In Nov. 2021, I visited Weimar, in the eastern German state of Thuringia, with a group of German and US-based civic educators who traveled together in both countries as we intensively discussed democratic education. This was possible thanks to the wonderful Transatlantic Exchange of Civic Educators (TECE), organized by the Arbeitskreis deutscher Bildungstätten (AdB) with Tisch College at Tufts.
One evening sticks in my mind and almost haunts me. It was a quiet and cold weekday evening in the lovely old city of Goethe–after dark, and after the shops had closed for the night. COVID was still quite prevalent. Representatives of a local project called Decolonize Weimar led us on a tour. At various stops around town, the guides basically read to us the text that you can find on their website, translated into English. These substantial narratives explain, for example, about a movie theater that previously stood at Marktstrasse 20 (now long gone), in which, during the 1920s, “ethnographic” documentaries were sometimes shown that presented African people in racist terms.
We stood in a half circle at each location, listening for considerable periods while a young faculty member or students read. Everyone was casually dressed, bundled up, in masks. Although we saw virtually no one else on the streets, police cars passed slowly on several occasions. Apparently, there was a present threat of skinhead or right-wing violence that the police were monitoring. They must have realized that we were not right-wingers (in the German context), because we were a multiracial group. But it was a bit eerie to be watched by the authorities.
To be honest, I don’t know whether the content of the talks was perfectly appropriate for the audience. I am not sure how many of us knew the standard story that our guides sought to criticize and complicate.
During the first centuries of European imperialism, Weimar was an almost autonomous little principality that had no colonies of its own and that was most famous for a cultural efflorescence that is usually categorized as “the Enlightenment” and is associated with cosmopolitan and humanistic values. Later, a unified Germany seized colonies in Africa and the Pacific that were cruel and exploitative but much shorter-lived (1884-1918) than the empires of the Atlantic European powers. For most people, the word “Weimar” connotes a humane tradition that was deliberately destroyed by the Nazis, who overthrew the Republic unofficially named for that city and established Buchenwald nearby. Many would credit Weimar with liberal and democratic values. The most evident evil would be antisemitism.
The evidence that we heard challenged these assumptions by showing that Weimar belonged to European markets and cultures that were complicit in global colonialism during the 17th and 18th centuries, and then German’s overseas empire was popular and resonant in the town. When someone asked about antisemitism and the Holocaust, our guide actually deferred the question on the ground that she was not a specialist in those topics. She wanted to keep the focus on colonialism and racism.
Uncovering this history is good, relevant, and important work. I have nothing but respect for it. It is part of an international conversation and a long and complicated process of Germans coming to terms with their own past, as Americans also must. Something about the earnestness of the evening, the empirical detail and academic rigor, the cold air, the silent but attentive masked listeners, and the quiet streets lingers for me.