Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences - Institute of Asian and African Studies



The Borders of the Welfare State: Migration, Social Rights and Expulsion (1850-1933)

Project leader: Dr. Beate Althammer
Funding institution: Deutsche Forschungsgesellschaft
Funding period: 11/2018 – 01/2022
Second period:  02/2022 - 01/2024

In current academic and political debates, the tensions between European conceptions of the welfare state and transnational migration are a heatedly discussed issue. How can social promises be kept in times of globalization? Is welfare only feasible in “closed” nation states with tight border controls? Are social rights a privilege of national citizens, or are they a human right due also to foreign immigrants? And under what circumstances are deportations justifiable? Such questions have become a highly explosive and intensely scrutinized subject. Astonishingly little is known, however, about their historical dimensions. There exists by now a rich literature on the origins of modern welfare policies; migration history is flourishing too; and in recent years, the history of citizenship has attracted increasing attention. Yet, these have largely remained three separate strands of research: very few works have studied in detail how the European welfare states dealt with the challenges of migration in their formative phase – challenges that are not only troubling our present.   

This project aims at filling the research gap. Taking as its starting point the frequently postulated, but still poorly documented and probably too simplistic hypothesis that the status of aliens deteriorated inversely to the expansion of citizens’ rights with the rise of the modern nation and welfare state, it will explore the relationship between migrants and the institutions of social assistance in their country of residence from the mid-nineteenth century to the interwar period. In these decades, the “social question” ranked high on the political agendas of the emerging industrial societies, and at the same time long-distance labour migration gained momentum. The coincidence of intense social reform activity and high levels of geographic mobility posed the question of what national borders and national citizenship meant with a new kind of urgency. Who was to be entitled to the social benefits already established and envisioned for the future? Who was to be excluded from them? What was to happen with formally not entitled persons if they lost their work, their ability to work or their breadwinner and became destitute? The project will reconstruct the disputes about these issues on two intertwined levels: on the one hand at the level of everyday practices in dealing with (potentially) needy foreigners, looking at exemplary cities and regions; and on the other hand at the level of international treaties and reform initiatives that attempted to coordinate practices between countries. The aim is to write a transnational history of how European societies framed and handled the problem of migrants’ social claims in the early decades of welfare-state building around 1900, which will enlarge our knowledge about the antecedents of current debates.

This three year project (2018-2021) is funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) – project number 411657768.