Eyewitness testimony in the GDR

Interviewer: Sam Walter (Interviewer, Ideas Lab)
Guest:  Dr Sara Jones
Recorded: 15/04/2013
Broadcast: 29/04/2013

Intro VO: Welcome to the Ideas Lab Predictor Podcast from the University of Birmingham. In each edition we hear from an expert in a different field, who gives us insider information on key trends, upcoming events, and what they think the near future holds.

Sam: Today we’re here with Dr Sara Jones who is a Birmingham Fellow in the Department of Political Science and International Studies, as well as the Department of Modern Language. Hello Sara. 

Sara: Hi.  

Sam: So can you tell us a bit more about what you do at the university and what your research is in? 

Sara:  Well, I was appointed as a Birmingham Fellow in 2011, principally to work on the project reconstructing the Stasi images of secret police repression in the United Germany and I’m actually just coming to the end of that project, finishing off the last bits of the monograph which looks at eye-witness testimony of Stasi oppression in different cultural forms, principally documentary film, memorial museums and also biographical writing. So what I’m trying to do in the monograph is firstly look at how eye-witness testimony is used in this context but also to develop a theoretical model of how eye-witness testimony is mediated, how it’s produced in different types of culture and what impact that has on how it’s received and what impact it has on the visitors, viewers or readers.  

Sam: So what have you discovered from the research you’ve done? 

Sara: In terms of my principal findings, the monograph argues that the use of eye-witness testimony is a really good way of accessing wider audiences and getting people interested in parts of the past that they’ve perhaps got no direct experience of, but the particular way it’s being mediated in the Federal Republic at the moment, risks a sort of over-emotionalisation of history and also risks disinheriting - which is a term that I use, ‘disinheriting’ – people who had different experiences of the GDR and don’t have any kind of access to the stories of repression and total control that tend to be talked about in these cultural forms.   

Sam: So when you talk about the emotional importance of recalling events or history really, is that as opposed to a news report or something like that, it’s best to get information from someone that’s already alive or someone that’s been there? 

Sara: That’s certainly the feeling and what I would argue, or what I have argued in the book, is that there needs to be a balance between the two and what’s interesting is that more recent developments in memorialisation of the GDR in the Federal Republic of Germany, they are aiming more and more to combine an emotional access to history with historicization which I would tend to understand as a kind of more rational, cool approach perhaps through archive research and kind of documentation and setting things in the context of the period in which they happened. So the GDR as it developed out of the end of World War II and the European context as well.  

Sam: So I guess an aspect of remembering events is talking to people that have already been there and that’s a more valuable way of remembering an event than just reading through something that’s been edited.  

Sara: Yeah. The use of what’s termed in German ‘zeitzeugen’, which literally means people who witnessed a certain time. It’s more but it’s also less than just an eye-witness, it could be someone who just lived through a period, particularly in memorial museums and pedagogical attempts to overcome or to come to terms with the GDR past, eye-witnesses use zeitzeugen and use people who lived through that time very frequently. Certainly in recent debates and discussions about memorialisation, the zeitzeuge, the witness to his or her time, is seen to be essential for that process of getting people interested, particularly young people interested in a period and for creating an emotional attachment to the past, particularly a past that you didn’t live through. And memorials talk about, many of the memorials talk about the fact that young people there, the school pupils that visit these places, find it difficult to get attached to an abstract history as they put it, but they find it much easier if they are confronted with someone who experienced that history personally. This can be problematic for various reasons.  I would argue, and again have argued in the book, that emotionalisation of history which is the use of personal testimony tends to imply, isn’t always a good thing and can result in a certain simplification of stories.  An eye-witness, particularly an eye-witness to a traumatic event, is very difficult to criticise or question their account.  You have this kind of moral authority so that shuts down perhaps critical debate about a historical period. And they’re also problematic because, particularly the face to face encounters aren’t sustainable forever of course and this is a question that’s come up quite frequently in relation to the memory of the holocaust, the memory of World War II recently in Germany, the question of what do we do now that there are very few eye-witnesses, very few zeitzeuge left who might be able to engage in these pedagogical practices and there’s a sense that authenticity, which is one of the key terms of my book, authenticity is diminished when eye-witness testimony is mediated, for example in video interviews or autobiographies or again different forms in memorial museums. The question is really whether ordinary people who are encountering these zeitzeugen in pedagogical processes and seminars and schools and so on have those tools at their disposal in order to understand what place oral histories can really play in understanding the past.  

Sam:  So there was a recent discussion in the German parliament which concerns research and memorisation of past events, what does that concern and what does it mean? 

Sara: So this was a debate about a report that was submitted by the Cultural Minister on remembering the GDR, or coming to terms with the GDR in many different aspects of what that might mean, including things like judicial processes, so punishing those who committed crimes against human rights in the GDR but also the Stasi files and what’s been done with them and yes, memorialisation which was of course particularly interesting to me and to my project. So this was a report and this was debated in the Bundestag, in the Federal Parliament in March. There's probably two kind of key things that have come out, one from the report and one from the actual debate. So from the report of what’s been done so far and a few indications of what’s very soon to be created and the second comes from the debate – and this is the question of what’s going to happen to the Stasi files when what’s understood is their principal purpose, which is allowing victims access to the things that were done to them in the past, comes to a close and whether they, you know, should stay as a separate authority or whether they should move into the Federal archives and therefore be accessible but on a quite different basis.  

Sam: So really recently actually, on March 27th, the East Side Gallery was removed from the Berlin Wall.  Can you tell us a bit more about that and what that means? 

Sara: This is the East Side Gallery which is a long section of the Berlin Wall, or the kind of largest remaining section of the Berlin Wall, and in order to allow access for construction workers to build luxury flats, a small section of it was removed. This was preceded by protests on the part of the Berliners who also saw it as part of the gentrification of their city which there's been quite a lot of debate and concern about and actually David Hasselhoff turned up as well, which is slightly strange.  Nonetheless, this section of the Berlin Wall was removed. Firstly it’s quite interesting that nearly 25 years after the Berlin Wall was in all haste torn down, now the Berliners are out protesting to save the last remaining bit of it.  But it’s also interesting that this is happening in the context where I think the position of the GDR in the German memorial landscape is becoming more and more prominent. Again, the debate, the Culture Minister stated that the Federal Parliament’s funds, the process of coming to terms with the GDR past by 100 million euro a year and also there’s several new projects in the pipeline, as I said, which have also been funded by the Federal Parliament with quite substantial sums of money. So the new exhibition at the Hohenschönhausen Memorial, the Stasi Prison Memorial in Berlin, has been funded by 16 million euros, half of which was funded by the Federal Parliament. And the memorial to Freedom and Unity in Berlin, which will open at some point not yet defined in the future, has been funded by 10 million euro. So there’s this desire to promote memorialisation of the GDR and also I think to promote a more diverse memorialisation of the GDR. There's also a new exhibit to be opened in Berlin on ‘Alltag’, again this year hopefully, so there’s this process of diversification, historisisation and greater funding and yet at the same time for commercial interests, the last remaining sections of the Berlin Wall was, if only temporarily, removed from the East Side Gallery. So what this means for the future of memorialisation of the GDR, I’m not quite sure but I do think that we are moving to a different phase that will hopefully see this greater diversification which might reflect more the memories of wider groups of the former GDR population, but also perhaps this process of normalisation or historisisation of GDR history where it can be discussed, perhaps in a more factual, cooler way, rather than the fierce, very political debates that have been going on in the last twenty five years.  

Sam: Dr Sara Jones, thank you very much.  

Outro VO: This podcast and others in the series are available on the Ideas Lab website: www.ideaslabuk.com. On the website, you can find out how to e-mail us with comments, questions or suggestions for future topics for the podcast. There's also information on the free support Ideas Lab has to offer to TV and radio producers, new media producers and journalists. The interviewer and producer for the Ideas Lab Predictor Podcast was Sam Walter.