Christhard Schrenk. Karl Anspach: Ein blinder Kaufmann revolutioniert das Blindenhandwerk (1889-1941). Heilbronn: Stadtarchiv, 2009. Illustrations, CD-ROM with Audiobook in Daisy Format. 203 pp. EUR 16.80 (cloth), ISBN 978-3-940646-03-3.
Reviewed by Daniel Werges (City University of New York)
Published on H-Disability (January, 2012)
Commissioned by Iain C. Hutchison (University of Glasgow)
Karl Anspach and the Self-Help Movement of the Blind in Early Twentieth-Century Germany
Christhard Schrenk is a regional historian in southwestern Germany and the director of the Archives of the City of Heilbronn. His interest in the blind businessman Karl Anspach is primarily related to the local history of this city where Anspach lived from 1915 to the time of his death in 1941. Anspach was a successful businessman and visionary leader of the self-help and self-advocacy movement of the blind in Germany during the first half of the twentieth century. Thus Schrenk’s book is not only meaningful in the context of shedding light on an almost forgotten historical figure of the city of Heilbronn, but also highly relevant for disability historians and disability studies scholars.
Anspach was regarded by his contemporaries as one of the most important individuals among the blind in Germany. The first chapter of the book reviews Anspach’s remarkable achievements and describes his lifelong commitment to improving living and working conditions for the blind. As a young adult, Anspach completed a business education and joined a small enterprise as codirector. He was also engaged in groups of the blind, for example, as a regional representative of the Reich Association of the Blind. Through this association he met Rudolf Kraemer of Heilbronn who persuaded him to lead the first cooperative of the blind, which Kraemer had founded in 1913. Anspach became business director of this cooperative at the age of twenty-five and continued to lead it until his untimely death in 1941.
Anspach used his entrepreneurial and leadership skills to grow a small and struggling cooperative into a major business enterprise. The cooperative started in 1913 with thirty-seven members and sales of six thousand marks. In 1939, 342 members produced a sales volume of over one million reichsmarks. Anspach managed this success despite ongoing challenges, such as war, inflation, and fluctuating economic conditions. Initially, the cooperative produced brushes and baskets. Anspach expanded the business to include other products, used innovation to find new markets, and encouraged workers to become familiar with business practices beyond their specific craft in order to stay competitive in difficult economic times.
It is somewhat surprising that Schrenk manages to summarize Anspach’s life in the fifty short pages of the first chapter, considering that he covers Anspach’s involvement with local, regional, national, and even international organizations of the blind. Though some areas are expanded on in the following chapters, it would have been beneficial for the reader to learn more about the wider historical context and Anspach’s responses to major social and political changes. For example, there is very little information about Anspach’s thoughts and reactions to the Adolf Hitler regime. It appears that he was not politically involved, focusing instead on the pragmatic issues of improving the lives of the blind by creating and improving work opportunities. There is a short anecdotal mention of Anspach joining the Nazi Party and, although Schrenk could not confirm party membership through a review of historic records, it is assumed that he joined the party in order to have easier access to party and government officials so that he could continue his advocacy work. Considering that the Nazi’s sterilization law and other eugenic measures targeted hereditary blindness among other disabilities, the reader is left wondering what Anspach’s response was to the Nazi Party taking complete control of society and the accompanying eugenic and murderous campaign against disabled people.
It is inspiring to read about the broad spectrum of activities Anspach was involved in, including a newspaper for blind craftsmen, various publications in relation to blindness and employment, conferences, a campaign for an insurance for the blind, the successful establishment of a registered trademark for products made by the blind, and even the attempt to make literature more available to blind people. Despite these achievements there was also some criticism of Anspach’s efforts to create more work opportunities for blind people. For instance, one of his contemporaries, a director of an institution for the blind, saw a contradiction in Anspach’s approach to welfare and self-help. Unfortunately, Schrenk only mentions this critique in one sentence, though a deeper exploration of such debates would have been enlightening, as they continue today in many arenas related to disability.
Chapters 2 through 5 deal with organizations of the blind with which Anspach was involved. The second chapter discusses the Württemberg Cooperative of the Blind in more depth, which is followed by a chapter on the Württemberg Association of the Blind and a separate chapter on the local Heilbronn chapter of the association. The fifth and last chapter is a very brief review of the Association of the German-Speaking Blind. While some of the information is largely relevant in the context of local and regional history, there is a wealth of information useful for disability historians and disability studies scholars with an interest in self-help and self-advocacy efforts of the blind.
One particular strength of this book lies in the approach of looking at history not only through the individual personality of Anspach, but also through the social movement of the blind and historical forces that influenced this movement. Chapters 2 and 3, for example, start with a discussion of why and how the blind in Germany started to emancipate themselves from schools and institutions led by nondisabled people and the attitudes that regarded the blind as non-equal and in need of being taken care of. Schrenk skillfully highlights the conflict between teachers of the blind and the blind themselves who fought for more independence and equality. A watershed moment was the first national conference of the blind in 1909, which was attended by 300 people, of whom 236 were blind. This meeting generated the ideas of forming associations of the blind and also cooperatives, such as the one Anspach directed.
The last chapter on the Association of the German-Speaking Blind is of particular interest in relation to this movement, as it represents a forerunner organization in the self-organization of blind people. The association was founded in 1891 with the primary purpose of establishing a common Braille shorthand that could be used by all German-speaking blind people, not only within Germany, but also in Austria and Switzerland. Though brief, the chapter manages to highlight the conflict between teachers of the blind and the blind themselves who fought for participation in crucial developments and decisions affecting them. The association was relatively short-lived; it dissolved in 1934 under pressure from the Hitler government which did not tolerate international or independent organizations.
The detailed chapters on these organizations demonstrate the thorough research that went into this book. It is largely based on primary sources and uses well quotes, photographs, and other visuals of historic documents to summarize the development of specific groups that were part of the overall emancipation movement of the blind in Germany. The book is well referenced and contains additional appendices, including a summary of the most important publications by Anspach and a selection of his writings. These excerpts from a lifetime of advocacy emphasize Anspach’s knowledge, creativity, and skill in advancing the interests of the blind despite tremendous challenges. Some of his approaches to responding to difficult economic times and creating new and expanded work opportunities are worth considering today as a majority of disabled people remain un- or underemployed. One of his essays describes, for a German audience, the conditions and supports for the blind in 1920s New York. It is interesting to read such an account from a European perspective.
Schrenk’s book, though written with a focus on local and regional history, serves as a valuable resource to readers interested in the history of the blind in particular and disability history in general. He possesses intricate knowledge of the self-help movement of the blind in Germany. As the author of Kraemer’s biography, another resident of Heilbronn and important leader among the German blind during the early twentieth century (Rudolf Kraemer: Ein Leben für die Blinden, 1885-1945 ), Schrenk opens the doors to exploring an important part of German disability history. Carol Poore, in her book Disability in Twentieth-Century German Culture (2009), has drawn on Schrenk’s research; more work needs to be done to place Anspach, and his efforts to advance the lives of the blind, in the context of disability history and disability studies.
of the 1920s
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. Christhard Schrenk, Rudolf Kraemer. Ein Leben für die Blinden, 1885-1945 (Heilbronn: Stadtarchiv, 2002).
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-disability.
Daniel Werges. Review of Schrenk, Christhard, Karl Anspach: Ein blinder Kaufmann revolutioniert das Blindenhandwerk (1889-1941).
H-Disability, H-Net Reviews.
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