Die DDR im Schmalfilm Bild

Memory, Archive, Power: Intra-German Diversity and the Anti-Archive


Memory, Archive, Power: Intra-German Diversity and the Anti-Archive

von Laurence McFalls

05. Juli 2022

Dieser Artikel fasst (selbst)kritisch die Absichten, die Geschichte und die Rezeption des Open-Memory-Box-Projektes zusammen. Die Online-Sammlung www.open-memory-box.de ist ein künstlerischer und digital-technologischer Versuch, das Medium „Home Movie“ nicht nur als Forschungsobjekt und -werkzeug, sondern auch für die Öffentlichkeit zugänglich zu machen. Die drei Bereiche der Seite - „Anti-Archiv“, „Archiv“ und „Geschichten“ - fördern den Abbau von Stereotypen und die Wiederbelebung einer geteilten Erinnerungskultur mit nuancierten Einsichten in das Alltagsleben von über 40 Jahren ostdeutscher Geschichte.

Une nation est donc une grande solidarité, constituée par le sentiment des sacrifices qu'on a faits et de ceux qu'on est disposé à faire encore. Elle suppose un passé ; elle se résume pourtant dans le présent par un fait tangible : le consentement, le désir clairement exprimé de continuer la vie commune. L'existence d'une nation est (pardonnez-moi cette métaphore) un plébiscite de tous les jours, comme l'existence de l'individu est une affirmation perpétuelle de vie.
Ernest Renan (11 mars 1882)

Jetzt wächst zusammen, was zusammen gehört.
Willy Brandt (10 November 1989)

L'oubli, et je dirai même l'erreur historique, sont un facteur essentiel de la création d'une nation, et c'est ainsi que le progrès des études historiques est souvent pour la nationalité un danger. L'investigation historique, en effet, remet en lumière les faits de violence qui se sont passés à l'origine de toutes les formations politiques, même de celles dont les conséquences ont été le plus bienfaisantes. L'unité se fait toujours brutalement […].
Ernest Renan (11 mars 1882)

A scorpion one day asks his friend the frog to carry him across a river. The frog responds, “But what if you bite me?” The scorpion counters, “That would not be logical: you would die and I would drown.” Midstream, the frog suddenly feels a sharp pain in his back. Gasping and dying, he asks, “But why?” To which the drowning scorpion answers, “I can’t help it. It’s in my nature.”
Modern Russian and ancient Persian joke/fable (sometimes attributed to Aesop)


On questions of national identity, it is banal to cite Renan’s speech “Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?” with its famous formulation of the nation as a “daily plebiscite,” the on-going collective will to share a past, to let bygones be bygones, and to continue life as a community. It is also commonplace to celebrate his speech as an articulation of the civic conception of the nation inherited from the republican ideals of the French Revolution. In Renan’s context, in the aftermath of France’s loss of Alsace-Lorraine, he had to draw explicitly the contrast to the German ethnic conception of nationhood, drawn from Herder and Fichte and echoed down to the present in such organicist images as Willy Brandt’s call for national unity the day after the Berlin Wall fell. Less commonly noted, however, is Renan’s use of a term that his audience would have immediately – and negatively – associated with the author of France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian war, Napoleon III. Like his uncle, Louis Bonaparte legitimated his illegal seizure of power and imperial self-coronation after the fact with …a plebiscite. Indeed, then as now “plebiscite” suffered from pejorative connotations: at best a democratic or populist window-dressing for strong-man rule, at worst a tattered fig leaf to conceal the violence of a coup d’état. Thus connoted, a “daily plebiscite” sounds less like democratic renewal of the nation-qua-collective-will than the perpetuation of the acts of violence that brutally established its unity. Neither a natural community, nor a social construct of collective willpower, the nation is in fact an on-going civil war that founds its unity on the continuous physical and symbolic violence that represses diversity. A pessimistic political realism thus resides at the heart of Renan’s definition of the nation, and, as he underscores, only the power of forgetting or, worse, of lying (“l’erreur historique”), can maintain the myth of unity, with this suppression occurring preferably on a daily basis.

The horrors of German history should have amply exposed and broken the cycle of violence on which its nationhood, like any other, rested. “Never again” and the duty to remember forged an allegedly post-national postwar Germany. In Canada, meanwhile, official multiculturalism was supposed to guarantee a post-national paradise on earth, except of course in memory-obsessed, chip-on-the-shoulder nationalist Quebec. Such myths conveniently forgot about forgetting, of course. In this contribution to a volume on memory and diversity in transatlantic, cross-cultural perspective, I can only scratch the surface of the violent mechanisms of forgetting (from the glaring forms of conquest and genocide to the more subtle and insidious ones of commemoration and silence) that have repressed and suppressed both memory and diversity in such apparently peaceable places as contemporary Germany and Canada. I propose thus only to examine first-hand my own attempts to combat institutionalized forgetting and to revive memory and diversity in post-reunification Germany among those who, not without exclusionary purpose, consider themselves “Germans.” My purported efforts might sound grandiose in their intentions; their effects are no doubt minimal, if not futile; but their intentions have been sincere since I began studying the events and processes that lead to and followed German reunification, in particular as they unfolded in the (former) East.

Culture Wars and the Battle for Memory

My intensive research on and with eastern Germans began shortly after the fall of the Wall with a longitudinal interview study of 202 evolving life-stories and continues to the present with an online home-movie collection called Open Memory Box. During this time, my informants went from DDR-Bürger to ehemalige-DDR-Bürger, to Ossis, to Leute aus den neuen Bundesländern, to Ostdeutsche, or, in some cases, simply to people, embarrassed about their origins, who come from a place near Hamburg (i.e. Mecklenburg-Vorpommern) or near Berlin or otherwise unspecified. Their changing (self-)labels have reflected a struggle for recognition that began almost immediately with the fall of the Wall. Indeed, my decision to go interview as many “ordinary” East Germans as I could, starting in 1990, arose from my frustration at seeing so quickly shunted aside the regular people whose courage, convictions, and confusions had brought them into the streets, precipitating, for the most part unintentionally, the collapse of communism. Although no politician or political scientist had foreseen that sudden collapse, let alone anticipated that the East German people, allegedly docile and disciplined in the image of their regime, would be the accidental authors of epochal upheaval, the politicians were quick to claim credit and the political scientists equally so to offer structural or institutional explanations that relegated the masses to a supernumerary role. Through in-depth biographical interviews with a random sampling of East Germans who had or had not participated in or supported the demonstrations in the fall of 1989, I was able to situate those momentous events within East Germans’ lifeworld. Their shared horizon of expectations and, within it, their common political culture explained how the regime’s collapse could occur peacefully. My interviews with critics of the regime, its staunch defenders, and those in between revealed certain converging values and orientations that had allowed them to accommodate their lives to the “real existing,” though crumbling, socialist system despite their diversity of views and whose undermining in the final years of the regime left all frustrated and ambivalent in a way that prevented regime opponents as well as supporters from resorting to physical violence. I cannot here elaborate on this analysis, nor on competing explanations for communism’s collapse (see McFalls 1995) but wish to underscore the dynamic of conflict and diversity that underlay a certain political-cultural identity of East Germans who went from chanting “Wir sind das Volk” to “Wir sind ein Volk.”

I can elaborate even less here on the complex processes that led unexpectedly and rapidly to the absorption of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) into the Federal Republic of Germany through neither “growing together” nor conquest, nor annexation, nor plebiscite, be it one-time or daily. My ongoing interviews over the course of the 1990s, however, did allow me to trace the violence and forgetting that forged German reunification. The upheavals of unification generated winners and losers, a social reshuffling, unprecedent geographic and professional mobility, and sharp political divisions, all among eastern Germans. They stood united, however, in the face of their collective devaluation by, and lack of recognition from, their compatriots in the West. At stake for eastern Germans were their memories – collective, family, and individual, memories of a past life worth living. These memories grew all the more precious, even for the younger generations who could remember little directly, as eastern Germans in their fight for recognition became entirely different people. Conducted during the years when acrimony seethed between Jammerossis and Besserwessis, i.e. between whining easterners and know-it-all westerners, my interviews revealed that the easterners had surprisingly quickly, but hardly noticing it themselves, transformed their most fundamental anthropological orientations to their bodies, to time, and to sociability (McFalls 2001). Their metamorphosis proved to be a text-book illustration of Gramsci’s concept of effective hegemony, namely the organization of a discursive field around a principle that allows its own contestation though in a manner that reproduces its ineluctable logic. I argued that, contrary to widespread perceptions, Germany had achieved cultural unification by the late 1990s not in spite of the ongoing Ossi-Wessi conflict but because of it. In defending themselves against western reproaches that they were unprepared or unsuited for a high performance post-industrial capitalist consumer society, easterners propelled themselves into the vanguard of neoliberalism with feats of agility, flexibility (read: precarity), and self-marketing, serving as guinea pigs for the Agenda 2010 labour and welfare reforms that would only later shake the West.

When I returned to eastern Germany in the early 2010s and looked up some of my informants, I found cultural conflict no longer seething but only simmering below the surface. Immediate battles for redistribution and for recognition of social and political rights and of professional qualifications were long settled. Despite their comfort and confidence, easterners nonetheless still expressed resentment about westerners’ simultaneous ignorance and invalidation of their pasts (McFalls and Hausstein 2015). At the same, however, I discovered that the easterners themselves had fallen into stereotypical narratives about the GDR past that they wanted recognized. Initially, they could not tell me anything I had not read or heard or seen in the media. It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that their memories vacillated, with little nuance, between Good-Bye Lenin and Das Leben der Anderen, that is, between an almost jovial nostalgia for a largely innocent society and a blanket condemnation of a total surveillance society. At the end of a frustrating oral-history interview with one of my informants, I suggested to her that we visit a museum exhibit into which her life-story, along with that of several dozen of my other informants, had been incorporated on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall. She had not seen the exhibit, so the visual cues there were new to her and suddenly released fresh, interesting recollections of her past that the exhibit’s narrative (again, a rather Manichean tale of repression and resistance) had not cued. Having befriended in Berlin a Swedish documentary film producer, Alberto Herskovits, who shared my personal and professional interest in the GDR and its legacies, I had intended with him to film my informant’s self-rediscovery in the Zeitgeschichtliches Forum Leipzig (a branch of the German Federal Haus der Geschichte). For various reasons, that proved impossible – and such a film would probably have been visually unimpressive, but the unfilmed visit ended up launching Herskovits and me into a hugely time-consuming and costly intervention into German-German memory politics.

Open Memory Box: from Film Collection to Anti-Archive

Although not nearly as powerful as odours, images – moving images in particular, like those that burst to the surface in our dreams – steer our memories. This premise as well as the idea that home movies offer a window into intimate life-worlds ultimately underpinned Herskovits and my project: the collection of ordinary East Germans’ home movies as an inspiration for alternative memory narratives and fragments. Naively believing in the ease with which digital media technology would allow us to work with the film material, we launched an appeal for contributions of private 8mm films at an unexpectedly successful press conference held in July 2014 at the German Federal Foundation for the Reappraisal of the SED-Dictatorship, our first major financial backer. (The facts that the foundation, whose name already suggests a certain problematization of the GDR past, funded our project and that our appeal met with such resonance in the press and the public suggest that, a quarter century after the fall of the Wall, reunified Germany’s official and officious policies for assessing its divided past recognizably needed reassessment themselves.) Within a few days, we were inundated with hundreds of boxes containing thousands of film reels – in no small part, of course, because we had promised to send back to contributors their films in digital format. Two years and some two hundred thousand euros in digitization and web-tool development later, we found ourselves in the face of a digital mountain, or perhaps better: swamp, of raw images – some 20 million of them spread across 2285 films and 415 hours. Each image, each sequence, each scene, each film roll held countless stories and even more possible memory prompts. So much work, so much money, so much effort and we were only at the beginning of our pains.

Indeed, the only thing more painful than being invited to a neighbour’s slide show or home movie night is spending time in an archive, especially when you don’t know what you’re looking for. Our project, we feared, would turn out to be a combination of both: somebody else’s banal images painstakingly classified according to somebody else’s preconceived categories – a death sentence for stirring up original, interesting public memory debates! Our only guide for wading through the swamp was knowing what we could not or would not want to do. We could not simply dump everything online without even knowing what it contained, but we did not want to throw anything out on the basis of any aesthetic, political, moral, historical or other criterion (though we did have to eliminate forty rolls that were copies of copyrighted material that had crept into some family’s collections). We could not leave the films’ contents uncatalogued (and so we embarked on a three-year, twenty-person tagging exercise), but we refused to introduce any non-objectively descriptive categories into what would eventually become a searchable archive with almost 50,000 data points. We could not pass up the opportunity to ask our contributors to explain what they saw and remembered from their films, but we would never produce any (re)presentation of their films with any comments but theirs (we had seen a television production based on East German home movies that purported to show the GDR “how it really was” but made sure viewers knew what that was by inserting the talking heads and off-camera voices of experts and narrators who knew better). Finally, we could not impose our own interpretive categories, but did not want to leave unexploited the digital hermeneutic possibilities that online technologies made possible.

Ultimately one principle became our guide and the hallmark of the Open Memory Box: the anti-archive. Intuitively, we anticipated this principle by calling our film collection a “box” – like a toy box, tool box, or storage box, where we could toss memories (or rather their moving-image prompts) in the unordered way that we tend to find them in our cluttered minds. And the box was of course to remain open for ease of access and for rummaging about (though we have had to close it to new contributions for purely practical reasons of cost). More theoretically, however, we articulated first the concept and then the practical application of the anti-archival principle through a critique of the institution of the archive. I have already mentioned the sense of alienation that the experience of approaching and entering an archive, be it physical or virtual (digital), provokes. It is a distinct, closed, and ordered space. It preserves and thus controls the past. It is an expression, a crystallization of power, an institution that enforces (a) rule. Jacques Derrida (1995) was not the first or last to note the etymological origins of the archive in arkhè, the Greek word for government, but also for beginning, origin, first place, i.e. the font of political power. Derrida’s inaugural address for the Freud archive in London, however, did offer him the occasion to unpack, or deconstruct, the concept and inspired us to consider how we might break that power in the anarchical spirit of an anti-institutional anarchive. A further Freudian inspiration suggested how we might operationalize our collection in accordance with the anti-archival principle: Robert Seethaler’s novel Der Trafikant, in which a country boy encounters Sigmund Freud in Vienna shortly before the latter’s exile in London, suggested a technique. On Freud’s suggestion that he note his dreams, the young hero inscribes them on scraps of paper that he posts in his shop window, eliciting various reactions and comments from passersby and thereby unsettling Nazi rule after the Anschluss.

In the Open Memory Box, the “anti-archive” constitutes a distinct section alongside the searchable “archive” and the short film “stories” based on interviews with film contributors, with the anti-archival spirit permeating the other two sections. The anti-archive is in fact a growing collection of carefully curated, exactly two-second film fragments (currently about 3000 of them). They appear in random sequence accompanied by a soundscape, but viewers can also pick among about fifty themes, most having no particular relationship to the GDR (from “red” to “love” and “fashion,” “buddies,” “women,” or “sad”) but a few being iconic (“Trabant,” “Alexanderplatz”) or suggestive (“security,” “system,” “freedom”). Whether in the complete “random” sequence or in one of the thematic sequences, the timed flow of fleeting film fragments, each already encapsulating a microhistory, the anti-archive does not so much reproduce a dream as evoke a kaleidoscopic world of possibilities: memories, stories, connexions, atmospheres, etc. Even the “archive” page aims to open the possibilities of meaning before narrowing them down as the “tactical” wanderer (de Certeau 1980) settles – perhaps – on a search strategy. The page opens with tens of thousands of random still shots and their accompanying tag words (more than 2500), suggesting that visitors first lose themselves in this universe of possibilities, especially if they, unlike “qualified” archival researchers, have no predefined interests or research strategies. Finally, even on the “stories” page, visitors find carefully crafted short film montages based on interviews with the people who filmed, or are depicted in, the home movies. The shorts lend meaning and context to the otherwise wordless and sometimes mysterious films, but neither their titles nor storylines are unambiguous.

Intervening in the Memory Wars

Open Memory Box thus intends to offer more than the conservation of eastern German 8mm home movies from the 1940s into the early 1990s as precious source material for an intimate social history of the GDR. Its anti-archival principle clearly seeks to serve as a technique and an aesthetic for generating counter-narratives to those that predominate in German-German memory debates: nostalgia, victimhood, dictatorship, accommodation, resistance, blame. Both banal and exceptional, the films instead tell stories of life, family, boredom, beauty, routine, adventure, pride, work, play, and – yes – sex. Trivial and tremendous, though admittedly more the former than the latter, the films allow nuance and respect for reality. (With regard to their mirroring GDR reality, it is important to note that even if the contributing filmmaking families tended to come from privileged, educated milieus, they also included surprisingly many families with little cultural, economic, and social capital and covered a broad spatial and temporal range.) But has the collection and its online presentation actually produced the desired effect of bringing diversity into German debates on the memorial legacy of the GDR? What, if any, are its Rezeptions- and Wirkungsgeschichten?

As creators of Open Memory Box, Herskovits and I are perhaps not the least biased, but certainly the most informed and interested judges of its reception and broader discursive effects. We have been able to witness firsthand how the funding agencies, the contributing families, the media, the general public, and artistic as well as research milieus have reacted. In a word, the reactions have been …mixed. But better than expected. Indeed, we were lucky that the project even got off the ground and could stay afloat as costs in time and money exceeded our wildest expectations. Our first target audience necessarily consisted of funding agencies that had to buy into the merits of the project, and through efforts and contortions that we prefer not to share in detail, we have been able to patch together almost half a million euros in funding over seven years, some of it from our own pockets. Our funders, however, did not necessarily share our interest in sparking heterodox memory debates. On the German side, their more or less openly avowed motivation has lain in securing and conserving as cultural heritage the mass of moving image data produced by private citizens in the GDR as well as in supporting foreign interest in German society. On the Canadian side, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) crucial funding specifically dedicated to Open Memory Box (in addition to indirect support through its funding of the IRTG Diversity) seems to have originated in an interest in the project’s aesthetic ambitions: three successive grant applications framed in terms of memory politics failed to garner support, but a largely identical proposal submitted to its fine arts panel won full funding!

Whatever the funders’ motivations may have been, their generosity made it possible for us to find out how the 150 contributing filmmaker families would react to film images that they had often not seen in decades and, in many cases, had never seen. When, more than two years after their submission, we were finally able to send our contributors digital copies of their films, their responses ranged from impatience and indifference to unbridled enthusiasm and gratitude. While some contributors did not even acknowledge that they had received up to several thousand euros’ worth of digitization, more than half did provide us useful information for tagging their filmstock. Most revealing, of course, have been the families with whom we have been able to meet subsequent to their reception of their digitized films. (Thanks to funding from the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research we have received in partnership with the Leibniz Center for Contemporary History Research in Potsdam, we are able to pursue these meetings with families in order to produce short films for the “stories” section of Open Memory Box.) Together and individually, we have visited with about two dozen families so far and have produced eight short films with more on the way. Typically, our encounters begin somewhat disappointingly with family members remaining superficially descriptive in their comments on the films. Yet with a few open questions such as “Were you happy?” a flood of family history, including dark secrets, bursts forth. Behind the mostly positive images that suggested conformity to GDR socialism and the petty bourgeois values it encouraged, more complex stories of betrayal, jealousy, intimidation both specific to the family and to the perversities of the party-state lurked (see the “stories” section of Open Memory Box). Although almost all of our contributors expressed a certain loyalty to the regime and its values, all voiced criticism of its shortcomings and the personal price they had to pay. Their lives were rich with ambivalence.

Because the images in the Open Memory Box collection, like most in families’ photo albums or home movies, do appear one-sided in telling stories of happiness, success, and normed milestones of a good life, we feared that the mediated public sphere would dismiss our project as some sort of naïve apologetics for the GDR – especially coming from uninformed foreigners. To our great surprise, the media reaction to the launch of www.open-memory-box.de was overwhelmingly favorable, epitomized in the national evening news broadcast of one of Germany’s two public television networks on the occasion of Germany’s national holiday: A four-minute reportage on the Open Memory Box immediately followed the opening story on public commemorations that ended with Chancellor Merkel’s appeal for western Germans to inform themselves on what life had been like for easterners before unification. The anchorwoman then presented Open Memory Box as an answer to the chancellor’s plea. At first, we presumed that, contrary to our fears, mainstream (read: western) German media had finally come to realize that stereotypes, devaluation, and overweening depictions of the “second German dictatorship” were not particularly helpful in a context where eastern Germans were running into the beckoning arms of an opportunistic far-right. To be sure, a certain respect for easterners’ memories of lives worth living has grown broader in the German public sphere, but we also retrospectively recognized that the journalists who had picked up our story all came from the east. The origins of the various TV teams who came to interview us in the days surrounding our launch of the online Open Memory Box collection had not struck us initially: they were young, professional, a bit smarmy and otherwise representative of the mediasphere. Only at the end of long days of shoots including visits to select contributors did it become clear to us, sometimes over a beer or two, that the journalists invariably were easterners who had “made it” – at least sufficiently to be able to place a story about a Swedish filmmaker and a Canadian political scientist who seemed to be onto something about what the GDR past, their past, had meant to easterners.

What the Open Memory Box means to the broader public, East and West, remains hard to determine. Originally, flush with naïve optimism about the democratic potential of online technologies, we had planned on constructing an interface with more active user participation such as crowd-sourced content tagging and online editing facilities for montages and remixes. We became quickly disabused from such notions as soon as we saw that really only highly qualified experts and East German natives could accurately identify the most important contents in the films and when we saw the fruits of experiments such as the Prelinger Archive on archives.org. There, we found that user mash-ups of historical footage at best offered decontextualized interpretations with slightly degrading, ironic undertones and at worst were outright mockeries. We also chose to limit our ability to analyse user reactions by refusing to use cookies or other tracking devices to profile users; we wanted the website to be free from commercial or other surveillance intentions or appearances thereof. At most we can follow the number of daily users and the popularity of different themes in the anti-archive. Thus, in the days following our launch in mid-September 2019 when we enjoyed major media coverage, over 50,000 daily visitors briefly crashed the website, with smaller surges following coverage on the national holiday, October 3, and on the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Wall, November 9. Since then, traffic on the site has remained steady but modest with an average of a couple hundred daily visitors. As for favourite themes in the anti-archive, it comes as no surprise that “erotic” closely followed by “nudism” surpasses all others manifold. In short, these statistics tell us little about memory culture…

We have, of course, received qualitative feedback from enthusiastic visitors who have written directly to us or added comments to different online news reports about Open Memory Box. Most recount their losing themselves for hours on end in the site either from a certain nostalgic perspective or, for those with no GDR past, because of the site’s intuitive exploratory design linking fragments to original rolls and these in turn to its “box” (i.e. the ensemble of films from one family) and from there into the “archive” and on to the “stories” sections. For the latter category of visitors, the site does seem to have met one of its goals: those who had only second-hand, superficial or stereotypical knowledge of the GDR admitted to having discovered the unexpected: a country where people lived vivid, varied, and normal lives much like they themselves had. Not all comments were favourable, though. Immediately following our site launch we and our German funding partners received threatening emails accusing us of misappropriating public funds because users could download only watermarked copies of films from the collection digitized with public support. Simultaneously, a website dedicated to promoting universal open access accused us of “open-washing” for the same reason. Intimidated, one of our funders tried to convince us that we had to provide unmarked filmstock upon request at no charge to any non-commercial user, ignoring not only our costs and their own jealous guarding of copyrighted materials, but also the fact that we had a legal and moral obligation to protect our contributors’ copyrights, personal rights, and potential commercial rights (our written contract with them allows us to use the material within the framework of the project and foresees eventual profit-sharing in cases of commercial use). Even with our attempts to control the images’ circulation through watermarking and licensing agreements for use outside of the Open Memory Box website, we have already stumbled across “our” film material with and without watermark or source attribution, and we realize we cannot prevent the images from being misused for everything from ideological to pornographic purposes. Our experience points to an urgent need for funding agencies to review their contradictory imperatives of promising open access, on the one hand, and of respecting the privacy and personal rights of research subjects and collaborators, on the other. What is more, it would behoove us all to reflect seriously about the effects on memory culture of digital piracy, of visual appropriation, manipulation, and hyperproliferation, and, at the same time, of concentrated media control of (visual) data flows and conservation.

Thus, just as we had underestimated the technical and financial challenges of collecting, digitizing, organizing, diffusing, and conserving over 20 million moving picture frames, we were also entirely unprepared for the legal and moral dilemmas of putting people’s private memories online. To be sure, our contributors authorized our use of their filmed images, and our clearly stated intention from the beginning was to bring them into the public domain to stimulate reflection and debate. Still, we have had to be careful, as much as we can, about how other scholars and filmmakers as well as journalists and artists use the films for purposes of research, education, or entertainment. We have, of course, enjoyed productive partnerships with the Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung (ZZF) in Potsdam and with the Chair of International History at University of Trier, but their inputs have been less scientific than financial, allowing us respectively to pursue our interviews and short-film productions with our contributors and to complete the transfer of our film collection and metadata to the German Federal Archives. Together with the ZZF, we have also profited from theoretical and practical discussions of memory culture within the framework of the broader “Mediales Erbe der DDR” (GDR Media Heritage) research network. In the educational field, we have had contacts from different schools and institutions, notably with more follow-up from the Goethe-Institut New York, but unfortunately we have not yet seen the results of any school or class projects that have come out of these inquiries. At the same time, we have had a steady stream of requests from filmmakers and other artists for registered-user access to the archive for downloading of films for preview for editorial productions. We cannot (yet) claim any great commercial success, let alone profits, though moving or still images have appeared in publications and productions around the world. In all of these undertakings, however, we have been zealous about conserving our contributors’ privacy and, through that, their trust because we fear that they might fall victim to the ongoing memory war of German reunification.

Germans on Germans: Scorpions or Frogs?

Memories are personal, and yet political. They largely shape who we are, which is also why we willfully try to forget. What we share and what we hide partially guides how we interact with others, making us powerful or vulnerable, while mutual recognition of our strengths and weaknesses in itself validates or legitimates us as social partners, giving us the right to make claims to and on one another. (“Do you remember the time you …? Well,…”) Open Memory Box is an intervention into this political minefield of memory, forgetting, recognition, and legitimacy. Aside from the lure of obtaining convenient digitized copies of their fragile, difficult-to-manipulate celluloid films, the eastern Germans who contributed to the project did so to participate more or less anonymously in this political battle. Those who have agreed to interviews and to our turning them into short films and putting them online have accepted revealing themselves and their fragilities. For some, it has been an important exercise in self-affirmation. The “star” of “I regret it,” Barbara L., ultimately did not regret not only having her film put online but also participating in a roundtable at the website launch and in several television interviews because, visibly, her self-confidence and pride grew with each intervention. At the same time, however, we learned that a western jury at a celebrated film festival declined showing “I regret it” because Barbara’s tears about the world of possibilities that opened for her with the fall of the Wall did not correspond to its notions of how easterners should today remember the collapse, namely critically.

We are still trying to learn how to navigate through the unpredictable cross-currents of German memory politics. Did we lose a contract with an eastern newspaper because we participated in an exhibit tenuously associated with a western tabloid? Is it admissible or taboo ironically to insert a two-second fragment of someone’s filming the famous “Arbeit macht frei” slogan on the entry gate of a concentration camp in the anti-archive thematic sequence entitled “freedom”? Do our short-film montages distort or defile family histories by suggesting if not revealing their secrets? When and how can we collaborate with filmmakers without “eastern” credentials if not origins? Is it even legitimate for Herskovits and me as non-Germans, but with German backgrounds and relatives, to engage in this debate? Do not such essentializing identity questions, which seem to predominate politics everywhere today, distract from much more important issues such as unjustifiable material inequalities, let alone the collective survival of the species on the planet? Why must the scorpion bite the frog?

This final question and the fable from which it derives came to Herskovits recently when we were discussing the delicate issue of facilitating other filmmakers’ contacts to our contributing families, specifically the case of a western documentary company that produces for one of the national public television networks. Several of our contributors were hesitant or refused because they were wary of how they would be depicted through western eyes that saw them automatically as deficient or complicit if not guilty. When we told this to the producer, he protested his innocence, promising strict neutrality in his depictions. Herskovits pushed him on this question, though, and finally the producer admitted that he did have to take into consideration the government’s bottom-line on unification, namely the triumph of democracy and right over dictatorship and the non-rule of law (Unrechtsstaat). It was public television after all. The scorpion had to bite.

More than a generation after the fall of the Wall, Germans – East and West – still like to joke about building it back, but higher this time. Does this animosity mean that the German nation is losing its daily plebiscite? Or does it simply expose the quotidian violence and mutual blame that the myth of unity and the duty to forget conceal? Where does it leave the conflicting diversity of memories, both individual and collective? If the scorpion had not bitten, would the frog have eaten it when it crawled off her back on the other side of the river? And what past were they escaping when they embarked on their common journey across the water?

  alle Beiträge