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Meet the Author: Stewart Anderson

Stewart Anderson is an Assistant Professor at Brigham Young University and holds a doctorate from SUNY Binghamton. He is the author of A Dramatic Reinvention: German Television and Moral Renewal after National Socialism, 1956–1970, new from Berghahn Books. In addition, he is the co-editor of Modernization, Nation-Building, and Television History (Routledge 2014).

During the autumn of 2008, life was good. Thanks to a Fulbright grant, Michelle (my partner) and I flew to Germany in September so I could start research on my dissertation. After briefly meeting the other Fulbright students at a conference in Göttingen, we caught a train to Berlin, our first stop. The countryside on either side of our train car welcomed us enthusiastically, with filtered late-summer sunshine, sparkling rivers and lakes, and a hint of bright yellow peeking out from the leaves of the oak trees that dot the hills of central Germany. Berlin, too, greeted us with a street violinist and the scent of döner kebab vendors on almost every corner. This was Germany at its finest.

I chose to start in Berlin for several reasons. For one, I had already built a relationship with an archivist there. For another, I knew that the East German documents related to Cold War television fiction—my dissertation’s topic—were concentrated here. Most were found at the German Broadcasting Archive, conveniently located near a light rail stop in Babelsberg (a suburb to the Southwest of the main city). Access to documents here is straightforward: you search the excellent database, tell the archivist what you want, and he brings it out within the hour, be it a box of written materials or recorded television footage. Sometimes, you have to wander over to the Federal Archives, equally easy to use (if a little colder and less personal) and only about 25 minutes away. Above all, however, I chose Berlin because I have visited the city often, and have many friends there. Michelle expressed some trepidation about spending so much time in a country she knew little about, and I hoped starting in Berlin, one of the great cosmopolitan capitals of Central Europe, would ease the transition. It did. During the day, I worked with the headstrong purposefulness characteristic of a young graduate student, while she learned elementary German with a collection of Spaniards, Poles, Chileans, and Americans at the local Volkshochschule (a sort of continuing education institution found all over the country).

At night, we would walk in the reddish autumn twilight and sample the local restaurants. Things were perfect.

And then we went to Frankfurt.

Frankfurt seemed the logical second stop. The West German Broadcasting Archive is located there, and I had received a warm email response from one of its archivists. So, shortly after Christmas, we packed our bags and said goodbye to our friends. The train ride south passed through the same countryside as our journey to Berlin, but it looked completely different during the winter. Rain pattered against the windows, gray skies met gray treetops, and the train was forced to stop for two hours while the German Rail authorities de-iced one of the tracks. We reached Frankfurt in a spirit of apprehension and foreboding. Then it snowed in earnest.

I knew the West German television archives, attached to stations that still operate today, exist in a more decentralized fashion than the now-defunct East German system. The archive in Frankfurt acts as a kind of central repository for information on all the regional stations that broadcast on channel 1 (the ARD). I assumed it housed a similar set of paper documents as its counterpart in Babelsberg, and that this would help me decide which of the smaller regional stations I should visit, and for how long. As it turns out, this isn’t how it works at all. Though enthusiastic, my contact could not trot out production documents, letters between station leaders, or any kind of audiovisual material. Instead, the archive had an extensive database of information on what was broadcast and when. This database had been created in the early 1990s, however, and was not user friendly. The archivist set me up with a computer specialist, and together we sought for the kinds of television plays I wanted to include in my dissertation. The titles, dates, and brief descriptions that constituted the initial search results weren’t particularly helpful in narrowing my search. I needed more information about the broadcasts’ themes and content. After we painstakingly identified an initial set of promising programs, my helper opened up a second database, which we supposed would have more detailed information. The first program turned up a blank screen. The second repeated the same two sentences that comprised the “overview” database description. The third included a note that the information was restricted to employees of the regional station in question. At this point, I leaned back in my chair and muttered, “what is that about?” The employee, a much more cynical person than my initial contact, answered blithely “that’s the ARD.” This is a long-standing joke among German television enthusiasts and employees who must deal with the maddeningly decentralized television system on a daily basis.

But it’s not just a joke. The archive in Frankfurt contained almost no worthwhile material for my dissertation, so I had to contact regional archives individually. In some cases, I was forced to travel to the city before I even knew whether the archival holdings were relevant or not. The station archive in Munich denied me access altogether. This stage of my project lasted much longer than I anticipated, stretching well into the following academic year.

My experiences in Frankfurt and beyond demonstrate why so few histories of Cold War-era German television consider both East and West. The archives in the West exist to serve institutional rather than scholarly needs, and many readily accessible documents in Babelsberg are not available at all on the other side. In some ways, this disconnect symbolizes the very real differences between East and West German television of that era. It’s not really surprising, after all, that East German television plays reflected a communist sentiment, and that plays in the West touched on themes (the mistreatment of Roma people, for instance) not considered in the East.

In other ways, however, the institutional differences between the archives—and even the thematic differences between the plays themselves—are relatively superficial. Both sides preached the virtues of racial tolerance, women’s rights, and civil society. Both sides also decried the Nazis’ moral depravities, often in similar ways. Above all, Germans on both sides frequently watched each other’s programs. Television transcended the border more readily than almost any other medium, and served as a reminder of the various German states’ and regions’ underlying similarities.

This brings me back to our journey through Germany. Sun or rain, summer or winter, oak trees exist on both sides of the old border, and they always have. Frankfurt, too, though different from Berlin in some ways, is really not all that different. This picture of the Frankfurt train station, taken several months after our rain-soaked introduction to the city, neatly demonstrates this. The sun was shining and someone was playing a street instrument. And I’m pretty sure you can smell döner kebabs when you stand on platform 8.

New from Berghahn Books!

German Television and Moral Renewal after National Socialism, 1956–1970
Stewart Anderson

Following World War II, Germany was faced not only with the practical tasks of reconstruction and denazification, but also with the longer-term mission of morally “re-civilizing” its citizens—a goal that persisted through the nation’s 1949 split. One of the most important mediums for effecting reeducation was television, whose strengths were particularly evident in the thousands of television plays that were broadcast in both Germanys in the 1950s and 1960s. This book shows how TV dramas transcended state boundaries and—notwithstanding the ideological differences between East and West—addressed shared issues and themes, helping to ease viewers into confronting uncomfortable moral topics.

Read Introduction