A Historian of the GDR on the impact of COVID-19

Anna McEwan is a co-founder and editor of En-Gender. She a first-year doctoral researcher at the University of Glasgow. She is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Scottish Graduate School.

Like most of us, the impact of COVID-19 absorbed me in a feeling of panic. Last month I was in Berlin for a long-planned archival trip. I was to be in Berlin for 2 weeks, but I was forced to return to Glasgow after 6 days owing to the archives’ closure. My first feeling on the impact of the pandemic was anger at the unfairness of my situation. I had meticulously planned this trip and was desperate to get my hands on the material I needed. How would I write my first chapter? When would I next travel to Berlin? How would my research generally be impacted? In the following weeks, I came to accept that a global pandemic does not discriminate and the world’s population is being affected in drastically different ways. It would be difficult to find anyone – inside or outside of academia – that has not been affected by this crisis. I began to feel selfish for my concerns when daily, news and social media platforms spoke of the rising number of deaths and the dangerous environments the NHS and other key workers were facing. Additionally, I’m lucky in that I can retreat to my parental home and I don’t face the pressures disproportionally facing women in regards to childcare and domestic duties. 

However, my research is the anchor in my life. It gives me a sense of purpose and identity. It is my full-time job and navigating my thesis in a period of crisis continues to be a real challenge, but in the last few weeks, I feel like I’ve got a handle on things. I’ve accepted that I do not have as much material as I would like from the archives, but there are ways around this and obstacles can also be seen as creative opportunities. My thesisinvestigates East German women’s roles within the German Democratic Republic’s (GDR) social care system, both as recipients and providers. I define social care as reproductive health and rights, childcare and child protection issues. I aim to uncover the extent to which the regime gained political loyalty from East German women by creating a gendered citizenship based on social care incentives while exploring the role social care played in framing women’s own sense of citizenship.My thesis involves a combination of sources: archival documentation and cultural production, namely East German film. 

Fashion on the factory floor: BArch, DQ1/23881, 1952-1968.
An example of the legislative sources I work with: BArch, DQ1/13731, Schwangerschaftsunterbrechungen-Berichterstaatung, 1972-1984.

During my time at the Bundesarchiv in Berlin, I planned to gather material from the files of the Demokratischer Frauenbund Deutschlands (Democratic Women’s League of Germany, DFD); the women’s auxiliary organisation to the ruling Socialist Unity Party in the GDR. Additionally, I was to look at the files of the Ministerium für Gesundheit(Ministry for Health). As my trip was curtailed, I was only able to collect material from the latter. I was forced to rethink my first chapter on reproductive health and rights and their relationship to East German women’s citizenship which was to be centred around petitions written by East German women in the 1970s and 1980s to the DFD.  Petitions are an extremely useful source for historians of the GDR since they were the only state-sanctioned form for citizens to complain about life in the GDR, and a petition had to be answered within four weeks.[1]  I’m interested in the petitions in the sense that I view them as a way for East German women to exercise their political agency; as female citizens using the DFD as a vehicle to effect change on their behalf. Additionally, I hoped to examine the processes behind the DFD’s responses to ‘ordinary women’; the time spent finding the appropriate response and whether, in the arena of social care, the DFD appealed on women’s behalf to other organisations to solve their problems. Through focussing on their relationship I aimed to discover if the DFD was merely an extension of the SED or if the organisation held a level of autonomy; an issue debated in literature on the organisation.[2] These research questions continue to excite me, but will have to be parked for the time being.  

However, what I do have to work with is files from the Ministry from Health. These sources consist mostly of official correspondence and legislation. As a Gender historian grounded in Marxist theory, I have always preferred to look at historical problems from the ‘bottom up’.  Yet, I’m developing an interest in the analysis of legislation since I discovered a plethora of information on foreign female workers’ access to reproductive rights and health services while working in in the GDR. Presently, I’m analysing the discourse around East German women’s reproductive rights in comparison with non-German female workers who were employed in the GDR on a contract basis from other socialist countries including Hungary, Poland and Vietnam. The change in the sources employed in my first chapter has meant that now I am considering the relationship between citizenship and reproductive rights using the comparison of East German women and non-German female workers in the GDR.

In the crazy times we are living in our research is important as a way of holding onto normality but it can also be a form of escapism.  Research has been more enjoyable since I’ve accepted it is not the main focus of my life right now. Being safe and healthy; physically and mentally is. Currently, I am working on my Annual Review and preparing for my first chapter in my childhood bedroom, admittedly a strange environment for my work.  A positive I take from the virus is the generosity of researchers in sharing materials and the efforts of universities who are endeavouring to provide online access to resources. 

[1]  Mary Fulbrook, The People’s State: East German Society from Hitler to Honecker(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), p. 271.

[2]See: Grit Bühler, Mythos Gleichberechtigung in der DDR – Politische Partizipation von Frauen am Beispiel des Demokratischen Frauenbundes Deutschlands (Frankfurt am Main & New York: Campus Verlag GmbH, Band 752, 1997), Barbara Koelges, Der Demokratische Frauenbund: Von der DDR-Massenorganisation zum modernen politischen Frauenverband(Wiesbaden: Westdeutscher Verlag, 2001).

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