Working the Passage

Thursday, 29 September 2011, 6:00pm - 7:30pm, IWM library

Keynote address at the Conference From the Iron Curtain to the Schengen Area: Bordering Communist and Postcommunist Europe

In the German Democratic Republic (GDR) the aim of total control of society occupied both: those on the “hights of command” and the various “organs” of the ruling party (SED) and state. In this pursuit efforts to strictly regulate any passage of the border of state (“Staatsgrenze”) had a very high priority. The formal closure of the border to the “West” (on August 13, 1961) marked an “ultimate” step placing border control among the pivotal political necessities of the GDR. In this vein, the actual staffing of the remaining check points by employees of the Ministry of State Security (MfS) underlined the dominant logic of encompassing surveillance and intervention, whether concealed or openly.

This lecture focuses on one location at the center of the “capital of the GDR”, the check point: “Grenzübergangsstelle” (GÜSt) Bahnhof Friedrichstrasse. The goal is an inspection of the actual activities of the border guards: how did they “do it”? The spectrum ranges from the physical and architectural settings to the locks and the protocols of control to the practices of the guards who checked (and decided) on personal identities. To what extent were rank and file in the checking booths (and behind that scene) in charge of opening or closing the door? Who, in the last instance, allowed or denied access or exit? – Certainly, customs control and related checks of personal belongings of visitors or travelers were an integral part of the “Grenzregime”; yet they are not part of this investigation. More generally: does the analysis of the daily activities of control as “work” provide insights into both the intensities and the duration of domination in the GDR? Is GÜSt Bahnhof Friedrichstrasse also a symbol of the limits if not the demise of (the work of) domination “in the colors of the GDR”?

Alf Lüdtke, Honorary Professor of Historical Anthropology at the University of Erfurt, and Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Research Institute for Comparative History and Culture Hanyang University, Seoul

Comment: Thomas Lindenberger, Director of the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for European History and Public Spheres, Vienna

Ludwig Boltzmann Institut für Europäische Geschichte und Öffentlichkeit (LBI EHP)
Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen (IWM)
Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften (ÖAW), Historische Kommission, Vienna