Kabul Cables in Berlin

Faced with an impending (nearly) two-week holiday devoted to the victory over fascism, where else does a schizophrenic young researcher based in Moscow go but … Berlin? After wrapping up matters in my favorite archives in the Russian capital this Tuesday, it was off, on a late-night Aeroflot flight, to Berlin, one of my favorite cities but also, more importantly, one with lush archives that are actually open during early May. (The fact that my parents had a vacation planned to Germany for a while didn’t hurt.) It’s a short trip – I’m only here for about ten days, and making a journey to Dresden, besides – but it’s similar in spirit to my time in Moscow: ‘clean up’ on research I’ve already done, so that I’ll be able to sit and relax (well, and write and edit heaps) while in Cambridge this coming academic year.

As readers of your humble narrator’s blog may recall, this isn’t the first time that I’ve spend some good chunk of time in the German capital. In addition to living here for several months in 2008-2009, I also was based here for a month in August of 2011, working mostly at the Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archives) and the Bundesbeauftragter fur die Unterlagen des ehemaligen Staatssicherheitsdienstes der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik (BStU) – a mouthful if there ever was one, but basically the holdings of the former Stasi, the East German KGB. There and then, I was working mostly with their holdings having to do with relations with Afghanistan in the 1980s, but because I was so loaded with stuff then, I didn’t have time to delve into the holdings of the Politisches Archiv des Auswärtigen Amtes (Political Archives of the Foreign Ministry) – a huge archive in the middle of the city that holds both diplomatic documentation (i.e. telegrams and cables from the various Embassies of the German state(s)) in its various guises, as well as more centralized documentation emanating from the Foreign Minister(s’)’ office, and various policy planning units within the Ministry, too.

Tourism with the ‘rents and jamming in the AA’s archive!

It’s a short trip, so I’ll only have time to collect a few gems, back off to Moscow soon enough to polish them. I made my first orders today – mostly some stuff I was surprised to see the DDR’s Foreign Ministry be thinking about in such detail, stuff like the insurgency in Pakistani Balochistan in the mid-1970s, as well as ominous-sounding topics like ‘Staatsaufbau’ vis-à-vis the reconfiguration of the Afghan state in the 1980s. And that’s only for East Germany. In the West German collections – parts of which I hope to be able to scan or copy next week – there’s loads more stuff complementing the materials having to do with Paktia and the West German advising operations – imparting Afghans with up-to-date statistical science and management theory – in Kabul.

And that’s just for my project! Looking around in the finding aids, it’s clear that there are dozens of projects that one could carry out from this archive alone. Throw in collections in the States, France, Russia, Serbia (for the former Yugoslavia), and it’s not hard to imagine something even crazier. To  remember some of the romance that history lectures electrified me with as an impressionable young undergraduate. (The fact that the Politisches Archiv is in the middle of Berlin, next to a U-Bahn station, and that I could envision myself dividing my time between holding court over good German beer and coffee, and archival visits, doesn’t hurt.)

Still, there’s always not just a temptation but also perhaps a certain danger, for someone like me, looking through finding aids of great archives like this one. Sometimes, I feel tempted to look more towards government service after spending time at Harvard. A part of me fears spending my life reading cables in archives, rather than writing them or … reading them, but in some official capacity. Then there’s the anxiety that some other graduate students have – the temptation of putting on a business suit and enjoying the privileges of living in a New York, Washington, or London … as opposed to slugging out an academic career in less metropolitan locations. Academia and universities need leaders, but in the current climate, it’s sometimes hard to maintain an optimistic attitude about trying to build a strong community or institution out of a modest history department. Not only can the career prospects sometimes seem doubtful, but – my alma mater aside, where a professor of law and legal studies was made Provost and, recently, President – how much institutional or political authority do professors even have, compared to even someone – far from where I’m at now – who’s writing the killer books based on multiple archives and so on?

It’s just the kind of question worth pondering over döner kebab and Sternberg beer. So, it’s out for a walk through Mitte and dinner with my parents, and then, tomorrow, back into the belly of the archival beast!

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