By Erica Fagen
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Social media has a large presence in today’s culture, but how can it be useful for historians? For the past three months, I have worked on “Hate 2.0: Combatting Right-Wing Extremism in the Age of Social Technology,” which looks at how individuals and organizations are using social media to counter hate. I am exploring this question of social media for historians in an article I am co-writing with Jennifer Evans (article excerpts and reflections on the project can be seen here). Beyond the questions of what social media can do for historians, the research done for this project makes me think of the role of social media in public memory and historical consciousness. This is apparent in both activists who get rid of Nazi symbolism, and those who use Nazi imagery to oppose neo-Nazis.
Doing research on this project has made me more aware of activists combating xenophobia on the street. Irmela Mensah-Schramm, a pensioner living in Berlin, has scraped swastikas and other anti-Semitic, homophobic and far-right stickers off street signs, lampposts and bridges for more than twenty years. Equipped with a scraper, some nail polish remover, a cloth, brown paint and a camera, she walks around Berlin and other German cities scraping off these stickers. During these twenty-three years, she has gotten rid of 80,000 stickers and sketches comprising of several different kinds of hate speech. Though she was given two awards for her work, people have tried to bring her to court for trespassing and damaging public property. When faced with these allegations, she uses the following defence. “You can repair what gets broken when you’re cleaning it. But you can’t repair the damage all this stuff does to human dignity.” Mensah-Schramm is aware of the legacy of Nazism in contemporary Germany, and tries to stamp out the hateful messages spread by the Third Reich and perpetuated today by neo-Nazis.
Anti-Nazi activism like Mensah-Schramm’s has a forum beyond the street. Social media is bridging the real world to the virtual one, and several protest actions, like the Arab Spring for example, have taken root on social media sites such as Flickr, Facebook, and Twitter. The following photographs on Flickr are examples of this real world and virtual world connection.
Actions of public memory and historical consciousness are apparent on Flickr, one the older social media sites in use. (It was created in 2004). On Flickr, one can see how average citizens like Mensah-Schramm combat neo-Nazism. The depiction of Hitler and other top Nazis looms large in the public memory of the Third Reich, and it is exactly those images which anti-Nazi activists use to counter hate in their midst. By using publicly recognized images of Nazism, such as Hitler’s moustache, activists are able to get their message across. Images like this caricature of Hitler and his infamous moustache with “Nazis sind doof” (Nazis are stupid) written under it, this garden gnome with an uncanny resemblance to Hitler with “Nazis stoppen!” (Stop Nazis!) written under it, and this banner with a crossed-out Playmobil-like figure with a Hitler moustache with “Berlin gegen Nazis” (Berlin against Nazis) written beside it are all instances where familiar and popular imagery is used to combat hate. By using a bit of humour and wit, activists are taking a stance against the ideas of Nazis perpetuated by neo-Nazis. They demonstrate that activism can be creative and effective at the same time.
The Hitler theme of these photographs says something else about anti-Nazi activists: they are re-shaping history for the larger public. By using images of Hitler for their protest signs, they are demonstrating that Hitler is one of the more important facets of the Second World War to remember. The activists are shaping their own type of authority, claiming that this image is central to historical understanding. When social media is brought into the picture to show these photographs, they present a challenge to historical understanding that academia perhaps does not. By placing these images on Flickr, interpretation and criticism is more open, and commentary widely available. Social media allows for endless varieties of historical analysis and discussion, something that is key for historians to consider. Taking these photographs blends street activism with the virtual, as it allows a global audience to visualize protest. Social media provides a cohesive link between these two worlds as it serves a platform for photographers to share their protest images with the larger, global world. Thanks to social media’s extensive reach, photographers are able to bring the street to the Web.
It is also important, therefore, to remember the role of the Flickr photographers. These photographers documenting the anti-Nazi protests are also taking an activist position by uploading these images on their respective Flickr streams. They are also reflecting a larger trend in taking a stance against neo-Nazism. They and other organizations like Netz gegen Nazis, Amadeu Antonio Stiftung, and the tongue-in-cheek Storch Heinar are all groups who bring awareness to the neo-Nazi problem in Germany, are involved in the wider issue of public memory in the country. The activists, whether they are retirees, activists on the street or the photographers documenting activist actions, are wroking to bring awareness to neo-Nazism, and involved in their own form of historical consciousness. The Web and social media are at the forefront of reporting such activity, and it imperative for historians to see how people discuss historical legacies in a contemporary context. And they can do so by “sharing” or “tweeting” information they find interesting.
Erica Fagen holds an MA in Public History from Carleton University and will be starting her PhD in the Department of History at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in Fall 2012. Her research interests include 20th century Germany, memory, social media and photography.
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