Sunday, June 14, 2009

Catching up: Cologne Archives; the Stasi and recent German history

I planted three "Tiny Bee" Asiatic lily cultivars last year, and they didn't do very well. I didn't expect them to survive, and was very pleasantly surprised when they sprang to life earlier this spring. As of today, they have more than a dozen full blooms and a like number of buds. Interesting things -- most of which aren't as pretty as these lilies -- sometimes pop up unexpectedly . . . .

Sorry for the light blogging over the past week. I've been struggling to meet multiple deadlines at work, combating (organically and non-lethally) the squirrels that are attacking the lettuce, beets, and other produce in the container garden, and getting used to the feeling of having a trio of staples in my scalp; there's nothing like a minor household accident to keep an archivist's life interesting.

Next week's blogging may be similarly light: I'm planning to attend a National Digital Information Infrastructure Preservation Program grant partners meeting during the last full week of June, and as a result must devote next week to wrapping up some loose ends, meeting some additional deadlines, and preparing for departure.

However, before any more time elapses, I wanted to comment on a couple of archives-related developments that have taken place in Germany. Neither one is particularly new, but the first is really encouraging and the second highlights the role of archives in shaping -- and, in this instance, destabilizing -- collective understandings of history.

The first piece of news concerns the records Historical Archive of the City of Cologne, which collapsed on 3 March of this year: the archive's staff and other experts on the site have been stunned and pleased by the condition of the records that have been recovered to date. As of 1 June, approximately 85 percent of the archive's holdings have been recovered (the remaining 15 percent is submerged in groundwater), and roughly 75 percent of the recovered material is relatively intact. Although archivists still anticipate that it will take approximately 30 years to recover from this disaster, they also expect that digital technology will aid the process: special software developed to reassemble documents shredded by the Stasi, the East German secret police, in the days before the collapse of the East German government may help them reassemble torn and badly damaged documents.

The other archives-related development of note also relates to the Stasi. The records concern an event that took place on 2 June 1967, when police officer Karl-Heinz Kurras shot and killed Benno Ohnesorg, an unarmed, at a political protest. Ohnesorg's death triggered mass protests throughout the nation and helped to shape the political views of countless young Germans who saw Kurras as a far-right extremist. Forty years after Ohnesorg's death, many Germans identify 2 June 1967 as an important date in their nation's history: the upheaval that followed in the wake of Ohnesorg's death profoundly affected life in the Federal Republic of Germany. Some Germans believe that it made the Federal Republic more democratic and more open, while others are convinced that it ushered in an era of social decay, but everyone agrees that it was significant.

on 21 May, two historians who were conducting research in the vast archives of the Stasi announced that they had inadvertently discovered compelling evidence that Kurras had been on the Stasi's payroll since 1955. Kurras, who was tried but never convicted of any crime, roundly denies that the Stasi ordered him to shoot Ohnesorg, and to date, no records indicating that the Stasi ordered Kurras to kill have surfaced. However, it is widely known that the East German government actively sought to destabilize the Federal Republic, and questions about Kurras's motivations have led many Germans to ponder their nation's recent past. If Kurras's Stasi ties had come to light sooner, would the the mass student and women's movements fueled, directly or indirectly, by outrage over Ohnesorg's death have been as large or as influential? Would the left-wing terrorist groups that plagued the Federal Republic in the 1970s existed had young radicals widely known about Kurras's true political beliefs? Would the Federal Republic be better or worse off?

In sum, a handful of archival records may ultimately cause an entire nation to reassess and reinterpret its recent past.

1 comment:

Gray Moon Gallery said...

We defeated the Soviets, meanwhile a Stasi culture engulfs Europe... (Quote by Jan Theuninck, august 2009)