Katrin Bahr, Victoria Rizo-Lenshyn, Claudia Sandberg, Juliane Schicker
This project examines political, social, and cultural movements and tendencies that existed in the German Democratic Republic, teasing out potentials, frustrations, disappointments, and the many ideas that shaped the 1980s and the end of the GDR. Which stories existed and how do they stand vis-à-vis the current master narratives of a peaceful revolution, the wish, and euphoria for newfound freedom and the need for a market-driven economy? Much happened in the years immediately preceding the years before and after the Fall of the Wall, but little is known about the vibrancy of this time and the repercussions for recent developments on local, regional and global levels. This project is a contribution to the counter-narrative that tries to offer a more nuanced understanding of the social and cultural aspects that led to the Mauerfall and the unification of the two German states.
For this project, we interviewed former East Germans citizens from all walks of life, ages, and professions, active in organizing and participating in a range of social movements in East Germany in the 1980s. Beyond the well-documented Monday demonstrations in Leipzig, people were involved with environmental and women’s issues, the gay rights movement, among others. The interviews give insight into concrete actions and activities individuals and groups – such as the squatter scene in Potsdam – from before the Wende until the present time.
To commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Fall of the Wall, this collection of interviews hopes to contribute to the current memory debate by bringing together a range of ideas and actions that took shape in GDR society in the time leading up to the Wende. These revisions and differentiated views are also important in light of hopeful events and disconcerting developments in current Germany and worldwide – populist leaderships, nationalistic and anti-Semitic tendencies, the increased consciousness to save a dying planet, and a new feminist understanding expressed in the MeToo movement. Our interviewees also share with us thoughts and insights about why it still matters to talk about the GDR and how they connect GDR history with the current development in German society.
We are extremely grateful to everyone who was willing to talk to us about their memories and experiences. We would also like to thank the feminist archive FFBIZ in Berlin, and the DEFA Stiftung for allowing us to use their photographs. While many voices still need to be included, these responses created a narrative of diversity and give a sense of the richness of ideas and experiences that should defy the image of a “joyless dictatorship.”
In 1986 a group of Black German feminist poets stirred up the West German literary scene. As a result of the encounter with activist and poet Audre Lorde in the mid-1980s in Berlin, May Opitz (later Ayim), Katharina Oguntoye, and Dagmar Schulz published Farbe Bekennen: Afro-Deutsche Frauen auf den Spuren ihrer Geschichte [Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out (1992)]. The anthology is composed of poetry, oral histories, and socio-historical treatises and is especially noteworthy for including material by black artists from East Germany. One of them is Raja Lubinetzki who contributed an interview and selected poetry (Graue Tragik, fragment) to the anthology’s first edition under her alias Katherina Birkenwald. Lubinetzki trained in typography and sculpture art while writing poetry since the age of fourteen. The artist published some of her drawings and poetry in several East German underground magazines before contributing to Farbe Bekennen. With the publication of her work in the founding document of the Afro-German movement, she helped create poetic visibility of an ignored reality: ethnic minorities in the GDR.
Lubinetzki was born in
Kropstädt (Sachsen-Anhalt) in 1962 to a German mother and a Cameroonian father.
She was abandoned by her mother after birth and grew up with a white foster
parent. Her foster mother struggled to financially provide for the small family
of two. At the age of fourteen, Lubinetzki learned about her biological mother
and two biracial siblings. One of the sisters was given up for adoption, and
the other one remained with her mother.
Black Germans are part of East German history but have received little attention from the general public in former East, West, and later reunified Germany. In her 2016 essay Making African Diasporic Pasts Possible: A Retrospective View of the GDR and Its Black (Step-) Children, Peggy Piesche points out that the Black East German minority emerged in the 1960s. Black German children were born as a result of multi-ethnic relationships between German women and young men who came to the GDR for work (e.g. from Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia) or to pursue their studies (e.g. from Ghana, Nigeria, Zambia). What most people do not know is that interracial couples were not allowed to marry or share a home. Foreign workers and students faced many restrictions based on the treaties between East Germany and their respective countries of origin. Additionally, Piesche notes that based on Paragraph 6 of the GDR Ausländergesetz (aliens act) from 1979, a “… foreigner could […] lose his or her right of residence at any time, or it could be limited geographically, as well as in duration” (232). Because of these circumstances, Black German children mostly grew up with just their mothers or they were given up for adoption. These children were GDR citizens but due to their skin color most of them were perceived as “Others-from-Without” (Wright 190). Similar to Black German experiences in West Germany, those children were viewed as exotic foreigners in the GDR.
East German blackness also signifies a sense of invisibility that results from a colorblind ideology within the state. In his 2015 essay Social Chromatism: Race, Racism, and the Racial Rainbow in East Germany, Quinn Slobodian points to the paradoxical nature of race discourse in East Germany. “On one hand, East German authorities officially denounced ‘race thinking.’ On the other hand, they continued to rely on stereotypes of phenotypical and folkloric difference to illustrate themes of internationalist solidarity” (26). In East German society, such views became modes of operation that helped to reinstate the dynamics of white superiority. The majority of Black German children and adolescents lived in white families, had white grandparents and German names but had no contact to the black side of the family and no one who would talk to them about their experiences of racism or othering they surely had experienced. According to a study by Jeanette Sumalgy, Black German adolescents in the GDR experienced a lack of support from their social environments during crucial periods of their identity formation (“Afro-Deutsche Jugendliche” 24-25). The limited availability of information about the history and culture of the African diaspora, as well as the clichés associated with blackness, hindered the parents in recognizing and supporting their biracial children.
To come back to Raja
Lubinetzki: her poetic fragment geburt combines
moments of destruction and creation with Black German experiences and creates a
poetic prominence to East German blackness. The material quality of poetic
expression, namely the Black German existence it calls into being, disrupts the
power of invisibility and simultaneously exposes a colorblind discourse.
The poem reflects that workings of colorblind racism weigh heavily on biracial children and the public discourse, as well as define the notion of East German blackness. As such, blackness is met with denial and rejection: “pigmente entsetzt übergestrichen“ and “mittelmäßige augen lynchen, böshassende sprüche reißen“ (pigments appallingly covered, mediocre eyes lynch, evil hateful remarks tear, 2-3) . The birth of a biracial child calls East German blackness into being, “mulatte ist geboren/ mulatte ist da” (5-6). At the same time, the use of the term “mulatte” in reference to a biracial child illustrates the reliance on racial classification and physical difference within East German public discourse. Racializing practices continue and cause more damage over time as “krausgewellte haare brechen / negroeuro rhythmen sich schämen / notverlassenene lieder schweigen” (frizzwaved hair breaks / negroeuro rhythms are embarrassed /abandoned songs keep silent, 7-9). The harmful tension between black minority and white majority is marked by a chain of crippling actions: “brechen,” “sich schämen,” and “schweigen” (break, to be embarrassed, to keep silent). As harm and neglect intensify, the presence of a biracial child breaks and ends the vicious cycle.
Lubinetzki interweaves poetic moments of destruction and creation with minority experiences. Her work reveals that Black East German poetry utilizes the potential of poetic expression for effect. Its transformative power is generated by exposing colorblindness in East German society and by giving Black East Germans a presence and a voice. Lubinetzki’s fragment geburt evokes dynamic poetic visibility. It makes East German blackness visible and in a general sense, contributes to advancing a broadened definition of East German cultural identity.
Birkenwald, Katherina. “geburt.“ Farbe Bekennen: Afro-Deutsche Frauen auf den Spuren ihrer Geschichte, by Katharina Oguntoye et al., Orlanda Frauenverlag, 1986, p. 223.
Piesche, Peggy. “Making African Diasporic Pasts Possible: A Retrospective View of the GDR and Its Black (Step-)Children” Remapping Black Germany: New Perspectives on Afro German History, Politics, and Culture, edited by Sara Lennox, University of Massachusetts Press, 2016.
Quinn. Comrades of Color: East Germany in the Cold War World. Berghahn Books, 2015, pp. 23- 39.
Sumalgy, Jeanette. Afro-Deutsche Jugendliche im Schulsystem der ehemaligen DDR – unter Berücksichtigung ihrer bi-nationalen Familiensituation und die Bedeutung für ihre weitere Lebensplanung. 1996. Katholische Fachhochschule Berlin, Diplomarbeit.
Wright, Michelle M. Becoming Black: Creating Identity in the African Diaspora. Duke UP, 2003.
 This and all subsequent translations
are my own.