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.
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?
FionaRintoul: 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.
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:
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.
The Other Globalisers: How the Socialist and the Non-Aligned World Shaped the Rise of Post-War Economic Globalisation
Location: Exeter University, UK
Date: 6-7 July 2017
Abstract Deadline: 18 March 2017
Papers are now invited for our exciting conference addressing how the socialist and non-aligned world shaped the rise of post-war economic globalisation. This conference is the second in a series of events exploring how processes and practices that emerged from the socialist world shaped the re-globalised world of our times.
In the wake of the Second World War, the world economy began to ‘reglobalise’ – following the disintegrative processes of the interwar period. This story has most often been told as the final triumph of a neoliberal international order led by the West. Recent research, however, suggests that the creation of our modern interconnected world was not driven solely by the forces of Western capitalism, nor was it the only model of global economic interdependence that arose in the second half of the twentieth century. This conference aims to rethink the histories of postwar globalisation by focusing on the socialist and non-aligned world, whose roles in the rise of an economically interconnected world have received substantially less attention.
This conference aspires to address a wide variety of processes, practices and projects – such as efforts to create alternative systems of international trade, new business practices, through to theoretical conceptualisations of economic interconnectedness – and examine a broad range of actors, such as e.g. governments, experts, international institutions, and business ventures. It will also explore whether such initiatives were alternative at all: as recent research has suggested, actors from these worlds could be contributors to the emerging neoliberal consensus, as well as to other forms of regional economy and global trade that survive to this day. We also hope to encourage an interdisciplinary dialogue between scholars using different approaches to global interconnectedness, and/or working on a variety of regions (e.g. Latin America, Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union).
Abstracts of 300-500 words, together with an accompanying short CV should be submitted to Natalie Taylor (N.H.Taylor@exeter.ac.uk) by 18 March 2017.
The selected participants will be notified by the end of March 2017.
Funding opportunities for travel and accommodation are available, but we ask that potential contributors also explore funding opportunities at their home institutions.
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.
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.
This year a man shouting 'death to traitors' assassinated a British MP. Now Daily Mail prints photos of judges over 'enemies of the people'. pic.twitter.com/uYUzZsLKkA
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?
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.
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.”