Work on Democracy takes UVA Community to Germany


Work on Democracy takes UVA Community to Germany

UVA Delegation to Germany at the German Chancellery with Claudia Roth (Green Party), the new Federal Commissioner for Culture

n early March, a group comprising of UVA faculty, students and community members undertook a one-week trip to Germany, the roots of which were laid on the fateful day in 2017 when the far-right groups marched through Grounds and the city. By visiting the different cities in Germany, the group wanted to understand how the cities like Berlin and Weimar have engaged with histories of colonialism, the atrocities of holocaust and memorialized it and bring those lessons back to the UVA community.

The group visited German memorial sites, like the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin and the Concentration Camp Buchenwald Memorial in Weimar and looked at the new Humboldt Forum in Berlin, which has been criticized for its failure to properly address Germany’s colonial past. They also connected with German museum practitioners, historians, and activists, such as Berlin Postkolonial, who are advocating for a more inclusive memory culture to start a dialogue about local and national historical reckoning.

Buchenwald Concentration Camp Memorial, Inside
Buchenwald Concentration Camp Memorial in Germany

Kyndall Walker, a third-year UVA student who is a representative of History of Enslaved African American Laborers at UVA, joined the tour to learn how Germans were making this information accessible to the community. “I think we can take a lot away from this transnational relationship since Germany is also doing a lot of work on atonement and reckoning with their role in the Holocaust and even colonialism,” she said.

Louis Nelson, Vice Provost for Community Engagement also echoed that he learned from the trip as an academic and as a practitioner of public history. “The sustained exposure to public history practices in Germany naturally forced me to think about our practices in Charlottesville and across America more broadly, and the opportunity to converse with colleagues about those differences in the evenings and during travel times helped to cement key learnings.”

The partnership between UVA’s Center for German Studies and German Heinrich Boell Foundation, a nonprofit organization that is part of the global green movement, started in 2017. The goal of this partnership was to start conversations between Charlottesville and cities in Germany around topics of memory, and democracy. UVA hosted German intellectuals in the spring of 2018 and 2019, but the trip to Germany was postponed due to the pandemic and was undertaken this year.

“Bringing together perspectives from both sides of the Atlantic and learning with each other about the past creates shared knowledge and shared experiences that can catalyze meaningful and enduring change,” said Manuela Achilles, Director of the Center and Associate Professor of German and History at UVA.

The view is also shared by Ella Mueller from the Foundation who has worked on this trip. She thinks that the Memory & Democracy study tour was not so much about “Learning from the Germans”, but more about starting a dialogue. “We hope that our journey sparked a new form of long-distance solidarity and encouraged and fortified everyone in his or her commitment to create a more democratic, more inclusive and more honest culture of remembrance,” said the transatlantic democracy program director.

The Ukraine war was also on the mind of a lot of people during the trip as it was unfolding not far from Germany. “While we were visiting Holocaust memorials, thousands of women and children were fleeing their Ukrainian homes and many of them arrived in Berlin each day,” said Mueller. The group heard of the attempts by Professor Jens-Christian Wagner, Director of Memorial of the Concentration Camp Buchenwald, to save former concentration camp inmates from the Russian invasion. “That was one of the many moments, which reminded us that the past is not in the past,” she said adding that they were devastated when they learnt two weeks later that Prof. Wagner and his team were not successful. “One former inmate, Boris Romantschenko, was killed by a Russian attack on his hometown Kharkiv.”

Buchenwald Concentration Camp Memorial in Germany, Outside
Buchenwald Concentration Camp Memorial in Germany

Nelson says that the trip will certainly shape the way he teaches his classes. “This trip will certainly reshape the ways I teach American architecture and American place-making with a greater emphasis on public history-making, public engagement, and understanding the role that historic sites play in the shaping of any national imaginary,” said. Walker also mentioned that students could have similar benefits and takeaways, using their insights to guide their actions in their organizations and classes.

In the meantime, the partnership continues. Achiles says that this transatlantic work is more important than ever. “We want people to learn more about how the community of Charlottesville is reshaping it’s culture of remembrance and creating a more honest and open conversation.”