In 1939, 16-year-old Hans Günter Flieg took a final photo in his hometown of Chemnitz, before he and his family emigrated to Brazil due to anti-Semitic persecution. Upon his arrival in São Paulo, he took the first photo of his exile home. Both pictures appear next to each other on a film strip. Here I focus on these photographs and bring together two concepts that are new to photography and exile research: the nomadic camera and dis:connectivity.
Image: Hans Günter Flieg, Last photograph taken in Chemnitz and first photograph in São Paulo, 1939, credit: Hans Gunter Flieg / Instituto Moreira Salles Collection.
Flieg photographed with an Agfa roll film (Isopan F) suitable for 35mm cameras. He worked with Leica equipment that his parents had purchased in anticipation of his planned emigration to Brazil. Flieg had been taking a photography course with Grete Kaplus at the Berlin Jewish Museum since March 1939. This enabled his family to justify the purchase of cameras for professional reasons and to prepare their son for a career as a photographer and a livelihood abroad.
The film strip shows two black-and-white shots: on the left is a view from the window of a street with buildings in the Gründerzeit style. Multi-storey apartment buildings stand on a residential street densely planted with a row of trees. The view of the camera — aimed from one of the upper floors of a building — leads past a residential building; on the left is a broad part with a cloudy sky.
Flieg was taking pictures from his parents’ flat, which was located in the Kaßberg district of Chemnitz. Since the turn of the twentieth century, with the industrial boom in the city, the area was considered an upscale and exquisitely built residential district. Flieg’s photo was taken in August 1939. The next photo on the right is dated December 1939 and shows a bright vase of white orchids. Here, too, one of the subjects, the vase, is cropped on the right, standing on a table. Four months separate the two adjacent shots.
This film strip is often shown when Flieg’s photographic work is published. Flieg also spoke about this picture in an interview uploaded to the page of the digital exile museum Künste im Exil (Arts in Exile) of the Deutsches Exilarchiv (German Exile Archive) 1933—1945, which itself is a project of the Deutsche Nationalbibliothek (German National Library). The fascination with this negative strip is due to the two photos and the narrow strip between them, which condense an emigration (hi)story. The narrow strip and the four months of time suspended in it both conceal and expose a difficult route that led from Chemnitz to Munich, over the Brenner Pass to Italy and from there by sea to São Paulo. Several thousand kilometres condense just as much on the narrow strip between two photographs as time accumulates on an in-between space.
Based on this (arguably enlarged) contact print of the film strip, I offer reflections in two directions. One is about the concept of the nomadic camera. The other is about the adaptation of the term dis:connectivity to photography and exile.
With nomadic camera, I refer to the camera and photography as the central medium to visualise cross-border changes of place. Included in the term nomadic are forms of forced or voluntary relocation, i.e. migration, flight, displacement, exile. Etymologically, nomadic derives from the Latin nomas/Greek nomás. Nomás alludes to non-sedentary forms of existence that historically developed in the Old World dry belt — from West Africa, across the Arabian Peninsula to East Asia — of those who spend their lives wandering, adapting to living conditions with scarce resources spread over a wide area. This archaic nomadism of migratory ethnic groups, which persists, has its revenant and related figures in post-industrial societies — in commuters, labour migrants, political refugees, in employees of globally oriented companies, students, global travellers, in artists who are globally present as visiting scholars and exhibitors.
With these diverse connotations of nomadism in mind, I would like to refer to Caren Kaplan, who recognises ‘continuities and discontinuities between terms such as “travel”, “displacement” and “location” as well as between the particularized practices and identities of “exile”, “tourist” and “nomad”. All displacements are not the same’. But precisely the often-one-dimensional reception and connotations of these different transitive forms of existence — migration as alienation, travel as experience, nomadism and vagabonding as (artistic) freedom — problematise perceptions of them as sharply delineated possibilities of existence. The point is to focus instead on the intersections that emerge from them and how they catalyse new thoughts and perceptions.
Nomads, migrants and travellers are united by change and movement, the potentially temporary instability of their existence, their experience of new spaces, societies and languages. Sometimes, as the history of emigration in the 1930s and 1940s shows, the transitions between tourism and exile were fluid. Examples include transalpine border crossings disguised as ski tours and exhibition and reading tour by artists and writers becoming exile because political circumstances no longer permitted their return.
As a concept, the nomadic camera connotes a non-settled and nomadic ‘meta-figure’ or ‘general metaphor’ and denotes a transitory state that proceeds from the technical apparatus, the camera, to include the act of photographing, the camera operator(s), the resulting photographs and their circulation as well as the objects photographed. With the accent on the camera, the research interest centres on the complex interconnections of photography, mobility and technology. It extends to touch on the photographic form and aesthetics. Photography can find different languages for forced and voluntary displacements, so the question of a specific pictorial aesthetic, the formal and compositional parameters of the photography of exile, migration and flight, arises.
Already in the early days of photography since its introduction in 1839, photographers travelled even with heavy-plate and large-format cameras. Throughout its existence, photography has served as a means of visualising displacements. In 1852, the French writer Victor Hugo went into exile on the Channel Islands of Jersey and Guernsey, where he composed autobiographical texts as well as drawings and photographs that pictorially recorded his escape. Hugo’s portraits in the island’s natural environment, taken in cooperation with his son Charles and the journalist Auguste Vaquerie, are perhaps the earliest exile photographs. From Hugo’s exile, widely branching lines extend to current migration, flight and displacement. The 150 years of photographic migration history — or migrant photographic history — is closely connected with technical innovations that can only be traced coarsely here.
Camera techniques like the plate camera and the daguerrotype or calotype favoured mainly professional photographers, as these techniques and transporting the large cameras were expensive and time-consuming. The introduction of the Kodak box camera in the late nineteenth century fuelled the market for amateur photography, which burgeoned globally with the miniature 35-mm cameras of the 1920s.
Hans Günter Flieg's film strips, the Agfa Isopan F film and the Leica miniature camera indicate photography’s unprecedented mobility in the 1920s and 1930s. Photography with film rolls was a democratic medium of images whose affordability and user-friendly technology made it broadly accessible. In addition, shops sprang up all over the world as service facilities where film had to be deposited for processing, with the negatives and prints to be collected later. Outsourcing the development process promoted the global use of photography by amateurs. Not only was the technology portable, but the photographic prints — the result of the technical process — were also available on the road.
Since the massive introduction of miniature cameras in the 1920s at the latest, photography became the technical and artistic medium of migration, exile and flight. Handheld cameras accompanied their owners along their migrations, leaving their homeland either voluntarily and, after 1933, often forcibly. Photographs taken on passages into exile tell of the outward routes and modes of transport. Thus, images created in emigration or reflecting migration phenomena themselves have inherently nomadic qualities.
For me, photography is part of a history of migration and mobility. Flieg’s negative strip highlights this in an unusual way, as the movement of the photographer, his camera and the film manifests itself through the photographs in Chemnitz on the left, the narrow strip in the middle and the shot in São Paulo on the right. The localisation in a specific environment as the starting point of the flight is clearly recognisable on the left in the Chemnitz cityscape. São Paulo as the terminus of the escape, meanwhile, is marked by the vase with the white orchids — in Brazil there are about 3,000 species from the Orchidaceae family. The passage itself, as already explained, remains hidden in the dark strip.
The negative strip also offers access to, or an adaptation of, the concept of dis:connectivity in the context of global flight movements and their mediatisation in photography. Dis:connectivity overcomes a binary approach and has already been applied in, for example, sociological media theory, to capture digital (dis)connectivity, media consumption and media abstinence. Dis:connectivity is a new approach to global history, which we global dis:connect have already used productively and which focuses neither on interconnectedness nor on deglobalisation exclusively. Rather, as Roland Wenzlhuemer writes, it is about a ‘tension between processes of entanglement and disentanglement’, which means that global connections always contain interruptions, detours and voids, be they transport routes, communication channels, escape routes or capital flows. For exile research, the concept of dis:connectivity can illuminate both the actors (persons) and actants (objects). That is precisely the purpose behind examining Flieg’s photographs, which are connected to each other as successive images on a negative strip. Yet, there is an interstice, a gap between them.
Theoretically, two images on 35-mm film could be separated by only a few moments, as it was possible to take up to 36 images in succession with the Leica camera. Flieg, however, took the photographs and put the camera aside, not using it while in transit. Therefore, no photograph exists of this passage into exile, at least not on this film and not with this camera. It can be assumed that he did not want to draw attention to himself, at least towards the beginning of his journey, which led to Italy over the Brenner Pass. On the ship — I sadly don’t know the exact route — no photographs were taken with the Leica either. Absence, the blank space marked in black on the strip, thus stands for a journey that was not visually documented. Absence, as Ulrike Lehmann writes, refers to a former presence and what has now disappeared: ‘The absent presupposes the present. ’
But the space in-between also evidences the dis:connective relationship between home and abroad, between the origin and the terminus of the journey that was to separate Flieg almost permanently from the city of Chemnitz and from Germany. He only returned on the occasion of his first solo exhibition in Germany at the Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz in 2008, almost 70 years after he had emigrated.
The film strip can also be understood as a timeline in which the direction runs from left to right, corresponding to the numbering of the images from 10 (Chemnitz) to 11 (São Paulo). Timelines are culturally bound. Where Latin script predominates, they run from left to right (i.e. as one reads), and where Arabic prevails, they are ordered from right to left (again according to the direction of reading). In everyday life, time is perceived as a trajectory that always runs irreversibly in one direction towards a final state. This negative strip, however, also allows for another interpretation, namely time as something that runs from exilein two directions separated by the dividing space. There is a time before exile and a time of exile or post-exile. These times are not characterised by succession, but by the difference and divergence of experiences and of cultural and linguistic spaces.
Time and space — the latter as a variable often used for flight, exile and migration — form an important connection. One could equally speak of dis:connective times and dis:connective spaces. Incidentally, Hans Günter Flieg found the film strip with the two photos from Chemnitz and São Paulo among his early photos only many decades later, when he was preparing a retrospective of his works for the Museu da Imagem de do Som in São Paulo in 1981. Through this find, he was able to recall the time of his emigration with temporal distance, thus creating connectivity.
 Michael Nungesser, ‘Chemnitz Liegt Bei São Paulo. Der Fotograf Hans Günter Flieg’, ed. Ingrid Mössinger and Katharina Metz, 2008.
 Agi Straus, Interview mit der Malerin Agi Straus, São Paulo, 15 April 2013, https://kuenste-im-exil.de/KIE/Content/DE/Objekte/flieg-interview.html?cms_x=4&catalog=1; Nungesser, ‘Chemnitz Liegt Bei São Paulo. Der Fotograf Hans Günter Flieg’.
 Tilo Richter, ed., Der Kassberg. Ein Chemnitzer Lese- Und Bilderbuch (Leipzig: Passage-Verlag, 1996).
 Ingrid Mössinger and Katharina Metz, eds., in Hans Günter Flieg: Dokumentarfotografie Aus Brasilien (1940-1970) (Bielefeld: Kerber Verlag, 2008), 48–49; Sylvia Asmus, in ......Mehr Vorwärts Als Rückwärts Schauen... (Berlin: Hentrich & Hentrich, 2013).
 Hans Günter Flieg, Interview des Deutschen Exilarchivs 1933 - 1945 mit Hans Günter Flieg : São Paulo, 18.04.2013 / Interview und Bild: Sylvia Asmus und Jochanan Shelliem, 18 April 2013, https://d-nb.info/1059580241.
 Alfred Hendricks, ‘Menschen unterwegs. Mobilität als Erfolgsstrategie’, in Unterwegs. Nomaden früher und heute, ed. Alfred Hendricks (Gütersloh: Linnemann, 2003), 8–11.
 Birgit Haehnel, in Regelwerk und Umgestaltung. Nomadistische Denkweisen in der Kunstwahrnehmung nach 1945 (Berlin: Reimer, 2007), 29; T. J. Demos, in The Migrant Image: The Art and Politics of Documentary during Global Crisis (Verona: Electa, 2017), 18–26.
 Caren Kaplan, Questions of Travel. Postmodern Discourses of Displacement (Durham/London: Duke University Press, 1996).
 Thomas Oellermann, ‘Wenzel Jaksch Und Die Seliger-Gemeinde’, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, 27 November 2021, https://www.fes.de/themenportal-geschichte-kultur-medien-netz/artikelseite/wenzel-jaksch.
 Peter Gross, ‘Der Nomade’, in Diven, Hacker, Spekulanten. Sozialfiguren der Gegenwart, ed. Stephan Moebius and Markus Schroer (Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2010), 316–25.
 Denis Canguilhem, ‘En Collaboration Avec Le Soleil. Victor Hugo, Photographies de l’exil (Cat. Exp.), Textes de F. Heilbrun, Q. Bajac, P. Néagu, N. Savy, S. Rouleau, F. Rodari, Paris, Paris-Musées/Réunion Des Musées Nationaux, 1998’, n.d., https://journals.openedition.org/etudesphotographiques//200.
 Todd Gustavson, Camera: A History of Photography from Daguerreotype to Digital (New York: Sterling Publishing, 2009); Erich Stenger, Die Geschichte Der Kleinbildkamera Bis Zur Leica (Frankfurt am Main, 1949).
 Burcu Dogramaci, in Fotografieren Und Forschen: Wissenschaftliche Expeditionen Mit Der Kamera Im Türkischen Exil Nach 1933, 1. (Marburg: Jonas Verlag, 2013).
 ‘Orchideen S.O.S.’, 20 December 2021, https://brasilienportal.ch/wissen/brasilien-report/kurz-reportagen/orchideen-sos/.
 Pepita Hesselberth, ‘Discourses on Disconnectivity and the Right to Disconnect’, no. vol. 20, 5 (8 June 2017).
 Roland Wenzlhuemer, ‘Dis:Konnektivität Und Krise’, 12 November 2020, https://www.blog.cas.uni-muenchen.de/topics/global-worlds/dis-konnektivitaet-und-krise.
 Ulrike Lehmann, ‘Ästhetik Der Absenz. Ihre Rituale Des Verbergens Und Der Verweigerung. Eine Kunstgeschichtliche Betrachtung’, in Ästhetik Der Absenz. Bilder Zwischen Anwesenheit Und Abwesenheit, ed. Ulrike Lehmann and Peter Weibel (München/Berlin: Klinckhardt & Biermann, 1994), 42–74.
 Hans Günter Flieg, in Hans Günter Flieg: Dokumentarfotografie Aus Brasilien (1940-1970), ed. Ingrid Mössinger (Bielefeld: Kerber Verlag, 2008), 8.
 Erhard Keppler, Zeitliches. Vom Umgang mit der Zeit seit der Antike. Eine Kulturgeschichte des Zeitbegriffs (Katlenburg-Lindau: Copernicus, 2007).
Asmus, Sylvia, and Marlen Eckl, editors, ‘... mehr vorwärts als rückwärts schauen ... ’. Das deutschsprachige Exil in Brasilien 1933-1945 / ‘... olhando mais para frente do que para trás ... ’. O exílio de língua alemã no Brasil 1933-1945 (Berlin: Hentrich & Hentrich, 2013)
Demos, T.J. ‘Charting a Course. Exile, Diaspora, Nomads, Refugees. A Genealogy of Art and Migration’, in The Restless Earth, exh. cat. Fondazione La Triennale di Milano. Fondazione Nicola Trussardi, Milan (Verona: Mondadori Electa, 2017), 18-26.
Dogramaci, Burcu, Fotografieren und Forschen. Wissenschaftliche Expeditionen mit der Kamera im türkischen Exil nach 1933 (Marburg: Jonas, 2013), 29 and 81
En collaboration avec le soleil. Victor Hugo. Photographies de l’exil, exh. cat. Musée d’Orsay et Maison de Victor Hugo, Paris, 1998
Flieg, Hans Günter. “Interview on 18 April 2013, video, https://kuenste-im-exil.de/KIE/Content/DE/Objekte/flieg-interview.html?cms_x=4&catalog=1, accessed 3.4.2022.
Gross, Peter, ‘Der Nomade’, in Diven, Hacker, Spekulanten. Sozialfiguren der Gegenwart, edited by Stephan Moebius and Markus Schroer (Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2010), 316-325.
Gustavson, Todd, Camera. A History of Photography from Daguerreotype to Digital (New York: Sterling Publishing, 2009).
Haehnel, Birgit, Regelwerk und Umgestaltung. Nomadistische Denkweisen in der Kunstwahrnehmung nach 1945 (Berlin: Reimer, 2006)
Hans Günter Flieg. Dokumentarfotografie aus Brasilien, edited by Ingrid Mössinger and Katharina Metz, exh. cat. Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz, Chemnitz (Bielefeld: Kerber, 2008).
Hendricks, Alfred, ‘Menschen unterwegs. Mobilität als Erfolgsstrategie’, in idem, editor, Unterwegs. Nomaden früher und heute (Gütersloh: Siegbert Linnemann, 2003), 8-11.
Hesselberth, Pepita, ‘Discourses on Disconnectivity and the Right to Disconnect’, in New Media & Society, vol. 20, no. 5, 2018, 1994–2010.
Kaplan, Caren, Questions of Travel. Postmodern Discourses of Displacement (Durham/London: Duke University Press, 1996)
Keppler, Erhard, Zeitliches. Vom Umgang mit der Zeit seit der Antike. Eine Kulturgeschichte des Zeitbegriffs (Katlenburg-Lindau: Projekte-Verlag Cornelius, 2007).
Lehmann, Ulrike, ‘Ästhetik der Absenz. Ihre Rituale des Verbergens und der Verweigerung. Eine kunstgeschichtliche Betrachtung’, in Ästhetik der Absenz. Bilder zwischen Anwesenheit und Abwesenheit, edited by Ulrike Lehmann and Peter Weibel (Munich/Berlin: Klinkhardt & Biermann, 1994), 42-74.
Nungesser, Michael. “Chemnitz liegt bei São Paulo. Der Fotograf Hans Günter Flieg, in: Hans Günter Flieg. Dokumentarfotografie aus Brasilien, hg. v. Ingrid Mössinger und Katharina Metz, Ausst.-Kat. Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz, Chemnitz 2008, S. 10-14
Oellermann, Thomas, ‘Wenzel Jaksch und die Seliger-Gemeinde’, 27.11.2021, https://www.fes.de/themenportal-geschichte-kultur-medien-netz/artikelseite/wenzel-jaksch, accessed 3.4.2022.
Richter, Tilo, editor, Der Kaßberg. Ein Chemnitzer Lese- und Bilderbuch (Leipzig: Passage-Verlag, 1996).
Stenger, Erich, Die Geschichte der Kleinbildkamera bis zur Leica (Frankfurt/Main: Umschau 1949).
Wenzlhuemer, Roland. ‘Dis:konnektivität und Krise’, CAS LMU Blog, 12 November 2020, https://www.blog.cas.uni-muenchen.de/topics/global-worlds/dis-konnektivitaet-und-krise, accessed 4 April 2022.
Stele commemorating Tran Van Ba in Liège (Image courtesy of the author)
On a springtime walk in one of the green parks in the Belgian city of Liège, I was astounded to discover a stele commemorating Vietnamese anti-communist Tran Van Ba. This memorial turned out to be the perfect embodiment of the aesthetics of Cold War omission. It piqued my curiosity. Liège, situated in the Meuse valley, is known as the former industrial backbone of Wallonia. What was a stele in memory Tran Van Ba doing here? Though I had originally planned to discover explore the industrial heritage of Liège and to visit the House of Metallurgy and Industry that day, I decided to go back to my hotel to learn more about Tran Van Ba instead.
On the way back to my hotel, I remembered the name Tran Van Ba as a whisper echoing from the chaos of French colonial archives in Aix-en-Provence. My small hotel room had a funky atmosphere, like a 1970s youth hostel. I turned my computer on. I felt like I was going to solve a mystery like Sherlock Holmes. Who was Tran Van Ba? Who had built this stele? Here Google would serve as Dr Watson, my loyal assistant.
Tran Van Ba was a major figure of the Cold War, to whom Reagan awarded the Medal of Liberty. My preliminary investigation revealed that many Vietnamese in exile saw Ban as a martyr of the struggle against communism. On 8 January 1985, roughly a decade after the end of the American war in Vietnam, Tran Van Ba (1945-1985) was executed for high treason in Thu Duc, a municipality close to Ho Chi Minh City. It was an ignominious end to a life deeply marked by the violent upheaval Vietnam witnessed throughout the twentieth century.
Here − in life and death − there is a strange symmetry. In 1966, Tran’s father, himself a prominent political figure with presidential ambitions, was assassinated in South Vietnam by the Viet Cong. Two decades earlier, in 1945, his uncle, the founder of the Vietnamese constitutional party, was shot by the Viet Minh. These symmetries condemned any possibility of moderation in a Vietnam torn between nationalism, communism and capitalism.
For North Vietnam, the fall of Saigon in April 1975 represented triumph in a decade-long war for national liberation against American imperialism. For Tran Van Ba, it was just the beginning of a new struggle that ended in Thu Duc, a struggle that persisted across three generations and permeated the lived experience of Tran Van Ba. It combined a series of disconnections − war, memory and diasporic battles over symbols of nationhood – and raged from Saigon to Paris, Bandung to the United Nations and from Little Saigon in California to Alt-Mariendorf in south Berlin. These disconnections resulted in the erection of the statue of Tran Van Ba in Liège.
In my small room, I decided to turn off my computer. I had to understand where the origins of these disconnections lay. I dived into the abyss. I thought about my scientific research on French colonial Indochina. Finally, I understood. These disconnections were dawning as French imperial sovereignty waned, when a sprawling empire, which dominated much of the Southeast Asian landmass and West Africa, disappeared in the aftermath of World War II. Decolonisation represented a disjuncture in Vietnamese history, symbolised by the death of Tran Van Ba’s uncle, Bui Quang Chieu (1973-1945), whom I had the chance to study during my doctoral research.
Bui Quang Chieu was a politician and a journalist in French Indochina. In 1917, he founded the journal La Tribune Indigène in Saigon. French Governor General Albert Sarraut supported him. Indeed, Bui Quang Chieu advocated the modernisation of Vietnam under French colonialisation, but the Vietnamese communist party did not accept his position. The Viet Minh considered him a collaborator. When Japan surrendered, the Viet Minh executed Bui Quang Chieu, his four sons and his daughter. Decolonisation entailed fratricidal struggle between the various Vietnamese nationalist movements.
France’s Afro-Asian empire did not evaporate into thin air. In the 1950s and 1960s, Vietnamese statesmen, commissions, committees and a bevy of soldiers and scoundrels descended on the waning French empire. They dissected, sorted and reorganised its parts into what we might call ‘ground zero’ for Cold War in Afro-Asia. It was unquestionably a foundational moment for a new post-imperial and international order.
On the turbulent frontiers of post-imperial Asia, the end of the First Indochina War between the Viet Minh and France was a messy process of redrawing collapsing boundaries. Populations displaced in wartime migrated. The new post-colonial states and societies were militarised in the Cold War. Diplomats from France, the Viet Minh, South Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, the Soviet Union, China, the USA and the UK sought agreement in Geneva from April to July 1954. The agreement they achieved temporarily separated Vietnam into two zones, a northern zone to be governed by the Viet Minh and a southern zone to be governed by the State of Vietnam, then headed by former emperor Bao Dai.
The disconnections at the end of the French colonial empire mentioned here had global impacts. They shaped not only the transformation of international relations in the Cold War; they also laid the ground for a transnational exiled network at the end of the American War in 1975.
It is at Bandung, Indonesia that the divisions between North and South Vietnam became glaring. The 1955 Bandung Conference is considered the birth of the Third World. As the Western empires slipped into crisis, anticolonial elites were fomenting a frenetic vision of how to reshape world affairs. For the Martinican poet Aimé Césaire, Bandung signified ‘to Europe that the time of the European empire was over’. The French sociologist Raymond Aron was more critical: Bandung, although Afro-Asian, was very similar to a typical meeting of Western intellectuals and diplomats. He noted the same disproportion ‘between the pretensions of the men and the insignificance of the unanimous motions’ and ‘the same invocation of principles (fundamental human rights) by those who despise or violate them’.
Neither Césaire nor Aaron saw Bandung as the birth of a divided nation − Vietnam. After nine years of war, North and South Vietnam were irreconcilable. Their delegations present at Bandung refused to meet. The Democratic Republic of Vietnam delegate Pham Van Dong addressed the conference by reiterating the commitment made in the 1954 Geneva Conference. The delegate of the State of Vietnam, Nguyen Van Thoai, cited the influx of North Vietnamese refugees in South Vietnam as the result of a ‘dictatorial regime’. The two delegations had contradictory views on politics and nationhood.
After Bandung, North and South Vietnam became two pawns on the global chessboard, taking on Korea’s role of the hot front of the Cold War. North Vietnam was supported by China and the Soviet Union, the South by the United States. With the Vietnam War from 1955 to 1975, the term ‘Vietnam’ came to signify the transformation of modern war. It became central to the global countercultural movement, and it suffused debates on war, torture, colonialism, technology and media.
In the midst of that war, new global networks were created, networks that would come to be meaningful after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, became home of the monthly journal of the Asian Pacific League for Freedom and Democracy, The Free Front. This journal had a global audience in Australia, Japan, South Korea, France, Germany and the United States. From Paris, the former imperial metropole of French Indochina, Tran Van Ba led a student movement denouncing communism. In Western European cities, Vietnamese students demonstrated against communism and the American intervention in South Vietnam.
The United Nations became the diplomatic arena for North and South Vietnam. The two states both sought international recognition. In Europe and the United States, Vietnamese students appealed to the United Nations in their fight against communism. The Vietnamese Undersecretary Bui Diem attempted to secure UN support against North Vietnam. In October 1966, he visited the UN headquarters and met with UN Secretary General U Thant. However, his attempts and the students’ demonstrations were fruitless. Bui Diem, as South Vietnam's ambassador to the United States, desperately attempted to secure $722 million USD in military aid to defend South Vietnam against the North in 1975.
Yet, with the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975, the state of South Vietnam was wiped from the map. Two years later, communist Vietnam was made an official member of the UN. Bui Diem became a refugee and university professor in the Unites States. For Tran Van Ba, the fall of Saigon was unacceptable. He decided to leave Paris, where he had studied political science, to engage in another, third war. His aim was to install an anti-communist government in Vietnam. In the process of deimperialisation, the disconnections in the Vietnamese nation became striking.
The disconnections in the history of Vietnam during the Cold War became visible in societies at the end of the Cold War. The fall of Saigon catalysed the mass exodus of Vietnamese ‘boat people’. Transnational exile networks grew throughout the worldwide diaspora. They built upon the pre-existing Vietnamese students’ and anti-communist networks that had emerged in Western Europe, the United States and Australia.
These disconnections transformed the political, social and visual landscapes of the cities where the boat people lived in exile. For them, the flag of South Vietnam became the symbol of freedom from North Vietnam. It consists of a yellow background, symbolising the Empire of Vietnam, with three red horizontal stripes through the middle, emblematic of the common blood running through North, Central, and South Vietnam. In Alt-Mariendorf in south Berlin, Hannover, Hamburg and Stuttgart, this flag is displayed during the Vietnamese communities’ gatherings to call for democracy in a unified Vietnam.
On 21 October 1990, in the United States, former soldiers and refugees from the former South Vietnamese regime founded the Provisional National Government of Vietnam, headquartered in Orange County and Little Saigon. Dao Minh Quan was elected as the president of the newly created ‘Third Republic of Vietnam’. US government staff gave speeches and expressed hope that the newly elected president would work closely with the USA. Yet, for many exiled Vietnamese, Dao Minh Quan did not have any political legitimacy. He was only interested in embezzling from the provisional government.
In Europe, Vietnamese diasporas are still fighting against the communist Vietnamese regime. They consider the current regime ‘authoritarian and corrupt’. They denounce human rights abuses in Vietnam. In parallel with this political struggle, the exiled Vietnamese communities are committed to building sites of memory. In Hamburg, Liège and Geneva, members of the Vietnamese diaspora have contacted municipal authorities to install steles commemorating the boat people.
The mayor of Paris first agreed to the installation of a plaque in memory of Tran Van Ba in the 13th arrondissement in 2008. The Vietnamese embassy protested to French authorities, who eventually renounced the plaque. In Liège, a statue honouring Tran Van Ba was erected on 30 June 2006. Local and Belgian national newspapers, such as Le Soir, La Libre Belgique and La Meuse published articles on Tran Van Ba as well as on the boat people at that time. Every year, on 8 January, the Vietnamese exiled community in Liège pays respect to Tran Van Ba, a ‘martyr of communism’.
The Vietnamese government considers these commemorations problematic. It listed the Provisional National Government of Vietnam as a terrorist organisation and condemns the efforts of the Vietnamese diaspora to overthrow the current regime. It is said that the Cold War ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall. In fact, it continues in the streets and the squares of Liège, Berlin, Paris, Orange County and Little Saigon.
In my small room in Liège, I was reflecting on my own investigations. To no one’s surprise, Google is a wonderful fount of information. I never regretted not visiting the House of Metallurgy and Industry in Liège and or skipping my exploration of its industrial heritage. I thought to myself how a series of disconnections resulted in the creation of a statue in a Belgian city, and how the complexities of global disconnections have transformed our societies.
 Statement at the meeting of 27 January 1956 organised by the Comité d'Action des intellectuels contre la poursuite de la guerre en Afrique du Nord.
 Raymond Aron, ‘Bandoeng: Conférence de l’équivoque’, Le Figaro, 27 April 1955, 1.
 ‘Konferentsiia Stran Azii i Afriki Zakonchila Svoiu Rabotu’, Pravda, 25 April 1955, 4.
 Interviews of members of the Vietnamese diaspora in Berlin in November 2021.
Aron, Raymond. ‘Bandoeng: Conférence de l’équivoque’. Le Figaro. 27 April 1955.
Pravda. ‘Konferentsiia Stran Azii i Afriki Zakonchila Svoiu Rabotu’. 25 April 1955.
This photograph of a shattered hull hides a rare sight. It is not the shipwreck.
The ship in question is the British steamer Highland Fling and the picture was taken at the Falmouth drydocks early in 1907. A terrible disaster has sundered the ship in half, and all that remains is an almost anatomical cross-section of the ship. Labourers are interrupting their work to pose for the photographer. They are in the process of clearing ballast from the ship’s hold before its engines and parts can be salvaged and the rest of the Highland Fling scrapped.
The Highland Fling had been a mighty ship, almost a hundred metres long, first launched 17 years previously from a Newcastle shipyard. The ship boasted a modern steel hull and was fitted with electric lights as well as refrigeration machinery (the purpose of which remains obscure). Originally named the Duke of Portland and later the Morayshire, the steamer became the Highland Fling around 1905, when it joined the fleet of the Nelson Line of Liverpool (which christened all their ships with names beginning in ‘Highland’). The new owners employed the Highland Fling for trade with South America. It was on one such voyage that disaster struck.
According to the London Times, the steamer ran aground near the Cornish coast in thick fog on the night of 7 January 1907. It had left London only days before carrying several thousand barrels of cement to Buenos Aires. An inquest by the Liverpool Board of Trade later ruled that the ship had exceeded safe speed too near the coast. The ship’s master, a Captain Purvis, was held responsible for this navigational error and his captain’s licence was suspended for a year. This was a light punishment, given that the newspapers valued the Highland Fling at £25,000 (nearly £3.2 million today), excluding the value of its cargo. At least, no loss of life was reported, and the vessel was sufficiently insured.
On 10 January, the Times reported a first, unsuccessful attempt to tow the steamer from the rocks after several hundred tons of cargo had been jettisoned. A second attempt, undertaken two days later, also failed and left the bow section of the vessel badly damaged. After repeated attempts to free the Highland Fling had proved futile, the London Salvage Association tried to retrieve at least part of the cargo and the ship’s most valuable parts (its engine and refrigeration machinery, which were located in the rear). Engineers planted dynamite along the hull with the aim to separate bow from stern by force, but heavy waves interrupted this plan. After being stuck on the rocks for two weeks, the sea finally achieved what the engineers had failed to do and smashed the ship in half, after which the rear was towed by tugboats to the nearby port of Falmouth. The bow section of the Highland Fling was left on the rocks, until it was smashed into oblivion by a storm on the night of 23 January.
At Falmouth the Highland Fling was documented in a series of dramatic photographs by the local studio of Gibson & Sons. The Gibsons ran a multigenerational business and hailed from the Scilly Isles — an island group southwest of Cornwall long associated with maritime disasters. Exactly 200 years before the calamity of the Highland Fling, another series of navigational errors had sunk four ships of the Royal Navy and killed 1500 sailors as well as an admiral on the cliffs of the Scillies. The disaster of 1707 famously sparked the eighteenth-century quest for more precise longitudinal measurements, and it was perhaps this piece of local history that had given the business’s founder, John Gibson (a sailor turned photographer in the 1860s), and his sons their taste for maritime tragedy. Pictures of the wrecked Highland Fling were probably taken by John’s son Herbert, who, over the course of his career, photographed countless ships in varying degrees of destruction.
Tragic as it was, the fate of the Highland Fling was by no means unusual. Surviving images of the shattered ship bear witness to the dangers of seafaring even at the dawn of the twentieth century. The dimensions of the remaining half of the hull are impressive, dwarfing the men labouring in its shadow, yet the advances of the industrial age were no match for the violence of wind and sea. Yet the apparent catastrophe of the shattered Highland Fling conceals something as mundane as it is invisible. Strewn across the lowest point of the hull lie sand and rocks, which the labourers are slowly removing by means of their shovels and wheelbarrows. These are not the remains of the cement cargo the ship was transporting to South America, which was packaged into barrels, some of which are still visible. What the labourers are removing is in fact the ship’s ballast.
The word ‘ballast’ is used almost exclusively as a metaphor today. But ballast was an integral part of seafaring. Its purpose was to lower a ship’s centre of gravity and to stabilise it at sea. This was done by loading cheap and heavy materials like sand, small stones and rubble into a ship’s hold, which lowered its waterline and reduced its tendency to pitch and roll. As ships travelled to the farthest corners of the globe, they carried ballast from and to ports all over the world. Ships needed the most ballast when they were running empty, but even fully loaded ships carried it. Especially during the winter months, shipmasters took care to load additional ballast. Looking at ships of similar size and displacement, the Highland Fling (which sailed in January) would have easily carried between 200 and 500 tonnes of sand and stones as ballast.
Ballast was evidently necessary for safe travel at sea, but at the same time it routinely disrupted trade. Purchasing ballast and paying for the labour of loading and unloading it was a recurring expense, but what made ballast particularly vexing were the lengthy delays while ships waited to be ballasted. Shipping was a highly competitive industry in which the priority was to keep ships profitably at sea with cargo rather than wasting precious days in port. Waiting for ballast-men to load ballast after stevedores had unloaded cargo (or vice versa) considerably extended the time in port to the point where captains opted not to unload all their cargo rather than to wait for ballast. While global economic connections intensified, the necessity to carry ballast weakened and sometimes severed such connections.
As a mundane nautical component, ballast was deeply ingrained in the everyday practice of seamanship. As such, it is almost invisible in pictorial records. There are some depictions showing how it was loaded or unloaded, as well as a few anaemic photographs taken by archaeologists of ballast recovered from sunken ships. The images from Falmouth are a rare exception because they show ballast while it was in its proper place —in situ at the deepest point of a ship’s hold. This is important because whether any amount of sand and shingle counted as ballast or not was wholly determined by the nautical context: only their use at sea transformed sand and shingle into ballast. The very same materials could later be used to pave roads or build houses without a second thought given to their erstwhile nautical purpose.
Another interesting aspect of the photographs is that the cross-section shows neither a double bottom nor double hull. Towards of the end of the nineteenth century, many ships had adopted double hulls, which made them more durable. The space in-between was waterproofed and used as a tank that could be filled with seawater. Water is less dense than sand and stone, but it is free and could be loaded and unloaded much more quickly. This solved some of the disconnective issues associated with solid ballast. Today, water ballast is used on almost every ship and has contributed significantly to the spread of invasive micro-organisms around the world.
Not all water ballast was kept in double hulls. On board the Highland Fling, the water was most likely carried in large tanks located at the bow and stern of the ship and is therefore not visible in the cross-section. While it is often argued that solid ballast, like sand and stone, was quickly replaced by water, the images of the Highland Fling demonstrate the persistence of solid ballast. At the turn of the century, most steamers still used a mixture of water and solid ballasts, as well as the weight of their fuel, to stabilise the ship.
The stranding of the Highland Fling might be a cautionary tale of navigational incompetence or the persisting dangers of maritime mobility a century ago. But what makes this image of tragedy exceptional is that it documents an otherwise almost invisible and forgotten aspect of seafaring.
 Gibson & Sons of Scilly, A View of the Stern Section at the Break in the Hull, of the Cargo Steamer Highland Fling (1890) in Drydock at Falmouth, c. 1907, Photograph, G14156, National Maritime Museum Greenwich, London, Gibson’s of Scilly Shipwreck Collection, https://www.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/rmgc-object-1113561.
Lloyd’s Register of British and Foreign Shipping. From 1st July, 1906, to the 30th June, 1907. Volume 1 – Steamers (London, 1906).
 ‘The Marine Insurance Market’, The Times (London), 9 January 1907, 13; ‘The Marine Insurance Market’, The Times (London), 10 January 1907, 13; ‘The Marine Insurance Market’, The Times (London), 14 January 1907, 15; ‘The Marine Insurance Market’, The Times (London), 15 January 1907, 15; ‘Shipping Disasters’, The Times (London), 21 January 1907, 9; ‘Wrecks, Casualties, &c.’, The Times (London), 24 January 1907, 10; ‘The Marine Insurance Market’, The Times (London), 4 March 1907, 14.
 John Fowles, Shipwreck, repr. ed. (London: Jonathan Cape, 1979).
 Gibson & Sons of Scilly, A View Directly into the Hull of the Cargo Steamer Highland Fling (1890), c. 1907, Photograph, G14155, National Maritime Museum Greenwich, London, Gibson’s of Scilly Shipwreck Collection, https://www.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/rmgc-object-1113560.
 S. J. P. Thearle, ‘The Ballasting of Steamers for North Atlantic Voyages’, Transactions of the Royal Institution of Naval Architects 45 (1903): 118–33.
 Mats Burström, Ballast. Laden with History, trans. Charlotte Merton (Lund: Nordic Academic Press, 2017), 51–59.
 James T. Carlton, ‘Attack of the Invasive Species!’, in The Ocean Reader. History, Culture, Politics, ed. Eric Paul Roorda (Durham: Duke University Press, 2020), 473–82.
 B. Martell, ‘On Water Ballast’, Transactions of the Royal Institution of Naval Architects 18 (1877): 336–48.
Burström, Mats. Ballast. Laden with History. Translated by Charlotte Merton. Lund: Nordic Academic Press, 2017.
Carlton, James T. ‘Attack of the Invasive Species!’ In The Ocean Reader. History, Culture, Politics, edited by Eric Paul Roorda, 473–82. Durham: Duke University Press, 2020.
Fowles, John. Shipwreck. Repr. ed. London: Jonathan Cape, 1979.
Gibson & Sons of Scilly. A View Directly into the Hull of the Cargo Steamer Highland Fling (1890). c. 1907. Photograph. G14155. National Maritime Museum Greenwich, London, Gibson’s of Scilly Shipwreck Collection. https://www.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/rmgc-object-1113560.
———. A View of the Stern Section at the Break in the Hull, of the Cargo Steamer Highland Fling (1890) in Drydock at Falmouth. c. 1907. Photograph. G14156. National Maritime Museum Greenwich, London, Gibson’s of Scilly Shipwreck Collection. https://www.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/rmgc-object-1113561.
Lloyd’s Register of British and Foreign Shipping. From 1st July, 1906, to the 30th June, 1907. Volume 1 – Steamers. London, 1906.
Martell, B. ‘On Water Ballast’. Transactions of the Royal Institution of Naval Architects 18 (1877): 336–48.
The Times (London). ‘Shipping Disasters’, 21 January 1907: 9.
The Times (London). ‘The Marine Insurance Market’, 9 January 1907: 13.
The Times (London). ‘The Marine Insurance Market’, 10 January 1907: 13.
The Times (London). ‘The Marine Insurance Market’, 14 January 1907: 15.
The Times (London). ‘The Marine Insurance Market’, 15 January 1907: 15.
The Times (London). ‘The Marine Insurance Market’, 4 March 1907: 14.
Thearle, S. J. P. ‘The Ballasting of Steamers for North Atlantic Voyages’. Transactions of the Royal Institution of Naval Architects 45 (1903): 118–33.
The Times (London). ‘Wrecks, Casualties, &c.’, 24 January 1907: 10.