The Scent of Others: An Olfactory History of German Division

Employees (IfZ):  Dr. Bodo Mrozek

The project seeks to develop a smell history of Germany’s division from the sensory studies perspective. By focusing on the "close sense" of smell, it reconstructs how the political process of partition intersected with sensory perception. Did the political process of division alter not only smell landscapes but even human perception itself – and how did this intersection in turn impact politics?

The project’s main areas of research are conflicts about the environment and exhaust emissions, indoor smells and pollutants, changes in hygiene and cosmetics, the politicization of scents and the scent industry, as well as measures known as "sensory warfare," that is, the use of volatile substances by the police and military. The research focuses on the development of diverging smellscapes in urban, rural, and industrial spaces via contemporary documents. How were these spaces debated? And did the sensibilities of contemporaries in both halves of the divided nation undergo changes with reference to pollution, cosmetics, detergents, and food? By analyzing these realms, the project takes stock of political partition from a body history perspective. The period under examination comprises the era of political and spatial separation, the Cold War in its various phases, the osmotic re-assimilation during the period of transition known as the "long Wende," as well as the reconstruction in post-1989 memory culture in which smells once again played a significant role (as in such political nostalgias as "Ostalgie" or "Westalgie"). The sources of this olfactory history are osmotheques, narrative interviews, and above all archival documents which can be read as sensory protocols.

The project pursues two main objectives. First, it seeks to grasp the depth of the partition in the environment and on the level of everyday life. Second, it aims to reevaluate the periodization of this era (notably, olfactory differences persist well beyond the political turning point of formal political reunification). By placing olfaction at the center of the analysis, the study documents the historically specific, politically contingent nature of what might be described as a "close sense" (as distinguished from the "distant senses" hearing and sight).

These original insights into the sensory history of partition and entanglement make it possible to acquire unique perspectives on the micro-political effects of inner-German division and in its intersensory relations. The project seeks to contribute to a larger sensory and olfactory history encompassing the entire twentieth century.

© Institut für Zeitgeschichte