The Past in the Present: Transatlantic Teaching and Research Collaboration on Memory, Responsibility, and Transformation

This is part of our Campus Spotlight on the University of Virginia.

The violence of white supremacists in Charlottesville, the enduring debate over Confederate symbols and statues, and the broader reemergence of a nationalist political rhetoric that harkens back to a mythical Golden Age have left many Americans (especially also young Americans) hungry for a national conversation about their country’s history and collective memory. There is a renewed urgency not only to reckon with the past, but to more deeply understand history’s architectural power over society today.

The struggle to come to terms with the darkest chapters of history is not unique to the United States. It is one of the most difficult tasks of democratic leaders and educators everywhere to offer a vision of the future that is rooted in complex reckonings with the past. In Germany, each new generation must find its own way of understanding and reconciling with the crimes of the Holocaust, the East German Communist regime, and the country’s colonial history. This project offers UVA students and professors an opportunity to engage with scholars and practitioners from Germany who work to understand, teach, and take responsibility for their country’s history and its far-reaching influences. Without seeking to draw equivalencies with the unique crimes of Germany’s Holocaust history, the project will challenge students to consider in comparative international perspective how societies can teach their past and how the enduring power of past injustices can be made visible. It will especially urge students to explore the question of responsibility and to seek creative responses to the ways in which historical inequities continue to shape social and political institutions today.


Project Description: From March 26-30, 2018, UVa will host five guest lecturers from Germany on Grounds. The visit will be co-organized and co-sponsored by the Heinrich Böll Foundation North America. Over the course of the week, each guest lecturer will work closely with a UVA professor to offer an interactive applied project to students in the professor’s classes, as well as extracurricular workshops for interested student groups or graduate students. While UVA professors and their German counterparts will have broad creative liberty to design their collaboration, projects should be realistically achievable in 2-3 class periods, and should result in a concrete outcome, such as open letters to the campus community, recommendations for how the university itself can better teach and uncover its history, photography exhibits (drawing, for instance, on the holdings of the Holsinger Studio Collection housed in the Small Special Collections Library), experimental historical story-telling, and creative musical or theater performances. If logistically feasible, the project will include experiential learning trips to museums and historical sites like Mt. Vernon, Monticello, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.


Project Partners at UVa / Classes: Doug Grissom, Associate Professor of Playwriting (Dramatic Structure and Theatrical Production, Advanced Playwriting); Katelyn Wood, Assistant Professor of Theatre History (Performing Race and Citizenship); John Mason, Associate Professor of African History and Vice-Chair of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces (Photography and History); Manuela Achilles, Assistant Professor of German and History, and Director of the Center for German Studies (Nazi Germany); Kyrill Kunakhovich; Assistant Professor of History (Nationalism in Europe); Gabriel Finder and Jeffrey Grossman, Associate Professors of German (German Jewish History and Culture).


Project Partners from Germany (invited): Yael Ronen, in-house director of the Gorki Theater, Berlin (topic: documentary theater, possible topic: understanding the events in Charlottesville & similar neo-Nazi marches in Germany through documentary theater); Marc Erwin Babej, photographer (topic: photography as a lens to challenge historical narratives); Leonhardt Schmieding, German historian (topic: community initiatives to memorialize the SED-Dictatorship); Elke Gryglewski, Deputy Director and Director of Education at the House of the Wahnsee-Konferenz (topic: teaching Holocaust history through on-site memorials, the importance of a shared historical narrative). The Böll Foundation will also invite two scholars on German colonialism and on the history of certain universities in Germany (i.e., Heidegger’s role at the University of Freiburg).


A Sustainable Partnership: The week-long exchange is anticipated to serve as the pilot for a longer-term partnership with the Böll Foundation and other institutions of higher learning – the Böll Foundation is working to connect with Howard University and Georgetown University, but UVa will be the pilot. In future years, the reach of this collaboration could be extended to Russia, Poland, Turkey, Japan, South Africa, France, Latin America, and other nations and cultures. For more information, please contact: Manuela Achilles (Center for German Studies at UVa).


Photo: New York, New York. – August 13, 2017: People carrying signs at a rally in Union Square denouncing neo-nazi violence in Charlottesville, Virginia and President Trump in 2017 in New York City | Shutterstock
Published on February 1, 2018.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email