Moritz von Uslar’s participant observation-based study Deutschboden (Kiepenheuer&Witsch, 2010) took me back to where I come from: an Eastern German small town close to Berlin. He, the West German (he is mostly blind to other categories he might fit into; like male, or white, higher educated, or wealthier than those he visits) decides to visit the curious people of that remote area with much the same attitude anthropologists would do about 100 years ago. During the text, he continuously refers to himself as “the reporter” failing to recognize how it is precisely this imagination of his role that keeps him alienated from those he wants to study. Now it is true that he is not an anthropologist, but since the subtitle of the book (“A participant observation”) refers to anthropologist’s main method, the critique seems worth articulating.
It was impressive for me to see how he engages with the average male inhabitant in the village, however. In this, he got insights about them I for reasons such as gender and habitus would not be able to elicit even while being a local. There is indeed a fearlessness in his asking around that I found astounding, and which made my reading an uncomfortable experience because I was always anticipating people reactions. Especially these days, when racism in (not only in Eastern) Germany is a visible problem again, the book offers an interesting insight into the collective (male) consciousness pervading in the small town really just a few kilometers away from where I grew up. Just don’t expect to know anything more about “these people”, because the conversations are incredibly shallow, leaving me suspecting that indeed people were reluctant to go into more detail with “the stranger from the West”. In this, it is an interesting parallel to actual ethnographic accounts.
How did I come across the book?
When I moved in to my current flat, one of my flatmates recommended it to me upon hearing where I was from. Funnily, he was aiming at the Bundesland, but actually the place described in the book is even the same Landkreis, and really just a few kilometers away from my parents’ place.
When and where did I read it?
It took me almost a year to finish this book, mostly because I decided to only read it here in Konstanz, but also because it induced really contradicting feelings: sometimes I would miss home and think about the harshness of the landscape and the people compared to Konstanz’s postcard vacation atmosphere. Other times reading would bring back feelings of how I often felt I didn’t fit in with the agressiveness of people. (Without wanting to reduce them to this, I just find it remarkable how I do not identify with them at all – even though people often ascribe this very same harshness to me.)