- "Souvenirs de Berlin-Est":History, Photos, and Form in Texts by Daniela Dahn, Irina Liebmann, and Sophie Calle
Berlin's history has been rewritten as frequently as its landscape. Since the restitution of Berlin as capital of unified Germany, the city has undergone substantial changes to its form that are informed by a view of its history and that also, in turn, construct that history. This article considers three publications that represent the visible and absent traces of history in East Berlin and that raise questions about how history is written and about its relationship to literary narrative and to memory.
Daniela Dahn's Prenzlauer Berg-Tour (2001) and Irina Liebmann's Stille Mitte von Berlin: Eine Recherche rund um den Hackeschen Markt (2002) are portraits of districts of East Berlin that engage with the presence of the past in the contemporary city. The texts are documentary essays accompanied by photographs that have a dual perspective of both before and after German unification. Dahn's uses the essays and photographs from her 1987 GDR publication of the same name, appended with an afterword and new photos from 2001. Liebmann's essay is based on original research and photos from the early 1980s, but was written only in late 2001. The texts move between official accounts, statistics, and documented history and individual, personal, oral stories. French artist Sophie Calle's project Die Entfernung, first exhibited in 1996 and published in 1997 in a dual language edition as The Detachment (later published in French as Souvenirs de Berlin-Est), depicts the removal of GDR symbols and statues from East Berlin following the Wende. Calle's project draws on photos as well as interviews. While the art work consists of more than just the publication, it nonetheless offers interesting comparisons with the form of Dahn's and Liebmann's work.
Contemporary political concerns such as the social and cultural effects of German reunification, the legacy of the GDR, and the changed perspective in the West after September 11 are reflected in the areas and aspects of East Berlin that the three authors investigate. Dahn looks at Prenzlauer Berg, originally a working class district and now the focus of an alternative artistic scene. Liebmann conducted her research around Hackescher Markt in Mitte, a former Jewish quarter. Rather than visiting a geographical area, Calle's text revisits symbolic sites of the historical East Berlin, a defunct half-city that exists now only in memory and has been erased from the buildings and space of the city. All three deal with marginal or marginalized areas whose history neither did nor does now belong to the more tendential narratives of the city and nationhood either in the GDR or in unified Germany. [End Page 220]
While Calle's project arises from explicit, ideologically driven changes in Berlin, Liebmann's and Dahn's texts also testify in their way to a similar – and also, if implicitly, political – development. Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg underwent much regeneration in the 1990s and are now part of the tourist scene: "Jeder Besucher kennt den Hackeschen Markt oder die Oranienburger Straße mit den Cafés, Geschäften, Galerien, Theatern" (Stille Mitte 5), writes Liebmann, and Dahn comments, "Inzwischen ist der einstige Geheimtip weltweit vergesellschaftet. Reisende, die Berlin verlassen, ohne zuvor am Kollwitzplatz zum Abend gegessen zu haben, setzen sich dem Vorwurf aus, gar nicht da gewesen zu sein" (Prenzlauer Berg 203). The districts are typical of shifts in the character of the city since unification, raising the question of how to preserve what is historically significant while also regenerating run-down areas. The authors imply that the process threatens to obliterate, overwrite, dehumanize, or reify the past, and their texts counter this tendency. Dahn's protocols allow people of the district to speak, and the photos in her text likewise show primarily people. Liebmann's research reveals the ideological silencing of narratives that did not fit in and uncovers this history, which has left traces in or on the buildings of the area. Her photos emphasize houses and streets. The texts and images in Calle's publication consider public spaces and monuments in their personal dimension: individuals' memories are...