Contemporary witness platforms
Preserving living memories

A woman in the Red Army directs traffic in Berlin 1945.
A woman in the Red Army directs traffic in Berlin 1945. | Photo (detail): © picture-alliance / RIA Nowosti

Contemporary witness platforms play a key role in the German culture of remembrance by making the personal accounts of those who were displaced, oppressed or deprived of their freedom freely accessible to the public, ensuring that future generations keep learning from the past.

Sigrid Otto enjoyed living in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Born in 1925 in Middle Saxony, she studied to be a teacher and worked as deputy headmistress at a primary school in Lunzenau from 1949 to 1952. Despite the "huge disparities between East and West," Sigrid Otto was never particularly interested in the West. “I was perfectly happy and fulfilled with my life and my work.” She would have stayed on indefinitely too, if a member of the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschland (Socialist Unity Party of Germany, SED) had not been appointed new headmaster. Sudden military reforms followed, such as pre-military training in the form of "shooting circles" initiated by the Freie Deutsche Jugend (the Free German Youth, FDJ), a communist youth organization. During the 1951/52 school year, Sigrid Otto and her fellow educators were asked to sign a pledge to “take up weapons if necessary to defend the GDR’s achievements against West Germany.” She and a few others refused. Sigrid was soon informed that her contract at the school would not be renewed at the end of the year.

LeMo – Lebendiges Museum online

“I immediately began planning my escape to West Germany,” Sigrid Otto writes in one of the five reports she submitted to the Lebendiges Museum Online (Living Online Museum, LeMo). The Deutsche Historische Museum (German Historical Museum) and the Stiftung Haus der Geschichte der Bundesrepublik Deutschland (House of History of the Federal Republic of Germany Foundation) set up the digital platform to document 19th and 20th century German history and make it widely accessible. It deals with a range of eras, starting with the German Empire and moving through the two world wars and divided Germany into the age of globalisation. Contemporary witnesses can contact the museum and come in to record their histories, or submit documents such as letters or diary entries. The texts are edited for the platform and published online with additional sources, such as pictures and historical background information.
Ruth Rosenberger is head of Digital Services at the Stiftung Haus der Geschichte der Bundesrepublik Deutschland. “We are involved with a number of contemporary witness projects on different eras,” she explains. Her role is to “provide service and coordinate preserving, collecting and indexing all the contemporary witness holdings of institutions funded by the federal government.” A central documentation database at houses a collection of video interviews with contemporary witnesses that have been online since July 2017. It complies and archives the holdings of several state-sponsored institutions. Around 8,000 individual clips from roughly 1,000 interviews on German history have already been processed and added. The platform also contains material from the ZDF (Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen, a public television broadcaster) archives, which include interviews with important historical figures. In future, the Foundation's eyewitness interviews will also be published on “The Stiftung Haus der Geschichte has been conducting interviews with contemporary witnesses for many years now,” says Ruth Rosenberger. “We use them in our exhibitions, since contemporary witnesses really make history compelling and relatable.” The process preserves “the individual experience as a historical source.” By now the contemporary witness collection includes more than 100 interviews.

Radio broadcaster setting history to music

Historical museums and foundations are not the only ones working to record living history.  Public radio broadcaster Bayerische Rundfunk (Bavarian Broadcasting Corporation) has released a radio documentary series that keeps the memory of suffering and repression alive. and Bayern 2 radio station has given victims of National Socialism a voice. In podcast interviews broadcast over the radio and accessible online, Jews movingly describe living through the Nazi era. In cooperation with the Institut für Zeitgeschichte (Institute for Contemporary History), a total of 16 parts addressing different themes will be released from 2013 to 2019.
The Stiftung Erinnerung Verantwortung Zukunft (Remembrance, Responsibility and Future Foundation, EVZ) is expanding its efforts beyond the limits of digital documentation, and creating "gestures of reconciliation" primarily through encounters between young people and survivors of the Nazi era. The Foundation reports that as Germany's only nationwide support programme for such encounters, it organized a total of 59 meetings with 176 eyewitnesses in 2016.
Sigrid Otto escaped to the West in 1952. With assistance from the church, she first fled to the Zehlendorf areas of Berlin, and then lived in refugee camp in Hamburg before moving in with her father's eldest sister. She was lucky to have this fresh start at freedom.  Not every person trying to escape from the GDR enjoyed the same good fortune back then.