by Christin Hansen
Pictures we have of others and ourselves are constantly present: Social coexistence in the past and present has always been and is still shaped by ideas people have about others and themselves. It does not matter whether we are speaking about regional, national or even international surroundings. Each of us will surely remember different examples where our ideas and understanding of the world have been shaped by pictures we have of others. Among those are various stereotypes.
Just taking a quick look at how refugees are discussed and pictured in the whole of Europe today, we will be confronted with the stereotype of the oppressed headscarf-wearing Muslim-woman or that of the terrorist Muslim-man. Both stereotypes have a long tradition. Especially the idea of the terrorist Muslim has already existed since medieval times.
But stereotypes cannot only be found in everyday life. There are many impressive examples in history that prove the existence of different stereotypes. One famous example is the so-called “Völkertafel” from Styria, a small Austrian region, dating from the first half of the 18th century. It depicts representation of different nations in their supposedly traditional clothing and in each case also assigns them collective character traits. According to this the French apparently love “war”, the Russians “fighting” and the Germans their “drink”. Similar depictions can be found today. The British for example are often depicted as stiff, tea-drinking gentlemen, who cannot cook, caricatures of the French on the other hand often show them with baguette in one hand and a beret on the head.
This sarcasm and irony becomes problematic as soon as the emotional aspect shifts into a radical position, resulting in an including and excluding function. The existence of prejudices and stereotypes in everyday life are often concealed forms of debates about belonging and identities. It can be observed that in the course of history strong stereotypes played a role when nations were built, minorities excluded or even murdered. This makes it necessary to research the role and function of stereotypes in history.
But what are stereotypes? They can be described as “pictures in our head” generalizing certain groups of humans or institutions. They are reduced to relatively few points of orientation, unchanged in a long term and rigid in spite of new and even opposite experiences about specific behavioral characteristics. Such “ordered” ideas, worlds and social images largely determine later experiences and one’s own behavioral reactions. Stereotypes always include positive or negative value judgements that are closely connected to strong emotions. Looking at stereotypes, it is not possible to get any realistic information about the designated object, but it allows understanding the emotions, imaginations and perspectives of those using these stereotypes. With every stereotype of others – the heterostereotype – people are also communicating the stereotype they sub-consciously have created of your own existence – the autostereotype – and the other way around. If we are for example speaking about German punctuality, we are also implying that others are not as punctual as the Germans. Or if we are speaking about the terrorist Muslim, we are implying that we are more peace-loving and far more civilized.
Stereotypes are conveyed through discourses and are usually resistant to conflicting empirical experiences. To reproduce historical stereotypes we are working with written or visual sources. We are researching on public discourses that can be divided into different groups like national, regional, ethnical, social, religious or gender stereotypes. Mostly stereotypes influence each other and do not exist separately. Most stereotypes about Ottomans also include the role of Islam in history. For us historians it is not only important to just describe the different stereotypes or to reproduce their origins, we also want to show and understand what functions stereotypes had and have for constructing identities and affiliations.
There are already different studies on historical stereotypes: For example, Berit Pleitner compared stereotypes of the French and Poles in the German discourse from 1850 to 1871. She found out that the German stereotypes of French and Poles had many things in common, such as that both have been accused of dishonesty and being actors. It is not possible to draw any real conclusions about the Poles or the French from this, but it allows conclusions about German autostereotype, i.e. that Germans in contrast to the before mentioned are honest and genuine. Her study proved that the same heterostereotypes can be applied to different nations and therefore do not provide any information about the designated group, but only about the users or carriers. It demonstrates how stereotypes construct boarders between one’s self and the other.
Frank Reuter chose a different approach and focus. He examined photographs of Gypsies and illustrated how visual media contributes to the construction and communication of stereotypes in societies. He proves that anthropological methods had already established themselves in science before 1900 and that the photography of a certain type of people played a leading role. Those methods were used for the identification and classification of races, the separation of foreigners and ultimately lead to the idea of cultural hegemony exaggerating one’s own status and worth.
Rima Chahine illustrates how the discourse on Orientalism affected poster art in Western Europe from 1880 to 1914. The oriental motives on posters stood, so one of her findings, in the tradition of European imperialist attitude. The Orient is charged with attributes such as naivety, natural state, lust and primitiveness; whereby the colonization of an inferior Orient is legitimized and sympathy for the civilizing mission of the colonizers is generated.
All these studies examined different sources, looked at different groups, researched national, cultural, ethnical, racial and religious stereotypes and yet show a central common feature: How stereotypes contribute to the formation of identities and affiliations. Each stereotype has the function of strengthening the identity of its user group. It expresses who belongs to the same group, who is included and who is excluded. They are demarcations that mostly occur unconsciously in our minds, but have a direct impact on forms of cohabitation.
After this simplified description of a complex phenomenon, it is necessary to take a closer look at how stereotypes work and how far emotional changes can reach.
In the first half of the 19th century there were many radical changes and upheavals in the German regions. At the beginning of the 19th century the French emperor Napoleon I had invaded nearly the whole of Europe, including various German states, leading to the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, an Empire that had existed since the early Middle Ages. During and in the aftermath of the Napoleonic occupation several political and territorial changes followed and Germans actually began to develop an idea of and a consciousness for what and who should be German even though until 1871 no unified German state did exist. Instead the region was split into independent German states connected through different confederations like the Deutsche Bund. During the Napoleonic occupation and the German campaign against it, a new German national consciousness already began to emerge. In October 1813 the coalition armies of Russia, Prussia, Austria, and Sweden, decisively defeated the Napoleon’s French army in the Battle at Leipzig, the so-called Battle of Nations. The German campaign had been called “Wars of Liberation” in German territories, thus expressing the highly emotional connection many Germans had at this time with the occupation of their own country. A new sense of German unity and of German nation developed, but of course one single victory could not build a whole new national idea that would result into a unified Germany. It was quite important to find something else that was uniquely German, something that would form a German identity. For this different aspects were significant, like a common history, a common language or common traditions and customs. Furthermore a group has to share a semiotic system, that people who do not belong to the group cannot understand. Here stereotypes played an important part.
To give an example: Ernst Moritz Arndt, a German nationalist historian, writer and poet living from 1769 to 1860, became – amongst other things – famous for his patriotic songs and writings. He tried to strengthen the German national feeling by addressing the positive and outstanding characteristics of the German people and confronting them with the negative characteristics of other nations. Some months before the Battle at Leipzig he published a paper titled “Über Volkshaß”, in which he pleaded for hating foreigners, especially the French, for a reflection on original German values and argued against mixing with foreign nations. He wrote:
„Only the superficial, silly, and vain is gained from strangers. If I apply this to the German, it is especially true for him, because he, gifted by God with a special wealth of qualities, is unskillful by nature to move easily, pleasingly, and graciously in foreign forms. Only nations who have little depth of their own can do this with greater ease than he.”
(Arndt, Ernst Moritz: Ueber Volkshaß und über den Gebrauch einer fremden Sprache, Leipzig 1813, S. 18; translation: Christin Hansen)
Here you can see the autostereotype of the god-gifted German, who has outstanding qualities and is definitely not superficial, silly or vain. In the text that follows Ernst Moritz Arndt describes Germans as particularly faithful, honest, brave and virtuous. This includes the heterosterotype of others nations, who are not as faithful, honest, brave and virtuous as the Germans. Ernst Moritz Arndt calls the French domineering, deceitful and war-loving. I would like to briefly draw your attention again to what has been said about the Völkertafel: Here the French had already been described as war-loving people. And this was nearly 100 years before Ernst Moritz Arndt wrote his text. There is a narrative or rather a stereotype of the war-loving Frenchman, which has a long tradition and is communicated again and again in the following history of the 19th and also 20th century. In the historical context, the French had always been strong neighbors – and repeatedly Germany’s enemy – and of course for the Germans it was necessary to distinguish themselves from the French to form a national German identity and build a unified German nation state.
But not only national heterostereotypes of the French existed, they were complemented with stereotypes about Russians and Polish people – in summary with stereotypes about the “barbaric Slavs”. During the German March Revolution in 1848 some Germans made plans to elect a German national assembly to create a modern constitution as the foundation of a unified Germany. Even though many activities of the Frankfurt National Assembly were in the end unsuccessful, the topic of a united Germany was repeatedly discussed. The annexed former Polish territories also played an important role. During this debate Wilhelm Jordan gave a speech, illustrating the prevailing stereotypes regarding Poles. Wilhelm Jordan was a German writer and politician who lived from 1819 to 1904. Jordan repeatedly refers to the Poles as lazy people who are unable to rule or cultivate their land. One reason for this condition was – as he put it – their love for their own nobility:
„The Poles are still only a nation of aristocracy which regards the wise frugality, the hard work of the Germans as a sign of inferior disposition, as dirty greed.”
(Wigard, Franz: Stenographischer Bericht über die Verhandlungen der deutschen constituirenden Nationalversammlung zu Frankfurt am Main, Bd. 2, Frankfurt am Main 1848, S. 1147, translation: Christin Hansen)
The social stereotype of Poles and their nobility was a common heterostereotype that already existed for a very long time, as can be seen in the before mentioned Völkertafel.
Because of the retrograde situation in Poland, the Germans were obliged to territorial interventions and annexations; Germans just helped the Poles and they should be thankful, so the thought-process and autosterotype, leading to the conclusion that the Germans had a duty to continue cultivating the country and to bring progress. Of course on the one hand it morally legitimized the occupation of former Polish lands, but on the other it communicated the German self-image as a hard-working, progressive and superior nation.
So, national stereotypes are mainly focusing on constructing a national identity, which also results in excluding people who are not part of this inner group. This happened all over Europe and is nothing uniquely German. Even though its logical conclusion was not National Socialism, as some might have claimed, stereotypes have definitely been important for the radicalization of groups and societies, because they have a strong emotional aspect and are not rational. If the emotions become stronger and that in a negative way, it could happen that the position of the group members becomes so radical that people are not only excluded, but even discriminated against or even declared inferior. Probably the best-known example for this process is antisemitism.
Understanding these historical processes is important and so is of course historical stereotype research, as Prof. Dr. Hans Henning Hahn aptly put it:
“Our 21 century started with far more conflicts and bloodier than we all expected, and there are less and less signs that the near future will be more peaceful. Conflicts generate stereotypes, reproduce them, increase and intensify them. […] As an researcher on stereotypes I should be happy about this situation, because stereotypes are more topical and perceptible in a world full of conflicts then in a peaceful one, in which stereotypes disturb people much less. As a citizen of this world and this continent I have many doubts and fears in a situation in which even democratic states are becoming increasingly prone to violence. Conflicts give birth to stereotypes and the increased use of stereotypes give birth to conflicts or at least intensify them.”
(Hahn, Hans Henning: Das Selbstbild und das Fremdbild – was verbindet sie? Überlegungen zur Identitäts-funktion von Stereotypen in der europäischen Geschichte, in: Dąbrowska, Anna/ Pisarek, Walery/ Stickel, Gerhard (Hg.): Stereotypes and Linguistic Prejudices in Europe, Warschau 2017, translation: Christin Hansen)