Condemned to Become: the Future of the Past in Berlin

colla prizeMarcus Colla is a final year PhD student at the University of Cambridge. His research looks at the legacy of the Prussian state in communist East Germany. Marcus was awarded the Alexander Prize for 2018 for his article ‘Prussian Palimpsests: Architecture and Urban Spaces in East Germany, 1945-1961,’ Central European History, Vol. 50, (2017), 184-217. Here, he considers how Berlin has dealt with its contested past in its urban landscape.

In 1910, the critic Karl Scheffler memorably described Berlin as a city ‘condemned forever to become and never to be’: a site in perpetual and restless flux, ever-transfiguring itself into something new. Today, massive projects such as the expansion of the government quarter and the ill-starred international airport bear testament to the city’s latest transformation, this time into a truly national capital and a cosmopolitan centre of culture.

But Berlin’s new urban identity is not geared to the future alone. At the city’s historic core, the €600 million ‘reconstruction’ of the eighteenth-century City Palace is now nearing completion. As a historian concerned with the fate of historic architecture in post-war Germany, this project raises a number of fascinating questions about the way that the capital of the reunified state has dealt with its contested past in its urban landscape. My research explores the demolition of a number of buildings after 1945 that have in recent years reappeared on the streetscapes of Berlin and Potsdam – the City Palace included. But can an understanding of these buildings’ histories help explain why they are now being resurrected?

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The Fernsehturm. Credit: Polaroidville on Unsplash

There are many layers to the history of the site of the City Palace: once the seat of the Prussian Kings and German Emperors, the original structure was demolished by the communist government of East Germany (the GDR) in 1950. On its foundations they ultimately built the Palast der Republik (‘Palace of the Republic’) – a distinctively 1970s construction that served as both the seat of the GDR’s rubber-stamp parliament and a social and entertainment complex. But with the demise of their regime in 1990, the Palast itself was rendered aesthetically and functionally obsolete. Packed with asbestos, it finally met the wrecker’s ball in 2008. The Palast’s departure left unheeded the protests of many Ossis (‘Easties’) and their supporters, who perceived in this round of demolition a concerted attempt by imperious Westerners to erase East Germany’s history from the narrative of the new, unified state.

Now, the City Palace is re-emerging as the ‘Humboldt Forum’: a museum and research space whose dedication to world cultures and ethnology is designed to capture modern Germany’s forward-looking, cosmopolitan identity. In the temporal kaleidoscope of twenty-first century Germany, past, present and future are densely entangled. .

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West facade of the new Berlin City Palace (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The physical resurrection of the Palace has not been able to silence criticism entirely. For a site so pregnant with cultural potential, many Berliners are astonished by the lack of imagination the project betrays. Future generations, some muse, may be mystified by what they see. Will they falsely perceive the building as an authentic emblem of a baroque Berlin, a quaint antique of the city’s Prussian past? Or will they see it as a distinctly twenty-first century phenomenon; a curious postmodern composite born of nostalgia and cultural apathy?

Or is there perhaps something more radical and even ‘anti-historical’ at play? The reconstruction of the Palace, after all, has not just entailed the obliteration of the Palast der Republik: by symbolically reversing the original destruction of 1950, it also seeks to right a perceived historical wrong. Back in 1991, the historian and journalist Joachim Fest expressed a common sentiment when he argued that ‘if the destruction of the Palace was supposed to symbolise the victory’ of communism, then ‘reconstruction would symbolise its failure’. This represented a longing for ‘authenticity’, motivated by a desire for permanence and finality after a century of war and division. Berlin, such critics pleaded, must finally be allowed to ‘be’.

Sadly for these critics, the conflict over the past is not one that can be won or lost. As future visitors to Berlin will doubtless appreciate, history has a tenacious capacity to reassert itself. If one stands today at the western edge of the new City Palace, one is met by a striking vista. Before you, the palace’s cupola ascends elegantly from a mire of cranes and scaffolds, while the colossal dome of the Berlin Cathedral sparkles just a few metres to the north. The historic confluence of royal and spiritual power could not be more boldly expressed. But there, rising in the background between both structures, is the distinctive silhouette of the Fernsehturm: a 368m space-age needle that bespeaks communism’s lost dreams of technological and creative supremacy. Like laughter secreting from the coffin of history, it will haunt the backdrop of every photograph hence. Over one hundred years of trauma may separate Scheffler’s observation from the Berlin of today, but it continues to bear a sobering truth: Berlin is not a city that can simply be.

Mobile Emotions

Dr Katie Barclay won the Royal Historical Society’s 2018 David Berry Prize for her essay on love and friendship amongst lower order men in eighteenth-century Scotland. Here she reflects on the larger project that the essay emerged from and its insights for contemporary academic emotional economies.

barclay.jpgThis week, as well as writing this blogpost for the RHS, I am working on a book chapter on the emotional economies of migrant workers – the vagrants, chapbook wo/men, and door to door salespeople that were a feature of the early modern European landscape. Of interest to me is how an economy and ‘lifestyle’ that relied on the hospitality and charity of the wider community shaped the personal lives and relationships of this key group, and the ways that such mobility informed a particular understanding of the early modern self. It is a history that reflects on the capacity of individuals to find a ‘place’ on their journeys through time and space, but also of the emotional and practical labour involved in such placements. My work particularly focuses on Scotland, my homeland, but a home left behind in my own itinerant travels as a worker in the modern academic landscape.

The inspiration for this post was a request from the RHS blog editors to reflect on the research challenges of being a Scottish historian, currently based in Australia, and with a career that has required significant mobility as I – like much of the modern academy – has sought to find an institutional home. I suspect this may have been a request to reflect on the importance of a decent camera to enabling research to move swiftly on short trips back to archives located thousands of miles from your residence (very important – an iPhone won’t cut it), but, as a historian of emotion and mobility, I interpreted it as a moment to reflect on the themes that drive my research – of emotion, mobility, place, community.

I submitted my PhD in 2007, graduated in 2008. I was offered a permanent – continuing as Australian’s style it – contract in 2017, after ten years of post-qualification scholarly life. In many ways, it has been a remarkable career – ten years of full-time, well paid, research ‘only’ work, before finally moving into a standard teaching/research contract. Most of it has been supported by research fellowships that not only paid my wages but provided funds to enable travel between the place where I worked and that which held the source material for my research. I am very privileged. Yet, as I have noted elsewhere, even for those of us who find ourselves at the ‘top’ of the ladder, a decade of insecure work – work that relies on a process of constant achievement of the next paper, the next book, the next grant – has its own particular tolls on mental and bodily health. As part of a broader system of ‘precarity’ – economic insecurity – living on research fellowships acts as a slow wearing of the self, an erosion of the ability to find comfort and particularly to find place.

The converse of this, of course, is that humans are pretty good at finding place. Histories of mobility and migration have highlighted the ways that movement can be destabilising and that the labour involved in placing roots, finding familiarity, producing ‘home’ is real and significant. But it also highlights the success of migrant communities, their ability to adapt to new landscapes, environments and economies, to make connections with other migrants and local communities, not least ties of love and family. Mobile migrant workers are perhaps particularly interesting in this respect as a group who often tramp the same routes, stay with the same people, build relationships and friendships built on an openness to newcomers but bounded by strict rules of hospitality that encourage onward movement. Thus, even for the very mobile, some sort of ‘place’ was often enabled within these communities, if not for everyone.

For the modern academic – and in many other industries too – mobility is hailed as a social and economic good. The conservative impulses that tighten borders, limit visas, and restrict movement are regarded unfavourably, for lacking business sense as well as their racism. New scholars are not only warned that mobility will likely be vital if they wish to remain with the academy but are sold it as a research good – it will broaden their experiences, produce new research networks, deepen knowledge and understanding. (That the ability to move is a privilege that those bound to place and people cannot achieve is often ignored). And the benefits of moving are all true. One of the wonderful things about having worked in Scotland, England, Ireland, Australia and Denmark and experienced seven institutions is the relationships I have built, the insight I have gained into academic practices and cultures, and benefits these have brought to my research findings.

Yet, one of the challenges of mobility is also that building relationships takes significant labour and it produces real emotional connections – we might call them friendships – that are severed, if not entirely, with every move. Finding a place in a new institution also involves by necessity a period of unsettling and settling – those moments of trying to find your new routine, learn new faces, figure out your role in a new set of group dynamics, and ultimately build the bonds that enable communities to function. It is a process that is underpinned by an experience of being out of place and its attendant anxieties and over-thinking, a mental experience that can be likened to the muscle pains of trying a new set of exercises at the gym. Over time, you even learn to identify that experience – to know that this process of settling is what is involved in finding ‘place’ – but it doesn’t seem to make it any easier.

Like any bodily labour, it also has larger impacts on the self. With every move, the labour of finding place seems harder, the desire to do it again reduces. The longer you stay in one place the more comfortable you become and the more the idea of leaving impacts on your general wellbeing, on the sense of precarity produced by insecure labour. I am sure some may say that such a comfort produces complacency. And maybe it does. But bodies need time to rest and recover. They also need the security that being in ‘place’ and having community enables – a community that is generally not formed by long cultural beliefs about family obligation to its members – but through the emotional labour we do with those around us when we arrive. Thus mobility becomes a remarkable privilege, not accessible to all and with real benefits and pleasures, but also a form of work that contributes to the challenges of negotiating the precarious economy.

For highly mobile workforces, and many of the institutions I have been part of contain as many or more migrants as locals, the mobility of the academy also has implications for institutional cultures. The people you meet at work are not just colleagues but become your family, your support network, your safety net. If we currently complain that the expectations of the current academy are unsustainable for a life beyond it, mobility further dislocates you from the world outside – making bonds beyond are not impossible but the labour far harder, requiring more effort. At its best, it is a system where you find family at work, but at its worst, it reinforces the abuses of the dysfunctional home. Such emotional bonds complicate lines of power, heighten disagreements between colleagues, and lead to romantic connections in places where the ethically-minded might suggest they should not be. This too is what it means to find ‘place’ in the academy.

I return then to my eighteenth-century mobile workers and I wonder whether the rules of hospitality and charity that enabled such movement were any less fraught, less challenging, than they are today. I reflect on the ways that their emotional economies might have also produced precarious selves, exhausted not just by the journey but the emotional labour that it required en route. Yet, as I reflect on the relationships I have made in the institutions I call home, I also remember the rewards of such expansive networks, of ties and connections that cross borders, and of the charity and hospitality that are as vital to the functioning of university cultures, as the research.

Dr Katie Barclay is a Senior Lecturer in the ARC Centre for the History of Emotions and Department of History, University of Adelaide. You can follow her on Twitter @KatieEBarclay.


Top image: from R. R. McIan, Gaelic Gatherings; or The Highlanders at Home (1848).

New Historical Perspectives

‘New Historical Perspectives’ (NHP) is our new Open Access book series for Early Career Researchers, a partnership between the RHS and the Institute of Historical Research. As the first tranche of finished manuscripts begins to arrive, Penny Summerfield – one of the series’ editorial convenors – reflects on the formation of NHP and its work to create a new list of OA monographs.

‘New Historical Perspectives’ was launched in April 2016, with Professor Simon Newman and myself as co-editors, as an Open Access publishing venture under the joint auspices of the RHS and IHR and with support from Economic History Society and Past and Present. The Editorial Board (EB), characterized by equal numbers of men and women and a diverse range of expertise, was in place by June 2016. We had no idea whether the idea of Open Access publishing would appeal to the early career researchers (ECRs) we wanted to attract. RHS had agreed that they should be within ten years of receiving their PhDs from British or Irish universities.

Helped by the Publishing Workshops organized by Jonathan Newbury from IHR, we have received 23 proposals since June 2016. Eleven of these have been accepted, following scrutiny by the editors and Editorial Board members and rigorous peer review by leading experts in their specific fields. Eight of the successful proposals are for monographs, three are edited collections. The series is not themed, and its openness in terms of subject matter and chronology has brought in proposals relating to periods from the fourteenth to the twentieth centuries and topics as varied as medieval scholasticism, and masculinity and danger on the Grand Tour.

NHP offers an opportunity to rewrite a PhD thesis for publication, and this has evident appeal to authors, especially in view of the negativity of some publishers towards theses. Our view is that some of the most creative and thoroughly researched work is invested in PhDs, which are often the source of the ‘new perspectives’ we wish to encourage. However, every PhD thesis needs development before it can become a useful and readable book. The comments of EB members, and the often quite lengthy reports of peer reviewers, are an essential part of that process, as are the Author Workshops that we offer each of our authors.

These workshops involve two or more experts in the field, plus an EB member and one of the Co-Editors, meeting with the author for half a day to discuss a near-to-final draft. We have held four such workshops so far and the feedback from authors has borne out our initial hunch that in-depth conversations about a book in preparation are extremely useful to novice monograph authors, probably more so than further written reports. The experts who have agreed to join the workshops have given really valuable service, and, like the authors, they seem to have enjoyed the experience. We ask for finalized manuscripts to come in within about six months of a workshop, and so far we are just about on target, with the first four titles due out in Spring/Summer 2019.

On publication each NHP title will be appear on the IHR’s Open Access books platform, with copies of the work available as OA downloads, eBooks and in hard and paperback formats. As with current IHR publications, each New Historical Perspectives title will also feature on JSTOR’s OA books platform, increasing discoverability and the option to access and share a book at the chapter level.

We are open to non-standard forms of publication, such as short-form works, and also to proposals for edited collections of essays. In this case the lead editor and at least half the contributors need to be ECRs, but they may work with more experienced historians. We have accepted three edited collections on condition that they are thematically coherent and characterized by a rigorous approach to the editing process. Editors of such collections do not get an Author Workshop – which would become a major conference-style event if all the contributors were to be involved – but the complete manuscript is of course subject to peer review.

Simon Newman moved on in June 2018, after sterling service, to be replaced by Jane Winters who, as professor of digital humanities at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, has particularly relevant expertise in Open Access publishing. The Editorial Board is composed of admirably committed members whose scrutiny of proposals and reports, care of authors, and input to shaping the series, is invaluable.

My term of office ends in Spring 2019 and I’ll use this opportunity to say how interesting and satisfying the role of co-editor of NHP is, in the hope that this will encourage potential successors!

Professor Penny Summerfield
Co-editor, New Historical Perspectives
University of Manchester