Contemporary witness

from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Contemporary witnesses are people who can give testimony of certain historical events because they lived at the relevant time. In contrast, the term eyewitness is more narrowly defined , i.e. H. someone who personally experienced an event on site. Things and tradition in themselves are evidence of the times .

Use of terms

Despite a few occasional mentions in the 18th and 19th centuries, the term contemporary witness did not appear more frequently in literature and colloquial language until the late 1970s . Before this word finally became a general term, the same meaning was combined with the words "witness of time" or "witness of his time".

The word component “witness” points to far-reaching and deeply rooted legal , religious and historiographical traditions. In Germany today, for example, people are referred to as contemporary witnesses who experienced the National Socialist past or the GDR from their own perspective. There are essentially nine formation contexts:

  • the development of contemporary history in the Federal Republic of Germany and the academic analysis of National Socialism
  • Oral history
  • coming to terms with National Socialism in court
  • Mediation processes and the German history television
  • Concentration camp memorials
  • GDR museums
  • Contemporary witness in the GDR and its integration into pedagogical-anti-fascist practices
  • the 'disappearance of contemporary witnesses' and contemporary witnesses on the Internet
  • Contemporary witness in GDR references before and GDR processing after 1989/90.

Nowadays, contemporary witnesses have become indispensable in history lessons, in extracurricular political education, in museum work, in television and the Internet, in ' coping with ' the era of National Socialism and in coming to terms with the GDR. Nevertheless, a uniform definition of the term contemporary witness is hardly possible. The term is very changeable, in constant development, and is subject to certain functionalizations and attributions. The contexts mentioned partially overlap, which shows the complexity of the manifestations of contemporary witnesses.

On the one hand, the GDR contemporary witness is closely linked to the debates about coming to terms with the history of the GDR ; On the other hand, there is a historical connection between contemporary witnesses of the GDR and contemporary witnesses of the time of National Socialism, but the "concrete forms of GDR contemporary witnesses are based on the specifics of GDR reappraisal and GDR mediation."

The term contemporary witness did not exist in the GDR. Nevertheless, survivors and veterans were used to convey the official view of history, so that an “infrastructure of contemporary witnesses in the GDR” was in place, albeit under different circumstances than in the former Federal Republic.

The term silent witnesses refers to historical objects or buildings that are evidence of a specific event or a specific period.

Time witness is a "testimony of a certain time". Just as contemporary witness is understood both for a person and for an object, a building, etc., the term contemporary witness is also used: A person, the contemporary witness, files his or her contemporary witness in the form of a report regarding a certain time, but also the interpretation of objects and writings (e.g. newspapers, literature and poems, etc.) are understood as evidence of the times. The writer Walter Kempowski was an important collector of contemporary testimonies from the 20th century .

View of historical science

The History looks witnesses as a kind of historical sources , which are just as critical as other sources and only in conjunction with other sources to evaluate. One particular method, oral history, emphasizes the importance of less prominent contemporary witnesses.

The credibility of a contemporary witness is - as with witnesses in general - dependent on the temporal and spatial proximity of the event (direct presence at the place of the event or only imparted knowledge), on his objective understanding of the event (e.g. in legal negotiations or due to the Age) and interest in a certain interpretation of the process.

Statements that contradict the interests of the contemporary witness are more credible than those that legitimize their own interests. Examples are praise from an opponent or negative remarks about a friend.

History didactics and "eyewitness groups"

Contemporary witnesses also serve in the historical didactic sense, e.g. B. by reporting on what they have experienced directly in school classes or by taking interviews on open questions for study projects. Communicating personal experiences is often more exciting for students than reading texts about them. Recorded eyewitness interviews are also increasingly used in class; digital educational materials convey source-critical competence in dealing with audiovisual testimonies and life stories of former forced laborers and survivors of the Shoah.

Some contemporary witnesses meet regularly and contribute to a thematic focus, such as B. Escape and displacement , bombing , school days reports. These are discussed, written down and then published, read out, told ( narrative café ) or published on the Internet for those interested . The publication results in diverse contacts to schools, universities as well as interview requests, descriptions on the radio or television. The ZDF series Witnesses of the Century became famous .


Lutz Niethammer and Harald Welzer have especially pointed out the difficulties of the method of oral autobiographical narratives for historical reconstruction. The self-image of older contemporary witnesses can influence memory so strongly that even objectively wrong things are credibly conveyed. Contemporary witnesses can use the communication option of a conversation for digressions or convert their rehearsed text into a message for the later ones. Both former concentration camp prisoners and those involved in World War II must be viewed very critically. Schoolchildren in particular are often overwhelmed by this, precisely because they are particularly impressed by the “authentic” witness.

Rainer Wirtz particularly criticized the use of contemporary witnesses to allegedly authenticate representations of history on television.

See also


  • Rolf Italiaander (Ed.): We saw the end of the Weimar Republic. Contemporaries report . ( Photographed contemporary history ). Droste, Düsseldorf 1982, ISBN 3-7700-0609-7 .
  • Alfred Neven DuMont (Ed.): Born 1926/27. Memories of the years under the swastika. DuMont Buchverlag, Cologne 2007, ISBN 978-3-8321-8059-1 .
  • Ralph Erbar, Werner Ostendorf: Witnesses of Time. Suggestions for discussions with contemporary witnesses in class and youth work. Pedagogical Center Rhineland-Palatinate, Bad Kreuznach 2006. ( PZ information. History, social studies / social studies, elementary school / secondary level I and II. 2/2006, ISSN  0938-748X )
  • Ralph Erbar: Witnesses of Time? Conversations with contemporary witnesses in science and teaching. In: History for Today. 5 (2012), no . 3, ISSN  1866-2099 , pp. 5-20.
  • Marc J. Philipp: "Hitler is dead, but I'm still alive". Contemporary witness memories of National Socialism. be.bra Wissenschaft-Verlag, Berlin 2010, ISBN 978-3-937233-60-4 .
  • Peter Paul Schwarz: Time. Witnesses. Contemporary witnesses. On traditions, lines of development and manifestations of contemporary witness. In: Bildungswerk der Humanistische Union NRW (ed.): Contemporary witness work on the history of the GDR. Historical lines of development - concepts - educational practice. Zeitpfeil-Studienwerk Berlin-Brandenburg ( workbooks for political education 10/2012). Klartext Verlagsgesellschaft, Essen 2012, ISBN 978-3-8375-0836-9 , pp. 8–46. (online at : )
  • Martin Sabrow, Norbert Frei (ed.): The birth of the contemporary witness after 1945. (History of the Present, Vol. 4; Contributions to the History of the 20th Century, Vol. 14). Wallstein Verlag, 2012, ISBN 978-3-8353-1036-0 .
  • Christian Ernst, Peter Paul Schwarz: Contemporary witness in change. Lines of development of a (contemporary) historical-cultural paradigm in the context of "coming to terms with the Nazi past" and "coming to terms with the GDR". In: BIOS. 25 H. 1 (2012), ISSN  0933-5315 , pp. 25-49.
  • Nicolas Apostolopoulos, Cord Pagenstecher (ed.): Remembering forced labor. Interviews with contemporary witnesses in the digital world , Metropol, Berlin 2013, ISBN 978-3-86331-156-8 .
  • Peter Paul Schwarz: From Nazi to GDR contemporary witness? On the conceptual history before and after 1989/90. In: Christian Ernst (Ed.): History in Dialogue? 'GDR contemporary witnesses' in historical culture and educational practice. Wochenschau Verlag, Schwalbach / Ts. 2014, ISBN 978-3-89974-987-8 , pp. 36-51.

Web links

Wiktionary: contemporary witness  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. Michael Krammer: Collection of holy speeches about important truths of the Sunday Gospels for the whole year. Volume 1, 1774, p. 29.
  2. ^ Messages from the Association for the History of Germans in the Sudetenland. Volume 20, Prague 1882, p. 284.
  3. NGRAM Viewer contemporary witness from 1950
  4. As an example: Hagen Schulze: On the death of Arnold Brecht - a credible witness of democracy. In: The time. 7 October 1977, no.41.
  5. First mention in the Spelling Duden, 20th edition. (1991), p. 814.
  6. As an example: Otto F. Beer: About gangsters and writers - Reinhard Federmann and his "Herr Felix Austria". In: The time. June 4, 1971, No. 23.
  7. Peter Paul Schwarz: Time. Witnesses. Contemporary witnesses. On traditions, lines of development and manifestations of contemporary witness. In: Bildungswerk der Humanist Union NRW, Zeitpfeil-Studienwerk Berlin-Brandenburg (ed.): Contemporary witness work on the history of the GDR. Historical lines of development - concepts - educational practice. ( Workbooks for political education 10/2012). Klartext Verlagsgesellschaft, Essen 2012, ISBN 978-3-8375-0836-9 , pp. 8–46.
  8. Silke Satjukow : Contemporary witnesses from the very beginning. Remembering National Socialism in the GDR. In: Martin Sabrow, Norbert Frei (Ed.): The Birth of Contemporary Witnesses after 1945. Wallstein, Göttingen 2012, p. 204.
  9. Marco Sostero: The war behind glass: Processing and representation of the Second World War in historical museums in Germany, Austria and Japan. LIT Verlag, Münster 2010, p. 41.
  10. Harald Haarmann: History of writing. CH Beck, 2002, p. 60.
  11. ^ Duden Online: Testimony.
  12. Wolfgang Kießling - A contemporary testimony and its author are considered. In: Alfons Goldschmidt: Moscow 1920: diary sheets. Dietz, 1987, p. 262.
  13. Svenja Schäfer: The written word in its historical development. GRIN Verlag, 2007, p. 18.
  14. Bernhard Horowitz, Laura Horowitz, Edith Pomeranz: Voices of the night: Poems from the deportation in Transnistria 1941-1944. Hartung-Gorre, 2000, p. 10.
  15. Forced labor 1939-1945. Interviews with contemporary witnesses for class. Video DVD - learning software - teacher booklet, ed. vd Freie Universität Berlin and the Federal Agency for Civic Education, Berlin 2010, can be ordered at classes
  16. Witnesses to the Shoah. Flee - Survive - Resist - Live on: Learning software with video interviews, ed. vd Freie Universität Berlin and the Federal Agency for Civic Education, Berlin 2012, can be ordered at
  17. swr2 May 28, 2012