Aufarbeitung – a new word for history

History Student Fieldtrip to Germany, July 2011

Visiting the Foundation for the ‘Aufarbeitung’ of the SED Dictatorship


With Dr Ulrich Maehlert (far right): Gary Brady, Pete Driscoll, Huw Edwards, Ceri Carter, Linda Graham, Dave Pennell, Jonathan Durrant, Kirsty Pullin, Norry LaPorte, Katie David, Sam Evans, Jane Finucane, Lucy Dunham, Caitlin Freitag (l-r).

History is important in Germany – so important that vast sums of government money fund a wide range of research into the country’s troubled past before reunification in 1990. And the funding is not just to facilitate research projects, but to take history to the wider public.

Our student visit met with Dr Uli Maehlert, who is in charge of the section of the Foundation which allocates funding to relevant projects (Leiter Arbeitsbereich Wissenschaft). Paradoxically as he spoke almost perfect English, he told our visit of his one-man campaign to have the word ‘Aufarbeitung`enter the English language to join German loanwords like ‘Autobahn’ and ‘Kindergarten’. We discovered that there were good reasons for this as the term not only means to `work up’ our knowledge of the past, but implies a much deeper coming to terms through engagement with it.

‘Aufarbeitung’ is seen as a public duty, a kitemark of the country’s commitment to democracy after the experience, firstly, of the Third Reich and then the communist dictatorship from 1945 until its collapse in the ‘peaceful revolution’ of 1989.

Berlin Scene: PhotographDr Maehlert began by outlining the Foundation’s work, notably explaining that, although political bias belongs to the study of contemporary history, it can be overcome by funding a plurality of research covering the political spectrum. Thus the Foundation is government-funded, but so are similar institutes for historical investigation managed by political parties, churches, localities, and special interest groups, including the former governing party of the GDR. We also learned of the choices that the Foundation has to make in communicating its work to the public, often by identifying areas of wide-ranging consensus and constructing a narrative based on this. Our group became aware of how different pasts influence how we remember different aspects our history. For example, while in Britain public recollection and memorialisation of the First World War is prominent, it falls far behind the Second World War in Germany.

Perhaps the single most important realisation to come out of our discussion was how cultural differences are built on the past and how this influences the country’s political culture and resolute commitment to democracy and pluralism.

We’re pleased to tell Dr Maehlert that we’re now signed up to ‘Aufarbeitung’: an approach which we’ll keep in mind for the rest of our visit.

This post was contributed by Norry Laporte, who teaches and researches on the history of communism, revolution, and cold war.

Photograph: Checkpoint Charlie

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