Adventures in the Bundesarchiv

One joy of traveling to new cities for me is discovering their public transport maps. Many people are, probably, familiar with Harry Beck’s famous map of the London Underground, which marked a break in using a schematic rather than a geographical key to mark the various train lines. Once I’m ever settled enough to own a coffee table, one of the first books I intend to get for it is Mark Ovenden’s and Mike Ashworth’s Transit Maps of the World, which features many lavish illustrations of various cities’ transit networks and the graphic they’ve used to display them.

Berlin's U-Bahn and S-Bahn System: Love the U8, U9 not so much

More than objects of art, however, these transit maps and the systems they represent have often been the basis for good late-night debates between friends: which is the best line? Many New Yorkers have passionate opinions on this topic, but in Berlin, at least in my circles, the debate has long been between the U8 and U2 lines. The general consensus was that the U9, a line running north-south from the more posh southwest of the city to unknown territories in the northwest of the city, was probably the least useful. I myself had never ridden on the U9 over the course of many months living in Berlin, and as someone who generally spends most of his time in the eastern areas of the city (although not so much in what was East Berlin), I wore it as something of a badge of pride.

Today, however, adventures took me along the U9 – on my way to register for Persian courses at the Sprach- und Kulturbörse der TU Berlin (Language and Cultural Exchange of the Technical University Berlin), a wonderful institution in Berlin that provides decent, cheap language courses across a shocking range of languages to interested parties. Unlike Princeton (which provided excellent language instruction but where the five days a week pace made it difficult for graduate students to get a really good education alongside other obligations) and Oxford (which presents bureaucratic hurdles to people wishing to do serious study of “Oriental” languages and has more limited facilities for even French, Spanish, and Italian), the SKB in Berlin allows one to take cheap, serious (three hours a day, five days a week, for two weeks) courses in all sorts of areas – Hindi, Georgian, Arabic, Mongolian, Tibetan … – during the summer.

Someone teach this man Persian ... so he can read feminist newspapers?

I was there to sign up for some intermediate Persian courses – my spoken Persian is decent but my reading and writing need improvement – in particular as I’ll be making heavy-duty use of some Persian material for my scholarly work, much of which will be drawn from a (largely) Persian collection at the University of Omaha, Nebraska this September. I already have a lot of material I want to work with and can digest slowly; in particular, I’ve managed to photograph almost all of the issues of Payam-e Zan, a women’s magazine produced by RAWA, an anti-Communist, anti-Taliban Afghan women’s organization that came out of radical Afghan politics in the early 1980s, but later came to symbolize the bravery of Afghan women against Taliban rule in the 1990s. However, many of the American feminists who lionize RAWA – often justly, as its members underwent much hardship and social pressure, and often the risk of physical harm or death – don’t know the languages, and they can miss part of the context that groups like RAWA came out of. Afghan women were often picked up by international women’s rights organizations in the 1990s as an obvious symbol of oppression and targets of religious bigotry, but part of what they forgot in doing so was how much many of these anti-Taliban groups came out of a whole Leftist tradition of being anti-Zionist (in a way that was hard to distinguish from anti-Semitism, often), anti-apartheid, anti-American, and anti-Soviet.

This fits into a larger pattern that I’m finding emerge in my research, too. The USSR had helped to foster an anti-colonial ideology in much of South Asia (including Iran and Afghanistan) in the 1960s and 1970s, one that was (in line with Soviet interests and “universalist” communism) opposed to South African apartheid and Israel. But even though the Soviet Union was a huge player in sponsoring anti-colonial ideology, by invading Afghanistan, it helped to set into play a dynamic that would fuel an Islamist resurgency in southern Asia, one that could use the anti-colonial rhetoric while substituting Muslim brotherhood for any pan-colonial rhetoric that the USSR tried to present itself as sympathetic to. The women’s groups that American feminists would later highlight to policymakers and American corporate interests (both of which maintained, if not diplomatic, then polite relations with the Taliban in the early 1990s) also came out of this anti-colonial tradition, but they rejected the hardline Islamism of someone like Gulbuddin Hematyar. However, as the socialist world collapsed, their way of talking about the problem had become obsolete, and since then, Western NGO workers and policymakers found a way to fit them into a more bland vision of women’s empowerment as part of macroeconomic development. This may not be all clear, but this is part of the direction that some of the work is headed in.

You'll find me in suburban Berlin most of these days ...

These are some of the research directions I’ve been thinking about in the last few days while at the Bundesarchiv, the German Federal Archives located in southwest Berlin, nowhere near the hated U9 itself, but a couple of bus and train rides away. The Bundesarchiv itself is a great place to work, and has an interesting history – it served as a barracks for the German Empire for many decades and began to accumulate imperial documents, but the Nazis later expanded the barracks site (creating a couple of monumental barracks buildings themselves), and carried out several political executions as part of the Night of the Long Knives on the site. After the war, the Allies (mostly Americans) took over the site as “Andrew Barracks,” built several new buildings (including the one I sit in most of the day now, typing away, as well as a church), and maintained the site until packing up shop in 1989-1991. The overlay of different powers’ histories on one site – so many soldiers under different political orders in Berlin for different reasons – is rich. It’s a bit of a trek to get out to the place, and the cafeteria may not be as charming as at Russian archives (which typically offer cheap food, kasha, and delightful kompoty to top it off), but I like it.

I need to rise early tomorrow for a big day at the archives prior to hosting a friend for dinner, but I’ll just lay out some of what I’m looking at there, both for anyone’s interest as well as to better articulate to myself. One of the areas I want to look into in more detail the next time I go to Moscow – and an area that was productive for my M.Phil. dissertation – is the work of the Komsomol, the youth league of the Soviet Union, in occupied Afghanistan. I don’t personally find youth leagues to be a super-scintillating topic, although I know of scholars who have worked on the subject in more depth, but what is interesting about the Komsomol’s links to Afghanistan is that they left behind a huge record base of reports from advisors working in the provinces of Afghanistan throughout the 1980s. Again, the fact that they were working there is not in itself unusual – the USSR sent thousands of advisors into Afghanistan in the 1980s. But the Komsomol advisors, as far as I can tell, wrote the most about their experiences. Many of them were based not in Kabul, but in far-flung provincial centres about which limited written records survive. I’ve written a bit about the experience of the advisors in Eastern Afghanistan, in Jalalabad, but the remainder of the files remain untapped.

Fast Times at Kabul High: Mushavery like this one (name withheld), young Soviet men, were sent all across Afghanistan in the 1980s

What does this have to do with Berlin? While the East German equivalent of Komsomol, the Freie Deutsche Jugend (Free German Youth), had nothing similar to the level of assistance the Soviet Komsomol provided to Afghan communists, their files contain loads of correspondence with the Afghan organizations. It’s helping me create a more rounded history of interaction between Communist youth organisations in general, but also what we might call an aid operation to Afghanistan in the 1980s – at the same time as violent warfare, destruction of villages, and chemical warfare. Some of these files on FDJ’s assistance to the Afghans also help one develop an idea of how internationalized the Afghan conflict had become to the Eastern Bloc throughout the 1980s – what kind of assistance and help the East Germans, Poles, and Romanians, etc., were providing to sustain a Communist revolution even as their own Communist political orders were creaking and beginning to weaken. More broadly, I’m trying to understand how youth organisations like FDJ, Komsomol, and the Afghan equivalent sought to carry out development work in the face of the poverty of Afghanistan, Islamist resurgence, and terrorist attacks, too. The key for turning this into something interesting in the long run will be to synthesize the discrete stories of Soviet advisors, with a regional focus (the German files), with a high-level policy discussion (Soviet and German Politburos and International Connections committees), with consideration of the broader intellectual shifts. :: gulp :: It’s difficult to try to synthesize everything together, but it keeps me getting up in the morning – it sure should with a long day of work ahead for tomorrow – and I hope to be able to produce a dissertation and, one day, book, that informs and delights, much as the subway maps of Berlin and other cities still do for me.


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