Friday, August 31, 2007

Ed Hamelrath reports on talk at Gedenkstätte Bautzen (Bautzen, Germany) on 18 July 2007

[Ed Hamelrath is currently working on his dissertation in the Department of History at The University of Memphis.]

On July 18 of this year, I gave a talk concerning my dissertation topic on the transition of the East German (GDR) Police from Dictatorship to Democracy (1989-1994), which explores how the police force of a former dictatorship made the radical transition to serving in a democratic society in the time of the collapse of communism in Europe (1989-1990).

I was invited to give a talk by Gedenkstätte Bautzen, which is a museum-research-memorial center dedicated to preserving the memory of the true repressive nature of the East German communist regime. The city of Bautzen, located approximately one hour northeast of Dresden in the state of Saxony, was home to the notorious East German Secret Police (Stasi) prison for politic opponents of the GDR, and unfortunately this beautiful town’s name has become synonymous with the worst aspects of the former dictatorship.

The museum is open for tours on a regular basis, and in fact I had already visited there twice before while I lived in Dresden. Each year, the Gedenkstätte Bautzen staff organizes a lecture series revolving around a certain theme concerning the German Democratic Republic. This year, it concerns a look at the nature of culpability for GDR institutions after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and includes a look at the vetting processes and possible criminal investigations for various institutions of the GDR system (e.g. the justice systems, doctors involved in doping GDR athletes, and my topic, the regular police force, the Volkspolizei, as repression apparatus).

My initial nervousness was greatly eased by the incredible support and hospitality of the staff of Gedenkstätte Bautzen, and the presence of my German mentor Dr. Michael Richter of the Hannah Arendt Institute for Research on Totalitarianism in Dresden where I did the majority of my research, who was kind enough to accompany me to the talk. My trepidation would have been substantially worse had I known at the time that the museum had been heavily advertising the talk in both newspaper and radio! In fact, a couple of write-ups appeared in the local press the next day.

The staff of museum, headed up by Klewin and Hatting, could not have been more helpful. Everything was provided for me including computer equipment for my PowerPoint presentation. Lasting approximately 50 minutes, the talk focused on the nature of the vetting process of the German Volkspolizei in the German state of Saxony of 1989. The key point of investigation can be simplified to the question: “Was there a de-communization process for government personnel of the GDR after 1989?”

I have to say the most interesting part of the evening came with the question-and-answer session that followed for about an hour, in the audience of about 40 people (a very good turnout, according to the museum staff), which included a couple of former East German police staff. As is typical in these sorts of talks in eastern Germany, several Communist Party veterans turned up to give their version of events or simply to give statements completely unrelated to the topic.

All in all the staff indicated that they were very pleased with the course of the talk and the public reaction. In the German tradition, the staff (about ten people) and I followed up the event with a long night at a neighboring brewery, enjoying the best of the local cuisine and libation.

Very special thanks to the staff of Gedenkstätte Bautzen, my former colleagues at the Hannah Arendt Institute in Dresden, Dr. Michael Richter, the Djawid family in Dresden, and of course to Dr. Hawes and the Endowment Committee of our own History Department (U of Memphis) for their kind support in funding the travel costs to and within Germany. Special thanks to Karen for all her help.


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