Dinu on Schmidt and Werner, 'Zwischen Fremdbestimmung und Autonomie: Neue Impulse zur Gehörlosengeschichte in Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz.'

Marion Schmidt, Anja Werner, eds.
Radu Harald Dinu

Marion Schmidt, Anja Werner, eds. Zwischen Fremdbestimmung und Autonomie: Neue Impulse zur Gehörlosengeschichte in Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz. Disability Studies: Körper - Macht - Differenz Series. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2019. 430 pp. EUR 39.99 (paper), ISBN 978-3-8376-4716-7.

Reviewed by Radu Harald Dinu (Jönköping University) Published on H-Disability (July, 2022) Commissioned by Iain C. Hutchison (University of Glasgow)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=58055

Compared to the American context, historical research on deaf communities in the German-speaking world is still in a formative stage. Deaf history has not yet been institutionalized academically, and previous studies are confined to narrow, national perspectives. Against this backdrop, Marion Schmidt and Anja Werner’s volume is very much needed. The collection provides an interdisciplinary account of deaf history in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland and attests to the fact that we are currently witnessing “the birth of a new discipline” in these countries (p. 21). As part of the series Disability Studies: Körper – Macht – Differenz (Disability Studies: Body – Power – Difference), the volume consists of a collection of twelve chapters presented in three parts: personal accounts, deaf advocates and interest groups, and new, hearing perspectives on deafness.

As the editors note in their introduction, one reason for the lack of interest in deaf history is the deep-rooted oralist tradition that had emphasized the importance of speech and lipreading in deaf education from the end of the nineteenth century. However, the authors resist easy generalizations and point out that signs have always been part of deaf communities in German-speaking countries. Even though Abbé Charles-Michel de l'Epée’s manualism and Samuel Heinicke’s oralist approach eventually gave rise to diverging trajectories—broadly classified as the “French” and the “German” methods—these traditions were never hermetically sealed from each other. Rather, many educators advocated for mixing various methods or supplementing them with written language. As some of the contributors in this volume demonstrate, plenty of deaf educators in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland were open, or at least tolerant, toward sign language during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and methodological discussions cannot simply be categorized into “German” and “French” approaches.

Since deaf people have long been, and still are, underrepresented in academia, it is particularly laudable that many deaf and hard of hearing authors have contributed to this volume. By engaging with various personal experiences of deafness, but also with hearing scientists and activists, the authors seek to reinterpret historical sources—from archival material to ego-documents and deaf periodicals—“with a sensitive eye for deaf culture” (p. 10). Furthermore, the volume also seeks to provide transnational perspectives by comparing deaf experiences in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. In doing so, the authors hope to illustrate that deaf communities always transcended national boundaries and were part of a considerable knowledge exchange. There is more than enough in this volume to deliver on these promises.

The first part provides deaf perspectives on various educational settings. Sylvia Wolff examines deaf pupils’ reflections on deafness during the first half of the nineteenth century by closely reading their personal diaries preserved at the former School for the Deaf and Dumb in Hamburg. Vera Blaser and Matthias Ruoss provide a similar approach in their chapter on the experiences of schoolgirls at the School for the Deaf-Mutes in St. Gallen, Switzerland, between the 1930s and 1950s. Discrepancies in communication strategies between deaf people and the hearing world are scrutinized by Andrea Neugebauer’s chapter, which reconsiders lipreading from a historical and sociological perspective.

Deaf activism and deaf interest groups are the focus of the second part of the volume. Ylva Söderfeldt and Enno Schwanke’s outstanding chapter on eugenics, sterilization laws, and the deaf community in Weimar and Nazi Germany carefully assesses the so-called Lex Zwickau, a bill that paved the way for the National Socialist Sterilization Law enacted in 1933 (the Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring). By focusing on debates within the deaf community, the authors show that deaf representatives did not categorically reject eugenic measures. After the Nazi rise to power, Fritz Albreghs, head of the Reich Union of the Deaf of Germany (Reichsverband der Gehörlosen Deutschlands, ReGeDe), transformed his organization into a willing accomplice of the Nazi Party and openly summoned deaf members to sterilize themselves. Stressing the fact that the deaf community in Germany was by no means a homogeneous group is also a central line of argument in Mark Zaurov’s thorough overview of the persecution of deaf Jews in Nazi Germany. Zaurov points out that deaf people cannot be exclusively singled out as victims of the Nazi regime since a considerable number of deaf non-Jews endorsed the persecution of deaf Jews. While some embraced the promises of eugenics and voluntarily underwent sterilization, other deaf persons of non-German origin were exempted from German marriage law and consequently from forced sterilizations. Anja Werner and Carolin Wiethoff’s meticulously researched chapter on the deaf and the blind in the Soviet Occupation Zone (SBZ) and in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) correspondingly shows that deaf and blind representatives skillfully negotiated with state authorities to create a free space for their communities. Their success in establishing deaf and blind interest groups during state socialism is interpreted against the backdrop of the Nazi period. In contrast to these various authoritarian settings, Michael Gebhard explores the Association for the Support of Sign Language (VUGS), founded in Switzerland in 1983. Both deaf and hearing members contributed to the association’s endeavor to promote sign language research in Switzerland.

The contributions in the third part of this volume reconsider traditional, hearing perspectives on deafness. Raluca Enescu discusses three court cases from the Kingdom of Prussia during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, centering on the legal culpability of deaf murderers. The next two chapters challenge the binary between “German” oralism and “French” manualism. The so-called Viennese method, for example—a mixed form of spoken and sign language—is discussed by Florian Wibmer. Ingo Degner’s chapter portrays Georg Wilhelm Pfingsten (1746-1827), one of the founding fathers of deaf education in Schleswig-Holstein who used sign language. This and other examples demonstrate that the origins of deaf education were much more diverse than previously thought and not restricted to Heinicke’s oralist teachings. The last chapter, written by Franz Dotter, Helene Jarmer, and Lukas Huber, discusses the difficult process of recognizing the linguistic rights of deaf Austrians. Although enacted by a constitutional amendment, the implementation of Austrian sign language (ÖGS) is still being hampered by oralist “relics.”

Overall, this volume is unique in the sense that it moves beyond traditional narratives. By shedding light on historical experiences of deafness outside the Anglo-Saxon world, it makes a valuable contribution to deaf history and should be translated into English to achieve the wider readership it deserves.

Citation: Radu Harald Dinu. Review of Schmidt, Marion; Werner, Anja, eds., Zwischen Fremdbestimmung und Autonomie: Neue Impulse zur Gehörlosengeschichte in Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz.. H-Disability, H-Net Reviews. July, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=58055

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