in Opinion | 12 MAY 05
Featured in
Issue 91

View from the Bridge

Have Americans acquired the habit of forgetfulness so often condemned in Germans?

in Opinion | 12 MAY 05

I am back in Berlin for the first time in several years. I have complicated thoughts and feelings about the place, having grown up surrounded by refugee intellectuals – the most outspoken being Bruno Bettelheim – and listened from an early age to stories of an aunt whose youth in that city coincided with the Third Reich’s rise and fall. Her father was a Jewish doctor, spared because of his service in World War I and because the man in charge of rounding up deportees in his district was the son of a poor family he had cared for gratis. My aunt saved herself with forged papers, and ended up in the Eastern zone at the war’s end before making her perilous way through the rubble to the West and America.

Thus, even though I’ve visited the place only a few times, my experience of Berlin is less one of discovery than of uncanny recognition. Yet my historical memory is a generational as well as a cultural anomaly. Obliviousness to the past was a primary impetus behind the post-1945 German ‘miracle’. It was not until the early 1960s that pre-1945 spectres began appearing along the path of those fixated on a chimerical future without retrospection. Since then, ‘recovery’ has meant recollection as much as reconstruction.

Evidence of this is everywhere in Berlin, which is not only a showcase for late 20th-century architecture but also a far-flung museum of that century’s ideological disasters. The Jewish Museum and new Holocaust memorial are the most overtly symbolic of these. A well-preserved Socialist Realist mural near my glass-and-steel hotel on Potsdamer Platz was a more ambiguous reminder: in Walter Ulbricht’s internationalist workers’ paradise everyone, it seems, was Aryan.

Three recent exhibitions made the archaeological complexity of this project of remembering more vivid still. First was the huge Flick Collection at the Hamburger Bahnhof, where the art is all new and mostly North American but the money paying for it is old, German and tainted. Flick’s fortune derives from his industrialist grand-father, one of Hitler’s staunchest supporters and – in the form of slave labour – one of his principal beneficiaries. Back in the 1970s Hans Haacke stirred up a hornets’ nest with a work in a German museum collection that traced the provenance of a Manet painting back to a senior functionary in the Nazis’ financial bureaucracy. Now the Flick press packet contains an interview concerning the war crimes of his grandfather and the moral responsibilities of the heirs, while the exhibition featured a video monitor showing a TV broadcast on the elder Flick’s sinister career. Circumstances have changed, no matter how reluctant the admissions of those who bear the greatest moral burden.

Not far away, the banner outside a drearily East Bloc-modern building advertised ‘Stasi Exhibition!’ Inside were displays of the Communist state’s eavesdropping apparatus and case histories of their targets: all numbing proof that no society – until ours? – has ever listened in more intrusively on the lives of its citizens. The rooms were filled with well-behaved high-school students who ‘tapped’ into history via earphones. But surveying the whole affair was a uniformed guard who may well have been a low-grade Stasi functionary in his former life. My faltering request in German for copies of the various catalogues earned me a suspicious look that seemed to say, ‘This is our business, not yours’. In this case guilt and complicity are not generations away but a tense reality among current neighbours.

Over at Kunst-Werke was the rambling ‘Regarding Terror’, a show devoted to the Red Army Faction of the 1970s. Organized in collaboration with Felix Ensslin, the son of one of the leaders of the Baader-Meinhof group, who mysteriously died in Stammheim Prison the night of 18 October 1977, it was a disjointed exercise in collective recall consisting on the one hand of period media coverage of the events, and on the other of art created in response to them. There were big names – Dennis Adams, Joseph Beuys, Dara Birnbaum, Joachim Grimonprez, Sigmar Polke, Yvonne Rainer and Gerhard Richter – and established lesser-knowns. Of the latter, Felix Droese contributed a crude attack on Richter’s Oktober cycle (1988) in the form of an anti-Richter landscape that borrowed ham-handedly from Hermann Nitsch and Anselm Kiefer to produce a polemical commemoration of select RAF victims (as if Richter had maliciously ignored them). In a more dignified manner Hans-Peter Feldmann’s photo-essay Die Toten (The Dead, 1998) served as a non-partisan obituary for the majority of those killed during the prolonged German autumn. Among the best pieces by new talents was a video showing a team of 20-somethings trying to reconstruct the Stammheim cells in plywood. At Kunst-Werke the audience consisted largely of students, but there were also a significant number of people aged over 50. The students were animated, engaged and oddly upbeat. Older visitors were subdued and tended to eye each other warily, as if to say ‘Where were you back then?’ ‘Which side were you on?’

I have only hinted at the ironies and contradictions embodied by these exhibitions because they are too numerous and subtly interwoven to address fully here. The point of mentioning them at all is this: Americans have acquired the habit of forgetfulness so often condemned in Germans, even as Germans have been forced to find ways of making art and exhibitions out of the difficult process of etching in memory the worst that can be known about their past. Once again we in the USA are making bad history, but the art we produce too rarely turns our attention to it and its cultural origins, as the Germans have so painfully learnt to do. Why? Where are our Richters, not to mention our W.G. Sebalds?