The War Tribunal of Literature: Publikumsbeschimpfung (Insulting the Audience) with the Nobel Prize 2019 to Peter Handke
B. Venkat Mani (University of Wisconsin, Madison)
The Nobel Prize in Literature was the fourth of the prize categories established by Alfred Nobel in his will (1895). Nobel intended the award for someone who “had produced the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” The task of evaluating contemporary non-European literatures became a source of anxiety for the Nobel Committee set up in Stockholm. The committee found itself woefully inadequate to judge literatures from around the world; two members of the Swedish Academy reportedly “spoke strongly against accepting Nobel’s legacy, for fear that the obligation would detract from the Academy’s proper concerns and turn it into ‘a cosmopolitan tribunal of literature.’"
I reconstructed this story in my book Recoding World Literature. I knew that the cosmopolitan tribunal would also at times turn into a war tribunal in the name of neutrality, giving the prize, for example to Winston Churchill in 1953, for his "mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values.” This was only done when the committee "felt that a sufficient distance from the candidate’s wartime exploits had been gained, making it possible for a Prize to him to be generally understood as a literary award.”
The Committee today decided to give the Nobel Prize 2019 to the Austrian author Peter Handke, for his "influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience.” So it seems like members of the Swedish Academy, who probably read Handke in the 1960s, 70s, or 80s, collectively thought the following: we gave it to Bob Dylan, who then snubbed the academy, so now let’s indulge in our own Publikumsbeschimpfung and give it to a man who writes with “linguistic ingenuity” about the “human experience” in his trivialization of the genocide, ethnic cleansing, and rape during the Balkan Crisis of the 1990s. In 1999, Salman Rushdie named him the runner-up for "International moron of the year" in the Guardian, for his series of impassioned apologias for the genocidal regime of Slobodan Milošević. Handke appeared at Milosevic’s funeral, apparently because he saw what others could not see.
Today, in giving Olga Tokarczuk the Nobel Prize 2018—a formidable feminist author who writes with uncommon facility against the rise of exclusionary ethnonationalism and through the deployment of a wonderful border-poetics, as Dr. Karolina May-Chu has compellingly theorized—the Swedish Academy could have reasserted their credibility after the 2016 fiasco. But no. They chose Peter Handke, who in 2014 wanted the Nobel Prize abolished. It seems like akin to Churchill, now enough distance had been acquired. The public is stupid and forgetful, so we will just sneak this in.
No, we have not forgotten. By choosing Peter Handke, the members of the academy have indulged in an unflinching endorsement of a genocide denier. If they were trying to insult the literary readership, they have insulted themselves. Anyone who is celebrating this award is insulting the very dignity of human beings.
Today is a great day for Olga Tokarczuk, a great day for Polish Literature and World Literature. It’s certainly not a great day for literature in the German language. And an insulting day for the Swedish Academy.
by Didem Uca (Colgate University)
Policy on immigration and asylum is one of the most divisive political issues in the U.S., Germany, and the E.U. Germany, under the leadership of Chancellor Merkel, has been both praised and challenged for its humanitarian approach during the height of the so-called refugee crisis in 2015–2016. In contrast, the past two years of the Trump administration’s immigration policy have created an absolute human rights catastrophe characterized by racist, xenophobic, and white supremacist rhetoric and actions. The apparently stark difference between the two countries’ contemporary approaches to migration and asylum can and should be analyzed within the context of historical continuities. In a recent post for this blog, my colleague Gizem Arslan compellingly writes that “[t]he reason is not that German Studies is uniquely suited to engage with migration debates in any narrow sense. Rather, it is that German-speaking thinkers and politicians, European colonial legacies and German-language authors have both formed and challenged the institutions and disciplines that frame migration today.” While I agree with the second part of this conclusion, I would like to argue that German Studies scholars are not only particularly well positioned to engage with migration and its discontents; given the history of German-speaking cultures and the dire situation for migrants and asylum-seekers in the U.S. and worldwide, condemning xenophobic, anti-minority, and racist discourses is also our most solemn duty.
As U.S.-based German Migration Studies scholars, our research on and teaching of German cultural heritage must be informed by insights from Critical Race Theory, Decolonial and Indigenous Studies, and Genocide and Holocaust Studies so that we may work towards drawing sometimes uncomfortable connections between the U.S. and German-speaking contexts. When we hear about the widespread family separation policy implemented by the Trump administration, the racial profiling and detaining of both U.S. citizens and non-citizens, the visceral “send her back” rhetoric targeting minoritized individuals, the removal of Latinx Americans’ passports, and the death toll of overcrowding, disease, and neglect at the hands of ICE, we are forced to draw comparisons to the Nazi era; and when such analogies are rejected by other stakeholders, such as the denouncements by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum earlier this year, it is our job to reiterate these parallels, as many of our colleagues did in an important open letter. When we say the names of the victims of police brutality and discuss how to address the mass incarceration of African Americans and other people of color in the U.S., we must acknowledge how this state of the “new Jim Crow,” to employ civil rights lawyer and legal scholar Michelle Alexander’s term, continues the white supremacy of the “old” Jim Crow, the same policies that, according to comparative legal historian James Q. Whitman, inspired Nazi Germany’s Nuremberg Laws. When we listen to countless speeches on the necessity of building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, we are reminded of the wall that formerly divided East and West Germany. This must also work in the other direction: How can we teach about Vergangenheitsbewältigungand not demand reparations for the descendants of enslaved people, and more robust support for Native Americans and Japanese internment survivors? Furthermore, how can we accept that families of victims of the Holocaust have had the opportunity to receive reparations whereas the families of victims of the German genocide in Namibia have not?
The Atlantic Ocean, the vast abyss that separates the U.S. from German-speaking Europe, is also what connects the two. To borrow German Migration Studies scholar Leslie Adelson’s term, the “touching tales” of the U.S. and Germany have been carried across these waters in so many ships, from the arrival of the first European settler-colonialists that displaced and led to the genocide of Native American populations to the enslavement of Africans from which German entrepreneurs benefited; from the tragedy of the St. Louis to the tens of thousands of asylum-seekers drowning in the Mediterranean Sea trying to escape conditions of war and genocide that have often arisen from or been exacerbated by U.S. and German foreign policy and the profitable international sale of weapons. These shared stories, sent back and forth like messages in glass bottles, demand to be unfurled, read, and retold.
Being U.S.-based German Studies scholars affords us an enormous opportunity and responsibility to draw connections to German-speaking and American legacies that go beyond washing down soft-baked pretzels from an Ohio Aldi with a pint of locally brewed Berliner Weiße. Migration Studies offer a lens through which the historical specificities of a time and place come into sharp relief, but they also serve as an analytical framework that demands diachronic, transnational, intercultural, and multilingual comparison through scrutinizing points of continuity and rupture. Focusing on these commonalities allows us to understand how many of the residents of an Indiana town that cherishes its strong German roots can simultaneously oppose immigration from Central and South America. Relatedly, we can identify the distinct combination of cognitive dissonance and overt racism that has allowed Donald Trump – himself a second and third generation immigrant whose grandfather, Frederick Trump (né Drumpf), came from Germany and struck gold in the American northwest as a brothel and bar owner – to build his base using rhetoric labeling immigrants from the global south as morally reprehensible. The fact that two of Frederick’s early establishments, The Poodle Dog and The White Horse Restaurant and Inn, bring to mind motifs from Goethe and Storm, might be fodder for future German Studies dissertations.
Recent attacks on German Studies, foreign language education, and the humanities have raised the following questions: How do we rethink the humanities curriculum in an anti-humanist academic landscape and an anti-intellectual political landscape? How do we articulate what our fields can do, what students in our fields learn, and why that matters? Responses to these urgent questions have taken the form of the American Association of Teachers of German Alle lernen Deutsch committee, the recent “Re-Imagining the Discipline: German Studies, the Humanities, and the University” conference at Cornell University, and the work of the DDGC. Since we are concerned about bolstering enrollment in our German Studies classrooms, we need to highlight how the lens of German-speaking cultures can expand our understanding of the U.S. and vice versa, not by merely glorifying early German-speaking settlers, but rather, by being honest about how these cultures borrowed from each other to create a grim dual-legacy of genocide and colonialism built on the same xenophobic, racist, antisemitic, and Islamophobic rhetoric that fuels today’s Trump supporters and the AfD. We, as German Studies scholars, whether or not we focus on migration or minorities in our research, must use our voices to loudly speak out against human rights violations and oppression. Furthermore, we must work towards restorative justice by committing to amplifying the voices of marginalized, minoritized, and underrepresented individuals on our syllabi, in our classrooms, in the field, and in our positions of institutional power. By taking an approach to our teaching, research, and advocacy that reflects on these shared histories, presents, and futures, we can show unequivocally why German Migration Studies, and, indeed, German Studies in the broadest sense, matter today.
Adelson, Leslie A. “Touching Tales of Turks, Germans, and Jews: Cultural Alterity, Historical Narrative, and Literary Riddles for the 1990s.” New German Critique, no. 80, 2000, pp. 93–124. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/488635.
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Revised edition, New Press, 2012.
Arslan, Gizem. “Reframing German Migration Studies: Challenging Institutions and Disciplines.” Diversity, Decolonization, and the German Curriculum Blog, 2019.
Whitman, James Q. Hitler's American Model The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law. Princeton University Press, 2017.
by Karin Maxey (Northeastern University)
As a person who often questions the ethics of teaching and learning in higher education, I frequently reexamine my responsibilities as an educator and, more specifically, as someone who teaches German andfirst-year writing. With young adults as my students, one of my responsibilities is to guide them toward deeper self-reflection. For that reason, I often include assignments in my courses that ask students to reflect on their own learning experiences and their own development as people who are able to find answers and teach themselves new skills. Such a practice also aligns with the overall educational goals of my institution, Northeastern University, and with the World Readiness Standards put forward by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL).
Learning a new language can be transformative and eye-opening, especially for students who have never done it before, as well as for those who have had completely different learning experiences from the one in which they’re now learning German. To document this time in students’ lives and the changes they undergo, I ask them to complete two reflection assignments during each of the first two semesters in the first-year German program. Both assignments encourage students to approach critically what they are learning about language and how their worldview may or may not be changing through learning how another language divides up the world. The reflections also ask students to examine their own learning practices and whether they are accomplishing their personal or professional semester goals. Many students may enroll in first-year German for a language requirement, but I encourage them to make the course and their learning personal—as in, worthwhile for their learning and development—as long as they have to be here anyway.
Including reflection as part of the language learning process is not a new idea, and many scholars have written about the benefits of reflection in the language classroom. Dick Allwright and Judith Hanks, for example, have written extensively on this topic in the context of exploratory practice in the undergraduate language classroom (Allwright & Hanks, 2009; Hanks, 2015). During my own teacher training with Cori Crane at the University of Texas at Austin, I also gained first-hand experience in incorporating reflection into German classes; she has published about using exploratory practice in the methods course (Crane, 2015) and has spoken about using it in undergraduate language classes at a number of conferences. Needless to say, I have been influenced by the work of all of these scholars. I am merely here to offer support for their work and to say that incorporating reflection into my classes has become an indispensable part of my teaching.
In developing this assignment, I hope to capture an array of student experiences from the onset of language learning through the end of the first semester. For the task itself, I ask students to respond to several questions as part of a cohesive narrative:
The results of this assignment far exceeded my expectations. Perhaps the most exciting aspects of students’ work were the glimpses I received into their mental processes, or the things that puzzled them about learning German. One student, for example, wrote about how she refers to herself as “Sie” in her mind while she’s practicing German. The same student also wrote about how some grammatical genders, like the female article for Kartoffel [potato], feel natural to her while it feels mysterious that coffee is masculine. Another student revealed that she took my advice to put post-it notes around her living space and create her own personal linguistic landscape, and perhaps more importantly, she revealed that it worked for her. Other students wrote about the silly ways they remember words, (hand-shoe = mitten, arm-band-clock = watch), about the ways that German feels in their bodies, and about how they feel when they speak it.
These reflections were primarily written in English, but I encouraged students to code-switch between German and English if they wanted. A few of them took me up on that and included words or phrases in German that they knew how to say (or thought they could say). In my own teaching practice, I see other languages, primarily English, one of our shared classroom languages, as tools in students’ language learning, which is why they usually choose write their reflections in a language that is overall more accessible to them.
Asking students to think about their own learning and learning processes can also be an inclusive practice that personalizes students’ learning experiences. Every student brings to the classroom many identities, and this assignment holds few (hopefully no) previous assumptions about who they are, where they’ve been, what they know, or what they’ve done. It is simply an invitation to reflect with their teacher on their progression through the course, free of judgment. The assignment is also nearly grade-free; students only earn a completion grade for putting adequate attention into providing relevant, substantial examples and for making sure the essay is written in an accessible, readable style.
As an educator, I am driven by an ethical responsibility to help my students gain a meta-perspective on their own learning. Using an assignment like this – and one that is easily adaptable for other languages, levels, and disciplines – helps make learning more personal for all students, even in required courses, and helps them develop a broader perspective on what language is and what it means to learn it.
Allwright, Dick, & Hanks, Judith. (2009). The Developing Language Learner: An Introduction to Exploratory Practice. London: Palgrave.
Crane, Cori. (2015). Exploratory practice in the FL teaching methods course: A case study of three graduate student instructors’ experiences. L2 Journal, 7(2), 1–23.
Hanks, J. (2015). Language teachers making sense of Exploratory Practice. Language Teaching Research, 19(5), 612–633.
by Gizem Arslan (Southern Methodist University)
As a subdiscipline of German Studies, migration studies in the 1990s and early 2000s focused mostly on film and literature and advocated for the recognition of contributions by minority authors to the canon. Concurrently, migration studies sought to complicate ethnicized categorizations such as “Turkish” and “German,” and to address “the impossibility of reading texts and historical contexts of migration in isolation from one another, yet equally the impossibility of reducing the one to the other” (Kim 2011, Adelson 2005). This meant performing scholarly work attuned to text and context alike, in which the texts in question were not reduced to representations and ethnographies of migrant communities. As elaborated in the 2017 forum on migration studies in the German Quarterly, more recent scholarship revises these earlier emphases, exploring multiple archives (e.g., European, Ottoman), marginalized communities (e.g., Afro-Germans, Aussiedler), and genres. Today, with 40 million internally displaced peoples, 25.4 million refugees, and 3.1 million asylum seekers globally, the discipline has much to accomplish by addressing stories of escape, trauma, resettlement and expulsion, and the terms “precarity,” “fear,” “empathy,” and “intimacy,” as it has already begun to do.
“Why does migration studies as subdiscipline of German Studies matter?” If we contextualize migration studies with respect to the current global refugee crisis, most displaced people in the world today are from Sudan, Afghanistan, and Syria, and top refugee-hosting countries are neither in Europe nor North America, as much western political discourse and news coverage would have us believe. Rather, they are in Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East. Even specifically German-language cultural production around migration and asylum increasingly engages varied languages and geographies illimitable to the German-speaking world. Therefore, to claim migration studies for German Studies appears to pander to Eurocentric debates arising from Europe and North America’s enduring self-conception as linguistically, ethnically, and racially homogenous nation-states.
Instead, some recent scholarship points in more relevant, urgent directions. Deniz Göktürk and David Gramling suggest exploring how migration is framed by institutions (NGOs, funding bodies, universities) and disciplines (Göktürk and Gramling 2017). Many such institutions and disciplines have been influenced—even conceived—by German-speaking thinkers and politicians. For instance, Yasemin Yildiz has shown how Johann Gottfried Herder, Friedrich Schleiermacher, and Wilhelm von Humboldt “spearheaded the view that one could properly think, feel, and express oneself only in one’s ‘mother tongue’” (Yildiz 2012, 6–7). These thinkers’ and language’s role in the imagination and emergence of nation-states has been documented extensively (see for example Yildiz 2012; Gramling 2016). German-speaking authors (among others) have also challenged the institutions and disciplines informing migration. For example, in his 2014 speech to the Bundestag on the sixty-fifth anniversary of Germany’s Basic Law, German-Iranian journalist, author, and Islam scholar Navid Kermani sharply criticized the 1993 amendments to the Basic Law that limit asylum rights in Germany. In North-American German Studies, Vanessa Plumly’s 2016 analysis links racialized “refugee assemblages” in public discourse and media coverage in the wake of German reunification and the Cologne New Year’s Eve 2015 attacks with European colonial legacies.
In sum, migration studies as subdiscipline of German Studies matters very much indeed. The reason is not that German Studies is uniquely suited to engage with migration debates in any narrow sense. Rather, it is that German-speaking thinkers and politicians, European colonial legacies and German-language authors have both formed and challenged the institutions and disciplines that frame migration today.
Adelson, Leslie A. 2005. The Turkish Turn in Contemporary German Literature: Toward a New Critical Grammar of Migration. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Arslan, Gizem, Brooke Kreitinger, Deniz Göktürk, David Gramling, B. Venkat Mani, Olivia Landry, Barbara Mennel, Scott Denham, Robin Ellis, and Roman Utkin. 2017. “Forum: Migration Studies.” The German Quarterly 90 (2): 212–34.
Göktürk, Deniz, and David Gramling. 2017. “Germany in Transit, Ten Years on, in Forum: Migration Studies.” The German Quarterly 90 (2): 217–19.
Gramling, David. 2016. The Invention of Monolingualism. New York, NY: Bloomsbury.
Kim, John Namjun. 2010. “Ethnic Irony: The Poetic Parabasis of the Promiscuous Personal Pronoun in Yoko Tawada’s ‘Eine Leere Flasche’ (A Vacuous Flask).” The German Quarterly 83 (3): 333–52.
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “Figures at a Glance.” UNHCR. Accessed July 1, 2019.https://www.unhcr.org/figures-at-a-glance.html.
Plumly, Vanessa D. 2016. “Refugee Assemblages, Cycles of Violence, and Body Politic(s) in Times of ‘Celebratory Fear.’” Women in German Yearbook 32: 163.
Yildiz, Yasemin. 2012. Beyond the Mother Tongue: The Postmonolingual Condition. New York: Fordham University Press.
The classroom is the most important venue to stimulate change. The next series of posts on the DDGC blog will focus on interventions in the realm of language/culture studies teaching as it intersects with questions of social justice.
Are you teaching a new class? Are you making some changes aligned with social justice initiatives to existing courses? Did you develop new programming for your unit, department, college, or community? Some of you have shared in person that you’ve had success building critical communities in your learning spaces. We’d love to hear from you on these and other topics and we’d love to share your work in the form of a blog post.
Our past posts have ranged between 500–2000 words, but should not be limited in any way. If you are interested in contributing, reach out to Regine Criser (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Ervin Malakaj (email@example.com). We’d be glad to discuss ideas and formats.
by Claire E. Scott (Grinnell College)
I don’t know about you, but over the last couple of years I have felt particularly emotional. As a scholar of German Studies currently working in the United States, I have watched with anger and sadness as political divisions escalate and populist movements rise. In our contemporary world there is a lot to be upset about and there is also, thankfully, a lot of love and support to be shared. Why does German Gender Studies matter right now? It matters because it gives us the language to process these emotions and better understand how their expression shapes our world.
In the field of German Studies we often work with fictional texts and therefore have to articulate the relevance of these cultural products to the “real world.” One of the foundational questions of Gender Studies is the relationship between the body and social identity. During her lecture at the 2019 Feminist Theory Workshop at Duke University, Lauren Berlant described a genre as an “affective convention.” Just like when someone tells joke, understanding genre expectations requires a certain degree of intimacy or reciprocity between teller and audience (Berlant). Following the work of psychologist Silvan Tomkins, affect refers to the way the body experiences emotion and how those experiences connect us to other people. Describing genre as an affective convention then, links cultural products both to individual and collective bodies. Storytelling, like gender, becomes something that matters in a corporeal sense as well as an intellectual one.
In Living a Feminist Life, Sara Ahmed writes that, “If sensation brings us to feminism, to become a feminist is to cause a sensation” (39). We sense that something is unjust, and we act on those feelings. What Women’s and Gender Studies ultimately teaches us to do is to turn emotions into activism. It gives us the tools for transforming our sensations into something sensational, something that generates attention and cannot be ignored. No matter where you are in the world, all you need to do is open a social media account in order to be reminded of the power of emotions. In an era of truthiness and fake news, we have seen feelings dramatically color our worldviews and damage our relationships with one another. However, we have also seen the rise of hashtag movements, which serve as contemporary examples of Ahmed’s feminist sensation. #blacklivesmatter, #metoo, and in the German context #aufschrei have all given voice to untold stories and bottled up emotions.
By linking these stories together, we are able to shed light on structural injustices that are built into the very fabric of our institutions. My individual experiences are always a part of structures bigger than me, and digital activism enables us to draw these connections on a global scale. As the German feminist activist Anne Wizorek writes in the book Weil ein #aufschrei nicht reicht, “Wir teilen nicht nur unsere Geschichten, sondern auch den Schmerz dahinter — genauso wie die Wut darüber, dass es uns immer wieder als ‘normal’ eingeredet wird, solche Dinge durchmachen zu müssen” (188). By compiling our stories and making an archive of our emotions, we are performing sensational feminist actions that have the power to change what is considered “normal.”
The danger here, however, is the one at which Wizorek’s title hints. Simply sharing our emotions may never be enough to create profound structural change. Emotions have been used to shut down just as many conversations as they have started, particularly conversations about intersectionality and race. All too often white fragility drowns out the stories of people of color because their experiences generate the same kind of discomfort for white women that the stories of #aufschrei and #metoo generate for men. This needs to change in order for the political potential of these sensational feminist movements to be fully realized.
Since emotions have stereotypically been classified as the domain of women (in contrast to masculine logic and reason), Women’s and Gender Studies has often led the way in terms of scholarship on emotion and affect. Now, perhaps more than ever, it is crucial that we participate in the process of analyzing and thinking deeply about our emotions and their consequences for our bodies and for our communities. If we want to transform German Studies and move away from violent, ethno-national understandings of German-ness, if we want to combat the enforcement of limiting gender categories in our society and in our language, then we need to drastically upend the status quo. This process will inevitably be an emotional one, which will require us to think long and hard about how we process our emotions through cultural products and ultimately, force us to rethink how we interact with one another.
Ahmed, Sara. Living a Feminist Life. Duke UP, 2017.
Berlant, Lauren. “Sex in the Event of Happiness.” Feminist Theory Workshop, 22 March 2019, Duke University, Durham, NC. Keynote Address.
Tomkins, Silvan S. Affect Imagery Consciousness: The Complete Edition. Springer, 2008.
Wizorek, Anne. Weil ein #aufschrei nicht reicht: für einen Feminismus von heute. Fischer, 2014.
by Anna Hájková (University of Warwick)
The Holocaust rightly belongs among the canonical events of the twentieth century. However, over the past seventy years, our way of narrating this genocide has become monolithic. While it has been possible to incorporate certain new approaches to this historiography — e.g, perspectives on women and gender, studies of Jews as agents rather than passive victims, Jewish history of the Holocaust rather than perpetrator-centered narratives — victim accounts are largely identical. They tell a story of oppression, solidarity, and family bonds. If there are ever stories about conduct among the prisoners that deviate from received and sanctioned narratives about survival, survivor testimonies usually dismiss the people in question or paint them as monsters. We are all familiar with stories about the capo, the sex worker, the Jewish functionary, or the homosexual. It was my fascination with the perspective of what is considered the deviant that set me to ask: where are the stories of the queer Holocaust victims? This approach allows for a very different way of analyzing and understanding the prisoner society of Nazi camps and ghettos.
In this enterprise, I build on the recent scholarship by Christa Schikorra, Robert Sommer, Dagmar Lieske, Julia Hörath, Helga Amesberger, Sylvia Köchl, and Frank Nonnemacher, among others, who study the socially marginalized victims of Nazi Germany: the “asocials” and “habitual criminals.” This courageous research has revealed difficult stories about people who were not allowed to join a survivor association, apply for reparations, or bear a testimony.
That this is a difficult enterprise I learned early on when I studied sex work in Theresienstadt. Several survivors were angry that I asked questions that should not be posed. In response, they attacked me personally, stating that I did this wrong research because of “my problems in love” – meaning that I am a lesbian. This aggression is based in the profound homophobia of a prisoner society that has shaped the postwar narratives. I often hear that history of sexuality of the Holocaust is not a valid line of inquiry but rather a scandalizing interest. What is part of such a statement is in fact the history of queer sexuality in the Holocaust; heterosexual love has been part of the canon all along. Recently, it has even become possible to address sexual violence in the Holocaust. However, queer sexuality (romantic, consensual, or enforced) has, to date, remained a lacuna in Holocaust Studies.
I seek to change that. Drawing on Dagmar Herzog’s and Simon Watney’s statement that sexuality is a much of muchness, a key to understanding the values and logic of a society, I believe we should pay close attention to how sexuality is narrated: What is everyday about sexuality, and what is wrong? How do sexuality and gender roles play out in single sex camps? And, how do these change over time in survivors’ narratives? In the terrifying, violent, and often deadly world of the camps, sexuality was associated with a range of things: comfort, bonding, barter, and pleasure. It also served as proof of social hierarchy and as a tool of dehumanization. Finally, marking someone as sexually “wrong” has been a powerful instrument to destroying their personal integrity.
In observing sexuality and same sex desire in the camps, we understand society in extremis, in terms of gender roles, and on the basis of human solidarity as well as its boundaries. Rather than rejecting the human community in the camps as totalitarian, and thus not a real society, these insights help us understand that social relations continue in the most impossible circumstances, until the end. In the age of populism, austerity, and extreme racism, these are trenchant insights.
Helga Amesberger, Brigitte Halbmayr, and Elke Rajal, eds. "Arbeitsscheu und moralisch verkommen": Verfolgung von Frauen als "Assoziale" im Nationalsozialismus. Wien: Mandelbaum Verlag, 2019.
Anna Hájková. “Den Holocaust queer erzählen,” Sexualitäten Jahrbuch(2018): 86–110
---. "Queere Geschichte und der Holocaust," Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte, 68/32–33 (2018): 42–47. Translated in Notches as “The Queer History and the Holocaust.”
Elizabeth Heineman, ed. The History of Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones: From the Ancient World to the Era of Human Rights. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.
Dagmar Herzog. Sexuality in Europe: A Twentieth-century History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
Julia Hörath. "Asoziale" und "Berufsverbrecher" in den Konzentrationslagern 1933 bis 1938. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2017.
Sylvia Köchl. "Das Bedürfnis nach gerechter Sühne": Wege von "Berufsverbrecherinnen" in das Konzentrationslager Ravensbrück. Wien: Mandelbaum Verlag, 2016.
Dagmar Lieske. Unbequeme Opfer?: “Berufsverbrecher” als Häftlinge im KZ Sachsenhausen. Berlin: Metropol Verlag, 2016.
Frank Nonnemacher. Du hattest es besser als ich: zwei Brüder im 20. Jahrhundert. Bad Homburg: Verlag für akademische Schriften, 2014.
Christa Schikorra. Kontinuitäten der Ausgrenzung: "asoziale" Häftlinge im Frauen-Konzentrationslager Ravensbrück. Berlin: Metropole Verlag, 2001.
Robert Sommer. Das KZ-Bordell: Sexuelle Zwangsarbeit in nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslagern. Paderborn: Schöningh, 2009.
by Katrin Bahr
In their introduction to the volume The GDR Today: New Interdisciplinary Approaches to East German History, Memory and Culture (2018), the editors Stephan Ehrig, Marcel Thomas, and David Zellask if GDR studies has run its course. While current research on the GDR (including the aforementioned volume) proves otherwise, there is stillroom for incorporating GDR Studies into the German Studies curriculum.In teaching the GDR, there seems to be a canon of cultural production (be it literature or film) that either depicts the GDR as a state of oppression as seen in the film The Lives of Others (dir. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006) or through the lens of Ostalgie, as seen in Good Bye Lenin! (dir. Wolfgang Becker, 2003). This leads to what I call an exoticizing of the GDR and its culture on the one hand and an oversimplification of what the East German state was on the other hand. In order to understand contemporary German culture and history, one has to continue examining the factors that shaped GDR legacies and resist such exoticization. In this short reflection, I would like to suggest two ways of diversifying our teaching and study of the GDR.
1. Diversity Through Different Voices
Today there are a number of texts by a younger generation of East Germans who grew up in the GDR (for an overview see Bahr and Lorek, 2016), which present a more complex picture of GDR life. One example is Jana Hensel’s 2002 autobiographical book After the Wall. However, this developing canon still remains primarily white and only focuses on white East Germans. Texts featuring non-white experiences in East German literature or in literature about East Germany are rarely included in reading lists for courses or are the target of research. Nonetheless, those texts exist and inform about various lived experiences, such as those of Black East Germans. Autobiographies by Black East Germans not only expound on the narrative of the Black German experience as a whole, but also challenge the narrative of what it means to be East German. Additionally,in order to understand how structural racism works in today’s Germany, it is important to not only consider the history of Black West German lived experiences but also the history of Black East German life. The Black East German canon contains, among others, work from Gerd Schramm’s Wer hat Angst vorm schwarzen Mann (2013), Andre Baganz’s Endstation Bautzen II: Zehn Jahre Lebenslänglich (2010), Detlef D. Soost’s Heimkind, Neger, Pionier (2005), and Abini Zöllner’s Schokoladenkind: Meine Familie und andere Wunder (2003).
In addition to Black East German experiences, other People of Color of non-European descent also lived and worked in the GDR as so called Vertragsarbeiter (contract workers), students, refugees and children (most famously the Schule der Freundschaft [SdF] in Stassfurt). Studying their lived experiences through histories or cultural products provides not only insights into complex transnational encounters and exchanges with countries in Africa, Asia, and Central and South America, but also sheds light on the practical implementation of international solidarity as a concept of success and failure in East German political and private life. Some of the texts in this canon are Ibraimo Alberto’s Ich wollte leben wie die Götter. Was in Deutschland aus meinen afrikanischen Träumen wurde (2014), Stefan Canham and Phuong-Dan Nguyen’s Die Deutschen Vietnamesen (2011), as well as the edited volume Mosambik – Deutschland, Hin und Zurück. Erlebnisse von Mosambikanern vor, während und nach dem Aufenthalt in Deutschland (2005). Additionally, documentary films have proved to be a great medium for teaching everyday life experiences. They provide instructors and students with access to witnesses in order help undergraduate students connect with new and unknown lived experiences and perspectives. Some example are: the Webdoku Eigensinn im Bruderland(2019) about the lives of migrants in the GDR; Claudia Sandberg’s documentary film Películas escondidas. Un viaje entre el exilio y la memoria (2016) about DEFA’s ‘Chile’ films; and the production Omulaule heisst Schwarz (2016), a documentary by Beatrice Möller, Nicola Hens, and Susanne Radelhof; Christoph Schuch’s documentary Namibia – Return to a New Country - Namibia – Rückkehr in ein neues Land (1997) about Namibian children sent to the GDR as refugees. Including those voices into the teaching of German cultural history expands commonplace narratives about the GDR by considering the complex lives of people informed by race, gender, cultural, and generational divide.
2. Include Cultural Material by East Germans rather than Material About East Germans
In Socialist Modern: East German Everyday Culture and Politics (2009), Katherine Pence and Paul Betts suggest that the GDR was “a uniquely modern state,” thereby challenging a more singular idea of modernity as part of liberal capitalism (3). This research has inspired scholars to not only look differently at political, cultural, and social structures within the GDR, but also to consider the private aspect in order to understand ways of living in the GDR. GDR popular culture is a particularly rich resource in this regard because it can shed light on previously undervalued dimensions of GDR life. A detailed retrospective description of daily life, which comments upon various components of GDR socialist modernity and innovation, takes place in Thomas Brussig’s Das gibts in keinem Russenfilm (2015). But material produced by the DEFA film studios and GDR television also introduces viewers to different meanings of socialist life, while offering contemporary critiques towards the state as people were living it. For example, this has already been studied in the so-called banned films, those censored DEFA films that only came to light after the wall came down (for a full list, please see the DEFA Film Library’s Themes and Genre section). Further use of genre cinema, avant-garde cinema, and television may expand on this approach to studying the GDR. East German media not only gives insight into the society from within but also challenges the narratives of an oppressed society that was silenced to challenge the states’ political and social issues.
So, why do GDR studies matter now? By bringing in different examples of the many lived experiences of GDR cultural and social life, we will enrichen ongoing debates about and interrogations of Germaneness, identity, and shared values in contemporary Germany. By studying GDR material and literary culture alongside other canonical texts, students will be able to learn and discuss different ideas of societies and lived experiences without putting one over the other.
Katrin Bahr and Melanie Lorek. “Ja, wohin gehen sie denn?”- Die ‘3. Generation Ostdeutscher’ zwischen Suchen und Finden am Beispiel des 1.5 Generationskonzepts.” In Die Generation der Wendekinder: Elaboration eines Forschungsfeldes, eds. Adriana Lettrari, Christian Nestler, and Nadja Troi-Boeck. Wiesbaden: Springer, 2016. 255–77.
DEFA Film Library. https://ecommerce.umass.edu/defa/films?category%5B%5D=28
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.