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Narrating the First World War and experiencing the World Café

by Janine Noack

Interested and inspired by the article about the Weber World Café Charlotte Jahnz published last month on our blog, I decided that I wanted to experience the WorldCafé myself. I visited on the day that the topic “Narrating the First World War – Experiences and Reports from Transregional Perspectives” was happening in Berlin. It was a great opportunity to spend an evening with experts in the field and a great range of participants from various different backgrounds.

Finding a new approach 

2014 is full of discussion rounds, panels and lectures on topics related to WW1. So why do we need another one?

The Weber World Café organised by the Max Weber Foundation and the Forum Transregionale Studien (Forum of Transregional Studies) convinces with its special format. There were no fixed questions; the content of each discussion depended on the participants. The approach was transnational, meaning that a specific topic was discussed from different regional perspectives. As a result, every table developed its own perspectives and when a new group of participants joined the table after 25 minutes, the discussion could go in the opposite direction while still retaining influences from earlier participants. After four discussion rounds, all participants gathered and shared their experiences with the whole group.

A guided tour 19141918

The whole event started with a guided tour through the German History Museum on “Der Erste Welt Krieg 19141918” (The First World War 19141918). Many of you might be already bored by (yet) another exhibition on World War One this year, but this one is worth a visit. The whole exhibition consisted of 14 so-called “silent places” divided into the different battlefields, politically and culturally important cities and occupied regions. At each different station, aspects such as gender issues, economic consequences and global implications of the war were discussed by using individual biographies and illustrated examples.

Discussions in only 25 minutes

With the inspiration of the exhibition in mind, I was curious to start the discussion rounds at the World Café. How was this supposed to work, I wondered. Gesche Schifferdecker gave a good explanation:

“It  works like this: in a coffee house-like atmosphere every expert has their own table, where they have the role of the host. The participants can now decide which table they want to visit, based on the expert’s field of research. After 20 to 30 minutes the participants have to go to another table thus creating new groups with different backgrounds“

The event provided eight tables with eight regions: (1. Western Europe, 2. Central Europe, 3. Eastern Europe, 4. North America/Oceania, 5. Western Asia, 6. Near and Middle East, 7. East Asia/South Asia, 8. Africa). As I had already done some work on WW1 in Western Europe, Central Europe and Eastern Europe and North America, I visited tables 5, 6, 7, and 8. When the discussion on table 7 started, I found myself sitting between an architecture student, Dr. Torsten Weber (an expert on Japanese History), Dr. Semiksha Sehrawat (an expert on Indian History), a curator and a PhD student. The discussion immediately started after we heard the word, “Go!” from the organisers.

It was a fascinating way to learn something about a completely unknown topic. The discussions were deep and full of reflection, but also general enough to let outsiders understand the main arguments. By then, I was convinced that this would become an interesting evening.

Some impressions

An important question raised several times was: how do we determine the actual end of the war? Although peace treaties were signed, the aftermath of the war lasted much longer.

Also, I had the most intense discussion about the influence of WW1 on India and Japan:

At my last round table discussion, I visited the table which dealt with WW1 and Africa. Michelle Myod, Associate Professor at Indiana University, came to Berlin specifically to share her research at this event. Her research focuses on the cultural history of soldiers in the colonial army of German East Africa by exploring their identities and motivations; significantly, the scope does not end with the end of the war in 1918. After the official end of WW1, the actual process of reflection started.

All in all, it was a fascinating and interesting event about a topic that I have discussed intensively several times, but with the new approach of the World Café. Its structure inspired me to think about questions that are completely new to me. Last but not least, the atmosphere with coffee and cakes ensured that motivation to continue discussion remained at the same level even after two hours. Something we should organise in other countries as well, right?

Further readings:

Weber World Café on Twitter

Urkatastrophe oder Katalysator? (in German)

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