History of Berlin: Three versions of the past

Dutch researcher Krijn Thijs investigated how the history of Berlin was written in the twentieth century. In this period Berlin passed through six forms of government, all of which used the historical record for their own purposes.

During the course of the twentieth century, Berlin was ruled by six different forms of government. On five occasions Berlin was the capital of a German state. Due to the many changes in power, the city and its past were claimed by many different political systems, for example, national socialism, communism and the 'free West'. This competition had a military-political as well as a cultural-symbolic character. In order to legitimise their power in Berlin, these systems had to demonstrate how the city's past related to its present and which lessons they as rulers had learnt from the past. The 'Third Reich', the German Democratic Republic and West Berlin all presented themselves as the legitimate heir of Berlin's history.

Historian Krijn Thijs investigated the different strategies that dictatorship and democracy used to influence the interpretation of the past. Which narrative forms did they choose to represent the past, and why? The research demonstrated how the various versions of Berlin's history clearly differed, but at the same time still depended on each other. Finally the thesis considers the theoretical question as to how different historical narratives can be constructed from the same past.

Three anniversaries

Krijn Thijs focused his research on three city anniversaries: the 700 year anniversary of Berlin in 1937 and the two 750 year anniversaries in 1987, when the city was divided into East Berlin and West Berlin. During the celebration of these anniversaries the city councils of the Reichshauptstadt (East Berlin and West Berlin) put forward their own versions of the city's history. These versions were aimed at legitimising the political power and defining Berlin's identity.

Thijs investigated how these narratives were constructed in the different Berlin societies, how the Berlin city councils influenced this process and how alternative or subversive types of narrative were dealt with. In his thesis he also describes how the different versions of the past were staged during the celebrations of the anniversaries.

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Krijn Thijs' research was funded by NWO.


Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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We teach people how to remember, we never teach them how to grow.
-- Oscar Wilde