Ten Years After The Unification Effect: A U-M Conference Looks at the "Berlin Republic" Ten Years after the Fall of the Berlin WallSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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A decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the year 1989 now stands firmly as a watershed date in German history. With the seemingly unstoppable force of people fleeing the east, first by way of Hungary and subsequently by way of the West German Embassy in Prague, and then with the massive presence of people staging protests within the GDR reclaiming their voices in the political process as "we" the people, a historic chain of events was initiated which allowed no turning back. Nor did this process end with the official unification of the two Germanies on October 3, 1990. Between 1989 and 1999, Germany witnessed a series of major tectonic shifts in all aspects of its political, social and cultural life. The resulting pressures and tensions continue to define a new "Berlin Republic" that is still groping for its national identity both internally and with a view to broader European, Eastern European and global contexts.
The intervening time span of 10 years also affords us the opportunity to gauge the central issues that have emerged during this series of shifts. In particular, we would identify three sets of concerns that have defined the decade: East-West relations, the renegotiations of citizenship and the role of the German past. Thus, as the decade between 1989 and 1999 obviously stands under the sign of the end of the Cold War, the Berlin Republic has been faced with the need to negotiate a new relationship between the former East and West Germany - entities which persist even after the states that had comprised them have merged. Secondly, on the basis of both internal and external pressures, and particularly as part of the European Community, the united Germany repeatedly has had to confront issues of citizenship and immigration throughout the past decade. Thirdly, since 1989 Germans have been obliged to confront their history once more, if only by the merging of two versions of the Nazi past which had been kept separate for 40 years.
Clearly, these issues are not "new" - there is continuity and discontinuity involved in each case; in analyzing the impact of these shifts, we should take care not to subsume all change under the same periodizing impulse, reducing the contemporary German landscape into a neatly divided image of "before" and "after" the wall. In their different ways, both German states had been forced to confront the role of recent German history long before unification; the events since 1989 have merely reinforced the confrontation between Eastern and Western narratives about the past to a degree which had not been reached since the "hot" days of the Cold War. Similarly, both the GDR and West Germany had arguably already witnessed a shift from literature and film to architecture and monuments as the privileged media for dealing with the past; this too is a tendency which has only been reinforced in the last decade, even as the events of 1989 have profoundly affected the terms under which the corresponding debates are carried out. Finally, the discussion of immigration policies and citizenship status dates back far beyond the 1989 watershed to the arrival of Gastarbeiter [guest workers] in the West and "contract workers" in the East. While the events of 1989 briefly interrupted these discussions, they have since come back to the foreground with a vengeance, leading to the adoption of hard-lined asylum politics and revised citizenship laws by the major political parties. Nor are the issues we have identified clearly separable: concerns of citizenship always touch on the question of how Germany deals with its past; likewise, the discussion of that past can hardly be isolated from the fallout of the Cold War which has profoundly influenced the narratives through which we make sense of German history.
In retrospect, it seems obvious that none of these issues has been resolved to date; rather, they are the objects of ongoing discussions, debates and - sometimes unarticulated - tensions that have defined the "Berlin Republic" since 1989. Taking stock a decade after the fall of the wall, a group of scholars came together last December at the U-M to explore these tensions and look at the discursive and cultural re-configurations that have emerged in response to 1989. Clearly, such an ambitious undertaking requires an interdisciplinary approach and the conference was able to draw contributions from a wide variety of disciplinary standpoints ranging from anthropology and history to art history, literature, media studies and political science. To help focus the discussions, the conference was organized around a number of questions which the representatives of these different disciplines presumably hold in common. We asked contributors to look at the rhetorics of history since 1989, at the cultures of memory particularly as they have emerged and shifted in the east since the fall of the wall, at the role of the media in representing the events of 1989 and in the intervening decade and at the cultural remapping of the new Germany.
Given the momentous impact of the events of 1989 on the way we now conceive of German history in the 20th century, we found it particularly important to discuss new narratives of German history that emerged after 1989, to explore the ways in which these new historical accounts are shaped by their context and how they, in turn, attempt to shape the German present and future. Taking up these questions, Alf Lüdtke (University of Göttingen) showed how reunification has been cast alternatively as either the success story of the West or as the "defeat" or implosion of the East. As Lüdtke suggested, not only do such alternatives have significant consequences for the ways in which we now view East German history (namely as the second German dictatorship after the Nazi regime), but this dominant reading also makes it difficult to unearth the social practice of people's everyday lives to which Lüdtke has long been committed as a historian.
Where Lüdtke focused on the unwritten micropolitics of everyday life, Marcia Klotz (University of California, Irvine) looked at the macropolitics of globalization. Rethinking dominant constructions of the German nation from the perspective of postcolonial studies, which have often centered on issues of global exchange rather than on the internal construction of the nation, Klotz suggested that since 1989, Germans have become increasingly aware of the global embeddedness of their national history. In terms of post-wall historiography, Klotz's talk raised important questions regarding the status of the 1989 "event"; it makes a significant difference whether we think of reunification merely within the perspective of national history or as an event that is more properly understood within a global perspective.
As Moishe Postone (University of Chicago) noted in response to Klotz's paper, the reframing of German history in terms of a larger process of globalization runs the risk of playing down the singularity of German history. This issue of Germany's persistent past was then taken up by Ulrich Baer (New York University). Baer analyzed the shifts produced by events of 1989 in the ongoing debates about restitution and forgiveness that have played such a significant role in Germany's post-war identity. Noting that these debates were particularly relevant for the formerly West German public sphere, Baer made it clear that the dominant way of discussing the German past after 1989 has privileged former western positions at the expense of eastern voices that are attempting to salvage aspects of the GDR's own, if compromised, antifascist tradition. Baer focused on the preconditions that allow a dialog between perpetrators and victims about restitution and forgiveness for Nazi crimes; he traced the shifting awareness of the pitfalls involved in such a dialog, pointing out that even the plea for forgiveness can result in another insult by assuming the victims' willingness to talk in the first place. Thus, the talk involved an explicit critique of Jürgen Habermas's theory of communicative action, questioning some of the latter's basic assumptions about the preconditions for successful communication.
Baer's important critique notwithstanding, Habermas has emerged as one of the leading critics of the shift in historical narratives after 1989. In numerous public interventions, Habermas has been adamant about his basic conviction that the "break" of 1989 must not replace the caesura of 1945 as a foundational, even "constitutional," consensus on which to build the new Germany. As important as these interventions have been in making the opposition to the Nazi past - and not the opposition to the so-called "second dictatorship" of the GDR - the cornerstone of West German democracy, they also unintentionally repeat a strategy which Habermas himself has explicitly criticized: namely, the exclusion of East German histories and memories or, at best, their demotion to what Habermas calls a "second past."
By contrast, as the contributors to the second panel of the conference demonstrated, the East German past arguably plays a crucial role in the culture of reunification ten years after. The three talks by Daphne Berdahl, an anthropologist at the University of Minnesota, Andreas Ludwig, director of a museum for the culture of everyday life in the former East, and Birgit Dahlke, a literary scholar at the Humboldt University in Berlin, illustrated the diversity of East German stories about the past as well as their continuing relevance to current debates. Berdahl looked at the developing cult around the "Trabi," East Germany's infamous plastic car that ran on a lawnmower engine. She showed how the various uses of the car in a unified Germany constitute a (sometimes ironic) celebration of the East German past and contribute to the formation of a self-consciously intransigent "Eastern" identity.
Over the last 10 years, objects such as the Trabi and other symbolic artifacts of everyday life have not only been collected privately but have also found their way into public institutions such as the Dokumentationszentrum Alltagskultur der DDR [documentation center for the culture of everyday life in the GDR] in Eisenhüttenstadt. As the director of this institution, Andreas Ludwig presented a practitioner's account of the politics of collecting the material of a vanishing society. Noting that his work relies on and encourages the active involvement of the public by soliciting their contributions to the collection, his talk afforded numerous insights into the logic of such an activity, particularly about the gradually emerging consensus about what deserves to be displayed and how. As Ulrike Peters (U-M) pointed out, the fact that the visitors carry their "old stuff" into the museum makes clear that these items belong to a past that is worth remembering but that one does not want back. 
At a graduate student workshop preceding the conference, two papers also dealt with the formation of East German cultures of memory. Mia Lee (U-M) presented a talk on an embattled symbolic object in the former East Berlin. In the debates around the dismantling of an enormous Lenin-statue, she traced a public controversy about how to deal with the East German past. Jeremy Straughn (University of Chicago) addressed similar issues concerning the formation of a post-GDR East German identity from the perspective of social science. Drawing on life interviews conducted after 1989, Straughn argued for an understanding of emergent distinct East and West German identities in terms of ethnicity, explicitly invoking a comparison with questions and conceptualizations of ethnicity in the United States.
Shifting the discussion from material and empirical forms of memory to their literary representation, Birgit Dahlke talked about the noticeable trend among younger East German novelists and poets to explore their GDR childhoods. The various texts by these authors all seem to lay claim to what Dahlke called a "right to melancholy" against the often arrogant West German exhortation to forget about the East German past and to join the "greater German" present. However, as Dahlke pointed out, not all of the authors make the same use of this "right to melancholy." Whereas some have tended to celebrate these childhoods in a patently nostalgic vein, others have emphasized the normality and everydayness of their former lives in the east with varying degrees of critical or ironic distance.
Ten years after the fall of the wall, the events of 1989 themselves have become the object of memory and representation. The images and narratives of and since 1989 produced by the audiovisual media in particular have been implicated in the contested production of a collective memory for the new German present. Thus, a number of contributions to the conference were concerned with the power of images. Official festivities and television programs alike were organized under the title "Celebrating Memory." For his contribution to the conference, Eggo Müller (University of Utrecht) analyzed the footage produced by the various TV stations around November 9, 1999, showing how there was a perceived need to recreate the euphoric mood of 1989 through live programming. As a result, much of the less triumphant and more reflexive voices were edited out, occasionally even to an unintentionally ironic effect. In essence, the portrayal of the events of 1989 produced a severely contained view of the disruptions and problems of German history, offering a sanitized version of collective memory for the new "Berlin Republic."
Where both public and commercial television thus followed ostensible "rules" for successful programming on November 9, 1999, telescoping distinct junctures of German history into a simple story of liberation, Daniel Eisenberg (School of the Art Institute at Chicago) unfolded the complicated pre-history of the Berlin Republic through his film Persistence. With stunning images and a carefully designed soundtrack which juxtaposed sounds from 1989 with images of post-war destruction in 1945 and vice versa, Eisenberg complicated the current images of the reconstruction of Berlin (symbolized by the ubiquitous cranes working busily to rebuild Potsdamer Platz in the heart of the city) by following the traces of Berlin's past in its ruins.
The power of images and their ability to represent history was also a central concern in Sabine Wilke's (University of Washington) contribution. Wilke analyzed one of the few German films that explicitly focuses on the history of the wall, The Promise (Margarethe von Trotta, 1995), arguing that the film fictionalizes history, playing deceptively on the "promise" of documentary images. Commenting on the development of film culture since 1989 more generally, Eric Rentschler (Harvard University) polemically suggested that individual attempts at a more reflexive and critical praxis of filmmaking notwithstanding, Germany has produced nothing more than a "Cinema of Consensus." As the glut of parochial German comedies from the mid-90s demonstrates, the industry has been reviving itself through increasingly standardized commercial fare that caters to the lowest common denominator - clearly a farewell to the often critical and innovative traditions of both the New German Cinema in the West and the DEFA studios in the East.
Next to the media of film and television, architecture is today undoubtedly at the center of visual culture in Germany. The rebuilding of Berlin is seen by many as a site where new symbolic politics for the German state are currently being set in stone. However, in their putative design of a German future, the architectural debates and projects inevitably confront the traces of the past, whether in the ruins explored by Daniel Eisenberg or in the commemorative logics of some of the most hotly debated structures such as the Holocaust memorial or Daniel Libeskind's famous Jewish Museum in Berlin. Accordingly, Irit Rogoff (Goldsmiths College, London) focused on the importance of architectural spaces in her presentation. Rogoff attempted to theorize what she called "spaces of disavowal," presenting Libeskind's famous Jewish Museum in Berlin as such a space which both reflects and denies knowledge of the past.
If some have reacted with unease to the current architectural "grands projets" in Berlin, seeing in them the return of German power politics on the symbolic level, Kaspar Maase (University of Tübingen) recommended that we also look at the material and symbolic practices outside of Berlin. Focusing on the retooling of old German nationalist statues by soccer fans and on the marketing of tourist paraphernalia in southern Germany, Maase traced an emerging regionalist preoccupation which is at odds with the attempt to re-center Germany through its new capital as a "Berlin Republic." Indeed, two visitors in the German Studies Colloquium that preceded the conference also looked at the relationship between what once was called center and periphery, nation and regions, nation state and global system. While Ken Surin (Duke Graduate Program in Literature) addressed the global dimension of the political economy underlying unification, Neil Brenner (New York University) analyzed the regionalization of the German economy. Brenner contrasted the spatial strategies of the postwar fordist German state and their nationally equalizing effects with the new post-fordist strategies that privilege certain regions. The discussion following Brenner's presentation centered on the role of unification in this process of spatial redistribution; that is, whether the economic politics of unification were dictated by the same postfordist logic or whether they disrupted this process.
At the conference, sociologist Michal Bodemann then brought the discussion back to Berlin's role as the highly charged symbolic center of the new Germany, focusing on the re-emergence of Berlin's Jewish community. He had two conflicting stories to tell: on the one hand, the 1990s were characterized by the successful story of the growing Jewish communities in and around Berlin and, on the other hand, by the rather disturbing story of a growing historical revisionism with respect to the Nazi past and an increasingly callous attitude toward the representatives of the Jewish community that culminated in the so-called Walser-Bubis debate.
This debate had been sparked by an often acrimonious exchange between Ignaz Bubis, then the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, and the author Martin Walser concerning a public speech by Walser in 1998 in which he thematized his uneasiness with the rules of "correct" memory that supposedly govern public discourse in post-unification Germany. Kai Evers had already addressed this debate in the graduate student workshop, complicating the story by introducing an East-West perspective. Evers contrasted Walser's essential unwillingness to enter into a dialogue with Bubis with the political aesthetics of a genuine dialogue between East and West that the former East German author Gerd Neumann proposes in his most recent novel. Two other contributors took up the issue of revisionism. Starting with a reading of a recent exhibit organized around the work of the filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, who rose to fame under the Nazis, Ulrike Peters traced the different East and West German versions of the Riefenstahl story while Nina McCune analyzed neo-nazi violence in a northern German town as "acts of memory."
Although rather overwhelming in their intensity, the contributions in the German Studies Colloquium, the graduate student workshop, and the three-day conference itself necessarily left many topics untouched and many questions unanswered. Organizers and participants agreed that perhaps the most conspicuous absence was the European dimension of the issues discussed, particularly since the three dominant issues that emerged after 1989 - the relations between former East and West, between ethnic and non-ethnic Germans and between past and present - all have specific ramifications at the European level. Thus, in our effort to understand the continuing tensions around the unification of former East and West Germany, we would clearly benefit from a comparative look at the processes of transformation in Eastern Europe and at the eastward expansion of the European Union. Similarly, it did not take the recent electoral success of Jörg Haider's Freedom Party in Austria to remind us of the continuing relevance of the Nazi beyond the borders of the "Berlin Republic" as much as within them. Recent discussions about forms of collaboration and resistance in France, for instance, have similarly made it obvious that the Nazi past is also a European legacy. Finally, as "Fortress Europe and United Germany," the title of one of Habermas' many interventions after 1989, indicates, issues of emigration, citizenship and multiculturalism cannot be discussed in isolation from a wider European perspective. Such issues are routinely displaced from internal politics to the ever more rigorous policing of (expanding) external borders. Recent changes in German laws regulating citizenship and the even more recent and highly controversial debate about the introduction of a "green card" indicate both the Red-Green government's willingness to implement measures overcoming Germany's peculiar immigration policies and the considerable opposition against such changes.
Arguably, the Berlin Republic will distinguish itself most sharply from the two former Germanies that it subsumes to the degree that it succeeds in engaging both of their competing legacies in the key areas that have emerged over the past decade and in making them part of a European framework. While the national, European and global identity of such a unified Germany still remains to be articulated, the contributions at the conference constituted an important step towards identifying the cornerstones around which it is likely to take shape.
Dr. von Moltke is an assistant professor in the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures and the Program in Film and Video. He received his PhD from Duke University and joined the U-M faculty in January 1998 after having taught four years at the University of Hildesheim in Germany. His dissertation, "Beyond Authenticity: Experience, Identity and Performance in the New German Cinema," focuses on the role of authenticity and the performative in Edgar Reitz, Rudolf Thome, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. He has also worked on representations of Jewishness and the issues of Heimat, Americanization and popular culture in postwar Germany. He is an editor of the German film and media studies journal Montage A/V.
Hell is associate professor in the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures at the University of Michigan. Hell received her doctorate from the University of Wisconsin in 1989, and is the author of Post-Fascist Fantasies: Psychoanalysts, History, and the Literature of East Germany (Duke UP, 1997). Through a workshop held at the International Institute on November 12, 1999, the Center for European Studies (CES) sought to inform academics, students and interested citizens about the unification of European currency and its wider sociopolitical implications. Readers can find the schedule of the conference and transcripts of the proceedings on CES's web site: www.umich.edu/~iinet/ces and www.umich.edu/~iinet/ces/euroconference
Cf. Ulrike Peters' summary of the conference, "MauerMüll: An Afterword to the Conference The Unification Effect: The Berlin Republic Ten Years After" at http://www.lsa.umich.edu/german/gs-n-effect.html