Mobile app looks behind the Iron Curtain

24 March 2014

Nineteen students from the Cultural Anthropology / Folklore division at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) have compiled experiences and stories of contemporary witnesses to the Cold War between East and West for the international "Iron Curtain Stories" project. Their interviews and much more have just been made available on the "Memory of Nations" website and a smartphone app.

Andreas Schumann was born in Zwickau in East Germany in 1953. Career-wise he seemed to be doing okay in the German Democratic Republic. In 1984 he was appointed vice-chairman of the Magdeburg Water Administration. However, over time he had but one goal in mind: fleeing to the west. On November 3, 1988 he was ready. In the cold of the morning, Schumann walked through the border zone: "Officially to find locations for taking water samples, unofficially to find somewhere to get over the border: Where would the best place be to cross the stream?"

Schumann's narration is part of the international "Iron Curtain Stories" project conducted by students in the Cultural Anthropology / Folklore Master's degree program under the direction of Junior Professor Sarah Scholl-Schneider from the Department of Film, Theater, and Empirical Cultural Studies at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz. Now, after almost a year, the results are nearly all ready. Scholl-Schneider and two of her students look back and make an initial assessment.

Work with international partners

"Such a large project with international partners is always a little more complicated and time-consuming," says Scholl-Schneider. The Czech organization Post Bellum initiated the "Iron Curtain Stories" project as part of their large-scale project "Memory of Nations". They worked with others in Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Croatia, and Germany. "Most of the institutes involved were engaged in reassessing their countries' communist past. We were the only university partner."

Scholl-Schneider was among those who filed for a grant from the EU for participation in the "Iron Curtain Stories" project. After the money was approved, she thought about how she could integrate students into the project. "What made the project really interesting was that the data we generated would be used for more than just our own research as is usually the case. This would not be a trial run. The data would actually be used for something open to everyone."

But this meant there were certain obligations: "At the end of the day we had to publish something, the ball was in our court." Initially Scholl-Schneider had her doubts as to whether her students would really get involved and be able to meet expectations. "But everything went just great."

Searching for contemporary witnesses

The "Iron Curtain Stories" served as the basis for the first "large-scale" project, the heart of the new Master's degree program Cultural Anthropology / Folklore at Mainz University. Over the course of two semesters the students not only conducted contemporary witness interviews but also got to grips with the subject, learning methodological approaches and then examining some special aspect in greater depth in their Master's thesis. This university research project entitled "The Biographical Experience in Divided Europe" went well beyond the work done for the "Iron Curtain Stories" project.

The idea was to gather life stories from the time of the Iron Curtain and influenced by it. The students helped search for contemporary witnesses by posting newspaper articles, for example. "It was important to me that the students had the chance to learn about all the aspects pertaining to such a project," says Scholl-Schneider. "They were responsible for everything, from recruiting witnesses and public relations to the planning of an excursion and presentations."

The Mainz students focused on reports from the German-Czech border and the border between East and West Germany. Twenty-three interviews were held – including the one with Andreas Schumann. "Medializing the interviews was very complex," explains student Sophie Reich. The "Memory of Nations" website required the group to provide short biographies, abstracts, and logs. In addition, they had to find both current and historical photos of the contemporary witnesses.

19 seminar papers about divided Europe

"We also had to produce audio clips," says Reich. "After all, we had a second medium: the app." Those who bike the European Iron Curtain Trail, which runs from the Barents Sea to the Black Sea, can hear clips from the contemporary witnesses at the various locations along the trail. Not only those who helped people escape and escapees tell their stories but also those who lived along the border talk about everyday life.

The transcripts of the complete interviews take up 565 pages. The students are currently working up this material in their own papers. These will be completed shortly to be then prepared for publication. "We developed our own research questions," explains Michelle Gundermann. Some explore beyond the interviews. They investigate the medialization of the border in films such as "Sonnenallee" or in Wolf Biermann's songs about the inner German border.

Gundermann herself concentrated on contemporary witness testimony for her paper. Her subject: "Two Homelands after Crossing the Border – The Search for Identity on both Sides of the Iron Curtain."  She investigated how foreign West Germany often felt to East German refugees. "They found it hard to put roots down because there was a prejudice about the people from over there!" explains an eyewitness. As Schumann says: "Back then you did your best to speak High German so people couldn't tell where you had come from."

Anthology and conference

Everyone interested can now find out more about the students' work by downloading the "Iron Curtain Stories" app or go to the "Memory of Nations" website. An omnibus volume about the research project "The Biographical Experience in Divided Europe" is nearing completion and a conference is planned for November 2014: "25 Years Commemorating Divided Europe – Musealization, Mediatization, Commercialization."

The anthology and the conference will go beyond just presenting the project. Placing it in a wider context, they will also critically examine these new methods for presenting contemporary witnesses in the media, posing the question what will happen when such testimony gradually becomes available en masse in the internet? What are the opportunities, where are the problems? What standards are needed?