Interview with Ute Frevert: Feelings make history

Ms. Frevert, in your new book “Mächtige Emotions” you consider the German history of the 20th and previous 21st centuries based on 20 feelings – from fear to joy to affection. The feelings you have selected also include security, nostalgia and curiosity. What do you mean by a feeling?

Until well into the 20th century, people spoke of feelings as “emotional movements”, which is pretty good. Emotional movements differ from thoughts and perceptions by their usually high quality of excitation, which is reflected in the body. Anyone who loves or hates, is curious or secure, feels this with skin and hair and expresses it in body language. This also applies to nostalgia, in German: homesickness. A Swiss doctor diagnosed it as early as 1688 in local soldiers who were in foreign service and who became mentally ill.

If you look at the recent German past from an emotional perspective, what do you get?

For example, let’s look at the 1980s and the retrofitting debate that split the Federal Republic at the time. Fear of an arms escalation and a third world war was widespread, not only in the active peace movement. People confessed to this fear and forced politics to deal with it. In 1989 the Monday demonstrations in the GDR showed how people overcame their fear of the repressive state apparatus and stood up for freedom. Empathy and anger can also move mountains – just think of the anti-slavery movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Or the year 2015. Angela Merkel’s decision to open the borders and let refugees into the country was prepared by the mixture of compassion and horror that the brutal policies of the Hungarian government triggered in many – even the “Bild” newspaper called it them as “shame”.

Diaries or letters in which feelings are named or described in words are essential bases for your book. How do you get from an expression of feeling to a feeling?

If I may add: It’s not just ego documents in which I find feelings. There are also court judgments and parliamentary minutes, newspapers and films, songs, novels, poems, and surveys. The huge number of letters that men and women, and sometimes children, sent to the representatives of the respective state play a major role. In it they told the president, “Führer” or the chairman of the State Council about their feelings, about fear and concern, but also about enthusiasm and hope. They felt the need to tell the head of state what moved them. Feelings are just as communicable as opinions, perceptions and interests. There is no reason to distinguish the expression of the feeling from the feeling “in itself”. In many cases it is the utterance that makes the feeling tangible.

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