It seemed like a good idea at the time…
If you spend enough time on social media, you start to get a sense of what is going to be popular. Take something sensational that pushes people’s buttons and confirms their deepest pre-existing beliefs. Give them some ammo for their self-righteousness. Or just put up a cute animal. Or all of the above.
I try my best to avoid doing this. I work on the history of East Germany and post historical facts and photos daily, often on material that can be very emotionally charged. When it comes to historical posts, I do my best to hold back on editorializing or adding inflammatory commentary.
Then came last Friday. I was on the road going to a conference still up in the middle of the night and saw the Daily Mail’s now infamous “Enemies of the People” headline denouncing the High Court for their decision on how Brexit will proceed.
I found this to be objectionable and not just a little bit proto-fascist. Normally I avoid making comparisons with Nazi history, but it immediately brought to mind the famous cover of the Illustrierter Beobachter with the header “Volksverräter” or “traitors of the people” listing those whose citizenship was being stripped in 1933. Not the same thing, just eerily reminiscent.
Shortly after midnight, after a quick google image search for a scan of the newspaper I decided to post the two images side-by-side just stating what they were and calling on readers to compare and contrast. I wasn’t prepared to go so far as to say the Daily Mail were actually fascist, but I wanted to point out where this sort of extreme thinking can lead to. I hadn’t really thought it through too carefully, more just a middle of the night reaction to something troubling in the news.
Almost immediately the post was being re-tweeted by dozens of people and far in excess of the usual enthusiasm for my normal posts of East German football matches or Berlin Wall shooting victims. I stayed up to argue with some people for a while (again, something I try not to do) and then decided to shut off for the night.
Today in 1955, East Germany became a sovereign country. Officially sovereign according to the Soviet Union that is. At that time, the German Democratic Republic was still occupied by the Red Army, its capital city of East Berlin remained legally under the control of a council of the four Allied powers, and as a state it was only recognized by the USSR, fellow Eastern Bloc countries, and Yugoslavia. So was it a sovereign country or not?
Whether or not a country exists is a deceptively simple problem. When you look at the map of the world, at first glance it seems to be neatly divided into clear and distinct sovereign units. Yet, there are six United Nations member countries that are not recognized by at least one other UN member nation and at least ten other entities that claim to be sovereign countries that lack widespread recognition. Not to mention more than 150 border disputes…
Although it was founded in 1949, only twenty years later in 1969 was East Germany first recognized by a non-socialist country and it did not gain universal diplomatic relations around the globe until 1975 after the signing of the Helsinki Accords. While the GDR, along with West Germany, was able to join the United Nations in 1973, it was not until the 2+4 Agreement, signed on September 12, 1990 that the Allies officially relinquished their rights over German territory. Before it actually came to force, on this day in 1990, the East German Volkskammer voted 299-80 in favour of the Unification Treaty with the Federal Republic of Germany. Before the GDR could attain full sovereignty, its representatives voted it out of existence.
East German flag flying at the UN in 1973
The strange history of East Germany and its almost perpetual quasi-sovereign status highlights just how important a wide variety of symbols and markers are in determining if we perceive a country to exist. As Frank Zappa so eloquently put it:
“You can’t be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline – it helps if you have some kind of football team, or some nuclear weapons, but in the very least you need a beer.”
No shortage of East German beers.
Last week I decided to check in with the close to 2,500 people who follow me on twitter to ask the simple question: what about East German history would you want to know more about?
I started this blog about a year ago to give myself the chance to talk about some topics in greater length than my twitter account (@historyned) allowed for. In the past few months, I haven’t been producing as much – I’m trying to finish up a book manuscript and research two new projects – but I want to get back to the blogging soon.
One of the great privileges of being an academic is the chance to share your nerdy interests with others, but since I currently have a position with no teaching responsibilities, the chances to talk about my field with non-experts is rarer than I would like. As such, I’m happy to offer up my expertise on this narrow sliver of human history to the curious public as an alternative.
STATE SOCIALISM, LEGAL EXPERTS AND THE GENESIS OF INTERNATIONAL CRIMINAL AND HUMANITARIAN LAW AFTER 1945
24 – 26 November 2016
Humboldt University of Berlin
The University of Exeter, the Leipzig Centre for the History and Culture of East-Central Europe (GWZO), and the Humboldt University of Berlin
In the history of international law, the socialist bloc has been generally relegated to the role of roadblock to the fulfillment of the ideals of Western liberalism. Scholars of international criminal law (ICL) and international humanitarian law (IHL) have often dismissed the contributions of socialist legal initiatives as little more than Cold War propaganda and thus irrelevant to understanding the historical evolution of judicial norms and the modern international system. The establishment of different international tribunals since the collapse of the Soviet Union has only reinforced the notion that the socialist world was little more than an impediment to progress. Nevertheless, the American-led global war on terror has done much to call into question Western commitment to the laws of war.
This conference seeks to explore the role of state-socialist intellectuals, experts and governments in shaping the evolution of ICL and IHL since the end of the Second World War. Actors from Eastern Europe, the USSR, and East Asian and African socialist states actively participated in international debates regarding international legal norms, the meaning of state sovereignty, and in the negotiation of all major ICL and IHL conventions after 1945. In various cases the socialist bloc was often more enthusiastic, and timely, in supporting and ratifying international legal agreements than Western governments, even if these initiatives were inseparable from political agendas. Although they systematically opposed the creation of international tribunals, experts from socialist countries led the way in many areas, such as the codification of crimes against peace and Apartheid or the elimination of statutory limitations for major ICL offences. The socialist world participated also in debates over the international legal status of drug conflicts and revolutionary groups funded by narcotics trafficking. Deliberations on the criminalization of terrorism and the regulation of armed conflicts were closely linked to the politics of “wars of liberation” by socialist forces in Africa, South-East Asia, and Latin America. Socialist legal experts were active participants in transnational epistemic communities and engaged in broader global projects, initiatives, and mobilizations across the Cold War divide.
Never Again! East German National Front election poster 1958.
In 1968, East Germany went about adopting a constitution that would provide the legal basis for country’s state-socialist system. Rather than simply imposing this new document, as the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) could have easily done, it instead chose a more labour-intensive option: a mass national discussion followed by a plebiscite. Between February 2 and the vote on April 6, 1968 nearly a million events and meetings were held throughout the German Democratic Republic (GDR) to discuss the contents of the proposed constitution. Over the course of this Volksaussprache, the constitutional commission received more than 12,000 letters and post cards from East Germans, expressing their support, concerns, and criticisms.
Pro-Constitution rally at Humboldt University, East Berlin. April 5, 1968.
But wasn’t East Germany a dictatorship? What was the point of such activities when it was clear to all from the beginning that the new Socialist Constitution would become law if the SED wanted it to happen? Much of the political structure of the German Democratic Republic appears similarly strange in retrospect. Even before East Germany was officially founded in 1949, the SED was clearly the sole power due to the influence of its Soviet patrons. In spite of this fact, there were several other political parties such as the Christian Democrats and the Liberal Democrats who also held seats in the national parliament, the Volkskammer. Article 1 of the new constitution of 1968 made it official that the SED was the leading party of East Germany, yet there continued to be elections until 1989. What was the point exactly?
The Human Rights after 1945 in the Socialist and Post-Socialist World conference programme is now available here.
If you can’t make it out to Warsaw, I’ll try to live-tweet some of the proceedings on @historyned.
Update (23.03.2016): Here is a link to a collection of live-tweets from the conference. Thanks to Merle Ingenfeld from the Weber Stiftung for putting together the Storify version.
Update (25.06.2016): Here is a link to the conference report written by Anna Delius http://geschichte-transnational.clio-online.net/tagungsberichte/id=6577
East German postage stamp commemorating 25 years of the “Anti-Fascist Defense Rampart” or as it is better known, the Berlin Wall.
Some spoilers for the first four episodes of Deutschland 83 as well as the general plot points of the films The Lives of Others and Bridge of Spies.
The voice of Ronald Reagan ominously calling the Soviet Union an Evil Empire opens the new television series Deutschland 83, but our perspective as the viewer comes from the woman listening: Stasi agent Lenora Rauch. She sees the speech as an open threat of war and a dire warning of imminent attack by the West. Rauch’s (Maria Shrader) interpretation is shared by her colleagues in the German Democratic Republic’s intelligence services who also see Reagan’s bellicose rhetoric as the first step toward nuclear war. Throughout the whole series, the driving force of the narrative is the quest of Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay) – Lenora’s young nephew – to find proof of this impending attack and eventually to prevent an all out atomic conflagration.
Anticipated nuclear strikes in Central Europe according to Warsaw Pact military exercise “7 Days to the River Rhine” held in 1979.
What is remarkable about this series, is its willingness to stake the plot around the worldview of the Stasi. Rather than portraying Rauch and her colleagues as war-hungry paranoiacs, their fears are treated as the logical outcome of ideology, Cold War tensions, and American saber-rattling. The series does not take the side of the Stasi, but it demands that the viewer takes it seriously and engages with a perspective in which the communist bloc is existentially threatened by the ever-present danger of western capitalist imperialism. Deutschland 83 does not shy away from showing the horrific actions perpetrated by the security services from censorship to arbitrary detention to murder, but it never reduces the Stasi to cartoon villains or mindless sadists. These are professional agents who see themselves as defending their nation against invasion and destruction and they will stop at nothing to prevent this.
East German pamphlet “Day X: the Failure of the Fascist War Provocation of June 17, 1953.” Pictured at top is US Secretary of State Dulles, Chancellor Adenauer, West Berlin Mayor Ernst Reuter and CDU politician Jakob Kaiser.
When I first moved to Berlin in 2010, we had rented an apartment in Prenzlauer Berg sight unseen and it was my job to pick up the keys and take the first look. The winter that year was dragging hard into a grey and dreary March. I got off the S-Bahn at Greifswalderstraße and made my way south by foot and came across this:
Yep. Definitely the Eastern part of Berlin. At the time I thought it was Soviet revolutionary Vladimir Lenin – graffiti covered the name as it does until the city cleans it off about six times a year. I quickly discovered that this was actually Ernst Thälmann, the leader of the German Communist Party in the Weimar Era.
The massive Lenin statue that had once loomed over a square in neighbouring Friedrichshain had already been gone for 19 years at that point. In 1991, all 19 meters of red Ukrainian granite had been taken apart and buried in a forest on the outskirts of town.
In post-reunification Berlin, what monuments stayed and which had to go has not always been consistent. Why did Thälmann survive and Lenin get tossed into the dustbin of history? Yes, Thälmann has a billowing flag adorned with the hammer and sickle, but he’s been spared because of a confluence of obscurity, expense and victimhood. While Lenin was situated in the middle of square and the centerpiece of a neighbourhood, Thälmann is tucked into an unpopular park surrounded by high-rise towers in a quiet part of Prenzlauer Berg. Unless you end up on the M4 tram taking a short-cut to Alexanderplatz, you don’t see him unless you are a local. Getting rid of that much bronze and marble won’t be cheap either. Dismantling Lenin cost the city over 100,000 DM in 1991 (around €50,000) and after that there was less enthusiasm for a full sweep of old monuments even from ardent anti-communists.
Check it out here
This is the TL;DR version:
Since the end of state socialism in Eastern Europe, the revolutions of 1989 have become a central element in the mythology of human rights. Human rights are portrayed as a catalyst, alighting a revolutionary ethos within those living in the Eastern Bloc. By depicting 1989 as the result of a mass moral epiphany regarding universal human rights, such narratives naturalize and depoliticize the collapse of state socialism. While the discourse of human rights was important in unifying dissident groups, it had also been used to by socialist states to legitimize dictatorial rule. During the Arab Spring, international commentators and local actors invoked this mythological version of 1989 to declare that a similar awakening was once again taking place and that human rights were sure to triumph over dictatorship. The example of Egypt appeared to mirror that of 1989 with mass demonstrations for human rights, prompting optimism that a similar revolutionary change was inevitable. Instead, the successful reassertion of military dictatorship has been legitimized in the name of protecting human rights. In viewing the end of state socialism as the result of the proliferation of human rights consciousness, the mythology of 1989 creates a tragically flawed model for reform and revolution.
Full citation info: “Human Rights as Myth and History: Between the Revolutions of 1989 and the Arab Spring,” Debatte: Journal of Contemporary Central and Eastern Europe, (Volume 23, Issue 2-3, 2015), 151-166.
Update: the access for the first fifty clicks has now apparently been used up. Please get in touch with me directly if you are having trouble accessing the full article.
I have been on twitter as a historian for over a year and I’ve put together a few lessons I’ve learned in that time.
- Know your audience – the one you have and the one you want
The best way to get the most out of Twitter as an academic is to know whom you are trying to reach. If you just want to keep in touch with a handful of specialists in your field versus bring your research to the masses you will need a very different approach. The more people you want to reach, the catchier you will have to be both in terms of your writing and your visuals. You don’t have to resort to cheap clickbait, it just takes some creativity. I make sure to post daily with an easily legible format that includes pictures and links to more media when possible. This works for me because I find it fun to do and it helps me to expand my knowledge of my research field more broadly. If the people are you are trying to reach most just want the facts and will be turned off by lots of extraneous material, then the public engagement approach may be counter-productive. Figure out whom you are trying to talk to and what you are trying to get out of the experience and tailor your TL accordingly.