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Project D8

The Heroization of Labor in China and Russia between 1920 and 1960


Prof. Dr. Dietmar Neutatz
Prof. Dr. Nicola Spakowski
Irina Tibilova
Alexander Schröder

Department of History
Department of Sinology

This project researches heroic working-class figures in China and Russia between 1920 and 1960, placing them in the context of the global-historical heroization of labor. An interdisciplinary team of historians and Chinese Studies researchers apply comparative research methods to examine the heroization of labor in national and culture-specific communist contexts. This project places its "socialist heroes" in a broader framework and investigates the relationship between the heroization of labor and its portrayal as a national struggle. The heroization of labor itself is regarded as a response to the challenges of modern life and as an important part of an anti-capitalist model of society.
The figure of the working hero is formulated as transcending the cultural and political realm and has been found not only in communist, fascist and national socialist movements but also in social democratic and conservative revolutions and during the New Deal in the United States. This figure of the working hero similarly overlaps with discourses across political camps and countries concerning the "modern man." The emotional – and almost mystical – presentation of the worker who has been made virtually anonymous in the process of industrialization and almost completely functionalized can be interpreted as a reaction to modern industrialized society, which is defined by making everything more mechanical, economic, rational and anonymous.

Two particular manifestations of this phenomenon are being researched in separate sub-projects. As part of her dissertation, the historian Irina Tibilova (History) is researching the "Heroization and Militarization of Labor in the Soviet Union from the 1920s to the Early 1960s" ("Heroisierung und Militarisierung von Arbeit in der Sowjetunion von den 1920er bis Anfang der 1960er Jahre"). Alexander Schröder (Chinese Studies) is similarly concerned with "Working Heroes in the Changing Context of Chinese Socialism from the Late 1920s to ca. 1960" ("Arbeitsheld/inn/en in wechselnden Kontexten des chinesischen Sozialismus von den späten 1920er Jahren bis ca. 1960").

The research results of the project leaders will additionally enable these findings to be further contextualized and correlated with each other. In this way, the team is able to analyze the cross-border dimensions and effects of changes and transfer between the figuration and the social practice of working heroes in the Soviet Union and China.
These nations were selected based on their different socio-economic stages of development and the perspectives resulting from these. In opposition to Western industrialized nations, modern industrialized society was not yet implemented at this time in the Soviet Union and China, and both countries shaped their opinion of agricultural and industrial work in varying fashions on a regional level.

The main points of investigation in this project include: 1) The origins of the heroization of labor, the appropriation of older and contemporary discourses associated with this in the early Soviet Union, and the transfer processes between the Soviet Union and China; 2) medialization and figuration (ascription of characteristics, body image and gender roles to working heroes as well as fictional and utopian projections); 3) function, social reach and social practice in the heroization of labor; 4) the role of the political system (specific features of the heroization of labor in the presence and absence of a totalitarian system).
The project is led by Prof. Dr. Dietmar Neutatz (Department of History) and Prof. Dr. Nicola Spakowski (Institute of Chinese Studies).