Why do GDR studies matter now?
by Kyle Frackman (University of British Columbia)
For several years, my research has focused on the history and culture of the German Democratic Republic (GDR, East Germany). Many people are familiar with some of the basics about East Germany (e.g., single-party state, socialism/communism, Berlin Wall), but there is little common knowledge about my focus within GDR Studies: the experiences and depictions of lesbians and gay men in East Germany. In what follows, I will discuss some of the things we can learn from studying this subject and why these topics matter.
Who is remembered and how? Already before the GDR’s founding in 1949, the East German regime and officially sanctioned organizations declined to consider homosexuals to be victims of fascism. This was most overt in the 1940s and 1950s, but arms of the government, including the Ministry for State Security, or Stasi, enforced this position in the 1970s and 1980s as a part of their targeting of lesbians and gay men. The reasoning was that (male) homosexuality was considered a crime under §175, which prohibited certain sexual acts while the Nazis were in power in Germany. Thus, the argument goes, homosexuals are qualitatively different in their persecution from, for example, the Jews persecuted by the Nazis. The Association of Persecutees of the Nazi Regime (Vereinigung der Verfolgten des Naziregimes, VVN) was unwilling to count homosexuals as eligible for membership, since, in the VVN’s perspective, they did not struggle against the Nazis as part of the antifascist resistance.
Who is a criminal? From the GDR’s founding in 1949 until 1968, same-sex sexual acts among men were criminally prohibited. Even after 1968, however, same-sex relationships remained publicly unacceptable and taboo, and were still criminalized through the difference in ages of consent of homosexual and heterosexual relationships. The law which criminalized male same-sex acts (§175) was finally repealed (in 1988 in the GDR) and removed in all forms from reunified Germany’s laws in 1994. Efforts toward reparations for the individuals these laws targeted continue slowly. (This is an issue in other countries, like Canada and the United Kingdom, where various forms of anti-homosexual discrimination were present.)
Whose relationships are acknowledged? East Germany was a heterosexist state, based on a system of compulsory heterosexuality. The GDR’s first constitution of 1949 set out to address sexism and to codify the equality of men and women. In doing this, however, the constitution also systematizes women in the position of wife and mother, setting up the heterosexual, marital, family-based model of East German society. The GDR’s efforts to create and maintain sex/gender equality also established an important triad—man-woman-family—which would further serve to ostracize lesbians and gay men, who could not be a part of this social structure upon which the GDR’s “real-existing socialism” was based.
Although the German Democratic Republic is now extinct, its legacies remain. Many who experienced discrimination and oppression in East Germany are still alive and have memories of these events. Recent documentary films have engaged with the topic of lesbians and gay men in East Germany: Among Men – Gay in the GDR (2012) and Out in East Berlin: Lesbians and Gays in the GDR (2013). Coming Out(1989), the only feature film produced in East Germany that focuses on homosexuality, remains a popular addition to film festivals, especially queer film series and events held around anniversaries of the fall of the Berlin Wall or Reunification. Beyond the direct connection to the GDR, however, studying these events and their aftermath can teach us more about marginalized communities, whether in a system of state-sponsored socialism and totalitarian control or under democratic institutions.
by Carol Anne Costabile-Heming (University of North Texas)
When asked to contribute a piece on “Why GDR Studies Still Matter,” I immediately flashed back to the early to mid-1990s. I had just started my career and the fall of the Berlin Wall and the unification of Germany were recent events—overall an exciting time to be working in GDR Studies. Then, I had the sense that I was working on something important, as archives were opened and scholars were just beginning to assess government documents. It seemed there was much to learn about the true inner workings of the German Democratic Republic. Nonetheless, a senior colleague approached me to inquire when I was going to do something interesting, noting that after all, the GDR was dead. This comment gave me pause— scholars study “dead” things all the time, for instance the Civil War or even the medieval Minnesang. Rather than accept this unsolicited advice, I chose to continue my fascination with the GDR, analyzing texts and writers, documenting the authorization process and censorship of fictional works, and trying to make sense of secret police files and the State’s fear of its own citizenry. With that long ago conversation in mind and nearly 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, now is an appropriate time to take stock and ponder seriously, why GDR Studies still matter. Notice, I chose not to use the phrase, “if GDR Studies still matter,” because I wholeheartedly believe that there always are lessons to be learned from the past, and that the 40-year experiment that was the GDR continues to offer scholars a unique lens through which to ponder German Studies.
The East German state was particularly fearful of artists, writers, and intellectuals, and through intricate processes for authorizing films, texts, even works of art, managed to engage in censorship even though it was expressly prohibited by the East German constitution. As the Czech Cultural Minister, Antonin Stanek, noted at the 2019 Leipzig Book Fair, literature has a subversive power. But, he noted, this power to subvert does not rest solely in the domain of authoritarian societies. Recent and repeated accusations of fake news showered on journalists in democratic nations share the insidious desire to silence critical voices that typically have been associated with authoritarian regimes. Media images of the Monday demonstrations in Leipzig and other East German cities in the fall of 1989 depict a fearless citizenry demanding freedoms and willing to face down the all-powerful state, its militaristic police force, and the secret police. Thus, one lesson that study of the GDR teaches us is the power of democracy.
The main function of the East German Ministry for State Security (the Stasi) was to protect the GDR, both from external security threats as well as threats from within. To accomplish this goal, the organization developed an extensive network of informal operatives who provided the Stasi with all kinds of information from the most banal to the most scandalous. The Stasi, in turn, manipulated such information in order to exert pressure and keep the citizens in check. Though this system of spying and surveillance was not very technically advanced when measured against today’s standards, it nonetheless was incredibly effective. Surveillance is ubiquitous in today’s society, and individuals regularly, whether willingly or unwillingly (or even naively and unknowingly) grant permission to entities like Facebook to track information. For instance, during the recent social media fad, the Facebook 10-year comparison challenge, Facebook users eagerly posted pictures. Though I use social media, particularly Facebook, quite regularly, this challenge made me uneasy, even suspicious. What can someone do with the comparative data generated by those pictures, I wondered. Not normally prone to believing in conspiracy theories, I also wondered where this skepticism came from. Truth be told, it derives from researching the East German secret police, the Stasi for the last 20 years. What could an organization that amassed thousands of pages of documentation, an old-fashioned analog spy ring, possibly have to do with Facebook, you ask? Plenty, and it is a lesson that I believe we can still learn from the now defunct GDR. The storage, analysis, and exploitation of personal data should concern everyone, for countless studies of the Stasi and its tactics have shown that information can easily be manipulated to fit any crime. This is just one example of an important lesson that can be gleaned from studying the GDR, and just one reason why I believe GDR Studies remains relevant today.
by Priscilla Layne (University of North Carolina)
In this response, I’d like to reflect on why Black German Studies is necessary both in the US and in Germany. Ironically, it seems less pressing to make a case for Black German Studies in the US. Many of the scholars who have done pioneering work in this field, including Black Germans like Fatima El-Tayeb and Peggy Piesche, and African Americans like Tina Campt and Michelle Wright, have taught or continue to teach in the US. And I have received less push back to Black German Studies’ relevance in the US, than in Germany, where unfortunately Black German scholars face even more hurdles trying to enter academia and conduct research on critical race studies once in academia. Nevertheless, I will start by considering the US context, since that is the context within which I was trained and in which I teach. And despite being seemingly open to Black German topics of study, there is still room for improvement both in US African Diaspora as well as in US German programs at the K-16 level and beyond.
Why the US Needs Black German Studies
In the American academy, Black German Studies has the potential to contribute to both German Studies and African Diaspora Studies more broadly. Within German Studies, I think the benefits of including Black German perspectives are that they help decolonize the discipline and dismantle certain assumptions people have about Germany, the German language and German culture. As someone who has no German heritage or family and became fluent from learning German in US schools, first in the Chicago Public Schools system and then in college as an undergrad at the University of Chicago, I know from being in those classrooms that most students felt German was a foreign language for people with some ethnic connection to German. However, I think the notion that the people interested in taking German are white Americans with German grandparents is very narrow. In the US, I meet all kinds of Black people who have some connection to Germany. My African American hairdresser spent several years there as a child, because her father was in the military. I recently met a Jamaican woman with a law degree who currently lives in the US, but is thinking of moving to Germany because her brother works for a German company. I have visited places in the US, from Pittsburgh to Milwaukee, with African American high school students learning German. One of my best undergraduate students first started taking German at her high school in Atlanta. So when a student writes on an evaluation form that German is a “white language” and therefore the question of valuing diversity is irrelevant in a German classroom, this disturbs me, because, first, it is not true and, second, it invalidates the experience of hundreds of thousands of Black Germans, as well as many other German-speakers who are racialized and considered non-white, and the many Black people I have encountered in my life who speak German. It is time to stop perpetuating the myth that equates Germanness with whiteness and instead acknowledge Germany’s diverse past, present and future, as countless Black German scholars like El-Tayeb and Piesche have called on us to do. Teaching Black German Studies in the US can help us do that. And it can begin in K-12 and not just happen at the college level.
Secondly, I think Black German Studies can be useful for teaching students of Black Studies in the US about the diversity of the Diaspora. I am an African American of Caribbean descent. Growing up in the US with Caribbean parents familiarized me with what it’s like to be considered “not Black enough” for some people, but definitely “too Black” for the white majority. This is what resonated with me when I first discovered Black German texts. I could relate to how the construction of Blackness in different contexts can influence how people read you, and how frustrating it can feel when people try to fit you into a box instead of accepting you as an individual with a complicated history or identity that may not fit one narrative. Studying the Black diaspora in Germany opens American students of Black Studies up to the centuries-old history of African Americans traveling to Germany as scholars and artists and activists, from W.E.B. DuBois to Martin Luther King Jr and Angela Davis. It was not until I had been studying German for some time that I learned of these previous cultural exchanges. And I remember how empowering it felt to know that I was not the only onewith an interest in Germany and that in fact I was part of a long tradition of intellectual and cultural curiosity that took African Americans across the Atlantic. Learning about the different ways African Americans were perceived in Germany, from DuBois’s positive experiences in the 1890s to Black GIs’ description of Germany as a “breath of freedom,” also helped me better understand the constructed nature of Blackness and that, despite being given a very limiting and denigrating image of Black people in the US, we were capable of a lot more than I was taught in school. Furthermore, with the right means we could also travel the world and step beyond the confines of US racism. Indeed, I have also encountered racism in Germany. And I find it important to prepare Black students for that reality if they, too, choose to visit or study there. Nevertheless, it is a powerful thing for students to imagine their world to be much larger than the confines of their neighborhood or their home state.
Why Germany Needs Black (German) Studies
I am going to frame these comments around the larger issue of why Germany needs Black Studies in general, with the assumption that establishing the discipline of Black Studies in Germany would necessarily include Black German Studies. Last fall, while in Berlin, I attended a symposium entitled Netzwerk Schwarze Perspektiven organized by Each One Teach One (EOTO), a Black cultural center located in the district of Wedding. The event took place at Humboldt University and was intended to address how and why Black Studies could be formally introduced into German academia. While there were several riveting panels of Black German scholars and activists of multiple generations who shared their challenges and experiences of studying and teaching in Germany and abroad, one panel in particular was a thorn in my side. It was a panel on how to integrate Black Studies in Germany. Two of the panelists were white, Rainer Stocker from Antidiskriminierungsstelle des Bundes and Editha von Colberg, Beauftragte für Forschungsmanagement, Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung (WZB). I point out their whiteness merely because they were also the only two individuals to question the legitimate need for Black Studies in Germany. Stocker’s comments seemed to suggest that one didn’t need a Black Studies department in Germany, because the Antidiskriminierungsstelle already addressed the issue of anti-Black discrimination.
But Black Studies isn’t just about studying racism and discrimination. You also cannot simply hang anti-Blackness onto some other extant research group about some other phenomenon, like neoliberalism, which was the suggestion put forward by von Colberg. Black Studies might be transdisciplinary, but it is also its own, separate thing. As Alexander Weheliye says in Habeas Visicus, Black Studies is the study of the human condition. Why? Because for a long time Black people weren’t even seen as human. Therefore, the battle around who or what is human has been carried out on the bodies of Black people for centuries; it is enmeshed in the history of Black people. And that’s why Black Studies is, in part, a struggle around Humanism; defining and redefining it, or even rejecting it for something else. So, if Humanism is such a valued part of German cultural history, then Germany needs Black Studies, and in particular Black German Studies.
Black Studies is also about valuing Black experience, history, creativity and intellectual labor. It’s about decolonizing the mind and challenging Eurocentric, white supremacist ideas that are simply passed on and glossed over whenever a Black student in Germany is asked to read Kant or Hegel without any conversation about race. It’s about challenging the alleged objectivity of white academics. It’s about representation not just of Black people more generally, but representation of Black German people as well. That’s why when von Colberg tried to defend her institution by highlighting its internationalism, suggesting they tried hard to bring in Black scholars from around the world, this was really just a cop out and an excuse to keep doing the same old thing: namely to deny the historical presence of Black Germans and maintain a homogenous view of German culture and history.
At the symposium Nana Adusei-Poku gave a presentation that addressed the fact that there is so much Black history that is buried; that people never learn about. And this is a systematic process. Black history is systematically erased and undervalued in both the US and in Germany. And in Germany, one of the challenges to solidifying Black knowledge is that Black academics tend to be spread out across disciplines and across universities, which makes it difficult to collaborate, like Maisha Maureen Eggers who teaches in the Department for Kindheit und Differenz at the Hochschule Magdeburg-Stendahl or Louis Henri Sekua who is faculty in the Department for Social Work at the HAW in Hamburg. But Black scholars have not yet infiltrated all fields. What kind of an impact would it make to have a cluster hire of people of color in a Germanistik program? And if that seems too daunting, one could begin by hiring a Black German professor in a Germanistik department who works on Black German history and culture specifically. But that would just be the beginning. The goal would be to establish a Black Studies department that allows scholars to acknowledge all of the breadth and depth of Black achievement, including Black German achievement. If they won’t teach students about Anton Wilhelm Amo in philosophy, then Germany needs Black (German) Studies to teach about him and break the cycle of silencing and repressing Black German history and culture.
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