Mediating Disability History to a broader audience: An Institutional Approach

by Sebastian Weinert

As Daniel Blackie pointed out recently on this blog, doing public disability history is an important, but sometimes challenging project.1 In the last couple of months we had the great opportunity to test different ways to communicate the history of a foundation for people with disability to the public. By doing so we gathered some inspiring experiences we are happy to share with other disability historians.

Guido von Donnersmarck sourrounded
by war invalids in Berlin-Frohnau
8th May 2016 has been an important date for the Fürst Donnersmarck-Stiftung zu Berlin (FDST): Exactly 100 years ago – in the midst of World War I – Guido Graf Henckel Fürst von Donnersmarck established the foundation as a scientific research institute in Berlin. He was an Upper Silesian magnate and one of the richest persons in Prussia.2 In August 1914 – shortly after the outbreak of the “Great War“ – he erected a military hospital at the heart of Berlin-Frohnau – an area near the German capital he had originally acquired for investment purposes. Two years later, von Donnersmarck decided to give his engagement for war invalids a permanent basis by bringing the FDST to life. The history of this institution was quite eventful. Due to several reasons the foundation’s mission to become a scientific research institute coping with the new injuries caused by modern weaponry never came into being. Not until the end of World War II the FDST started its actual work – with a pedagogic instead rather than medical or scientific approach. Eventually, the foundation grew to a sizable institution that provides support for people with disability with housing and leisure activities as well as the operation of two hotels in Rheinsberg and Bad Bevensen. The foundation furthermore runs the P.A.N. Centre for Post-Acute Neurorehabilitation in Berlin-Frohnau and is currently increasing its engagement for scientific research on the field of neurorehabilitation.

On the occasion of its 100th anniversary the management as well as the board of trustees decided to mediate the foundation’s history to a broader audience. Therefore a new Festschrift about the development of the organisation from 1916 until the recent days was commissioned. A similar project marked the occasion of the 75th anniversary 19913, but things have changed during the last 25 years. Not only did the organisation itself undergo drastic structural changes during the last decades, but the historical interest in the history of people with disability has also clearly increased in the new millennium. Research in Disability History has provided a new backdrop, helping us to better understand the history of this particular institution.4 Thus it was time for a new comprehensive monograph of the foundation’s history. After about one year of research and writing the study “100 Jahre Fürst Donnersmarck-Stiftung 1916-2016“ was published on 7th May 2016.5

A gaze at a lecture in front of visitors of the Villa Donnersmarck in Berlin-Zehlendorf

But this didn’t mean that our goal of communicating the organisation’s past to a broader public was fulfilled. Since our target groups are considerably heterogeneous, ranging from people with multiple disabilities to our employees and even political or scientific stakeholders, we opted for a multi-level mediation process. In addition to the monograph we wrote an easy-to-read summary that first appeared in our magazine WIR and was later issued as a stand-alone booklet.6 Furthermore we curated an exhibition including plenty of audio-visual material and organised several lectures that aimed at various audiences. This means we spoke in front of an academic public, the guests of our hotels in Bad Bevensen and Rheinsberg as well as the visitors of our cultural center Villa Donnersmarck. In addition we conceived a special lecture for the clients with intellectual disabilities at our sheltered independent housing facility.

Last but not least we posted images and short texts using the hashtag #FDST100 on Facebook, Google+, and Twitter to remind the audience of important events that took place in the past. By doing so we managed to reach a considerable number of people from all parts of society. More than 700 people attended to the lectures and exhibition tours, the WIR is almost completely out of stock, and several employees, who all got a personalized copy of the Festschrift as gift, provided enthusiastic feedback about the book. The exhibition was shown in the Villa Donnersmarck, our two hotels and will be shown at our P.A.N. Centre for Post-Acute Neurorehabilitation. Furthermore the exhibition was on display during our anniversary celebration in the STATION-Berlin, which was attended by 1600 people.

The exhibition about the history
of the FDST at the STATION-Berlin
But what has this to do with doing public disability history? First of all the history of the FDST is part of the general history of people with disability. Since many of them receive support of organisations like the FDST or are at least in touch with them, their life is heavily affected by developments in the social sector. Thus by tracing down the history of the FDST we also provide valuable insights in the social attitude towards people with disability. And we show how economic, political or social transformations influence the work of a foundation like the FDST. On the other hand exploring and mediating our history had a second aim: By doing so we wanted to give everybody – people with disabilities, employees, scientists or the general public – the opportunity to inform themselves about our past. That means that we got in direct contact with people with disability – for example during our lectures. Thereby we had the chance to share opinions about the history of our organisation as well as of the situation of people with disability in 20th and 21th century Germany. In this way we offered our clients or guests with disability an access to their own history – an attempt to empower them as interpreters of disability history in their own rights. And by the way: Mediating the results of our research the way we did takes the demand of public historians seriously to restart getting in touch with a broad audience outside the scientific world.7 For us this was also one of several approaches to give everyone a chance to participate in our anniversary year – whether with or without a disability.

Doing disability history is challenging, but also enriching. In our case we understand the organisation’s history mainly as a historical resource that gives us orientation in the present as well as a chance for giving people with disability the opportunity to get in contact with us and learn more about the organisation and its past.

Recommended Citation:
Sebastian Weinert (2017): Mediating Disability History to a broader audience: An Institutional Approach. In: Public Disability History 2 (2017) 2.

[1] See Blackie, Daniel: Doing Public Disability History, in: Public Disability History 1 (2016) 16. Online:
[2] See Manfred Rasch: Der Unternehmer Guido Henckel von Donnersmarck. Eine Skizze. Essen: Klartext 2016.
[3] See Golka, Thomas/Wieder, Horst: Geschichte der Fürst Donnersmarck-Stiftung 1916-1991, Berlin: Selbstverlag 1991.
[4] See e. g. Waldschmidt, Anne/Lingelbach, Gabriele (Hrsg.): Kontinuitäten, Zäsuren, Brüche? Lebenslagen von Menschen mit Behinderungen in der deutschen Zeitgeschichte, Frankfurt am Main: Campus 2016.
[5] See Weinert, Sebastian: 100 Jahre Fürst Donnersmarck-Stiftung 1916-2016, Berlin: Selbstverlag 2016.
[6] See Scharf, Bertold: Tagungsbericht: Kontinuitäten, Zäsuren, Brüche? Die Lebenslage von Menschen mit Behinderungen in Deutschland nach 1945: Periodisierungsfragen der deutschen Zeitgeschichte aus interdisziplinärer Perspektive, 20.03.2014 – 22.03.2014 Köln, in: H-Soz-Kult, 02.09.2014. Online:
[7] See WIR-Magazin (2016) 1. Online:

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