Seeing the National Body: Racialization and Belonging in Germany

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Seeing the National Body: Racialization and Belonging in Germany

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My dissertation explores the role of the visual, in particular seeing the national body, in discussions of migration, integration, and belonging in post-unification Germany. I provide an exploration of what is considered to be specifically German about the German body, as it is remembered, imagined, represented, and reproduced, and I show the prevalence of the notion of German as a physical type. The visual—in terms of the national body as seen and unseen in the German public—underlies even the more mundane areas of immigration, integration, and belonging. Focusing on the “visible yet unseen” German national body, I critique official visual representations of integration that fix categories of migrant/German. In order to identify the broadest extent of racialized thinking on the national body, I also use ethnographic modalities such as interviews, conversations, and participant observation, as well as the analysis of visual content, specifically modes of representative seeing in literature and popular music. Drawing creatively on government posters, pop musicians, and conversations with Russians, to name a few of my sources and texts, I cross genres, disciplines, dominant discourses, and various minority groups to uncover the national imagination. It is critically important to reveal the unreflected way we see the national body, calling our attention to how modes of seeing function in a variety of settings: mass culture, political propaganda and everyday essentialisms in private, interpersonal contexts. I explore the trope of the white German body, but my dissertation also explores more broadly the way race, and thus national belonging, is conceptualized—beyond skin color—in Germany. My research on the contingency of racial categories in Germany therefore contributes to the critical discourse of race and ethnicity and interrogates how the complicated intersection of cultures and “looks” might be brought to bear on discussions of migration in German Studies. I argue that assumptions about the link between looks and nationality persist into the present day and that “German” often functions as a racial label. Despite globalization and migration to Germany, the country still struggles with the idea that Germanness is defined by origins and associated with a particular look.


University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation.May 2016. Major: Germanic Studies. Advisors: Arlene Teraoka, Ruth-Ellen Joeres. 1 computer file (PDF); viii, 223 pages.

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Olstad, Ashley. (2016). Seeing the National Body: Racialization and Belonging in Germany. Retrieved from the University Digital Conservancy,

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