New Book Review: Communism Day-to-Day by Sandrine Kott

Kott Communism day to day

 

I have a new book review of Sandrine Kott’s Communism Day-to-Day: State Enterprises in East German Society out today with H-German.

From the introduction of the review:
In Communism Day-to-Day, Sandrine Kott explores the history of the everyday in state enterprises based in East Berlin. Published originally in 2001 in French and now available in English translation for the first time, Kott’s work stemmed from the wave of critical work seeking to move beyond totalitarian interpretations of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in the late 1990s. Building on the everyday history—Alltagsgeschichte— approaches to the history of East Germany pioneered by Thomas Lindenberger and others at the Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung (ZZF) in Potsdam, Kott seeks to find the limitations and contradictions of state power and society in the GDR through the lens of East Berlin work-places.

You can read the whole review here

The Leipzig Affair: A Discussion with Author Fiona Rintoul

Naschmarkt Leizpig 1986

Author Fiona Rintoul and a friend in Leipzig, East Germany. © Fiona Rintoul, 1986

Today’s post is an online conversation between myself and Fiona Rintoul, the author of the historical fiction novel The Leipzig Affair. It is the story of Robert, a Scottish student who travels to the GDR in 1985, where he meets Magda, a young East German looking to escape. As a fan of the book, I had the chance to speak with Fiona – an accomplished journalist and translator, in addition to her literary talents – about fiction, history, and the Stasi.

Ned Richardson-Little: When writing a work of history, you are ultimately bound by the texts and artifacts of the era that make up your source base. While you have a greater freedom to go beyond this as a fiction writer, how do you see the constraints of history as you write about this era?

Fiona Rintoul: When you are writing a novel that is grounded in a particular time and place, I think you have a responsibility to make sure it is authentic, especially if you are writing about events that were traumatic for many people. The characters and events in The Leipzig Affair are fictional, but real people in the former GDR suffered the kinds of problems and injustices that my characters endure. Therefore, I did feel it was important to get the details right.

Karl Marx Relief

Karl Marx University in Leipzig, East Germany © Fiona Rintoul, 1986

At the same time, the book is a work of fiction, and there is truth and fictional truth, and they are not quite the same. A story has to work as a story regardless of what actually happened to actual people. I think a writer can allow themselves some freedom to create their own reality within their chosen setting – as long as the story remains authentic. If there are lots of things that are just plain wrong, then you lose credibility and your story becomes a bit of an insult to people who lived through the period you’re describing. However, I don’t think you need to check the location of every lamppost. I’m reminded of a story my husband tells about WG Sebald, who allegedly received a letter from a reader saying the clock in Antwerp station is on the left of the departure board in one of his books when in fact it’s on the right. Apparently, he wrote back and said, ‘In my book, it’s on the left.’

I think that’s fair enough. It’s not fair enough to misrepresent people’s experiences. For a long time, I hesitated to write the book because I’m not East German. However, after spending time in Berlin on a journalists’ exchange and seeing how much tension and lack of understanding there was between East and West Germans, I came to the conclusion that an outsider might actually be the best person to write this book. After it was published, I received an email for an elderly woman in Dresden thanking me for writing it and saying she appreciated that I’m neither an Ossi nor a Wessi. That’s still my favourite review ever.

NRL: I’ve had similar responses as a Canadian writing about East German history. After one seminar, I was told that it was a relief that we didn’t have to discuss my family’s role on either side of the Wall before getting down to actually debating the merits of a historical argument. Not that I actually am inherently objective about this subject, but there was a sense that being an outsider made it easier to talk about certain sensitive subjects. In the case of your book, you also seem to be balancing the use of an outsider perspective through one of your protagonists – a Scot who is encountering the GDR for the first time and is written in the first person – but at the same time, the other protagonist is East German and is written in the second person.

FR: Yes, writing the story of Magda, the East German protagonist, in the second person, was quite an important choice. For reasons that I can’t entirely explain, using the second person really helped me to get inside her head and to stop worrying about not being East German myself. I’ve written about why I think the second person was the right choice for Magda’s voice elsewhere. I think writing in the second person did also put me at a little bit of remove from her – almost as if I were a Stasi agent watching her – which somehow helped. And, yes, you’re right, meanwhile I could put across the outsider’s perspective on the GDR through Robert.

Leipzig, Karl-Marx-Platz, "Neues Gewandhaus", Mende-Brunnen

Downtown Leipzig in 1986

NRL: When telling this story, did you see yourself as a vehicle for a factual recounting of what occurred in the GDR or is the act of fiction writing, even when writing about a historical era, more concerned with a broader truth? Continue reading

Who Is the Volk? From the Fall of the Wall to Merkel & Me

wir-sind-ein-volk-1989

If you have ever seen even a single TV documentary about the collapse of East Germany, the image of a sign with the words Wir sind ein Volk – We are one people – is unavoidable. Protestors across the German Democratic Republic began to chant the slogan Wird sind das Volk – We are the people – as a means of legitimizing their dissent against the state that claimed to rule on behalf of the people. But the turn to from das to ein Volk (so: from the people to one people) was the moment when demonstrations in the streets veered from reform within East Germany towards reunification with West Germany.

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The final Monday Demonstration before the first open East German elections in March 1990

The reunification of Germany is now just a fact of geography and it is often hard to recall how threatening the concept was to so many in 1989. Framed as a rebellion against totalitarian communism, the idea of reuniting the Volk has been neutralized of its heavy historical baggage: namely the the Nazi slogan – Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Führer.

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The idea of the German Volk predated the Nazis, but this particular vision of it the took the logic of a racialized nationalism to the genocidal extreme. The Volk of the Nazis was a racially pure German people, purged of foreign and “degenerate” influences, both genetic and cultural. Those who were not of the Volk were to be sterilized, displaced and murdered. Genocide was the endpoint of the logic of the Volk.

And it is this dark history that makes Angela Merkel’s commentary this week on the German Volk so meaningful:

The time of German unity, the time when the Iron Curtain fell, the time when Europe was coming together, was a wonderful time. And therefore there is no justification to presume to define out of our society small groups, to define who the Volk is. The Volk is everyone who lives in this country.

This is a big deal. A really big deal, in fact. It was controversial when former German President Christian Wulff said that “Islam belongs to Germany” in 2010. Merkel defended Wulff on the grounds that while German  culture was grounded in Judaeo-christian values, Muslims were citizens and equal before the law. This was not a ringing endorsement so much as an acknowledgement of legal realities.

In January, Merkel had already edged towards this line of thought saying “We are all the Volk,” but she had not committed to a cosmopolitan vision of German national identity to such an extent. Here – at a CDU party election in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (not necessarily an friendly audience for this message) – she was trying to link the idea of the Volk to a civic national identity rooted in shared residence in Germany, and explicitly rejected the notion of the Volk grounded in racial or ethnic identity.

The idea of a German civic identity is not new – Jürgen Habermas’s idea of a constitutional patriotism as a replacement for ethnic nationalism is a famous example – but this positive declaration that everyone who lives in Germany belongs to the Volk is something new.

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One of the final postage stamps issued by East Germany in 1990

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New Article: Human Rights, Pluralism and the Democratization of Post-War Germany

different-germans

I’ve got a new article out in the now available volume “Different Germans, Many Germanies: New Transatlantic Perspectives” edited by Konrad H. Jarausch, Harald Wenzel, and Karin Goihl and published by Berghahn Books.

My contribution looks at the evolving ideas of human rights in East and West Germany and how they relate to processes of democratization between the post-war to reunification.

What does the book cover you ask?

“As much as any other nation, Germany has long been understood in terms of totalizing narratives. For Anglo-American observers in particular, the legacies of two world wars still powerfully define twentieth-century German history, whether through the lens of Nazi-era militarism and racial hatred or the nation’s emergence as a “model” postwar industrial democracy. From American perceptions of the Kaiserreich to the challenges posed by a multicultural Europe, the volume argues for—and exemplifies—an approach to German Studies that is nuanced, self-reflective, and holistic.”

For more information on the book, click here and you can read the introduction online here. There is currently a 50% discount on the book if you order online with the code JAR306 – orders can be placed here. Or you can request your library to order a copy here.

For those of you in Berlin, there will be launch party for the book at the Free University on February 16 from 6-8 p.m. I will be speaking along with the editors and Herbert Grieshop (Freie Universität Berlin). More info on the event can be found here.

Was East Germany Ever Really a Country: Thoughts on the Problem of Sovereignty

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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.

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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.”

ddr-bier

No shortage of East German beers.

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Ask Me Anything (about East German history that is…)

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.

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More Than Just an Oxymoron? Democracy in the German Democratic Republic.

niewieder

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.

jademo

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?

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Sympathy for the Devil: Seeing the World Through the Eyes of the Stasi in Deutschland 83

Schutzwall stamp

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.

7 days map

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.

Tagx

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.

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Monuments after the Fall: Which Statues Get to Survive the Revolution?

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:

thaelmann denkmal

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.

Lenin statue

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.

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Both an End and a Beginning: The Long Fall of the Berlin Wall

Lichtgrenze better

The Lichtgrenze commemorating the 25th anniversary of the opening of the Berlin Wall- November 9, 2014.

From our perspective today, it is easy to see November 9, 1989 as the end of the German Democratic Republic. In most of the coverage of the anniversaries, that date is synonymous with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of monopoly rule by the Socialist Unity Party (SED) and the end of the feared Ministry of State Security, the Stasi. In retrospect, it is clear that the opening of the Berlin Wall on November 9 was a decisive breaking point, after which the SED could never recover its capacity to rule.

But on November 10, 1989, this was far from obvious for all involved. In the early hours that day it was still unclear what exactly had happened overnight. SED officials still believed they could re-impose controls on cross border travel. The Soviet Union had yet to comment on the events or indicate if it would intervene. While earlier mass protests had been tolerated, Egon Krenz, leader of the SED since late October when he had deposed Erich Honecker, had praised the violent crackdown at Tiananmen Square earlier in the year leading some to fear violence could still come. That the opening of the border would usher in a peaceful transition to pluralistic democracy and later reunification was hardly certain.

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