The Extra-Archival Encounters of a Contemporary German Historian
It was a cold, dark morning in February as I stood outside the train station in Frankfurt (Oder), Germany, silently commiserating with my fellow commuters. There was Schienenersatzverkehr again this morning.1 In other words, they were doing construction on the train tracks between Frankfurt (Oder) and my destination, the former socialist model-city Eisenhüttenstadt. Once an hour a bus would come to take passengers along the normal train route—a less frequent, slower, and more crowded alternative that wound its way through the small towns dotting the Brandenburg countryside.
Complaining about the Deutsche Bahn, the German Railway Service, has a way of bringing people together, and this morning was no exception. As my neighbor and I exchanged grievances, she asked what had brought me to Eisenhüttenstadt. I explained that I was a Doktorandin conducting research about residents’ experiences of post-socialist transition.2 That’s often all it takes for residents to open up about their own backgrounds—how long they had lived in Eisenhüttenstadt, what brought them to the city, and their impressions of what constituted the most drastic changes since the fall of the Berlin Wall and unification.
Upon arriving in Eisenhüttenstadt, instead of waiting for the bus, I chose to walk the 25 minutes to the archive. I beat a familiar path along crumbling cement sidewalks, past the remains of gutted buildings and layers of competing graffiti tagged across walls of the former VEB Großbäckerei.3 I turned onto Strasse der Republik, passing the enormous Kaufland, one of several grocery store chains that had heralded the arrival of capitalism back in the early 1990s.
Left: Remnants of history can be found throughout Eisenhüttenstadt. Pictured here is a socialist-era statue in front of the Rathaus (“town hall”), with a crumbling hotel building in the background. (Photo by Larissa Stiglich.)
Nearly three hours after leaving my apartment in Berlin, I finally arrived at the Stadtarchiv, or City Archive, which is located in two over- flowing rooms on the ground floor of a building primarily devoted to city administrative offices. There the two over-worked archivists greeted me warmly and chastised me for not wearing a hat in cold weather. After several hours of combing city council records, the archivists usually called me in for lunch, or on Tuesday afternoons, Kaffee und Kuchen, or coffee and cake, a German social institution and the most serious occupational hazard of an oral historian. Over food or coffee we would speak about a range of topics. Knowing my interests, they recalled their experiences of living and working in the model-city: the trouble they got up to as teenagers, what consumer goods they coveted, the first trips they took in the 1990s. Just as we spoke about the past, we would also speak at length about the future: the refugee crisis in Germany, Brexit, and how Eisenhüttenstadt fits into the changing political, economic, social, and cultural landscape of Europe and the world.
Right: Automobiles serve as another reminder of Eisenhüttenstadt’s history. Pictured here is a Trabant (colloquially known as a Trabi), an East German automobile produced from 1957 to 1990. (Photo by Larissa Stiglich.)
On any given research day in Eisenhüttenstadt my archive represented far more than the physical building and the documents it safeguarded. Any chance encounter, or any impression garnered from my daily commute, played and continues to play a tremendous and essential role in how I understand the model-city and its residents. For a historian of everyday life, perhaps unsurprisingly, the archive of everyday life safeguarded in every person was full of exciting findings.
- Schienenersatzverkehr is the German rail replacement bus.
- A Doktorandin is a female PhD student.
- The former large, state-owned, industrial bakery that did not survive economic reunification.