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Searching for Sustainable Utopia: Art, Political Culture, and Historical Practice in Germany, 1980-2000


At the end of the twentieth century, the gradual triumph of liberal democracy and capitalism over “really existing socialism” brought to many West Germans not relief but melancholy. Facing what they interpreted as the dissipation of radical social and political alternatives, academics and public intellectuals pronounced the death of ideology, of history, and of utopian ambitions. This dissertation asks how West Germans nevertheless found ways to challenge this resignation by giving voice to new, radical hopes for Germany’s future.

For their broad popularity and sustained impact, this study traces the grassroots efforts of three groups. First, it follows the Berlin History Workshop, a collection of amateur and professional historians, as they attempted to liberate the process of researching and writing history from the rigid confines German universities. This group sought, instead, to bring the historian’s craft into Berlin’s local neighborhoods in order to enable ordinary Germans to narrate their own histories. Second, this dissertation analyzes the Green Party, which practiced localized plebiscitary policy making in an effort to endow German citizens with greater political agency. The Greens brought this political practice to numerous cultural projects in an effort to democratize German society by democratizing the cultural encounters of its citizens. Third, this project investigates a loosely-connected group of artists who echoed the investments of the historians and politicians by creating art installations with ordinary objects in ordinary spaces that prompted passersby to reevaluate their relationships to the topography of their daily lives.

This dissertation argues that, through these groups, everyday Germans adopted a set of cultural practices in the 1980s and ‘90s that not only critiqued established institutions but also crafted new institutions in their place. Their critical practices followed three conventions. First, they championed radical grassroots democracy by giving citizens opportunities to create socially-significant cultural products like museums and monuments. Second, they decentralized the creative process, locating it in the spaces of everyday life in order to make it widely accessible. Finally, they borrowed from the environmental movement the concept of sustainability, which demanded that any alternative to existing society be both enduring and adaptable. These practices put culture to work in realizing a more democratic, more socially-integrated Germany. In doing so, they permitted their practitioners to reclaim utopian hope from the dustbin of historical ideas.

These three case studies span Germany’s academic, political, and aesthetic terrain. As such, together they offer evidence that efforts to battle twentieth-century apathy signaled a broad shift in German cultural sensibilities, not an isolated phenomenon. The first three chapters of the dissertation treat each of these groups individually as they began to advocate for new, more democratic geographies of cultural engagement, or “alternative public spheres,” in the early 1980s. Their focus on Germany’s cultural environment made them particularly receptive to the idea of sustainability popularized after the convening of the World Commission on Environment and Development in the middle of the decade. The next three chapters trace their pursuit of sustainability in culture. A sustainable culture, they came to realize, had to regard its projects as part of an ongoing process rather than as static goals: theirs was a renewable, future-oriented cultural movement in the present, or a “sustainable utopia.” Faced with radical changes to the international political landscape and the rapid expansion of their constituencies to include sixteen million East Germans alongside more pedestrian concerns like funding difficulties and interpersonal conflicts, these groups weathered the last decade of the twentieth century with varying success. The study concludes by underscoring the irony that the most durable component of their cultural programs in the wake of German political reunification was their push for cultural decentralization.

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