"This is us" - Questions for Julia Wambach

February 12, 2024

Our institute has over 300 employees. But that is just a number. Who are the people at our institute? What do they do and what drives them? In our "This is us" format, colleagues answer questions about their work and their motivation.

On the occasion of International Women's Day on March 8, 2023, we started the series “This is us” with 15 female scientists from our institute. We are picking up where we left off and introducing the scientist Julia Wambach from the Center for the History of Emotions. In the last episode, we introduced Anne-Marie Nussberger from the Center for Humans and Machines.

One of your research topics at the Center for History of Emotions is the history of deindustrialization since the 1960s in Germany and France.  What fascinates you about this topic?    

Deindustrializations are huge economic transformation processes that are long and painful and affect all aspects of life. They can therefore be as drastic as regime changes or wars. The consequences of the deindustrialization I am investigating, the slow end of coal and steel production in Western Europe since the 1960s, are still affecting us today. The economy, which had relied on coal and steel for a century, collapsed and had to be painstakingly and not always successfully rebuilt. I am fascinated by how people dealt with these big financial, social, and emotional challenges and crises.  

You mainly deal with the deindustrialization in Gelsenkirchen. Can you briefly explain what the situation was like back then? To what extent did it affect the sense of community within the city's population?    

For over 150 years, Gelsenkirchen was proudly one of the largest mining towns in Europe: however, since the 1960s, it has experienced a slow decline with the last colliery being closed down in 2008. Within forty years, deindustrialization transformed Gelsenkirchen from a lively, modern industrial city into a city that made negative headlines across Germany: the city with the highest unemployment and child poverty, the city with the lowest life expectancy. 

To what extent did it affect the sense of community within the city's population?    

The death of the coal mines naturally had consequences for the sense of community in the city, as many social contacts and leisure activities were organized through work, which then ceased to exist. The Social Democratic city administration made every effort to keep the community together but was unable to absorb everything. However, there were also defiant counter-reactions to this bad image of Gelsenkirchen, which was perceived as stigmatization. For example, a city guide printed T-shirts with the number #401 - which was Gelsenkirchen's last place in a study on Germany's most liveable city from 2018 - and thus set an example for the cohesion of Gelsenkirchen residents against the stigmatization from outside. I am particularly interested in places of community and solidarity that have survived deindustrialization or perhaps even emerged during it. For example, the stadium of the soccer club FC Schalke 04 who has staged itself as the savior and home of the miners since the mid-1990s. Or the municipal museum, which initiated the positive reinterpretation of a derogatory term, the so-called "Gelsenkirchen Baroque". In the early 1990s, an exhibition of furniture cabinets (so-called "cabinet monsters") in the style of Gelsenkirchen Baroque was organized there to ironically and proudly confront the term of abuse and thus give the city and its inhabitants a positive image, detached from deindustrialization and its consequences.   

Are there differences between Germany and France?   

Yes, for example, a contemporary witness from Gelsenkirchen told me, "In France, they just closed the colliery gate and threw away the key, we did it properly here." This is of course a somewhat wooden comparison, but it has a kernel of truth, which has to do with the fact that coal subsidies in Germany were phased out much more slowly than in France and the process of deindustrialization in Germany was therefore slower and more cautious. In my French case study, Lens in northern France, the last coal mine closed in 1986, whereas in Gelsenkirchen it was a good twenty years later. In my work, I am investigating the social and emotional consequences of these different chronologies of deindustrialization.  

When did you decide to become a scientist? How did you decide on this field of study 

I read children's stories about the Second World War from a very early age, when I was around 9-10 years old, and stories "from the past", especially from this period of the Second World War and the post-war period, were very present in my family. I was so fascinated by this past world, which was very strange to me but whose traces I found in my present, that I decided to study history in high school so that I could delve into it more intensively. And this fascination with the past, which has an intrinsic influence on our present, continues to drive me as a researcher.  

What challenges do you face as a scientist?  

In addition to the everyday challenges of being a working parent, one of the challenges I face is navigating the different national requirements for my academic work and, ultimately, the labor markets. I studied in Germany and France and did my doctorate in the USA and am now back as a postdoc in the German system, which expects me to have a long list of publications and very quickly a second book on a topic that is very different from my dissertation. In the USA or France, you work much longer on a topic in my field and - at least in the USA - a different kind of scientific output is expected than in this country, namely a few peer-reviewed journal articles and a well-edited book based on the dissertation. Doing justice to the different academic systems is quite a balancing act.  

What do you value about the Max Planck Community?  

The inspiring, international environment, the open exchange and the joint projects with my colleagues, that transcend disciplinary boundaries. The Max Planck Community constantly pushes me to see my research through the eyes of others, to ask new questions and to place my research in larger contexts. 

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