Accepted paper:

'Why don't you interview him?' Reflections on why seemingly highly relevant life-stories are only significant to a degree in research on the East German past


Anselma Gallinat (Newcastle University)

Paper short abstract:

This paper will explore more or less ‘relevant’ life-stories in research on the East German past. A narrative exploration will consider differences between the narratives of informants who saw themselves highly relevant to the project and those who were less certain about their significance.

Paper long abstract:

In this paper I want to reflect on the contributions of -seemingly- relevant and irrelevant life-stories to a research project on questions of how the socialist past is constructed in eastern Germany today. The government-sponsored discourse of Aufarbeitung, re-working the past, is based in the notion that the GDR was a dictatorship, which is seen as the only morally and historically correct view. Yet, this is not uncontentious and has led to significant debates in public discourse about the character of the past state and society. Working within this realm of institutions engaged in re-working, some of them government-offices, others memorial-museums, it was soon apparent however that directors had clear pre-conceptions of their significance in relation to the research project. At the same time other, clerical staff or informants in other realms such as journalists, often considered themselves irrelevant to the project, because they lacked those 'significant' experiences of GDR-time victimhood or civil rights engagement. Using a narrative approach this paper will explore what these different life-stories contributed to the research question. It will argue that narrators with a strong sense of relevance came to tell coherent, linear and morally certain narratives - they told particular kinds of stories about the large issue of the dictatorial regime. Life-stories told by those with less sense of their relevance to the project, their 'small' biographies, because they were less pre-considered, were more revealing with regard to complex issues that continue to pose challenges for individuals, researchers and society at large.

panel P049
Small places, large issues: thinking through anthropological conundrums