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”