Michael Stahl (2023): Der Platz der Freiheit und sein Denkmal. Gedenkort des Widerstands in München-Neuhausen. [Platz der Freiheit and its memorial. A place to remember the resistance in Munich-Neuhausen.]

Reviewed by Horst Pöttker

This highly insightful book is presumably an academic final thesis, although neither the foreword nor the footnotes indicate this. The methodological gymnastics surrounding the content analyses (cf. 37-43) and the style that oscillates between youthfully flippant and academically uptight give rise to this conclusion. For example, quotations from texts written before Germany’s major spelling reform include a »[sic]« after all words containing an »ß« [since the reform, an »ss« has been used instead]. The author appears unaware that the original orthography is correct, and indeed useful, when quoting texts in an academic context.

The book is insightful because it reveals a lack of attention in three ways:

One of its significant achievements in terms of historical research is to use the example of the »Platz der Freiheit« in München-Neuhausen and its memorial to uncover a lack of serious political attention on remembrance of the National Socialist period. In the first section (cf. pp. 5-32), Stahl uses decisions and measures in local politics between 1945 and 2014 to reconstruct the history of the memorial site, which is officially dedicated to the resistance against the NS regime but, in reality, has become increasingly neglected, dilapidated and misused. One stage of this »journey« was an application on October 21, 2008, by the District Council of Neuhausen-Nymphenburg, initiated by Susanne Mayer (CSU), that included photographs and the words: »The City of Munich is called upon to restore ›Platz der Freiheit.‹ In particular: 1. To renew the damaged and weathered wooden sections of all seating areas in the entire ensemble. […] 4. To erect an information sign for dog owners and a donation box for dog waste bags at the entrance to the grassy area. […] 6. To arrange the immediate removal of the bulk garbage container and bulk garbage close to the memorial stone« [cursive in original] (24).

A common theme in the way policymakers dealt with the memorial site was the interest of the key actors from the SPD and CSU in avoiding the impression that they were associated with the demands from the communist side. When radical renewal was undertaken in 2014 under new Mayor Dieter Reiter (SPD), it was still the case that »the City Council and the ›District Parliament‹ were in agreement that this must absolutely not look like a ›success‹ for the local DKP chapter, as they had titled it in the ›Rotkreuzplatz-Blitz‹« (p. 28).

Furthermore, the second part of Stahl’s investigation, »Framing in local reporting« (cf. pp. 33-69) uncovers journalistic attention deficits. The author analyzes how the local press reported on the »resistance memorial« that was erected on »Platz der Freiheit« in 2016. Based on a concept by artist Wolfram Kastner and local historian Ingrid Reuther, the memorial consists of a circle of 13 upright stones, honoring the names of Munich residents who, in the words of Kastner, »actively fought for freedom, human rights, democracy and even the human right to life in any way […]« (p. 35). The memorial was originally intended to stand for just a year. Neither the mayor nor any of his deputies took part in its inauguration. In the months that followed, there were multiple attacks in which the stones were damaged and covered with images of significant Nazi figures. This triggered disputes regarding demands from Neuhausen residents to make the memorial site permanent in that form, given the increasing anti-Semitism and racism. These demands resulted in gradual extensions. Currently, a decision by the City Council enables the memorial honoring everyday acts of bravery and democracy to remain until 2026.

Stahl initially focused on five daily newspapers: the tabloid tz, the regional edition of Bild, the Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ), the Münchner Merkur and the Abendzeitung. Unfortunately, he omitted free papers and civic media from the start, citing insufficient editorial quality.

Bild only addressed the subject once between April 2014 and April 2022, while tz was also excluded from the investigation due to a lack of archive material and digitalization. This is a regrettable methodological artifact given the potentially significant differences between tabloid newspapers – clearly seen between the Hamburg edition of Bild and the Hamburger Morgenpost, for example – regarding the framing and frequency of local history topics. But the differences in frequency between the three papers considered serious are still insightful: The Abendzeitung provided six hits, the Münchner Merkur ten, and the SZ 25, of which four, eight and 22 respectively were extensive enough to make them suitable for the framing analysis.

Stahl summarizes one of the results as follows:

»Diversity is the best way to counteract [one-sided reductive] framing. But this is exactly what is missing in local reporting on the ›resistance memorial.‹ The same goes for the types of diversity that are allocated to the framing component of coherence: no diversity of sources, for example because the city archive was never visited […]; no diversity of argumentation, for example because the residents were never asked what they think of the memorial; no diversity in the background, for example because the memorial was never measured against the ›history didactics standards for products of public history‹« (p. 68).

In terms of content, the narrative of a »memorial without a future due to lack of invitation to tender,« shaped by the city administration, pushed out other possible framings. Furthermore, the finding that the SZ’s relatively extensive reporting was conducted by a single freelancer is further evidence of a lack of diverse journalistic examination of the topic and of characteristic failure of the local reporting department regarding local history – a topic that is highly popular among the audience.

Thirdly, the book displays a lack of attention and care in terms of methods in academia and academic journalism. Source-based, historic science (re)construction of specific processes (»reality«) and the historic journalism narratives about them deserve critical comparison by experienced researchers. Given the dominance of constructivist and not always expert mindsets in cultural sciences, however, such approaches are suspected of positivistic naivety and are suitable, if at all, only as practice projects for students.

The publication of Stahl’s study is a strong example of the way specific individual research is neglected in both academic and publishing circles. Alongside the lack of information about the author and the amateurish language style, there is a lack of editorial care in other ways: The monograph is described on the cover as a »collected volume;« photos would have been essential given the subject of the investigation; the printed version was impossible for this reviewer to read without a magnifying glass. The days in which specialist editors worked in academic publishing houses are gone. GRIN Publishing GmbH clearly operates by putting unedited final theses online for a fee and offering expensive print versions on demand. On a positive note, this does mean that interesting final theses – albeit judged interesting based on self-estimations only – find their way out of drawers in which they would otherwise remain hidden.

This is also in part due to attention deficits in the subjects themselves in which theses like these are written. The local history department, as important as it is for the audience and thus local journalism, lives in the shadows in journalism research.

In all cultural sciences, interest in new findings is focused on phenomena that are created by people or shaped by their actions. Communicating with and understanding one another on a rational basis is crucial to social cohesion. This kind of understanding would require a presentation of cultural science insights that is carefully designed to be comprehensible to the general public. Instead, in current practice, this presentation appears more focused on commercial financial savings and qualifications within academia.

This review first appeared in rezensionen:kommunikation:medien, 23 January 2024, accessible at: https://www.rkm-journal.de/archives/24149

Translation: Sophie Costella

About the reviewer

Horst Pöttker (*1944), is a retired Professor of the Theory and Practice of Jour­nalism at TU Dortmund University and editor of Journalism Research.