Germany: Memories of a Nation at the British Museum

Germany: Memories of a Nation at the British Museum

Germany British Museum

Flag of the German Confederation, 1850

After listening to Neil MacGregor’s outstanding radio series, Germany: Memories of a Nation, a visit to the linked exhibition at the British Museum was considered essential.  But, you might ask, was it worth it, having heard the radio version?  Yes, absolutely.  In the radio programmes, Neil MacGregor focussed on one particular object, and very few items he discussed are illustrated on the BBC website.  The exhibition, on the other hand, features 200 objects selected to reflect on a number of key themes that offer an impressionistic, but richly detailed, account of 600 years of German history, from the Renaissance to the present day.

Like the radio series, the exhibition sets out to investigate the complexities of German history.  For British visitors it poses two key questions: How much do we really understand Germany, and how do its people understand themselves?

Wir sind ein Volk placard, East Germany, 1990

Wir sind ein Volk placard, East Germany, 1990

When you enter the exhibition you see three things. The first is a quote from the painter Georg Baselitz: ‘What I could never escape was Germany and being German’; then your attention is drawn to a video of the joyous crowds of East Germans pouring through the hastily-opened Berlin Wall on the night of 9 November 1989.  Finally, displayed nearby is a home-made placard made for a demonstration in East Berlin a few weeks later: cut in the shape of the united Germany and with the colours of the German flag it bears the words: ‘Wir sind ein Volk’ –  ‘we are one people’.

The point being made is how recently the Germany of today – the Germany on the placard, and the one unification created in 1990 – came into existence. The boundaries  of today’s Germany are less than a quarter of a century old, the result of the merging of the German Democratic Republic with the German Federal Republic  in 1990.

Model of Strasbourg cathedral clock

Model of Strasbourg cathedral clock

How this new Germany echoes and recalls older forms of Germany is the story told by the exhibition. It is a story of shifting borders and jigsaw pieces of German history, some of which are found in cities which are no longer German. Take, for example, Strasbourg, now a French border city, but for centuries a centre of German culture and industry.  In the cathedral there, Goethe thought he had found the essence of German art and history.  The exhibition illustrates the city’s key place in German history with a model of the cathedral clock, made in 1574. As well as dials to show the time, the clock strikes the hours and the quarters. On the hour, figures emerge on a revolving dais – first Death to strikes the hour, then the figure of Christ appears to banish Death. It’s a remarkable piece of intricate engineering.

Kathe Kollwitz, Self-Portrait, 1904

Kathe Kollwitz, Self-Portrait, 1904

Next, a reminder that Königsberg, once home to Immanuel Kant and later to the German painter and printmaker Käthe Kollwitz, is now Kaliningrad, a Russian city.  Here is one of Kathe Kollwitz’s intense, searching self-portrait, this one from 1904.  Kollwitz was  born in Konigsberg  when it was a Prussian city. By 1945 her home town had been destroyed by Allied bombing and, renamed Kalingrad, was under Soviet control. (For more about Kathe Kollwitz, see ‘Käthe Kollwitz, a Berlin story‘ on the British Museum blog.)

In this opening section of the exhibition, the theme is ‘Floating Frontiers’; the aim is to show how the geographic home of the German-speaking peoples has fluctuated widely, from an enormous swathe of princely states, loosely united  within the Holy Roman Empire, then smashed apart by Napoleon, and then re-forged under Prussian leadership.

Franz Kafka by Hans Fronius. 1937 Woodcut

Franz Kafka: woodcut by Hans Fronius, 1937 

A superb woodcut of Franz Kafka is here to remind us that the Czech city of Prague was once home to a large German-speaking community, which included Kafka, one of the most acclaimed writers in the German language. Today, however, neither Russian-speaking Kaliningrad nor Czech-speaking Prague are in any sense German.

Holbein, Portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam, 1523

Holbein, Portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam, 1523

Nearby is this portrait of Erasmus, painted by Holbein in 1523 while he was based in the university at Basel. Throughout the medieval period Basel was a thoroughly German city – one of the first centres of the German printing industry.  Its university attracted renowned scholars such as Erasmus. In 1501, however, Basel elected to become part of Switzerland.

Holbein, Lady with Squirrel and Starling

Holbein, Lady with Squirrel and Starling, 1526

Holbein appears again with this portrait painted during his first visit to England in 1526.  His career – and the painting – both reflect the extent of German-speaking cultural and commercial links across Europe at the time.  The lady is English, her squirrel is German, and she wears Russian-cut furs that would have come to England through a Hanseatic League merchant operating in the Steelyard, the main trading base of the Hanseatic League in London, located on the north bank of the Thames roughly where Cannon Street station now stands. As this article from History Today suggests, the Hanseatic League was effectively the first Common Market. Holbein went on to paint portraits of several prominent members of the Steelyard community

Casper David Friedrich, Der Mittag (Noon), 1821

Casper David Friedrich, Der Mittag (Noon), 1821

This painting by Casper David Friedrich illustrates how the German landscape has had a profound impact on German identity. The work of 19th century Romantics like Friedrich, with their focus on wild places, mountain ranges, remote lakes and deep forests, gave new focus to the German landscape as a symbol of German identity (even today, one-third of Germany is covered by forests). The early and continuing influence of the Green Party reflects this aspect of the German identity.

Pen and ink drawing of the rhinoceros, by Albrecht Dürer, 1515

Albrecht Dürer, pen and ink drawing of a rhinoceros, 1515

Johann Gottleib Kirchner, Meissen porcelain Rhino, 1730

Johann Gottleib Kirchner, Meissen porcelain Rhino, 1730

Durer’s famous rhinocerous print and a copy of it made from Meissen porcelain two centuries later have been chosen to represent two of Germany’s earliest artistic and technological achievements.  The invention of modern printing in the mid-1400s allowed Durer to become the first leading artist to gain fame for his mass-produced works.  Though he never actually saw a rhinocerous, his print – with its inaccuracies – was copied for centuries. It was such an obvious example of great German art that when porcelain was reinvented by scientists in Dresden in the early 1700s it was transformed into this example of an industry which allowed Europe to equal China’s earlier achievements.

These have been just glimpses of a wide-ranging and complex exhibition.  Inevitably, it’s the objects that represent the devastating and tragic events of the first half of the 20th century that linger in the memory. The exhibition reflects these events through the works of artists and objects of the time. There are Otto Dix prints reflecting on World War I, banknotes issued during the period of hyperinflation in the 1920s, an etching by Käthe Kollwitz created in response to the assassination of Communist leader Karl Liebknecht during the abortive socialist revolution of 1919.

Otto Dix, Evening on the Wijtschaete Plain

Otto Dix, Der Krieg: Evening on the Wijtschaete Plain, 1922

Käthe Kollwitz, Memorial Sheet of Karl Liebknecht, 1919-1920

Kathe Kollwitz, Memorial sheet of Karl Liebknecht, 1919-1920

In 1937 the Nazis mounted a large travelling exhibition of antisemitic propaganda under the title Der Ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew). The exhibits, which included photographs, documents and charts, repeated mediaeval myths about the Jews, accused the Jews of usury, dishonest business practices, and alleged an international Jewish conspiracy that controlled both capitalism and Communism. The exhibition blamed the Jews for Germany’s defeat in the First World War and for wars and financial crises in general.  The exhibition drew large crowds. The poster for the exhibition, displayed here, emphasized supposed attempts by Jews to turn Germany into a communist state, portraying an ‘eastern’ Jew holding gold coins in one hand and a whip in the other. Under his arm is a map of the world, with the imprint of the hammer and sickle.  Kristallnacht followed one year later.

poster for 'The Eternal Jew' exhibition, Dresden 1937

Poster for ‘The Eternal Jew’ exhibition, Dresden 1937

sheet of cut-out figures of Hitler and German soldiers 1939

Sheet of cut-out figures of Hitler and German soldiers, 1939

A sheet of cut-out figures of Hitler and German soldiers, produced for children in 1939, shows how the Nazis attempted to embed the cult of Hitler and symbols of Nazism throughout German society, especially in the minds of the young.

KDF-Wagen sales brochure, from 1938

KDF-Wagen sales brochure, from 1938

On the way into the exhibition, one of the most emblematic icons of German industrial success, a post-war VW Beetle is on display. The Beetle, or KDF-Wagen as it was initially known, could trace its origins back to the late 1930s, when this brochure was printed, offering the chance to own a Volkswagens ( or ‘people’s car’), by collecting saving stamps. A large factory was built in the new town of Wolfsburg. Civilian production was interrupted during World War II with military vehicles being assembled there, mainly by forced workers and POWs. Production of the Beetle resumed shortly after the end of the war, initially thanks to the efforts of the British Army to get production back on track.  By 1955 the one-millionth VW Beetle was being manufactured in Wolfsburg, symbolizing the German ‘economic miracle’.

refugee cart 1945

A refugee cart from East Pomerania (now Poland) c 1945

Alongside a loan from the Buchenwald concentration camp – a replica of the camp’s gate with its inscription in elegant Bauhaus lettering stating ‘to each his own’ – is a simple refugee cart.  The former is testimony to the annihilation by the Nazis of the Jews of central and eastern Europe, while the cart speaks of the largest organised deportation in history – the expulsion of around 12 million Germans, forced to migrate after 1945 from areas of centuries-old German settlement across central and eastern Europe.  Using family farm carts like this to carry what belongings they could, the migrants fled before the advance of the Soviet army or were expelled after the German defeat.

Stage Set model for “Mother Courage” by Bertold Brecht

Stage model for ‘Mother Courage’, made for first German production, Berlin, 1949

Next to the cart is a model prepared for the first German production of Brecht’s play Mother Courage in Berlin in 1949. Brecht had written the play in Sweden in 1939 in response to Hitler’s invasion of Poland.  Set during the Thirty Years War that began in 1618 (an earlier age of self-inflicted German devastation), a traditional family cart was central to the staging.

The final, searing section of the exhibition is prefaced by these words from the curators:

The Nazis left a dark memory that can neither be avoided nor adequately explained.  After 1945 a once more divided Germany had to engage with this past and create a present that could accommodate it.

Here is one of the most powerful artistic statements made in Germany in the last 25 years.  In 1980 Anselm Kiefer began a series of works inspired by Paul Celan’s ‘Death Fugue’, a poem composed in German in late 1944 and 1945. Celan’s parents, along with many other Jews from Czernowitz, Romania, where he had been raised, were killed in the Trisnistria camp in eastern Romania in 1942. Celan himself endured two years of forced labor under the Germans, after which he lived in exile in Paris until his suicide in 1970.

Anselm Kiefer, Your Golden Hair, Margarete, 1980 watercolour

Anselm Kiefer, Your Golden Hair, Margarete, 1981

His poem deals obliquely with the horror of the Holocaust, stating ‘Death is a master from Germany’.  In this watercolour version of the enormous canvas of the same name which is currently on show at the Anselm Kiefer retrospective at the Royal Academy, Kiefer places the words ‘Dein goldenes Haar, Margarete’, used by Celan to represent the Aryan ideal of blonde beauty, over sheaves of golden corn.  Her blonde hair is contrasted in the poem with the ‘ashen’ hair of Jewish Shulamith, the favourite wife of King Solomon.

model of Jewish synagogue Offenbach

Model of the new Jewish synagogue in Offenbach, 1946

But the exhibition concludes with three exhibits which offer the hope of renewal and are suggestive of the way in which the German people have attempted, in the last thirty years, to come to terms with their past, openly and with honesty.

After concentration camps like Buchenwald and extermination camps like Auschwitz, it seemed that the story of Jews in Germany must come to a full stop at the end of the war. Over 90% of Jews living in Germany died in the Holocaust.  Most survivors in exile decided to remain abroad. Why would any Jew, in 1945 or after, see any part of their future in Germany? But remarkably Germany today has the fastest-growing Jewish population in Western Europe.

By 1948 there were already nearly 100 Jewish communities in Germany again, and new synagogues were being built.  In 1946 the town of Offenbach offered to build a new synagogue.  On display is the model design by Herman Guttman for a synagogue and community centre that would provide protection and refuge for every member of the community: ‘Nach au Auschwitz’ (After Auschwitz).  The synagogue was built and is now much enlarged to accommodate the large number of Russian Jews who arrived in the 1990s.

Ernst Barlach, The Floating One

Ernst Barlach, The Hovering Angel, 1927 bronze replica from Gustrov Cathedral

The end of the exhibition is dominated by the hovering figure of Ernst Barlach’s Der Schwebende, a mourning figure in solid bronze designed for Güstrow Cathedral, initially as a memorial to those who died in World War I. Its subsequent fate has meant it has become a distillation of Germany’s 20th century history and a powerful symbol of the strength of reconciliation. It has been generously lent to the Museum by the congregation in Güstrow – the first time it has left the cathedral.

Detached from earth and time, with folded arms and closed eyes, the figure expresses an internalised vision of the grief and suffering of war. When the Nazis came to power in the 1930s, Barlach’s works were among the first to be declared Entartete Kunst (‘degenerate art’) and confiscated and removed from public display. Sadly, Barlach died in 1938, knowing that his masterwork had been taken down to be melted and probably made into war munitions.

However, some courageous friends had managed to hide a second cast, which was then hung in the Antoniter Church in Cologne after the end of the Second World War. This time, the sculpture commemorated two World Wars. During the time of the Cold War in the 1950s, the parish of Cologne made another cast of the Angel and presented it in a gesture of friendship to the parish of Güstrow cathedral. For the next few months this cast is displayed in the British Museum’s exhibition.

In 1981 Helmut Schmidt, the Chancellor of West Germany, met Erich Honecker in East Germany, and they visited Barlach’s Angel in Güstrow cathedral. On this occasion, Schmidt said to the bishop in Güstrow: ‘I would like to thank you very much for your kind words of welcome. As you said, Barlach is indeed part of our common memory of the past. May I add, that Barlach could also stand as a representative of our shared and common future.’ Schmidt was right. Eight years later, in peaceful demonstrations, East Germans brought the wall between East and West down.

The facial features those of Kathe Kollwitz, kindred spirit of Barlach who shared his pacifist views.

Neil MacGregor recently made this comment on the meaning of Barlach’s Hovering Angel:

In Britain we have monuments to things in our past that we are very proud of.  The Germans put up monuments to their own shame, and that makes them very different from almost any other country.  They do that as a reminder of how they ought to behave in the future.

Gerhard Richter, Betty, 1991

Gerhard Richter, Betty, 1991 (lithoprint from 1988 painting)

The last object we see before the exit is a painting by another contemporary German artist, Gerhard Richter.  It’s based on a photo of his daughter, taken as she turned to look at one of his paintings.

The young girl may be turning away from the artist – her father – or, perhaps, turning towards something else.  Fraught with ambiguity, the painting suggests conflict between generations, the interplay of past and present, and ideas of acceptance and guilt.

Richter was born Dresden in 1932 and grew up in what later became the GDR.  He escaped to the West two months before the Wall was built in 1961.

See also

Anselm Kiefer: Remembering the Future

Anselm Kiefer: Remembering the Future

TS Eliot once said that the meaning of a poem exists somewhere between the poem and the reader. The comment seemed apposite as I sat in the third room of the breathtaking Anself Kiefer retrospective at the Royal Academy surrounded by monumental artworks that spoke to me powerfully, though why they did I knew would be more difficult to articulate. Continue reading “Anselm Kiefer: Remembering the Future”

Germany: Memories of a Nation

Germany: Memories of a Nation

This week Neil MacGregor’s superb series for BBC Radio 4, Germany: Memories of a Nation, reaches its conclusion – fittingly timed to coincide with Germany’s Schicksalstag, or Fateful Day, the ninth of November. In our lifetime it’s the opening of the Berlin wall on 9 November 1989 that we all remember. But, strangely, a succession of significant events in German history have occurred on 9 November. In 1938, in the Kristallnacht, synagogues and Jewish property were burned and destroyed on a large scale; in 1923 it was Hitler’s failed Beer Hall Putsch, marking the early emergence of his Nazi Party on Germany’s political landscape; in Berlin on 9 November 1918, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated and two German republics were proclaimed – the social democratic one that was eventually known as the Weimar Republic, and Karl Liebknecht’s Free Socialist Republic; further back, in 1848, the year of revolutions, on 9 November Robert Blum, the democratic left liberal leader was executed by Austrian troops, leading to hopes for a united, democratic Germany being extinguished for another half century. Continue reading “Germany: Memories of a Nation”

Kristallnacht: the Nazi’s ‘aha! moment’

Kristallnacht: the Nazi’s ‘aha! moment’
A Jewish shop in Berlin on 11 November 1938, after the anti-Semitic violence of Kristallnacht.
A Jewish shop in Berlin on 11 November 1938, after the anti-Semitic violence of Kristallnacht

On this night 75 years ago, the Nazis unleashed a series of riots against Jews in Germany and Austria. In only a few hours, thousands of synagogues and Jewish businesses and homes were damaged or destroyed. For the first time, tens of thousands of Jews were sent to concentration camps simply because they were Jewish. This event came to be called Kristallnacht or Night of the Broken Glass, a reference to the shattered glass from shop windows that carpeted the streets of German towns.

Kristallnacht was a crucial turning point in Nazi Germany’s persecution of Jews, and a significant stage in the evolution of the Holocaust. As Simon Schama crisply put in on BBC radio this week:

It’s incredibly important.  You can’t really overstate its importance: not because a thousand synagogues were burned or 90 people were killed or twenty thousand people taken off to what were then concentration camps – not killing centres, but places like Dachau and Belsen and Orianienburg – but because it was a theatre for the public.  And once people were humiliated and defiled, and their property was looted and synagogues were burned down and nothing happened except the sound of applause, there was a kind of aha! moment in the core of the Nazi party itself after which … the Final Solution.

shattered stained glass windows of the Zerrennerstrasse synagogue
The shattered stained glass windows of the synagogue in Pforzheim after its destruction on Kristallnacht

Officially, Kristallnacht was launched in retaliation for the assassination on 7 November of Ernst vom Rath, a German embassy official in Paris, by a young Jewish refugee named Herschel Grynszpan. That same night, Nazi regional Party leaders were gathered in Munich to commemorate the anniversary of Hitler’s (failed) attempt to take over the Bavarian Government in 1923.

When the news of the assassination came through, the Nazi Propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, addressing the Nazi leaders, raged that ‘World Jewry’ had conspired to commit the assassination and announced that, ‘demonstrations should not be prepared or organized by the Party, but insofar as they erupt spontaneously, they are not to be hampered’. Goebbels’ words were taken as a command for unleashing a pogrom. After his speech, the assembled regional Party leaders issued instructions to their local offices. Violence began to erupt across Germany and Austria through the late evening and early morning hours of November 9-10.

Ober Ramstadt, Germany. November 10, 1938
On the morning after Kristallnacht, local residents watch as the synagogue in Ober Ramstadt is destroyed by fire. The local fire department prevented the fire from spreading to a nearby home but did not try to limit the damage to the synagogue.

The shop windows of Jewish businesses were smashed, the stores looted, hundreds of synagogues and Jewish homes were burnt down and many Jews were physically assaulted. Around 30,000 Jews were arrested and deported to the concentration camps at Dachau, Sachsenhausen, and Buchenwald, where they were subjected to inhumane and brutal treatment and many died. During the pogrom itself, some 90 Jews were murdered.

flames pouring out of a synagogue in Siegen
A synagogue burns in Siegen during Kristallnacht. In the early 1930s, about two hundred Jews lived in Siegen, a small city 100 miles north of Frankfurt, Germany. Today there are none. In Siegen during Kristallnacht, the windows of Jewish homes were smashed and 11 Jewish men were sent to concentration camps. In May 1939, 41 Jews remained in Siegen. Four committed suicide shortly before the rest were deported to the death camps in 1942-43.

The rioters destroyed 267 synagogues throughout Germany, Austria, and the Sudetenland. Many synagogues burned throughout the night, in full view of the public and of local firefighters, who had received orders to intervene only to prevent flames from spreading to nearby buildings. SA and Hitler Youth members across the country shattered the shop windows of an estimated 7,500 Jewish-owned commercial establishments, and looted their wares. Jewish cemeteries became a particular object of desecration in many regions.

A group of people stand outside a Jewish-owned shop in an unnamed German town on the morning after Kristallnacht.
A member of the SA posts a sign on a Jewish shop urging Germans not to buy from Jews.
Jews scrawled on the exterior wall of the destroyed synagogue in Buehl
‘Jews’ scrawled on the exterior wall of the destroyed synagogue in Buehl.
Residents in Graz, Austria, watch as the Jewish cemetery’s ceremonial hall burns
Residents in Graz, Austria, watch as the Jewish cemetery’s ceremonial hall burns on 10 November 1938.

In The Holocaust, Martin Gilbert writes:

The Jews who had been seized during the Kristallnacht, and sent to concentration camps, experienced a foretaste of what that vengeance might be. On November 23 the News Chronicle, a London newspaper, reported the arrival of sixty-two Jews, including two rabbis, at Sachsenhausen concentration camp, north of Berlin. The arrested men had reached the camp gates under police escort from Berlin. At the gates, the police were made to hand them over to an SS unit. The sixty-two Jews were then forced to run a gauntlet of spades, clubs and whips. According to an eye-witness, the police, ‘unable to bear their cries, turned their backs’. As the Jews were beaten, they fell. As they fell they were beaten further. This ‘orgy’ of beating lasted half an hour. When it was over, ‘twelve of the sixty-two were dead, their skulls smashed. The others were all unconscious. The eyes of some had been knocked out, their faces flattened and shapeless.

A vandalized Jewish shop covered with anti-Semitic graffiti on 10 November 1938.

Simon Schama rightly refers to Kristallnacht as the ‘aha! moment’ for the Nazi party.  Historians have noted that after the pogrom, anti-Jewish policy was concentrated more and more concretely into the hands of the SS. Moreover, the passivity with which most German civilians responded to the violence signalled to the Nazi regime that the German public was willing to accept radical racist measures. The Nazi regime now intensified measures aimed at removing Jews entirely from German economic and social life, moving towards the policy of creating a Germany ‘clean of Jews’ (judenrein) by deportation of the Jewish population to the East and, ultimately, their annihilation.

Members of the SA march Jewish men through the streets after their arrest during Kristallnacht. Erlangen, Germany. November 10, 1938
Members of the SA march Jewish men through the streets of Erlangen after their arrest during Kristallnacht.

The Nazi policy towards the Jews was implemented by degrees. They were excluded from professions. Their shops were boycotted and attacked. They were stigmatised by vicious propaganda and forced to wear a yellow star. They were segregated. They were rounded up and deported in conditions of extreme cruelty. They were held in camps of unimaginable horror. And, in their millions, in a mechanised industrial form of killing, they – men, women and children – were systematically murdered.
– Jonathan Glover, Humanity: A Moral History of the 20th Century

For the Nazi regime, the aha! moment of realization came to embrace not only the response of their fellow-Germans to Kristallnacht, but also the lack of any diplomatic response from beyond the borders of the expanding Reich – revealed in an exhibition of  previously unseen historical documents that has just opened at the New Synagogue on Oranienburger Strasse in Berlin. The exhibition, entitled From the Inside to the Outside: The 1938 November Pogroms in Diplomatic Reports from Germany, is important, as its curators argue, for what the documents reveal about the international response to Kristallnacht:

What is noteworthy about the documents is what they do not contain. In this respect, they point to the failure of the international community and its far-reaching consequences. The diplomats almost unanimously condemned the murders and acts of violence and destructions. The British described the pogrom as ‘Medieval barbarism’, the Brazilians called it a ‘disgusting spectacle’, and French diplomats wrote that the ‘scope of brutality’ was only ‘exceeded by the massacres of the Armenians’, referring to the Turkish genocide of 1915-1916.  Nevertheless, no country broke off diplomatic relations with Berlin or imposed sanctions, and only Washington recalled its ambassador. Most of all, however, the borders of almost all countries remained largely closed for the roughly 400,000 Jewish Germans.

German civilians watch as the furnishings of the Mosbach synagogue are burned in the town square
Germans watch as the furnishings of the Mosbach synagogue are burned in the town square.

The unwillingness of countries that were soon to go to war against Nazi Germany to open their borders to Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution is picked up by Martin Gilbert in history of the Holocaust:

On December 2, the first train bound for Harwich with German Jewish children on board arrived from the Hook of Holland: two hundred children, all of them orphans, who had left Germany at twenty-four hours’ notice, each with two bags of clothing. In Britain they found sanctuary, as had more than fifty thousand German and Austrian refugees. But while tens of thousands found sanctuary, there were neither permits nor funds for the hundreds of thousands. ‘The first effort’, noted the provincial Council for German Jewry in Hull, ‘will be to save the children.’

The persecutions in Germany continued. The only possibility of bringing pressure to bear on the German Government, wrote one British official, Roger Makins, ‘is by retaliation, expulsion of German citizens, and by a clear indication that until persecution or spoliation of Jews ceases, the policy of appeasement is at an end’. But the policy of appeasement was not at an end. Nor were the gates of immigration to be opened by any country to the extent required.

A man cleans up on 10 November 1938 after the violence of Kristallnacht.

Kristallnacht reminds us … what happens when we don’t live by values of fairness, justice, welcome, hospitality, graciousness.
– Alexandra Wright, Senior Rabbi at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, BBC Radio 4

The Gunter Demnig stolperstein marking the Berlin address in the 1930s of Margot Bendheim.

For many years the German artist Gunter Demnig has been engaged in a remarkable act of witness and memory.  In towns and cities across Germany and other European countries he has created stolpersteineStolperstein (in the singular) is the German word for ‘stumbling block’. Demnig’s stolpersteine are small, cobblestone-sized brass memorials for the victims of the Nazi regime. Set into the pavement in front of the buildings where Jews once lived or worked, they call attention both to the individual victim and the scope of the Nazi war crimes. Over 40,000 stolpersteine have been placed in several countries in Europe, making the project the world’s largest memorial.

Cambridge historian Joseph Pearson writes:

It is not what is written [on the stolpersteine] which intrigues, because the inscription is insufficient to conjure a person. It is the emptiness, void, lack of information, the maw of the forgotten, which gives the monuments their power and lifts them from the banality of a statistic.

This week, the NPR website has the story of Margot Bendheim, whose Berlin address in the 1930s is marked by one of Demnig’s stolpersteine (above):

“I did not hear fire engines and we understood then that they didn’t come because they wanted the synagogues to burn,” she says. “We never thought that Germans would stand by, and not do something about it.”  Friedlander’s family knew then they had to leave Germany, but their attempts to emigrate failed until it was too late. Her father left without them, and her brother and mother were deported to Auschwitz, where all three eventually perished. Margot went into hiding in Berlin.  And it is because of those few courageous, gentile Germans who helped her that she felt able to return to Berlin three years ago.

Friedlander spends much of her time with young Germans, visiting schools and sharing her valuable testimony. She is adamant they should not feel guilt, but a sense of responsibility. And responsibility is something the German state takes very seriously.

The same article adds this:

Stefan Redlich, spokesman for the Berlin police, states, “The Berlin police protects all Jewish schools, all hospitals, all kindergartens and all synagogues in the city,” he says, noting that 250 policemen stand guard in front of Jewish properties throughout the city.  But German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently said she is not proud of this fact: “I feel deep shame that there is not a single Jewish building in Germany without police protection because we still have to worry about anti-Semitic attacks.” Merkel’s concerns are justified. On last year’s Kristallnacht anniversary, vandals in the northeastern city of Greifswald removed a number of cobblestone memorials.

Stolpersteine in Berlin in memory of members of the Kroner family.
German Jews Pouring into this country Daily Mail, Saturday 20 August 1938
‘German Jews Pouring into this country’: Daily Mail, Saturday 20 August 1938 (from open Democracy)

In a letter in today’s Guardian a number of Kristallnacht witnesses, members of the British Jewish community, and other public figures write:

Many Jews left hurriedly to seek refuge in friendly countries, including Britain, but Britain was already in the grip of an “aliens scare”. Newspaper headlines declared: “Alien Jews pouring in”, and claimed that “Refugees get jobs, Britons get dole”. The media accused Jewish asylum seekers of “overrunning the country”. Despite wide public revulsion at the violence of Kristallnacht, powerful elements in British politics and business continued to admire Hitler and the Nazi regime.

Seventy-five years after Kristallnacht, racists and fascists inspired by the Nazis continue to attack minorities in Europe. In Hungary neo-fascists target Gypsies and Jews. In Greece Golden Dawn members and supporters brutally attack migrants and political opponents. Here in Britain, minority communities, especially Muslims, have been targeted in an atmosphere that is increasingly hostile towards migrants and refugees.

Mindful of this history, we are equally alarmed at continuing fascist violence and the toxic sentiments expressed by many politicians and much of the media against migrants, asylum seekers, Gypsies and Travellers. We stand shoulder to shoulder with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in their efforts to live here in freedom and safety, to contribute to society and be treated as equals. As Jews we stand together with all communities seeking to combat racism and fascism here and elsewhere.


See also

The dream is over: what kind of Europe is this?

‘The dream is over’, wrote John Lennon in 1970 after the breakup of the Beatles, disillusioned with the band, the whole sixties scene, and belief systems generally.  I’m having pretty much the same feelings at the moment about the European Union as the implications sink in of the acceptance of the EU/IMF austerity package by a coerced Greek parliament ringed by desperate protests, riots and burning buildings.

Through the 1990s and into the new century, I taught European Studies, and in that heady decade between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the launch of the euro, I accompanied young students on educational trips to Brussels and beyond, visiting the European Parliament and other EU institutions, absorbing the lessons of the past at the First World war sites of northern France and Belgium, and encountering the signs of Europe’s 20th century nightmare in other places.  With those ghosts at our shoulders, it felt intoxicating to be able to cross frontiers unchecked, sailing past boarded-up border posts, carrying bright new euro notes and coins that could be spent anywhere.

Today, there are no illusions.  Across Europe, the EU has been transformed in the minds of voters everywhere into an undemocratic regime of bureaucrats imposing spartanism on the less fortunate in the name of the rich and the powerful.  To forge ahead towards EU fiscal union with social tensions and resentment rising seems like madness.

A decade or more ago, there seemed to be a strong case for arguing that the supranational structures of the EU were the only way that national or local populations could retain sovereignty over their territorial affairs and interests, under pressure from the forces of globalization (large multi-national firms, outsourcing of labour, mass migration, ecological disaster, climate change and so on).  Indeed,this was the argument that turned most of the British left and trade union movement (myself included) into ardent Europeans from the 1980s onwards.

That case is still valid today as nation-states increasingly fail to protect their citizens from the depredations of globalisation – more so in the current global recession.  National governments are failing to effectively regulate financial systems, protect the environment, or narrow the widening gap between the rich and the poor, the strong and the weak. In other words, democratic states can only retain their sovereignty insofar as they do what the EU was established to do – pool their sovereignty in supra-national projects of coordination and cooperation.

But what is happening now is a long way removed from the ideals of the founding fathers of ‘ever closer union’, indeed current moves seem likely to jeopardise the whole project, with a gulf opening up between Germany and those who live in nations having to endure austerity measures imposed by the alliance of banks and EU technocrats, and a growing sense of alienation from the EU expressed on the street from Athens to Galway. As Maria Margaronis writes in today’s Guardian, ‘this is not the people’s Europe we dreamed of’.  Of course, there was always something schizophrenic about the EU – on the one hand establishing and codifying the rights of European citizens or transferring resources from rich to poor areas under the funds for social cohesion, whilst at the same time battering down the barriers to an open market for multinationals to profit from.

But, the treatment of the Greeks (and of Portugal, Ireland and the rest) really does pose the question of what kind of Europe we want. Because there are other ways out of the financial crisis facing the eurozone than the one being pursued currently by the technocrats in Berlin and Brussels.  If he sticks to his guns, François Hollande, the Socialist party candidate in France’s presidential election, could demonstrate that.

At the EU summit on 30 January a new Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union was finalised by the leaders of all EU member states (with the exception of the UK and the Czech Republic).  It’s an extraordinary document, following as it does the replacement of democratically elected politicians with technocrats in Italy and Greece. Once agreed, mere elections and changes of government will not be able to change the caps on public spending set out in the treaty: even when a majority in a parliament changes, it will be unlawful to overthrow the budget limits. Any new government that tries it will be hauled before the European Court of Justice.  As Kirsty Hughes wrote on Open Democracy, this is a bleak day for European democracy:

This sweeping agreement to move a central economic policy choice – argued over by politicians and economists alike for much of the last 80 years – out of the remit of democratic politics is an extraordinary moment in European political history. If Obama and the US were bound by EU rules, the mildly Keynesian policies that are allowing the US economy to grow while the EU hits recession would be illegal.

Teargas in front of the Greek parliament

And now, even after the Greek parliament has voted to accept the terms of the bailout, the troika of the European Commission, European Central Bank, and International Monetary Fund which drafted the programme of Greek cuts are demanding a signed pledge from all political leaders in Greece that, whatever the outcome of the election in April, the terms of the bailout will be ‘clearly and unequivocally’ upheld.

This has everything to do with the euro, and the desperate need by Germany and the other nations of the EU’s rich north to keep it afloat.  Back in the 1999, at the time when the single currency project was being finalized, Timothy Garton-Ash (always a reliable commentator on European matters) was prescient in expressing his doubts:

The leaders of the Western Europe concentrated their energies on the amazing adventure of monetary union. … Only a fool or a bigot could not see the potential benefits.  But I think it was simply the wrong priority for the 1990s.  After the miraculously peaceful end of the Cold War, we should have concentrated our efforts on building [a] liberal order for the whole of Europe.  And I’m afraid that EMU is a bridge too far for Western Europe itself.  Some of the countries now in monetary union are not ready for it.  I fear the resulting strains will make Western Europe a very bad-tempered place  – perhaps even worse – at some point in the next ten years.
(The History of the Present, 1999)

Let’s recall where it all began: in 1945 Europe lay in ruins and 50 million soldiers and civilians had lost their lives in a conflict that dwarfed even the First World War in its level of death and destruction. But, whereas World War 1 exacerbated nationalism and ideological extremism in Europe, World War 2 had almost the opposite effect.  People in different parts of Europe began to dream of a different kind of Europe. Many were from Europe’s linguistic and political borderlands – Schuman from Lorraine, Adenauer from the Rhineland, De Gasperi from northern Italy, Spaak from bilingual Belgium.

Within five years of the end of the war, the French foreign minister Robert Schuman, prompted by Jean Monnet, proposed to Germany the first practical move toward European unity, and the West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer agreed and made support for the principles of European integration the cornerstone of German foreign policy after the War. He wrote:

Though it is often said that mankind is incapable of learning from history, this is not absolutely correct, to judge by our German experience.

As a result of the disaster which two world wars have brought to Germany, the great majority of our people have consciously or intuitively realised that nations cannot continue to live exclusively according to their own desires and inclinations, but must merge their interests with those of the other peoples of the world. There is no longer any important problem which is only a German or even only a European one. We must learn to think and to act in larger terms.

The saying “We are all brothers!” is not an empty phrase and must never be allowed to become one. We must not think of certain countries as far away and therefore of no interest to us. Every country concerns us, for peace is indivisible and unless every country, in its decisions and acts, takes thought of the state of the whole world, this peace will never come.

The age of national states has come to an end. Everyone must feel that a change has taken place, that an era has vanished and that a new age is dawning in which men will look beyond the borders of their own country and work in fraternal co-operation with other nations for the true aims of humanity… And when this Europe, this new Europe, is built, our young people will once more find scope for active and peaceful lives.  We in Europe must break ourselves of the habit of thinking in terms of national states.

– Konrad Adenauer, The End of Nationalism, 1955

While the European Community was being constructed in Western Europe, there were those, such as Vaclav Havel the leading dissident in Czechoslovakia during the Communist years who dreamed of seeing that community extended eastward:

All of us … thought about freedom and injustice, about human rights, about democracy and political pluralism, about market economics and much else besides. Because we thought, we also dreamed. We dreamt, whether in or out of prison, of a Europe without barbed wire, high walls, artificially divided nations and gigantic stockpiles of weapons, of a Europe free of “blocs”, of a European policy based on respect for human rights. … We must not be afraid to dream of the seemingly impossible if we want the seemingly impossible to become a reality. Without dreaming of a better Europe we shall never build a better Europe.

– Vaclav Havel, President of Czech Republic, 1990

Today, though, Maria Margaronis can write from Athens that

Both left and right talk about a new German occupation – an understandable reference given that Germany is calling the shots and that Greeks last queued at soup kitchens in the 1940s …. Both those tropes call up the silent ghosts of the Greek civil war, which launched the cold war in Europe and outlawed the Greek left for the next 30 years. In this story, the west plays the part of the repressive imperial interloper.

She concludes that what is really at stake here is not simply to do with Greece – it’s a question of Europe’s identity:

All eyes are fixed on Athens, but the way out of the crisis requires a choice about what kind of Europe we want. The one we have now, with its deep structural inequalities and its rigid adherence to a failed economic ideology, protects neither democracy nor human rights. Stiff-necked and punitive, it prefers to eat its children.

Can the seemingly impossible become a reality, as Vaclav Havel expressed it?  Is it still possible to dream of a better Europe,  to build a better Europe?

7000 Oaks

The third episode of Andrew Graham-Dixon’s BBC 4 series, The Art of Germany,was both the bleakest and the most hopeful of the series. Graham-Dixon began with the work of Otto Dix and George Grosz before moving on to consider how art and architecture served the nightmare of Nazism under Hitler – and Stalinism in  postwar East Germany.

After the war the shadow of the Third Reich persisted, Germany remained divided and traumatised. How would artists deal with a past that everybody wanted to forget? In a telling scene, Andrew Graham-Dixon underlined his point that ‘heritage’ has a somewhat different meaning in Germany, compared to Britain, by ripping off the bubble-wrap mummifying statues and art objects from the Nazi and Stalinist regimes that fill a whole warehouse in a Berlin suburb. ‘Almost radioactive’, as he put it.

He finished, though, with the hope for the future reflected in Joseph Beuys‘ project 7000 Oaks, begun in 1982  in the city of Kassel, 90% of which was destroyed in the Second World War.  The project involved the planting of seven thousand trees, each paired with a columnar basalt stone approximately four feet high above ground, positioned throughout the greater city of Kassel.

The first tree was planted outside Kassel Museum in 1982 (top).  The photo below shows Beuys planting the first of the 7000 oaks in front of the Fridericianum in Kassell, 1982. The last tree was planted eighteen months after Beuys’ death in 1987 by his son Wenzel Beuys.

With support from the Dia Art Foundation, the project took five years to complete, the last tree being planted in 1987. Beuys intended the Kassel project to be the first stage in an ongoing scheme of tree planting to be extended throughout the world as part of a global mission to effect environmental and social change; locally, the action was linked to the renewal of the city after the devastation of war.

My point with these seven thousand trees was that each would be a monument, consisting of a living part, the live tree, changing all the time, and a crystalline mass, maintaining its shape, size, and weight. This stone can be transformed only by taking from it, when a piece splinters off, say, never by growing. By placing these two objects side by side, the proportionality of the monument’s two parts will never be the same.
– Joseph Beuys

I think the tree – the image of the tree – is an element of regeneration, which is itself a concept of time. The oak is especially so because it is slowly growing with a solid heartwood. The oak has already been a form of sculpture and a symbol of this planet ever since the time of the druids, who used their oaks to define their holy places. To use the oak in this way will represent a really progressive aspect of the idea of understanding art, as art is placed next to the life of humankind within the social body of the future. The tree-planting enterprise provides a very simple but very radical possibility for this when we start with the 7000 oaks.
– Joseph Beuys

The project has a lot to do with the quality of time, and also it has a lot to do with the new understanding of the human being in itself; that everyone is basically a creative soul, whether they are a doctor, a policeman, a bus driver, a street cleaner, a prisoner, or a prison officer. This has to be more than a clear and reasonable practical anthropology: it is also a spiritual necessity, which we have to view in relation to this permanent performance [of the planting of the oaks]. This action will enable us to reach the heart of the existing system – especially the heart of economics, where the flow of money is going to make society sick.
– Joseph Beuys

The White Ribbon

On TV tonight: news of the fourth major report in the past decade investigating the abuse of children by Ireland’s Catholic clergy and teachers and the collusion of the Irish police and archbishops in covering up decades of sexual and physical torture; and a Channel 4 documentary from Jerusalem on the rapid growth of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect, the Haredi, that impose strict segregation of the sexes and reject any state interference in their family or community affairs, which they consider sacred.

This just after seeing the latest film from Michael Haneke, The White Ribbon, in which the roots of repression and authoritarianism in family and community structures is explored.  The film’s original subtitle (left untranslated for English-speaking viewers) is Eine Deutsche Kindergeschichte, or A German Children’s Story, but though the film is set in Germany just before the outbreak of the First World War, as Haneke has insisted, it would be an error to reduce the film just to this specific period and this specific country:

‘I think the Germans should see this film as a film about Germany; however, I think people in other countries should see the film as saying something about their own countries.’
(see the YouTube interview, below).

The events of the film, starkly but beautifully photographed in black and white, take place in the year leading up to the outbreak of war in 1914. The story is narrated by the village schoolmaster who begins:

I don’t know if the story that I want to tell you, reflects the truth in every detail. Much of it I only know by hearsay, and a lot of it remains obscure to me even today, and I must leave it in darkness. Many of these questions remain without answer. But I believe I must tell of the strange events that occurred in our village, because they may cast a new light on some of the goings-on in this country…

Over the course of a year, this feudal, God-fearing village is plagued by a series of strange events. The doctor is felled from his horse by a tripwire placed near his home. A woman is killed when the rotting floor of the local sawmill collapses.  The young son of the Baron is whipped and hung upside down in the sawmill. The manor barn is burnt down in the middle of the night. The handicapped son of the midwife is tied to a tree, tortured and left with a handwritten message about divine punishment.

All of the characters are linked together by one fact: geographical proximity. They are all residents of the same village and almost all of them, particularly the women and children, are victims of abuse, physical, sexual, or emotional.  Haneke depicts a community in which punishment and fear define every aspect of life, every social class, and every family, though the main victims of the prevailing authoritarian structures of family, church and society are women and children. Indeed, the most forceful scenes are between husbands and wives, or fathers and children.

The key scene in the film comes when the Baron’s wife decides to leave him, taking their children.  She says she’s sick of living in a place dominated by ‘malice, envy, apathy and brutality… I’m sick and tired of  persecutions, threats and perverse acts of  revenge’.

This is a remarkable film – to my mind, Haneke’s finest. The sense of a mystery that is never resolved keeps you gripped, and both the cinematography and the acting (by both children and adults) are superb. Most impressive are the performances of  Christian Friedel as the schoolteacher and Leonie Bensch as the Baron’s governess. They are the only individuals untouched by the cruelty around them, and their growing love for each other is delicately presented by the two actors, combining Victorian formality with a sense of simmering passion.

At the film’s conclusion, the narrator looks back and reflects on these events:

Today,  more  than  a  quarter  of  a  century  later, toward  the  end  of  my  life,  and  several  years after the end of a second war that was to change this world in a more cruel and radical way than the  first  one,  the  one  we  faced  at  the  time,  I wonder  if  the  events  of  those  days  and  our silence  about  them,  weren’t  the  germ  of  the tragedy toward which we were heading. Didn’t we all know secretly what had happened in our midst? Hadn’t we, in a way, made it possible by closing  our  eyes?  Didn’t  we  keep  our  mouths shut  because  otherwise  we  would  have  had  to wonder if the misdeeds of these children, of our children,  weren’t  actually  the  result  of  what we’d been teaching them?

New York Film Festival 09: Michael Haneke discusses The White Ribbon


Kathe Kollwitz Pieta in Berlin

I wrote yesterday about my visit to Berlin ten years ago. One sight that left a lasting impression was  the Kathe Kollwitz Pieta in the Neue Wache,  a Greek temple-like building on the Unter den Linden. When the wall fell, this memorial to the victims of fascism was transformed into a new national memorial with this replica of Kathe Kollwitz’s  ‘Mother and Her Dead Son’. The inscription reads, ‘To the victims of war and tyranny’. It seems a fitting theme for a post on this day. Continue reading “Kathe Kollwitz Pieta in Berlin”

Wings of Desire

I’m ready
Ready for the laughing gas
I’m ready
Ready for what’s next
Ready to duck
Ready to dive
Ready to say
I’m glad to be alive
I’m ready
Ready for the push…

-U2, ‘Zoo Station’

Berlin on TV tonight  – the 20th-anniversary celebrations.  I made my own in the company of two magnificent works inspired by the city in the period just before and just after the Wall came down: U2’s Achtung Baby and Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire. Continue reading “Wings of Desire”

9 November 1989: ‘Something there is that doesn’t love a wall’

Though nothing will drive them away
We can be heroes just for one day
We can be us, just for one day

I can remember
Standing by the wall
And the guns, shot above our heads
And we kissed, as though nothing could fall

And the shame was on the other side
Oh, we can beat them, forever and ever
Then we could be heroes just for one day
We can be heroes
We can be heroes just for one day

– Heroes, David Bowie

On 9 November 1989, three days before this iconic photograph was taken, the East German government – amid some confusion – announced that anyone wishing to visit the West would be granted a visa. Ecstatic crowds surged at the Berlin Wall and guards were left with no choice but to open the various gates and checkpoints. That night ended  forty years of division between East and West Berlin. I was born three months into the Berlin blockade and airlift; on the night of 9 November 1989 I watched as Newsnight broadcast the amazing scenes from Berlin, a five-year old daughter asleep upstairs, dreaming, perhaps, of a brave new world. Continue reading “9 November 1989: ‘Something there is that doesn’t love a wall’”

A kiss seals Honecker’s fate

A kiss seals Honecker’s fate

Twenty years ago today, massive demonstrations in East Germany finally bore fruit when Erich Honecker was forced to step down as party leader. Tension had been building in East Germany for weeks. In August Hungary had removed its physical border defences with Austria, and in September more than 13,000 East German tourists in Hungary escaped to Austria.  This set began chain of events.  East Germans flooded the West German embassy in Budapest and refused to leave. This triggered  similar events in Czechoslovakia. The East German authorities allowed the East Germans in the Prague embassy  to leave for West Germany, providing that they used a train which crossed East Germany on the way. Continue reading “A kiss seals Honecker’s fate”

The diaries of Victor Klemperer

Having posted recently about Anne Frank and Etty Hillesum, I should note that one of the most acclaimed memoirs of the Nazi period is I Shall Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years 1933-1941 by Victor Klemperer. When the Nazis came to power in 1933 Klemperer was a distinguished professor at the University of Dresden, honoured as a frontline veteran of World War One. By 1945 he was one of the few Dresden Jews to survive the war, thanks to his marriage to an Aryan. The second volume of his diaries, To the Bitter End: 1942-1945 provides highly detailed observations of the daily life of the Third Reich. Continue reading “The diaries of Victor Klemperer”