The journal Discard Studies picked up a thread on the historical and legal definition of genocide that I had posted to twitter in connection to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women inquiry. You can check it out here
In Germany and around the world, the last residence of persecuted Jews and other victims of Nazi terror are marked by small brass bricks called Stolpersteine – Stumbling Stones. There are more than 70,000 of these 10 by 10 cm stones installed in cobblestoned and paved sidewalks all made by hand by the artist Gunter Demnig who began the project back in 1992. It has now become common for many in Germany to mark the 9th of November – the anniversary of Kristallnacht – and the 27th of January – Holocaust Remembrance Day on the anniversary of the Red Army’s liberation of Auschwitz – by polishing local Stolpersteine.
While the Stolpersteine are ubiquitous across Germany, there are a few exceptions. The city of Munich banned the installation of new Stolpersteine in 2015 after claims that they were disrespectful of the dead, whose names were walked on by the living. In Erfurt, where I now work, the Stolpersteine are not banned, but instead the last known residence of Nazi victims is marked by a DenkNadel – a memorial needle. The civic group Erfurter GeDenken called for proposals in 2007 to create a uniquely Erfurt commemoration for the victims of Nazi terror and local artist Sophie Hollmann won the competition with her design: a silver cone topped by an orange ball as if it was a giant pushpin pressed into the street to mark the spot. The first set of DenkNadel were installed on November 9, 2009 with five more installed in the following years across the city.
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.
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.
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
On July 20, 1944 – 73 years ago today – Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg carried out a plot to assassinate Hitler with a bomb. The attack failed and Stauffenberg along with several dozen military and conservative elites involved were arrested, tortured and executed.
Since WWII, the bomb plot has been an important part of Germany’s political culture – Stauffenberg and the plotters are seen as evidence that not all Germans supported the Nazis and that within the elite there were still men who represented the traditional values of the nation and were willing to die for this. This interpretation is contested, but within the public sphere, commemoration of the plotters and their efforts is a touchstone of mainstream German politics.
All of this makes it puzzling that the flag of the conservative anti-Hitler resistance has become a symbol of the far right in recent years.
The Wirmer flag was designed by Josef Wirmer as the flag for the new Germany in 1944. Wirmer was a lawyer who had worked in the social left-wing of the Catholic Center Party before the Nazi seizure of power. The flag combined the red, black, gold of the Weimar (and modern) German flag along with the cross to emphasize the importance of Christianity. Wirmer himself was executed in September 1944 in connection with the July 20th plot.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Had it survived the collapse of state socialism, the German Democratic Republic would be commemorating its 66th anniversary today. A month before the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, the GDR held a massive celebration for East Germany’s the 40th year as a separate country. By the next year, politicians from both East and West worked together to make sure the GDR ceased to exist on October 3rd, in part to avoid the awkwardness of reaching 41.
Twenty-five years later, as the unified Germany dominates the political and economic landscape of Europe, alternatives to this status quo seem unthinkable. While the continued existence of the GDR has recently been the subject of no less that three speculative novels, contemplating such an idea is usually geared towards parody and humour.
When we talk about German reunification, it is important to remember that the country created in 1990 looked very different than that sought as the division of the two Germanies was being formalized in 1949. In Western political posters from that year, the Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Social Democrats (SPD) both clearly supported the return of all lost territory in the East including that annexed to Poland and the Soviet Union in 1945.
Into the 1960s, the Committee for an Indivisible Germany, a group supported by the West German left and right alike, produced propaganda material calling for the return return what was then the Western half of Poland as well as Kaliningrad.
By the 1980s, the idea that reunification would include lands beyond the Oder-Neisse line that separated the GDR from Poland had moved to the margins. There was, however, enough discussion of the idea to inspire this graffiti in Jena mocking demands for a return to 1937 borders.
On August 24, 1961, Günter Litfin was shot to death by East German transport police as he tried to cross the border to West Berlin. A tailor from Weissensee, the 24-year-old Litfin had climbed over the Berlin Wall, built only 11 days earlier, near the Charité Hospital. Police fired warning shots at Litfin while he was on solid ground, but once he jumped into the Humboldt Harbour and began swimming for West Berlin, they took proper aim and hit their target. His corpse was pulled from the water a few hours later by East German firefighters.
Early in the morning of February 6, 1989, Chris Gueffroy became the last person to be shot to death while crossing the Berlin Wall. The 20-year-old waiter decided to leave East Germany on the cusp of being conscripted into the National People’s Army. With his friend Christian Gaudian, Gueffroy hoped to cross the Britz Canal to the West Berlin district of Neukölln – they erroneously believed that the order to use deadly force at the border had been suspended. Border guards opened fire on the pair as they scaled the final layer of border fencing. Gueffroy was hit twice in the chest and died immediately.
Litfin and Gueffroy are often mistakenly referred to as the first and last victims of the Berlin Wall, but this sad distinction actually belongs to two others. The 58-year-old widow Ida Siekmann died of injuries from jumping from a building on Bernauerstrasse to cross the Wall two days before Litfin was shot. At the other end, Winfried Freudenberg was killed over a month later than Gueffroy when his makeshift balloon failed during the border crossing and he fatally crashed in the West Berlin suburb of Zehlendorf.
This error is important, not for the sake of historical pedantry, but because it speaks to how the Berlin Wall is understood in the popular imagination. When we think of the Berlin Wall, the imagined victim is usually a young man, gunned down by border guards as he fled for freedom. The most famous of all the Berlin Wall victims, Peter Fechter, embodies this image. Fechter, 18, was shot as he tried to cross the border near Checkpoint Charlie in 1962, little more than a year after the Wall’s construction. He lay wounded and screaming in pain in the death strip for forty minutes until he bled to death. His monument on Zimmerstrasse eulogizes his plight: “…he only wanted freedom.”