Contested Memories: Divided and United in Berlin (An ethnographic micro study of a neighbourhood centre in the former East of Berlin 2006-7)

Wilford, Gerti. 2012. Contested Memories: Divided and United in Berlin (An ethnographic micro study of a neighbourhood centre in the former East of Berlin 2006-7). Doctoral thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London [Thesis]

Text (Doctoral thesis)
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Abstract or Description

This thesis explores the legacy created by the process of unification of the formerly divided city of Berlin. It is a micro study of a local community-based organisation in the East of the city, where primarily local people from East and West Berlin had set up a Neighbourhood Centre, using as their model existing neighbourhood houses in the West of Berlin. This micro- study is located in the context of global and localized processes that contributed decisively to the final collapse of the East German State. The research explores how the often cataclysmic changes and ruptures in their customary life and work affected citizens, especially women, following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent unification with West Germany in 1990. Women played a crucial role in the everyday life and management of the organization in question. Their life stories and experiences inform much of the analysis contained in this thesis. The ethnography consistently involves people’s narratives and the transmission of different historical and intergenerational discourses and the comparative views about the previous and the current quality of life under different political and economic systems. The House, in which the Centre is located, reflects the broader history of the region. It was a Jewish Children’s Home until 1940 and thus carries the narrative of a past that was both German and Jewish. It continued to serve largely child and adolescent groups in subsequent political systems. Today, that legacy is marked and commemorated and is fundamental to the Centre’s aim of contributing to the transmission of memory to younger generations. The research explores how the often cataclysmic changes in customary life styles affected citizens and how they individually and collectively translated their experiences and life stories into ‘workable scripts’ for the present. The present is frequently framed in relation to the multiple layering of memories and the individual and collective negotiation of disillusionment. Since the Unification has been and is still being acted out in the context of global economic and geopolitical relationships, the absence of a real consensus about what kind of society people want in the light of their joint and separate experience is an ongoing, interesting and challenging process and again part of a larger discourse.

My own participation in the activities in the House and in the neighbourhood shows how men and women involved in the construction of neighbourhoods and landscapes find themselves far from being victims of history and events beyond their control. Methodologically the participation in a variety of activities was central to the process of research, building relationships, gaining trust and insights into people’s different views.

The research demonstrates how personally relevant and engaging relationships built around common goals and needs, can mitigate the frequently traumatising and debilitating effects of rapid transformation. The research also raises questions about the future of such small enterprises in the constantly changing climate of financial constraints.

Item Type:

Thesis (Doctoral)

Additional Information:

The life histories are personal, and as such should not be quoted.

Departments, Centres and Research Units:



26 July 2012

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Date Deposited:

02 Nov 2012 17:32

Last Modified:

08 Sep 2022 11:17


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