, and/or the ways in which these histories are used by those seeking support for ethnonationalist politics. Nonetheless, those who give such explanations usually assume that those remembering authoritarianism do so in their country of origin. Post-Socialist Britain breaks out of this national mould to explore if and how memory is linked to political identity when the individual moves to a new national context.

In so doing, the project makes a substantial original contribution to scholarship in multiple fields: memory studies with an interest in transcultural/relational modes of remembrance; sociological work on integration and incorporation of immigrants; and political science accounts of the relationship between the past and present political behaviour. The urgency of this research is given not only by the political shift to the right across the continent, but also by the increase in xenoracism experienced by (especially) Central and Eastern European immigrants in the UK since the 2016 'Brexit' referendum. The presence of these individuals and memories in the UK means that Britain too can be thought of as post-socialist.

Political identity is influenced by a complex web of factors: e.g, constructions of ethnicity, social inclusion, community networks, and media representation. Post-Socialist Britain uses an innovative interdisciplinary methodology to explore this complexity; it combines narrative interviews, network analysis, media research and arts-based community work. It uses a case study approach, focusing on two comparable, but very different, groups: Polish and German immigrants in the UK. Poland and Germany both have memory cultures structured around the dual histories of National Socialism and communism, albeit in very different ways. They also represent two of the largest groups of EU immigrants currently living in the UK. Nonetheless, their experience of migration in terms of the size of their respective communities, constructions of ethnicity in different contexts, representation in culture and media, and radicalisation within the immigrant groups themselves differ substantially. These differences provide a unique opportunity to explore the elements that contribute to the formation of political identity and the role of memory within them.

The research findings of Post-Socialist Britain will lead to a better understanding of how immigrant groups negotiate different aspects of their identities and the factors that contribute to the development of political behaviour. The project will therefore also be of significance for multiple stakeholders who work towards promoting community cohesion and against xenophobia and extremism. We will work closely with Polish and German professional and community associations, policy-makers, immigrant communities, and schools in order to ensure that the findings are disseminated to and are usable by these beneficiary groups. Our project partners are: Centrala/Polish Expats Association, Polish Professionals in London, European's Welfare Association, British German Association, and Creative Black Country. The project will result in a diverse portfolio of outputs for different audiences: a single-authored monograph, a conference and special issue, five peer-reviewed journal articles, six stakeholder workshops, two policy briefings, a virtual and physical exhibition and series of artistic performances, school teaching resources, and press op-ed and opinion pieces.

Planned Impact

Post-Socialist Britain makes a unique and substantial contribution to our understanding of factors that influence integration and community cohesion. It will help us recognise the ways in which memory is interwoven with experiences in the destination country and how that contributes to political identity and behaviour, including xenophobia and extremism. We have identified four stakeholder groups for whom these findings will be essential. Representatives of these groups were consulted in the development of this bid and are project partners and/or Advisory Board members.

1.German and Polish professional and community associations in the UK have at the core of their remit support for immigrants in terms of integration and inclusion. Among the principle concerns of our project partners - Centrala/Polish Expats Association, Polish Professionals in London, the British-German Association, and European's Welfare Association - are the impact of 'Brexit', the growth in xenoracism directed at citizens of EU countries in the UK, and the increase in right-wing radicalisation among CEE immigrants. The research will support these associations by providing a better understanding of the ways in which media representation in the context of 'Brexit' interacts with personal experiences, heritage and networks to shape political responses. This nexus is at the heart of the problems identified by these stakeholders; such an improved understanding will therefore allow them to tailor their future activities to the needs of the communities they seek to represent.

2.There is an increasing interest among UK policymakers at a local and national level in the area of integration, community cohesion and radicalisation. The LGA guide 'Building Cohesive Communities' (March 2019) responded to central government's 'Integrated Communities Strategy Green Paper' (March 2018). In the two cities in which this research is located, this is articulated in the 'Community Cohesion Strategy' for Birmingham and the work of Nottingham City Council's 'Community Cohesion Team'. These policy documents share a concern to promote integrated communities with a view to reducing the risk of political extremism. The research findings will contribute directly to this agenda by generating better understanding of the ways in which multiple factors - including heritage and memory - are interwoven in the process of migration and their impact on political identity and behaviour.

3.Our project partners tell us that (particularly) Central and Eastern Europeans living in the UK often face barriers to inclusion as a result of stereotyping (especially in the context of the 'Brexit' referendum), a lack of cultural representation and a resultant withdrawal into 'closed' communities. The 'Communities' strand of the research addresses this directly by fostering dialogue across different groups around questions of heritage, culture and belonging. Individual members of these groups will have the opportunity to tell their own stories and represent themselves to one another and to a wider audience through an art exhibition and series of engagement events. The anticipated outcome is increased community integration and an improved sense of representation and inclusion.

4.A recent study has shown that children with a background of migration from CEE have suffered a rising level of bullying in schools across the UK since the 2016 referendum on Britain's membership of the EU (Sime et al., 2017). There is also evidence of a (perceived) increase in anti-German sentiment in the UK (McDonald 2016). Schools, especially those with sizeable groups of students with a history of migration from the region, are thus in urgent need of resources to tackle stereotyping and prejudice. The research directly addresses this need by providing materials that highlight the ways in which Britain is also post-Socialist and engaging students with the intertwined (migration) histories of Germany, Poland and the UK.


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