Tag Archives: ideology

Discussing Stereotypes

The biggest issue for me,  on this day and in the whole training, was the introduction to an input on “The West and the Rest”. I appreciated the input and the attempt to show how categories like “East”, “West”, “European”, and “Oriental” can be deconstructed by looking at the time and place of their creation, and at politically motivated instrumentalization.

What made me feel very uncomfortable was to see this important topic being introduced with the attempt to reproduce stereotypes about “East” and “West” and they way this was conducted:
Refusals to play along were repeatedly rejected and disencouraged by the moderator as well as by parts of the group, which I find to be a disastrous way of dealing with stereotypes. This does not mean that I deny the existence of stereotypes, of course they exist, and are stuck in everybody’s heads, as one person pointed out. In order to make them productive though, it has to be allowed to openly reject them, and express inability to reproduce them (especially when placing random adjectives in either “West” or “East”, without those being further defined. Eastern Germany? Eastern Europe? Eastern Romania? The “global” East?). Otherwise, if the mere fact of their existence defies every attempt at deconstruction, why mention them at all?
It has to be possible to have a proper discussion about both result of the method and the method itself, both of which did only happen in a small circle after the session when lunch was already being served.
I am aware that most people had no problem with this activity though, and that it is probably my “academic bias”, which dreads nothing so much as oversimplification. It is also clear that the group was so mixed that it was difficult to reach and satisfy everyone. Yet, this is place for reflection and further thoughts – so here it goes.

This whole thing left me pondering the question of how to deal with (national) stereotypes in education: Is it okay to invoke them, especially in a multi-national group? How to deal with people who actively reject them? For me, these issues are as central and deserve the same attention as the handling of gender stereotypes. Dealing with them insensitively might cause a lot of damage within a (multi-national) group and cause individuals to feel uncomfortable voicing their opinion.
Furthermore, if we accept the potentially harmful nature of this kind of stereotypes, why not try and act against them? Why not explicitly open a discussion about what makes them so persistent, and about the different functions they have on an individual, social, and political level? I did not attend the Anti-Bias-Workshop, but am generally fond of the idea of creating awareness about personal prejudice and patterns of thinking. Why not create a space in which national or ethnic stereotypes, when they come up, are either immediately discussed or at least made visible, not to shun the individual person but to be able to recognize biases?

During the last feedback round, one participant stated that for her it was rewarding, to meet so many people from Romania, because in the country she comes from, the stereotypical Romanian is a beggar. While this statement is of course potentially hurtful, it also allows many important questions to be reflected upon by everyone in the group individually: Do I feel personally offended by this statement (or not), and why (not)? Do I feel the same as this participant? Did I realize I felt the same before she said it? Would I have dared to say it? Did I suspect that’s what people in this participants country think?
And then, on a more general level: What are the reasons she had this stereotype? In which political/cultural/social/… context was it constructed? And so the deconstruction goes…

To sum it up, this day certainly gave me food for thought. And it convinced me even further that national stereotypes, as well as old tropes about “The West and the Rest”, are still among the most pressing issues to deal with on a European as well as on a global scale.

Field Work in German Remembrance

Sunday was the day of “scouting expeditions” around town, to experience first hand the different ways, in which the events of November 9th, 1989, were remembered 25 years later.

Surely it was a good idea to split the big group into smaller groups and send then out on their own. This way, more events and more approaches could be explored, and also I always find that the smaller the group the more likely I am to step out of my comfort zone and approach other people. Obviously coordination and the opportunity to express and follow individual desires and interests are also a lot easier in small groups. Unfortunately, I found myself in a position which made the day very exhausting and, at times, frustrating for me (adding to the physical discomfort which turned into a proper illness the next day).

The first exhibition we visited was completely in German, and pretty interesting. It gave examples of GDR youth- and counterculture in the district where the museum was, tying the examples to concrete places. There was, however, no immediate connection to November 9th, and there were no other visitors. The other group members were, understandably, disappointed by the place, and wanted to leave as soon as possible. After an hour-long journey I was already frustrated by the fact that I could not look at the exhibition as much as I would have wanted to (which would also have enabled me to translate some parts for the others), so that when we got to the next place and realized that everything was in German again all four of us (that was my impression) felt like all the travelling about had been quite pointless.

To top it all, there was no proper communication within the group about how to deal with the interview questions given to us: Should they be asked and answered word by word, or was a more open, narrative form of conversations with interviewees, from which keywords could be deducted afterwards, more in place? After I had rejected the role of being the sole communicator and “leader” of the group, at last the dynamic changed a bit and some actual conversations with other people happened, despite the different approaches to interviewing.

So while I think the idea of scouting expeditions with short interviews on site is a good one, the fact that the places themselves did not offer any information to non-German-speakers severly challenged the effect of the method. The first visit was practically pointless for everyone but me, and made me and everyone feel awkward. Insufficient communication inside the group complicated the whole experience further. Perhaps in this case, it would have made sense to let people find each other in small groups, instead of drawing lots? And/or choosing only destinations where more could be learned without understanding German?

Although, obviously, this illustrates the fact that November 9th is indeed a date which is central in German history (there is even a wikipedia-page: November 9th in German history)!

Adding to the methodological reflection above, I want to quickly point out what I see as the potential this date has for becoming a central date of remembrance in Germany. The major events which took place on this date:
November 9th, 1918, the German republic was proclaimed (twice!)
November 9th, 1923, the Hitler-Lüdendorff-, or Beer-Hall-Putsch, in Munich happened, and foreshadowed the republic being taken over by national socialists only ten years later
November 9th, 1938, during the “Reichspogromnacht”, the first massive, country-wide attack was launched by anti-semitic and national socialist mobs against the German-Jewish population
November 9th, 1989, the borders separating East- and West-Berlin were opened after 28 years

Only two of these events were commemorated in 2014, with a heavy imbalance in favour of the most recents ones in ’89. Whether big celebrations will be held for the “birth” of the Weimar republic in four years I am not sure. However, I wonder:
Would this date not enable people in Germany to commemorate
very diverse events which all contributed to the formation of the state as it is today? From the abolition of monarchy and the end of WW 1, to the manifestations of anti-democratic fascist, anti-semitic, national socialist forces, to the breakdown of so-called “communist” authority and a brief moment of openness, claim of sovereignity of the people in the East, and anarchy, with all their consequences. Very diverse individual and collective memories could have their place in such a day of remembrance, and perhaps conversations could be opened which would not be more inclusive and not as oblivious as this year’s nationalist hysteria and officially proclaimed success stories.

Realities and Truths

On this day we discussed museums in Warsaw, Prague, Berlin, Eisenhüttenstadt, and Vilnius, which all deal with the history between 1945 and 1989. I liked the way this activity was organized, working in small groups was productive and we got a good overview about the five museums and a sixth one presented by the moderator.

While I understood the frustration of one of the participants, after every single museum (except one) had been heavily criticized for their approaches, I felt like there was also an important lesson to be learned from this frustration:
That there cannot be one true interpretation of history, which can claim to represent the reality of a given historical moment in space and time. This also means that a museum aspiring to present a neatly worked out master narrative of the period referred to as “Communism” is most likely to have a distinct ideological agenda, and neither willing nor able to include multiple, contradicting perspectives.
Similar problems occurred when we started discussing words, such as “communism” and “genocide” (“freedom” could inspire similar discussions). While being neatly defined in dictionaries, these words remain abstractions. Using them to represent real-life phenomena makes it extremely difficult to talk about historical events, without stepping into ideological traps and constantly missing each other’s points.

For me, these discussions showed the importance of working with as little abstraction as possible. By this I mean “doing” (as in, researching, studying, teaching) history “from below”, starting for example with an individual person and their experiences. Or with a certain place, a building, monument, or a city. Or with an object, as it is often done in museums nowadays.
Approaches like this, in my opinion, have the advantage of raising interest by their immediate accessibility, by being tangible and material. Literally everything, everywhere, can become a point of interest from which to start. When studying history on this “ethnographic” level, there are always material objects, concrete places, special individuals to hold on to, making it harder to be distracted and confused by abstract ideologies, political and social changes, and propaganda(s).

It was great to have the extra-hour for free discussion! Perhaps one hour “open space” every day would have been useful?

In Prison

I had heard mainly negative things about the way the Gedenkstätte Stasi-Gefängnis Hohenschönhausen dealt with history and actors opposing their strictly anti-communist way of remembrance. Still, I was interested in seeing the place myself when we went, thought I am not sure what I expected, really. After all, a prison without inmates is not much different from any other abandonded concrete building – unless it contains some “special” rooms as well, which, to be honest, I’d rather not see.

Hohenschönhausen turned out to be just that. A bleak, intimidating wall of concrete, a big gate and some buildings without any special traits. From the tour, which was not given by a former inmate but by an energetic young historian, many details could be learned: what type of food was served, how prisoners had to behave day and night,  privileges and punishments… Historical background was not touched upon too much, and when the conversation with the guide turned to comparisons of this particular prisons with other ones in different times and places it became tangible that there is really not that much to learn in Hohenschönhausen, except that the GDR wasn’t exactly nice to the people they incarcerated (but then again, where have prisons ever been nice), and that arrests were often made at random and prisoners rarely had the chance to get a proper trial and legal advice (again, not exactly unique in history and in the world).

What bothered me about the presentation was not so much the perceived waste of time (I would never recommend a visit to the place to anyone), because in our context it still made some sense to see the prison, but the lack of questioning in the presentation. We, like all the other groups who go to this place, got a complete story presented, without grey areas, open questions, or space for controversy. Not a very good way to deal with historical places and events, in my opinion. Especially because in connection to the space around the prison Hohenschönhausen has the potential to open up new perspectives on the organization and functioning of the Stasi, without demonization and ideological prejudice.