Zittlau on Leskau and Nusser and Sorrels, 'Disability in German-Speaking Europe: History, Memory, Culture'

Linda Leskau, Tanja Nusser, Katherine Sorrels, eds. Disability in German-Speaking Europe: History, Memory, Culture. Rochester: Camden House, 2022. vi + 249 pp. $99.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-64014-108-7

Reviewed by Andrea Zittlau (Universität Rostock)
Published on H-Disability (June, 2023)
Commissioned by Iain C. Hutchison (University of Glasgow)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=58511

Disability studies do not yet have dedicated departments in the universities of German-speaking countries because of their academic structures. However, in the fields of sociology and the medical humanities, disability discourse has created multiple perspectives for enlightening discussions in German-speaking Europe. Thus, the approach of a book with the title Disability in German-Speaking Europe must necessarily be interdisciplinary. This essay collection is derived from the conference “Dis/ability in Germany, Yesterday and Today” that took place in late 2019 at the University of Cincinnati in Cincinnati’s Holocaust and Humanity Center, located academically in the German department. The book brings together scholars from history, German studies, medical ethics and diversity studies, media studies, special education, and Holocaust studies to present, as the editors state in their introduction, “a broad range of scholarship” (p. 15).

The book is divided into three parts: “Negotiating Interpersonal Relationships: Historical Perspectives,” “Reckoning with the Past: Reconstruction of Memory,” and “Intersections and Diversity: The Lens of Culture.” As an overall narrative this structure works, although at times the grouping of the essays feels staged. The introduction gives an overview of disability activism in German-speaking countries and of academic texts that have been published from German-speaking contexts. This is very resourceful and perhaps done with the knowledge that mention of these texts and discourses will be absent from the individual contributions. Furthermore, the comparative approach of the introduction is valuable as this methodology is not followed elsewhere in the book. The complex geographical and historical understanding developed in the introduction includes Austria, Germany, and Switzerland as well as an awareness of the different histories of East and West Germany.

The first part, “Negotiating Interpersonal Relationships,” is insightful for its case studies, as the title suggests. However, these case studies are radically varied, including a child in a contemporary classroom, legal cases from 1609 and 1902, and a patient of the celebrated—and here criticized—psychiatrist and psychotherapist Aron Ronald Bodenheimer (1923-2011). Because of the focus on case studies, the theoretical approach in the first part of the book is limited. The first essay, “Inclusion, Emotion, and Disability” by Markus Dederich and Katherine Sorrels, for example, is a fantastic resource on German practices in schools, but its attempt to theorize the observed difficulties within a framework of emotions lacks fundamental theoretical approaches such as practiced by Sarah Ahmed or Eve Kosowski Sedgwick. The next case study, presented by Ashley Elrod, is interesting as legal history working with the concept of prodigality. The author contrasts a case from 1609 with one from 1902, looking at definitions in court and the agency of the accused. Both cases help to explain definitions of deviance without relating them to the history of mental illness and intellectual disabilities. On the contrary, both cases help to complicate understandings of mental disabilities. The third case, explored by Marion Schmidt, is Doris, who is hard in hearing as well as marked by the Waardenburg syndrome that makes her face unusual. Departing from Doris, Marion Schmidt looks at Bodenheimer, a positively appreciated psychologist and reveals his attitudes toward people with disabilities—especially his patients—as very problematic.

Part 2 of the book investigates institutions and the dark history of the “euthanasia” program. It is helpful to read the first essay here as an introduction to institutions that were regarded as offering hope for cure and well-being in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While the author, Warren Rosenblum, also points out the downsides of institutions, with the interesting case of Heinrich E. that frames his arguments, the complexity of institutions is at the heart the chapter, but that complicates the next essays as an attitude of hope toward institutionalization suddenly shifts to hopelessness. The following two essays are particularly powerful. Rather than referencing the euthanasia program and giving an overview, Dagmar Herzog is concerned with the reception of the texts of Ernst Klee (1942-2013) as he brought the dark history to the surface and into public consciousness with his strategically sensational journalistic works. Herzog does not shy away from the criticism that Klee has received and continues to receive, especially from historians, but what makes the essay so special is that it tells the story of Klee’s impact. As part 2 is concerned with reconstructing memory, Lutz Kaelber’s essay gives an overview of places that commemorate the euthanasia program of the 1930s and 1940s. This is an important contribution, with Kaelber comparing three places of memory: Waldniel (West Germany), Leipzig and Leipzig-Dösen (East Germany), and Am Spiegelgrund/Vienna (Austria). Kaelber describes each of these locations historically and then sketches the history of the memorial work, but without provision of a theoretical framework. His focus is on the material, and individual initiative has clearly been necessary as, to this day, all of these memorialization sites lack the government financial support that is necessary to update exhibitions.

The final part of the book, “Intersections and Diversity,” consists of essays that analyze literary texts and films. While these chapters follow a classic German studies approach, the material discussed offers exciting new theoretical approaches, especially the first two contributions. In her essay on Else Lasker-Schüler’s play Die Wupper (1909), Caroline Weist explores the concept of the crip chronotope, expanding Jack Halberstam’s idea of queer temporality. Next, Lindau Leskau discusses Thomas Bernhard’s (1931-89) dramatic works, specifically The Cheap-Eaters (1980). She explores the struggle of disabled characters as a tension between stereotype and anti-stereotype, between metaphor and comment. Weist documents the conflict arising this form of discussion and asks if we can we ever understand a literary character beyond its symbolic value. The last two essays of the collection are valuable for their objects of analysis. Tanya Nusser focusses on Ulrike Ottinger's film Freak Orlando (1981), a fantastic movie that uses bizarre and surreal images and radical performance art. Nusser relates the movie to freak shows using freak show vocabulary, for example opting for the problematic term “Siamese twins” instead of conjoined twins—although the film does not refer to Chang and Eng Bunker. This might be because the German language still lacks an appropriate term for conjoined twins and the essay is a translation from German. However, a sensible edit might have eliminated this irritation unless the terminology used provided a purposeful link between the film and topic being discussed. The last essay introduces the reader to Alissa Ealer's novel Am Anfang war die Nacht Musik (2010) about the blind Maria Theresia von Paradis (1759-1824). While it discusses the literary peculiarities of the novel, this essay also includes a critical overview of the historical Paradis.

The editors have succeeded in putting together a collection of essays that are to be commended for their richness and for the variety of the material discussed. Each of the three sections feels like a teaser to its corresponding field, such as special education, Holocaust studies, or German studies and their own discourses on disability. Hopefully, more such works will follow.

Citation: Andrea Zittlau. Review of Leskau, Linda; Nusser, Tanja; Sorrels, Katherine, eds., Disability in German-Speaking Europe: History, Memory, Culture. H-Disability, H-Net Reviews. June, 2023.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=58511

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