CUCR in Berlin by Les Back


Credit: Emma Jackson

At the beginning of February Emma Jackson, Vic Seidler and I spent three fascinating days in Berlin developing links with the Georg-Simmel Center for Metropolitan Studies (GSZ) at Humboldt University. The trip aimed to build on Emma’s contacts at Humboldt where she had been a visiting researcher.   It was also an opportunity to link our work at CUCR with scholars there.

Immediately meeting with urban researchers at Humboldt – from PhD students to professors – it felt like we shared a very similar sensibility and style of urban research.   Vic gave a lecture on Monday night at their ‘Think and Drink’ seminar on his recent  ‘Making sense of Brexit’ book.  It seemed like he was checking his phone every five minutes before speaking to hear the latest news from Westminster.  He began by referencing Georg Simmel’s famous essay on ‘the stranger’. Vic commented ‘Simmel is an echo and it’s an echo across space.’  How true and apt in our times of a ‘no heal Brexit’.

The Simmel Centre is directed by Professor Talja Blokland. They are doing a whole range of amazing urban project in Berlin.  We travelled under the guidance of Sebastian Juhnke to their fieldwork sites in in Oberschöneweide, East Berlin.  The region had been known as ‘Elektropolis’ because it was an industrial centre for making electrical goods including cathode tubes but also radios.

Today it is in the midst of the urban change associated with gentrification.  The rock musician Bryan Adams has bought up some of the former industrial lots.   What continues though is the lasting residue and memory of working-class culture under the GDR.  Workers here had a high status and there was a full and vibrant life around the factories despite the shortages of goods and limitations and sometimes the corruptions of party power.

From this context the legacy of fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 looks very different.  The planned economy of the GDR provided the factories with a lifeline.  When the wall fell that industrial safety net went with it and as a result the decline of these industries that had started before ’89 accelerated.  Also, many of the workers who has professional qualifications suddenly found that those credentials were viewed as inferior by their West German counter parts.  In this sense the period ‘wende’ or turning was less the euphoric conjoining but a deep cultural and economic rupture.

The research work here really challenges to think again about how to conceptualise class culture and everyday life. It really exposes the limits of our analytical language that so often unthinkingly parrots Pierre Bourdieu’s analytical terms like habitus, cultural capital or doxa.  It seems that it is only now that German sociologists can really make sense of the social damage of that period and the lasting hidden injuries of class.

Credit: Emma Jackson

Another figure in urban sociology that spent time in Berlin is W.E.B. Du Bois.  He studied Humboldt – then Friedrich Willhelms Universitat  – between 1892-94.   An African American in Berlin was certainly an exception but almost over 1 in 10 students at Friedrich Willhelms Universitat were not German.  In those days the student body comprised exclusively of 4,700 young men.  Students moved around so much that they never lived in any place long enough to be registered an official Berlin address. Maybe some things have not changed.  So we don’t know where exactly Du Bois stayed in his Berlin years although it must have been in the streets off Unter Den Linden.

He wrote in an unpublished essay in 1893 entitled Harvard in Berlin:  ‘The correct Berlin method is to hire a nook in a flat, from three to five storey’s up.  There with a pipe and bier, coffee and black bread, he lives not like a king, but as a free and easy Viking bound to the student world by his kneipes (drinking bouts) his societies, and-possibly-his lectures.’

Those student houses were flattened during WWII by RAF bombs but I hope this portrait of 19th century student life and the free and easy ‘Viking scholar’ might draw a wry smile.

Les Back is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Centre for Urban and Community Research at Goldsmiths, University of London.


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