By Amelia Eskenazi
We woke up to the pitter-patter of the rain once more, looking out the window, saddened by the gray skies greeting us. After all, it was Alejandra’s 20th birthday, and we were looking forward to celebrating later. At 8:07, we frantically tried to find a route to the Reichstag that would allow us to take some form of public transportation, preferably the U-Bahn, seeking the dry sanctuary of the train. Luckily enough, Baheya was able to find a subway route that got us partially there. So, I trudged out of the house with my fellow FemGeniuses, regretting the fact that I did not have a raincoat and the fact that I had not planned further in advance, as the prospect of finding an umbrella to buy at 8:15 am seemed unlikely.
At the Reichstag, we met our tour guide, Dr. Iris Wachsmuth, a self-identified lesbian and feminist activist. She is a member of the group Miss Marple’s Sisters, a “network for local women’s history.” Founded in 1989 around the goal of researching women’s history, this group of female historians seeks to “think [of] women’s history as [the] center of historical analysis” as well as “acquire symbolic competence.” Dr. Wachsmuth began the tour by explaining that her goal was to “find traces that don’t belong to the mainstream” and expose new stories. This reminded me of Dr. Maisha Eggers’ idea in “Knowledges of (Un) Belonging” about “contesting racist representations towards dismantling legitimized and historicized racialized knowledges” (1). Dr. Eggers continues to write,
Hegemonic knowledge systems around Blackness (as well as around gender and sexuality as intricately linked to Blackness) have tended to be deeply implicated in a form of projection in which Blackness is marked and scrutinized to actually produce constructions of whiteness” (12).
Similarly, Dr. Wachsmuth told us that on November 15, 1884, the Berlin West Africa Conference began and took place for months after in Berlin. This conference was organized by Otto von Bismarck, the first chancellor of Germany, as a means of mitigating arguments surrounding the furthered colonization of Africa. Africans, however, were excluded from this conversation, while various countries, including Germany, Belgium, England, the United States, France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal, discussed the division of Ethiopia and Liberia. Before leaving the site commemorating this conference, Dr. Wachsmuth explained that the Herero were demanding reparations after the genocide from 1904-1907 as a result of the Herero Wars. Few people know that several dead bodies were also brought back to Germany for research purposes. Nevertheless, Germany has not formally recognized these actions as genocide. Now, that’s something you don’t learn about in history class!
I found it interesting that Germany has candidly acknowledged the history of the Holocaust, yet is still resistant towards the recognition of a genocide that took place over a century ago. Germany’s history, drenched with the filth of white supremacy, must be admitted in full. It is not enough to attest to atrocities when it is advantageous. As R. Ruth Linden notes in “Troubling Categories I Can’t Think Without: Reflections On Women in the Holocaust,” “By defining certain historical and cultural subjects as epicentral while regarding others as peripheral,” gender is “universalized” (18). She continues to ask: “How do our locations as knowers, including our feminist commitments, shape the questions we ask, and hence, the knowledge we produce?” (18). If we claim to value the history of all women, why is more focus placed on some narratives over others? Furthermore, how are specific narratives used as a convenience for covering other lived experiences?
As the tour continued, the rain lingered, seeping through my black boots, my socks sloshing with every step. We eventually had to stop inside of an S-Bahn station after a quick coffee break because of the deluge. Here, Dr. Wacshmuth explained that the beginning of Berlin’s governmental leadership was a constitutional monarchy made up of strictly white men. It was not until after the First World War in 1918 that the government was a democracy and women delegates were able to partake. Nevertheless, women were not able to be on committees involving finance or the economy, only social committees such as education. This seems to be quite ironic, however, considering the fact that women were not able to attain any higher education in Germany until the early 1900s. Even then, many women were seen as guest students and were required to go through side doors in order to get to their classes. This was nearly 60 years after the first Women’s Movement in Germany, during which women from rich families demanded an increase in rights as well as the ability to obtain an education. While most women in Germany now are able to obtain an education, an important question to consider remains: who are the women who lack this privilege today, and why?
During our tour, Clara Zetkin, German socialist and advocate for women’s rights was brought up several times. Zetkin was instrumental in organizing International Women’s Day and impacted Germany enough to have a street named after her (though it was changed for some time while the Berlin Wall was up under the influence of the GDR). According to Karen Honeycutt in “Clara Zetkin: A Socialist Approach to the Problem of Woman’s Oppression,” Zetkin was a proponent of “bringing working-class women together on a regular basis for organized activities separate from those of their male colleagues” (136). This made me think about working class women, immigrants, and women of color in Germany today. Have their rights been elevated alongside upper-class white women?
I began to wonder about the space that women of color are allotted in the prominent history of Germany. Why is it that two different walking tours did not mention a single name of a woman of color? There was never a mention of the struggles of Turkish women or the authors of Farbe Bekennen: Afro-deutsche Frauen auf den Spuren ihrer Geschichte (Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out), for example. I would like to end, then, with an expansion of Linden’s question from earlier: How do our locations as knowers influence the knowledge we value and the consequential subjectivities we ignore?
Amelia Eskenazi is a rising sophomore at Colorado College from Indianapolis, Indiana with a major in Feminist and Gender Studies. In their free time, Amelia is a fan of film photography, making zines, and listening to punky girl bands. While in Berlin, they look forward to eating vegan pastries, exploring flea markets, and documenting all of the street art.
3 thoughts on “Hidden and Recovered Narratives: Women in the Center of Berlin Tour”
Dear Amelia Eskenazi, when are you offering a tour on the often overlooked histories of (for eg.) Turkish/ Black/ working-class/ lesbian women in Germany? It is easy to criticize, but takes some work and commitment to stand up and fill in the gaps. Best of luck with your research!
Thank you so much for reading and sharing your thoughts! We take an intersectional approach in this course, so students will almost always question the absence of people and communities in the margins. As this is a college course, students take this course to learn how to do so thoughtfully and carefully alongside an appropriate amount of grace and patience. Regarding other kinds of tours, such as those focused on Black Germans, Turkish Germans, and other subjugated people and communities, we definitely take them. Hope you’re able to engage with the student projects that examined those experiences. Also, the #FemGeniusesinBerlin will be back next month, so we hope you stay tuned!