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.
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
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.
German Historical Institute, Warsaw
March 3 – 5, 2016
Call for Papers Deadline: 27 November 2015
Human Rights after 1945 in the Socialist and Post-Socialist World
Histories of late twentieth century global change have focused on its perceived winners on a macro-scale: democratic capitalism, global markets and individual rights. In such formulations, the “socialist world” and its history appear irrelevant to understanding global processes and unable to inform liberal Western democratic societies.
US President Gerald Ford and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev
Forty years ago today, 35 countries from both sides of the Iron Curtain signed the Helsinki Accords – the final act of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe. Since the end of the Cold War, this agreement has been held up as a crucial turning point in the modern history of human rights. Academic and journalistic accounts often cite the Helsinki Accords as a breakthrough moment when communist states in the Eastern Bloc first accepted the principles of human rights. It is, thus hailed as the inspiration for the wave of human rights activism that culminated with the revolutions of 1989. This fatal decision by the leaders of the Eastern Bloc to sign on to an agreement with significant human rights provisions has been explained as an act of hubris, cynicism or some combination thereof. According to these narratives, wily diplomacy on the part of the West pressured the leaders of the Soviet Union and its satellites to sign its own death warrant by agreeing to respect rights they were obviously violating.
In the broader history of human rights in the Eastern Bloc, however, it becomes harder to draw a straight line of connection from the diplomacy of 1975 to the collapse of European state socialism in 1989/91. First, the Helsinki Accords were not the first instance in which communist states had recognized human rights. Second, while the human rights provisions of the Helsinki Accords were fiercely argued over, they were not simply imposed by the West on a recalcitrant East. Third, while the agreement provided fodder for dissidents, it was one of many human rights documents cited by activists rather than a singular catalyst for change.