Category Archives: History

Remembering 9/11: A Personal Account

Today, exactly ten years ago, a terrible tragedy happened that would change Western society’s attitudes and mental state forever. The social and political implications of this event have yet to be dealt with; some are surfacing just now, others have occupied us for years. And while this topic may offer all sorts of fodder for conversation and reflection, I find it interesting to reduce it to the most individual level: my own personal account of how I experienced the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

I know that’s not terribly original, but I have never done this before, at least not in written form. And it may mean nothing more or less than that this moment shaped me in different ways for the rest of my life. Everyone old enough to store a vivid memory of what happened will be able to tell you exactly where they were, what they were doing and how they reacted when they first heard the news. Here is my story:

In September of 2001 I was 15 years old and I had never been away from home for more than a few weeks, yet of all the places that I could have been on that particular fateful day I found myself in the United States of America, in a small town close to the Bible Belt but far away from any liberal urbanity that I had grown up with.

I went to high school like every other 15-year-old, and my first class each morning day after day was World History with Dr. Sch., who had German ancestors and immediately took a liking to me, perhaps because I was German, or because I was the only one in the class actually willing to learn something. The morning started like every day: open the book, start reading a chapter and take notes. No one suspected anything, not even when the head secretary came in and went over to Dr. Sch. to whisper something into his ear. When she had left, Dr. Sch. turned to us and said in a casual manner: “Guys, I’m going to turn on the TV. There’s something happening in New York City.”

I found out later that we had been the first class in the whole school to watch the news, because our room was closest to the secretary’s office. The others were informed only later over the speakers. I think I must have watched about ten minutes of live coverage before I had even the vaguest idea of what was going on. And before I was able to process anything, the second plane hit the second tower, right then and there, right in front of my eyes, even though I was hundreds of miles away from where it happened.

I remember watching the impact. I remember watching the towers collapse, a while later. I don’t remember what I was thinking about during that time. But I will never forget my teacher’s voice: “Guys, remember that you are witnessing a historical moment.” He had a sense of pathos, good old Dr. Sch., I thought.

During lunch time everyone was talking about it, but not with fear or anxiety. They were excited, they were giggling. I remember wanting to ask them: “What does this all mean? What does it mean to you, to your family, to your culture.” But they didn’t seem interested. Do you have family in New York? Will the gas prices go up? Are we going to go to war? These questions didn’t become relevant until much later.

Back home after school the TV was on the entire evening. That was nothing unusual, except that the home shopping and cartoon channels and the wrestling championship had been replaced by the news, and nothing but the news. It would stay like this for many days, and I watched the same footage over and over again, while the names of dead people were streamed on the bottom of the screen.

One might have thought that the consequences would be felt immediately, but little did change over the next few months. Sure, some people resorted to hoarding, the sermons in the local churches became more dramatic, and some believed the Antichrist was coming in the shape of Osama Bin Laden, but overall the population in rural America seemed to remain calm. The creeping paranoia evolved much slower and more subtly than one might have expected, but it erupted in sudden irrational reactions, for example when after a near-by gas explosion the high school refused to let us go home and made us stay in our classrooms for hours. Another time my host family started asking me really weird and personal questions about my father. It turned out that they had found strange spam on their computer (“Win a greed card!”) and accused my father of spamming my emails, while he was trying to enter the states illegally.

Other than that things went back to normal very quickly, and I couldn’t say how much those events had affected me, if it wasn’t for two very different things:

I became aware of my own mortality, and it made me paranoid. I’m not sure if it happened long after the attacks or before them, but I know that I have developed a fear, a fear of dying in a terrorist attack, that is slightly irrational and that prevents me from living the carefree life that I used to know. I get slightly uncomfortable in crowded spaces, especially in airports and metro stations. I start noticing people that look slightly “suspicious” in that they seem nervous or carry strange luggage. I get anxious when I find seemingly unaccompanied bags or other items. I have left rooms and other spaces because of that. I have decided to not get on the metro and wait for the next one instead. I know how silly I acted but I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t fight the fear.

I find myself noticing suspicious people, but they are not necessarily Arab, not necessarily “foreign-looking”. However, it wasn’t until 9/11 that “Arabs” or “Muslims” entered my mind as some sort of category. I used to be familiar with immigrants, with the Turks living in Berlin, but I never thought of them as a particular group of people in terms of culture or religion. I didn’t know any personally and so they never entered my radar. I understand that this naiveté was based on ignorance but also on a certain innocence. Not having an opinion meant at least I didn’t have a bad one.

All of a sudden they were everywhere, those “Arabs”, those “Muslims” with their strange laws and customs and religion, but now they had become dangerous, a constant threat. Careless ignorance had developed into suspicion and hatred.

Today, I find myself defending “them” (as if they were a homogenous group, but unfortunately they are often being presented as such) against islamophobic bigots, racist immigration policies and critics of multiculturalism. Even though we seem to have so little in common. Yet somehow I know that there is something more important at stake here. Something that not only threatens our security, our well-being, but our basic humanity. 9/11 didn’t cause this. 9/11 triggered certain sentiments that had been brooding for a long time. 9/11 has done a lot of damage to us all, but it has made me the person that I am today: anxious, worried, but also angry and reflective and striving to change things, while not letting fear get the better of me.

Feel free to leave your own story in the comments.

No Need For A Quota? – Women In The German Democratic Republic

While investigating the quota issue I came across another example, why equality on paper doesn’t necessarily lead to equality in real life: the German Democratic Republic. It is often deployed as a positive example for political interventions that forwarded women’s equality. In fact, the GDR did include the equality of men and women in its Constitution in 1949. Women were quickly integrated into the workforce (70% of all women were employed in 1962), and the government took measures to provide daycare and other benefits for families.

The writings of August Bebel, Friedrich Engels and Clara Zetkin provided the ideological background for these political measures. Engels described the antagonism between man and woman, specifically husband and wife, as the very first class oppression in history, in which the female sex is suppressed by the male. The woman, being financially dependent on her husband, can only be freed by securing her economic independence. The inclusion of women into the labor market was supposed to be the solution to the “woman question”.

This ideological legitimation for welcoming women into the labor market concealed the fact that the GDR depended on women as a labor force during the post-war era. In fact, most of the GDR’s political measures were driven by economic factors: the shortage of labor, the no longer secured reproduction of the population, and the loss of young talent that fled to the West. The emphasis on paternalistic, top-down solutions to these problems ignored specific women’s needs and the far more deeply ingrained inequalities of men and women.

In the German Democratic Republic, working was not simply a right of women; it was expected of them as much as from anyone else. Having children was also considered the norm. In fact, the majority of policies directed towards women were exclusively helpful to mothers (Erich Honecker’s “mommy politics” in the 70’s). Therefore, most women in the GDR were working and having a family at the same time. However, it is naive to believe that this led to instant equality between the sexes. In fact, in most cases it led to double or even triple the pressure for women, who were now responsible for the upbringing of the children and the keeping of the household, while also working full time. Later generations of men became more involved with their children and the home, but the government failed to ever explicitly state the responsibilities of men, thus leaving it entirely to the women to negotiate their standards in the private as well as in the professional sphere.

doris ziegler "ich bin du" ("i am you") 1983/84

Because the employment of women was more an economic necessity than a progressive step towards equality, certain inequalities were never eliminated. Traditional gender roles remained deeply fixed in the minds of the Eastern German people, who were unwilling to redistribute the work at home. The excessive demands in the private sphere discouraged and alienated women, who mostly felt independent and emancipated and not at all as inferior to their husbands. Their unwillingness and inability to put up with this situation is most adequately demonstrated by the increasing divorce rates and the falling birth rates. In the professional sphere, women faced wage discrimination and an obvious under-representation in leading political, economic and academic positions. During the 41 years of the GDR’s existence only three women achieved minister status in the state’s government.

The GDR can be regarded as among the forerunners in the emerging trend of the emancipation of women in the second half of the 20th century, closely followed by countries such as Sweden and the United States. While its society was certainly more progressive regarding women’s equality than its Western counterpart, it nevertheless failed to address prevalent issues that could not be explained from a purely materialist point of view. In fact, the GDR is often praised for its progressiveness mainly because West Germany, where only half of the women were part of the workforce, appeared overly reactionary in comparison. However, the reunification of East and West Germany thwarted many of the positive aspects of the GDR’s approach to women politics. By pronouncing Western German values and ideals the status quo, the reunited Germany failed to take the GDR’s progressive side into consideration, thus eliminating some true potential for a development towards a more equal society. Therefore it is not at all surprising that since “die Wende” not much has changed for the better for women in Germany in terms of policies.

For more information, see: Susanne Kranz: Women’s Role in the German Democratic Republic and the State’s Policy Toward Women.

matthias leupold "untitled" 1985