By Viola Benz and Birgit Wienand, Freie Universität Berlin
Recent years have seen an enormous growth of possibilities for historians to engage with a wider public beyond the academy. Urban history has benefited from these changes, particularly as cheaper airfare has encouraged short-term city tourism. In Berlin, one of the most popular places for tourists to explore twentieth-century German history because of its central role in World War II and the Cold War, websites, interactive elements in museums, historical images, audio walks and, more recently, smartphone apps provide a wide audience with an interpretation of the city’s history.
The digital turn in public history speaks directly to tourists and visitors who want to learn about local history, but at the same time want to be entertained and have an immersive experience. Historians are learning to adapt to this challenge, as is manifest in the rise of public history and countless offers to engage such audiences. Using a range of new media, public historians can recover historical phenomena and make people feel directly involved in them, offering a different, more exciting way to learn history.
Mobile technology makes it easy to decouple educational materials from traditional venues such as schools, universities, libraries, or museums. It makes it possible to explore history in any situation, independent from place and time. Digital media promote a reflected and swell-critical handling of historical topics. This way of learning with digital media supports cross-sectional learning and leads away from the classic chronological facts. Apps also offer the opportunity to connect historical learning with digital sources.
Students in the Public History Master’s program at Freie Universität Berlin have developed a historical audio walk that works in tandem with a free app available to anyone with a smartphone. Titled Kudamm ’31- eine unerhörte Geschichte: Audiowalk auf den Spuren eines Pogroms (“Kudamm ’31 – An Outrageous Story: Audio Walk in the Footsteps of a Pogrom”), available for both iPhone and Android, the audio walk introduces its users to the history of the 1931 pogrom on Kurfürstendamm (Kudamm), a famous and affluent shopping street that later became the center of West Berlin. In the early 1930s, years marked by the rise of National Socialism and anti-Semitism, there was a large and mostly bourgeois Jewish community around Kudamm. The pogrom of 1931 was typical of Weimar-era anti-Semitic violence perpetrated by the Sturmabteilung (SA) the paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party. The goal of this and similar incidents was to make Jews “disappear” from the cityscape – a message put into practice with deadly consequence after the Nazis took power in 1933. The Kudamm pogrom, which took place on Rosh Hashanah, the symbolic date of the Jewish New Year, saw between 500 and 1,000 SA members attack people they believed looked Jewish, unleashing violent street battles and shooting into a crowd around Kudamm.
Everywhere near Kudamm you can find stories about Jewish life, the pogrom, and the political situation at the time. While walking around relevant places, ingesting the Audio Walk turns the stroll into an immersive experience. The app allows users to listen to interviews with people who witnessed the event, hear extracts from police reports and newspaper articles, and learn the results of a present-day survey on the subject. There are approximately 50 listening experiences available while walking around the sites or at home on your computer.
This new way of presenting history is not perfect, however. In particular, there are still some technical aspects that could easily be improved. First, the audio walk is only available in German. With regard to international tourists, it should at the very least be translated into English. Second, the stories are audible only in limited areas called “audible bubbles,” which work with GPS signal. The “bubbles” will start when you are close enough to the respective location. Normally, you have enough time to keep walking till the next story begins. However, if you are too fast, the “bubble” will stop and you cannot listen to the rest of the audio as desired, but you will have to walk back and go through the whole audio again. So it would be helpful to have a way to start, to pause, to fast-forward, and to rewind the audio. For example, in case you want to talk to a friend while walking around or you want to listen to part of the audio walk again, it would be of great advantage to be able to stop or pause the recording. Finally, it would be helpful for the audio walk’s users to allow extra time because there are so many stories to listen to and sometimes listeners will have to handle technical problems: For instance, there might be no GPS signal because of the cloudy sky or high buildings. But if they do not have extra time, users can return to Kudamm and repeat the audio walk from the beginning or pick up where they left off. The positive thing about this App is that there is no set path to follow; everyone can create his or her own route through the events of Kudamm´31.
Kudamm´31 is one instance of communicating urban history to public audiences and an example of the type of public history that is flourishing in cities around the world. This kind of public history thus offers a chance to convey urban history beyond the academy, making it available to everyone who is interested in the urban past.
Viola Benz and Birgit Wienand study in the M.A. Public History at Freie Universität Berlin.