"Who is 'we'?" On the critical analysis of social heterogeneity and the notion of homogeneity in the past and present

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Manuel Glittenberg studied Sociology (M.A.). He is an antisemitism and anti-racism consultant and trainer and a member of staff of the project "Zusammenleben neu gestalten. Angebote für das plurale Gemeinwesen" (Redesigning the way we live together. Offerings for a plural society) which is run by the German Society of Education for Democratic Citizenship. Christa Kaletsch is a journalist specializing in history, and an author, program developer and consultant in the fields of constructive conflict resolution, participation, and education in democracy and human rights. She is head of the project "Zusammenleben neu gestalten" (Redesigning the way we live together).

By Christa Kaletsch and Manuel Glittenberg 

There are currently over 65 million refugees worldwide – more than ever before. A detailed examination of the history of the Displaced Persons (DPs) can shed new light on the current debate on flight and human rights and provide new insights into the preservation of human dignity and the right to self-determination. This was the context behind a joint workshop that was held on the initiative of the Demokratiezentrum im Beratungsnetzwerk Hessen (Democracy Center in the Advisory Network of Hesse) by the Arolsen Archives and the Zusammenleben neu gestalten (Redesigning the way we live together) project of the DeGeDe (German Society of Education for Democratic Citizenship). 

"Where can someone be expelled to, if she was born in Arolsen" was one participant's astonished response. An examination of the documents on the history of DPs provided by the Arolsen Archives makes it clear that the injustices done in the name of National Socialism continued for a long time after the creation of the Federal Republic of Germany. Like many victims of the Nazi regime who were deported from Germany, Erna Demestre, who was persecuted as a "gypsy" by the Nazi regime, was deprived of all her human and civil rights. The Federal Republic of Germany ignored the consequences of this injustice, which included the loss of her citizenship.

The selection of documents taken from the Arolsen Archives provide insights into life stories that illustrate central aspects of the history of DPs. What is important here is that the documents are evidence of the perceptible mechanisms of exclusion, compensation and recognition. They do not tell a finely honed story. They only provide evidence that this story took place. The historical evidence can serve as a sounding board for questions. Not so much in its function as a historical narrative, but rather with the aim of reflecting upon discourses, rituals and everyday practices. A picture can then emerge of the DPs' freedom of action in relation to their human rights. Both continuities and discontinuities become apparent. 

"I was amazed to find out how much would actually have been possible if the lead taken by the US administration had been followed," is a sentiment often expressed by participants at the end of the all-day workshop. The differences between the administrative practices of the military government and the Federal German administration, into whose jurisdiction the "aftercare" of the DPs passed in April 1951, are one of the key insights gained during the "Who is ‘we’?" workshop. The focus on the universality of human rights has a central role to play here. 

This is why the participants are asked to get actively involved in considering human rights at the beginning of the workshop. The starting point is the "question of happiness" raised by World Vision in their 2010 children's study. On the basis of this question, participants work individually to identify five aspects "which a child needs in order to live happily." Subsequent discussions in small groups broaden the perspective. The various aspects identified, which usually concern the central issues of the right to protection, participation, and freedom and which highlight the importance of social, economic, and cultural human rights, can be dealt with in a plenary session. 

A short unit follows introducing the main aspects of the development of human rights after 1945 and laying down the framework for working with the "biographical sketches" later on. The discourse on dignity and the significance of formulating concrete, universal, and inalienable human rights are brought together for the first time as participants reflect on the experience of the multiple violations of human dignity. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes every human being as an individual and as a legal subject. After a short presentation focusing on specific, individual human rights, a discussion of the DP registration card strengthens the awareness that people who were disenfranchised and persecuted by the Nazi regime need to have their status as subjects restored to them.

Participants then divide up into small groups. Three different perspectives involving various different aspects of the history of the DPs are highlighted during this phase of the workshop, and there is a focus on the role of various factors which can empower as well as limit the self-determination of those concerned. 

Not only does the example of Erna Demestre highlight aspects of homogenization and rights deprivation, her story also points to aspects of being forgotten and of being made invisible. An inquiry submitted to the ITS from the Caritas relief organization in Frankfurt in 1969 provides documentary evidence of how the withdrawal of citizenship continued on well into the history of the Federal Republic of Germany. Official political recognition of the Nazi genocide of the Sinti and Roma did not follow until 13 years later – as a result of the struggle of the Sinti and Roma civil rights movement which began in the late 1970s. A hunger strike which started on Good Friday in 1980 at the Dachau Memorial has a special role to play here.

At the end of the workshop, consideration is given to struggles connected with visibility and recognition and to other examples of self-empowering strategies implemented by those concerned similar to that mentioned above. They constitute a break with the mechanisms of "othering", i.e. the practice of defining people as being alien on the basis of a dichotomous construct consisting of "us" and "them" and a consequent withdrawal of affiliation which is a violation of the right to non-discrimination. The way these mechanisms work and their topicality are debated previously: shortly after the NSU murder of Halit Yozgat on 6 April 2006 in Kassel, 4,000 people gathered together and demonstrated in front of Kassel's city hall calling for there to be "no 10th victim". They drew attention to the racist background of his murder and to the links with the other murders carried out by the NSU. Many participants are astonished by how little this and other events of self-empowerment enter into the public consciousness. 

Ibrahim Arslan, a survivor of the racist arson attacks in Mölln in 1992, is one of the people involved in the NSU Tribunal. He underlines the importance of engaging with the perspective of those affected – a perspective which is often rendered invisible – as well as with their expertise and with their struggles: "Society must acknowledge the aggrieved parties and identify with them in order to put a stop to these kinds of crimes."


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