Working in and with German Archives on German-German Media History

Mandy Tröger, University of Munich (LMU)

27 March 2020


This blog post addresses international media scholars whose research focus is Germany and German-German media history. The term ‘German-German’ refers to the history of cross-border media relations between both German states, the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) and the German Democratic Republic (GDR), until German unification in 1990. This research leads you to working in German archives. I want to share my experience of doing archival research for my doctoral thesis on the transition of the press in the GDR 1989/1990. The focus of my thesis lay on structural conditions and shifts; I was particularly interested in the political and economic influences of different interest groups from the FRG. I tried to access archival material showing the dealings of West German political and economic players, however this became a problem and I want to show you the different ways I used to get around it.

In the end, the findings of my dissertation were entirely based on primary and semi-primary sources; I used secondary literature only if primary sources left gaps in the overall narrative. I worked in eleven public and non-public (publishers, association etc.) archives, and seven private collections. In addition, I held seventeen non-biographical interviews. This blog post summarizes what I have learned from this process.

The “Politics of Memory” in Germany

In various ways, archives are places of institutionalized “politics of memory” (Brown and Davis-Brown, 1998). In Germany, the policy of national archives is such that all files classified as “GDR” are generally open to the public (even if they contain material from after 1990). The National Archive in Berlin (BArch) holds the majority of “GDR” records. Files of the same time period labeled “FRG” are closed for at least thirty years to protect individual rights and potentially sensitive information of economic and political interest groups. The consequences of this imbalance for historical research are serious and well-known among archivists and historians in Germany. They relate to a broader political agenda to the writing and construction of German-German history. They also partly explain the often one-sided and GDR-centric approaches in current German-German history writing.

The holdings of the Wendemuseum in Los Angeles

Three ways to access archives

However, the transition period in the GDR in 1989/1990 cannot be thought of without the political, economic and social relations, pressures and affiliations to the Federal Republic. Not having had access to these files, made it necessary to adopt different strategies.

First, the filing of “requests to shorten the term of file protection” (Antrag auf Schutzfristenverkürzung) to be granted access to classified federal documents in the National Archives in Koblenz and Berlin. The archive in Koblenz holds the files of the Federal Ministry of the Interior (Bundesministerium des Inneren, BMI) responsible for media related issues. Berlin holds, for instance, those of the trust agency Treuhandanstalt. These requests are generally complicated and can take years. I was granted access to files of the BMI at the National Archive in Koblenz; two requests for the trust agency Treuhandanstalt in Berlin have been in process for four years and were just recently granted.

Second, the issue of classified access made the archives of political foundations affiliated with individual parties (Stiftungsarchive) more important. These archives are in general dispute with the national archive over new acquisitions. At times, they hold files of politicians who worked on a federal level. For instance, the Archive of Liberalism of the Friedrich-Naumann Foundation for Freedom, affiliated with the liberal Free Democratic Party (Freie Demokratische Partei, FDP), holds the record of several members of the FDP’s federal media commission. The Green Memory Archive (Archiv Grünes Gedächtnis) of the Böll Foundation and the Green Party in Berlin holds the estate of Gerhard Bächer, former representative of the Green Party at the Media Control Council (Medienkontrollrat, MKR) founded in 1990 (see Becker-Schaum, 2009). The Archive of Democratic Socialism (Demokratischer Sozialismus, ADS) of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and the leftist party DIE LINKE in Berlin holds the estate of interim prime minister and later member of the German Bundestag, Hans Modrow (see ADS, n.d.). These archives have individually negotiated classified periods, and are generally easier to access.

The third way around the issue of access lay in the “GDR” files themselves. Since classification matters, not content, detailed communication between various East and West German interest groups can, if traced thoroughly, be found in these files. The part of my thesis telling the complicated story of early West German market interests in the building of a monopoly-like press distribution in East Germany was based on the files of the East German Ministry of Postal and Telecommunication (Ministerium für Post- und Fernmeldewesen, MPF). Labeled “GDR,” these files are open for research, even though several still-existing German interest groups might have good reasons for wanting to keep this communication off record.

Other relevant archives

Another important archive for GDR-media in 1990 was the ID-Archive at the International Institute for Social History (IISH/ID-Archive MKR) in Amsterdam. It holds an extensive collection (forty-two boxes) of the East German Media Control Council (MKR). This collection was transferred to the IISH/ID-Archive MKR in 1997. It contains minutes of the MKR-meetings, correspondence and documents regarding the reshaping of the media landscape (radio, television, newspapers and publishing houses) in the GDR in 1990, and an extensive collection of press clippings 1989-1990.

Also, the extensive library on media (policy) books in the corporate archive library of Axel Springer Publishers and the collection of the Wendemuseum in Los Angeles were valuable. Both allowed access to a variety of media-related sources.

The holdings of the Wendemuseum include the estate of the former General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED), Erich Honeker, including his library

In particular the private (personal) collections took a central role in the original research. During the transition period, with fast institutional changes, it was common for those working at ministries, newspapers, publishers or in civic groups to take files home once the job was done and no archive was in charge of storing documents.

Expert interviews

Expert interviews further contributed greatly to my thesis. The communication with over twenty interview partners was, at times, extensive. The interviews were non-biographical, my questions related to a specific subject matter at hand, such as the dealings of a ministry, a newspaper or media policy institution. My goal was to fill gaps that could not have been filled based on archival material alone. This is important, especially for the transition period. During this fast-paced period, much of the communication happened verbally and/or was not documented systematically but noted by hand on pieces of paper. This was partly due to the grassroots like character of reform institutions (such as the Round Table or the MKR) and the often non-professional background of their members, as well as to institutional shifts more generally. Thus, archival holdings often contain numerous pieces of hand-written notes and papers that require context to make sense of them, and this context can often only be provided by those who were directly involved. This is an encouragement to step out of the archive and reach out to them.


Bibliography

ADS, n.d., ‘Bestände/Findbücher, Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’, https://www.rosalux.de/stiftung/historisches-zentrum/archiv/bestaende-findbuecher/ (accessed: January 10, 2018).

Becker-Schaum, Christoph, 2009, ‘Der Archivbestand Gerhard Bächer und die Grüne Partei in der DDR’, Grünes Gedächtnis, pp. 71-76, http://www.boell.de/sites/default/files/uploads/2014/06/jb_2009_-_cbs_archivbestand_gerhard_baecher.pdf (accessed: May 25, 2016).

Brown, Richard Harvey, and Beth Davis-Brown, 1998, ‘The making of memory: the politics of archives, libraries and museums in the construction of national consciousness’, in History of the Human Sciences, 11/2, pp. 17-32.


Mandy Tröger, PhD, is an Assistant Professor at Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich, Germany. Dr Tröger received her doctorate from the Institute of Communications Research (ICR) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) in 2018. From 2015 until 2017, she was a PhD-Fellow of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Berlin, Germany. Parts of her dissertation, ‘On Unregulated Markets and the Freedom of Media: The Transition of the East German Press after 1989’, have been translated into German, and have been published in a German-language book, Pressefrühling und Profit, in 2019.


Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

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