An Online Symposium 30 Years After the Fall of the Wall

Katrin Bahr, Victoria Rizo-Lenshyn, Claudia Sandberg, Juliane Schicker

This project examines political, social, and cultural movements and tendencies that existed in the German Democratic Republic, teasing out potentials, frustrations, disappointments, and the many ideas that shaped the 1980s and the end of the GDR. Which stories existed and how do they stand vis-à-vis the current master narratives of a peaceful revolution, the wish, and euphoria for newfound freedom and the need for a market-driven economy? Much happened in the years immediately preceding the years before and after the Fall of the Wall, but little is known about the vibrancy of this time and the repercussions for recent developments on local, regional and global levels. This project is a contribution to the counter-narrative that tries to offer a more nuanced understanding of the social and cultural aspects that led to the Mauerfall and the unification of the two German states.

For this project, we interviewed former East Germans citizens from all walks of life, ages, and professions, active in organizing and participating in a range of social movements in East Germany in the 1980s. Beyond the well-documented Monday demonstrations in Leipzig, people were involved with environmental and women’s issues, the gay rights movement, among others. The interviews give insight into concrete actions and activities individuals and groups – such as the squatter scene in Potsdam – from before the Wende until the present time.

To commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Fall of the Wall, this collection of interviews hopes to contribute to the current memory debate by bringing together a range of ideas and actions that took shape in GDR society in the time leading up to the Wende. These revisions and differentiated views are also important in light of hopeful events and disconcerting developments in current Germany and worldwide – populist leaderships, nationalistic and anti-Semitic tendencies, the increased consciousness to save a dying planet, and a new feminist understanding expressed in the MeToo movement. Our interviewees also share with us thoughts and insights about why it still matters to talk about the GDR and how they connect GDR history with the current development in German society.

We are extremely grateful to everyone who was willing to talk to us about their memories and experiences. We would also like to thank the feminist archive FFBIZ in Berlin, and the DEFA Stiftung for allowing us to use their photographs. While many voices still need to be included, these responses created a narrative of diversity and give a sense of the richness of ideas and experiences that should defy the image of a “joyless dictatorship.”

Read the interviews here Symposium – 30 Jahre Mauerfall.*

*The interviews are in German with some parts translated into English. 

 

 

Memory Making and the Marketization of Socialism in East Germany

From NVA-inspired fashion, GDR-themed hotels and restaurants, GDR-product fairs and mail-order companies, to relaunched and newly created GDR brands like Halko’s DDR Schulküchentomatensoße: why do so many consumers in East Germany, and other former socialist societies alike, insist on socialist products and brands today when they were considered inferior alternatives to their western counterparts back then? Reviving a brand with previously negative associations and unfavorable product attributes defies conventional marketing and business logic. Hence, the standard explanation offered by consumer sociologists and historians is that these thriving socialism markets stimulate political opposition, a yearning for the “better” socialist past. From this perspective, when consumers interact creatively and playfully with the socialist past and engage in highly emotional consumption to revitalize themselves through socialist products and brands, they actively critique, resist, and in the process, invariably destabilize the capitalist status quo.

Although this explanation is certainly valuable, it has little to say about why socialism today is predominantly transported as a market-based consumption experience. Moreover, what alternative modes for expressing the relationship between the socialist past and the capitalist present are muted over time and why? What kind of socialisms are transported in these commercial images and meanings and what is their impact on the conditions of capitalism? What are the underlying cultural and ideological dynamics of this marketization? Intrigued by this fascinating subject, we, Katja H. Brunk (Europa-Universität Viadrina, Frankfurt/Oder, Germany), Benjamin J. Hartmann (University of Gothenburg, Sweden) and Markus Giesler (York University, Toronto, Canada), examined the development of the German Ostalgie market over the past twenty-seven years. Based on an analysis of empirical data including advertising material, movies, books, media articles, and consumer narratives, we developed a multi-stage, multi-actor model of hegemonic memory making.

The Ostalgie market, one of the largest socialism markets in the world, emerged after the German reunification. When the Wall came down in 1989, consumers were finally able to buy long desired Western goods, which led to a period of hyper-consumption and the disappearance of socialist products and brands from the East German retail market. This phase of enchantment was short-lived, however. The shiny façade of Western consumer culture began to crumble when many East Germans were faced with harsh consequences of economic and political restructuring. This resulted in a hangover phase, characterized by the realization that capitalism was far from the land of milk and honey experience previously envisioned. It is during this time, the early 1990s, when the previously inferior and rejected East German consumer goods re-appeared, allegedly evoking feelings of nostalgia – a romanticized yearning for the “better” socialist past. Today, thirty years after the Wall was toppled, some products from the GDR era are still being relaunched (e.g., Undine cosmetics, Simson Schwalbe). Most consumer sociologists have taken this remarkable renaissance of East German products and brands as incontrovertible evidence for East Germans’ discontent and criticism of social and economic conditions in post-reunified Germany. Gathering the family around a simple socialist meal, rejecting West German food and lifestyle brands, or vacationing in a no-frills GDR-style retro hotel are seen as practices of resistance against West German preferences for efficiency, hyper-individualism, and status consumption.

However, we observed that the Ostalgie market’s romantic venerations of socialism changed considerably over time. They were crafted in West German marketing departments, advertising agencies and film studios who retailored political dissent into consumable emotional-nostalgic market resources in an attempt to restore political unity in four phases, each triggered by a historical disruption:

  • Phase 1: the privatization of East German industry (1991-2000)
  • Phase 2: the dismantling of German social security (1999-2005)
  • Phase 3: the publication of Stasi informants (2003-2009)
  • Phase 4: the Euro and global financial crisis (from 2008)

In each of these phases, a particular nostalgic image of the socialist past was crafted in response to East German political critiques of capitalism and was subsequently offered for mass-market consumption.

In phase 3 for example, the 2003 iconic Ostalgie movie Good Bye Lenin! transformed East German critiques of the hyper-individualism inherent in capitalist societies —which, according to an East German perspective, comes at the expense of the social and collective—into a banalized contrast between capitalism’s shallow consumer culture and socialism’s caring neighborhood idyll. Importantly, this highly therapeutic narrative did not naturally emerge from the memories of former GDR citizens. Rather, it was carefully crafted and popularized by a team of West German scriptwriters, producers, and promoters—at a time when West German politicians, journalists, and intellectuals, critically unpacking the activities of the famous “Stasi” (Ministry for State Security), condemned the GDR as a ruthless surveillance state of citizen spies, subsequently triggering a debate on the portrayal of the GDR as an “Unrechtsstaat”. This debate framed the socialist past purely in terms of mechanisms of repression and power structures and portrayed the GDR as a society of betrayal where nobody—not even family members—could be trusted. Commercial mythmakers (i.e. filmmakers, marketing agents, media professionals, brand managers) addressed this growing political tension and began refashioning the critical Stasi debate from the political level to that of consumption. They did so by cultivating consumable nostalgic memories that spotlight camaraderie and care, a re-imagination that was prominent in Good Bye Lenin! and thanks to which East Germany could then be channeled through consumption by revalorizing socialist brands like Spreewald pickles or the East German care package (the so-called “Ostpaket”) as tokens of a communal utopia, as nostalgia-framed identity salves that allow consumers to regain pride as former East German citizens.

Thus, the East German political resentment nurtured a hegemonic memory-making process that promoted a new consciousness of the bygone GDR as a morally superior alternative, a social paradise undergirded by social bonds and togetherness. These romanticized reconstructions paved the way for naturalizing the capitalist status quo by offering consumable identity salves that allowed East Germans to resolve identity stigma and express both their symbolic resistance to delegitimizing portrayals of an East German society of spies as well as their critique to capitalism’s individualism through consumption. Rather crucially this implies that marketing agents never just simply serve and respond to consumers’ nostalgic desires through emotional products and brands. Instead, they operate as powerful historians who frequently re-design how we can or cannot imagine the past, illustrating that history is malleable material.

With mythmaking of socialism being a multi-billion-dollar business, spanning industries such as entertainment, film, cultural heritage, advertising, consumer goods, food, product design, fashion, and the creation of extraordinary consumption experience, sociologists and historians need to adjust their theories on the political significance of socialism markets. The ability of socialist goods to help consumers challenge capitalism’s social and economic conditions must be questioned. While, on the surface, socialism markets may look like attractive avenues for consumers to take an active stance against status consumption, hyper-individualism and competition, they are ultimately strategies for capitalist societies to transform political dissent into highly emotional consumption adventures, thereby depoliticizing critique and nurturing consensus for the capitalist market system. Re-invoking innocent, emotional, and apolitical tales about the good life in socialism, these brands have a vital function for securing social order in turbulent times by giving citizens a sense of pride, control, and identity as consumers.

Sources:

Why studying the GDR still matters today – The GDR as Lived Experience

In their introduction to the volume The GDR Today: New Interdisciplinary Approaches to East German History, Memory and Culture (2018), the editors Stephan Ehrig, Marcel Thomas, and David Zell ask if GDR studies has run its course. While current research on the GDR (including the aforementioned volume) proves otherwise, there is still room for incorporating GDR Studies into the German Studies curriculum. In teaching the GDR, there seems to be a canon of cultural production (be it literature or film) that either depicts the GDR as a state of oppression as seen in the film The Lives of Others (dir. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006) or through the lens of Ostalgie, as seen in Good Bye Lenin! (dir. Wolfgang Becker, 2003). This leads to what I call an exoticizing of the GDR and its culture on the one hand and an oversimplification of what the East German state was on the other hand. In order to understand contemporary German culture and history, one has to continue examining the factors that shaped GDR legacies and resist such exoticization. In this short reflection, I would like to suggest two ways of diversifying our teaching and study of the GDR.

  1. DIVERSITY THROUGH DIFFERENT VOICES

Today there are a number of texts by a younger generation of East Germans who grew up in the GDR (for an overview see Bahr and Lorek, 2016), which present a more complex picture of GDR life. One example is Jana Hensel’s 2002 autobiographical book After the Wall. However, this developing canon still remains primarily white and only focuses on white East Germans. Texts featuring non-white experiences in East German literature or in literature about East Germany are rarely included in reading lists for courses or are the target of research. Nonetheless, those texts exist and inform about various lived experiences, such as those of Black East Germans. Autobiographies by Black East Germans not only expound on the narrative of the Black German experience as a whole, but also challenge the narrative of what it means to be East German. Additionally, in order to understand how structural racism works in today’s Germany, it is important to not only consider the history of Black West German lived experiences but also the history of Black East German life. The Black East German canon contains, among others, work from Gerd Schramm’s Wer hat Angst vorm schwarzen Mann (2013), Andre Baganz’s Endstation Bautzen II: Zehn Jahre Lebenslänglich (2010), Detlef D. Soost’s Heimkind, Neger, Pionier (2005), and Abini Zöllner’s Schokoladenkind: Meine Familie und andere Wunder (2003).

In addition to Black East German experiences, other People of Color of non-European descent also lived and worked in the GDR as so called Vertragsarbeiter (contract workers), students, refugees and children (most famously the Schule der Freundschaft [SdF] in Stassfurt). Studying their lived experiences through histories or cultural products provides not only insights into complex transnational encounters and exchanges with countries in Africa, Asia, and Central and South America, but also sheds light on the practical implementation of international solidarity as a concept of success and failure in East German political and private life. Some of the texts in this canon are Ibraimo Alberto’s Ich wollte leben wie die Götter. Was in Deutschland aus meinen afrikanischen Träumen wurde (2014), Stefan Canham and Phuong-Dan Nguyen’s Die Deutschen Vietnamesen (2011), as well as the edited volume Mosambik – Deutschland, Hin und Zurück. Erlebnisse von Mosambikanern vor, während und nach dem Aufenthalt in Deutschland (2005). Additionally, documentary films have proved to be a great medium for teaching everyday life experiences. They provide instructors and students with access to witnesses in order help undergraduate students connect with new and unknown lived experiences and perspectives. Some example are: the Webdoku Eigensinn im Bruderland (2019) about the lives of migrants in the GDR; Claudia Sandberg’s documentary film Películas escondidas. Un viaje entre el exilio y la memoria (2016) about DEFA’s ‘Chile’ films; and the production Omulaule heisst Schwarz (2016), a documentary by Beatrice Möller, Nicola Hens, and Susanne Radelhof; Christoph Schuch’s documentary Namibia – Return to a New Country – Namibia – Rückkehr in ein neues Land (1997) about Namibian children sent to the GDR as refugees. Including those voices into the teaching of German cultural history expands commonplace narratives about the GDR by considering the complex lives of people informed by race, gender, cultural, and generational divide.

  1. INCLUDE CULTURAL MATERIAL FROM EAST GERMANS RATHER THAN MATERIAL ABOUT EAST GERMANS

In Socialist Modern: East German Everyday Culture and Politics (2009), Katherine Pence and Paul Betts suggest that the GDR was “a uniquely modern state,” thereby challenging a more singular idea of modernity as part of liberal capitalism (3). This research has inspired scholars to not only look differently at political, cultural, and social structures within the GDR, but also to consider the private aspect in order to understand ways of living in the GDR. GDR popular culture is a particularly rich resource in this regard because it can shed light on previously undervalued dimensions of GDR life. A detailed retrospective description of daily life, which comments upon various components of GDR socialist modernity and innovation, takes place in Thomas Brussig’s Das gibts in keinem Russenfilm (2015). But material produced by the DEFA film studios and GDR television also introduces viewers to different meanings of socialist life, while offering contemporary critiques towards the state as people were living it. For example, this has already been studied in the so-called banned films, those censored DEFA films that only came to light after the wall came down (for a full list, please see the DEFA Film Library’s Themes and Genre section). Further use of genre cinema, avant-garde cinema, and television may expand on this approach to studying the GDR. East German media not only gives insight into the society from within but also challenges the narratives of an oppressed society that was silenced to challenge the states’ political and social issues.

So, why do GDR studies matter now? By bringing in different examples of the many lived experiences of GDR cultural and social life, we will enrichen ongoing debates about and interrogations of Germaneness, identity, and shared values in contemporary Germany. By studying GDR material and literary culture alongside other canonical texts, students will be able to learn and discuss different ideas of societies and lived experiences without putting one over the other.

References

Katrin Bahr and Melanie Lorek. “Ja, wohin gehen sie denn?”- Die ‘3. Generation Ostdeutscher’ zwischen Suchen und Finden am Beispiel des 1.5 Generationskonzepts.” In Die Generation der Wendekinder: Elaboration eines Forschungsfeldes, eds. Adriana Lettrari, Christian Nestler, and Nadja Troi-Boeck. Wiesbaden: Springer, 2016. 255–77.

DEFA Film Library. https://ecommerce.umass.edu/defa/films?category%5B%5D=28

 

“This post was simultaneously published on the Diversity, Decolonization, and the German Curriculum (DDGC) Blog edited by Regine Criser and Ervin Malakaj.”

Kunst und Macht. Lutz Dammbeck in Australia

FEATURED ESSAY

How and when do artists become complicit with power, entangled in its strategies that sometimes surpass their awareness? German filmmaker Lutz Dammbeck’s perspective is unique. Perhaps it is the result of Dammbeck being part of a minority of artists that were able to leave socialist East Germany in 1986 for the Western liberal-capitalist part of the country. The director allows us to share his viewpoint which, although highly subjective, appears nonetheless cautiously observing, impartial and even strangely ahistorical at times. From 1992-2003, Dammbeck created a four-part series in which he traces the ways art merges with power, talking to artists and intellectuals who, after the heights of their careers, sometimes abruptly find themselves marginalized and sidelined by an unforeseen historical change. In the process, he uncovers a complex of creators, institutions and a legacy of ideas from Nazi to GDR art, Viennese antimodernist actionism, to Silicon Valley Hippies and cybernetics, and invites us to step outside, to estrange ourselves from our own historical context.

Lutz Dammbeck’s documentary tetralogy Kunst und Macht Zeit der Götter/Time of Gods, Dürers Erben/Dürer’s Heirs, Das Meisterspiel/ Master Game, Das Netz/The Net) was screened at the University of Melbourne in four consecutive weeks in August 2018. This event was convened by writer Giles Simon Fielke (Artist Film Workshop www.artistfilmworkshop.org/) and critic and curator Nicolas Hausdorf (Arena— Australian Magazine for Political, Social and Cultural Commentary – www.arena.org.au), and organized in cooperation with the  Goethe Institute Melbourne, the University of Melbourne, and the Artist Film Workshop. Each time, the room was filled to the brim with students, alumni and art enthusiasts engaged in discussions how far Dammbeck’s powerful images can be transmitted across time and place, and what remains of their influence at the end of the 20th century and beyond. Nicholas Hausdorf’s essay reflects on the practices of an exceptional artist and his ideas about the allures of power and art.

Kunst und Macht. Lutz Dammbeck in Australia

“We tend all too easily to forget that our reality comes to us through the media, the tragic events of the past included. This means that it is too late to verify and understand them historically, for precisely what characterises our century’s end is the fact that the tools of historical intelligibility have disappeared.” (Jean Baudrillard, “Necrospective around Martin Heidegger”)

In an odd paragraph of his book “Finis Germania” that topped German book reading charts for months, despite being blacklisted and taken off the prestigious “Spiegel” bestseller list, the controversial German author Rolf Peter Sieferle asserts that the world is divided into two camps: tragic and non-tragic peoples. The tragic peoples include the Germans, the Russians and the Jews, Alternatively, Anglo-Saxons like those who continue to decisively shape contemporary Australian culture, are described as non-tragic. History drips from them, Sieferle implies, like it does from a raincoat. [1]

Admittedly, it would be rude to argue that Australian culture is static and not pervaded by the ongoing trauma and tragedy of the colonial experience and legacy, but it is certain that for Australia the idea of history is also marked by a strong sense of continuity. Its cityscapes, for example, lack Berlin’s or Leipzig’s drastic iconoclasm of eclectic experimental styles as a result of bombing campaigns, lost wars, regime collapse and ensuing overtly stylized and ostentatious new beginnings.

This discontinuity and tragedy of German culture might become most palpable when, as is the case in those current unbearably hot European summer months, tourists stroll along Berlin’s boulevard Unter den Linden: The visitor might stop at one of the avenue’s neoclassical portals and find the “Neue Wache” (New Guardhouse) monument. This building – one amongst many by the great Prussian architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel that coin this central part of Berlin – is a particularly interesting witness to the profound changes that have swept the city’s recent history: Originally constructed by Frederic William III for the soldiers killed in action during the Napoleonic wars in 1816, the memorial shifted its meaning to commemorating the soldiers of WWI in 1931, to become the memorial for the victims of fascism and militarism during the period of the socialist German Democratic Republic in 1960. Finally, after the reunification of the two German states in 1990, it was again reimagined in 1993 to become a memorial for the “victims of war and dictatorship”.

The place has thus become reinterpreted under every different ideological regime in modern Berlin. We may therefore imagine the New Guardhouse as a place of commemorative promiscuity. The incisive ideological transformations in Germany in the 20th century have left a legacy of uncertainty and instability that must seem rather abstract to nations with more continuous recent histories such as Australia. Meanwhile, a history that is moved and varied in this way is bound to favor the adoption of a rather critical and distanced stance vis-à-vis the status quo. Similar to the child in a divorce, who lost the familial emotional safe place, the citizen who has experienced the radical break of regime change adopts a more cautious distance to the present, away from cozy ideological-political certainties. This citizen knows that morose and inflated institutions can sometimes seem more stable than they are and quickly collapse under the weight of rapidly shifting economic and geopolitical realities. How would a future regime look at the present one, this citizen might come to ask. Which events would it highlight and commemorate positively, and at which would it frown in horror?

There could hardly be any artist who embodies the historical instability and uncertainty of German history better than Lutz Dammbeck, born in Leipzig in 1948. Leipzig was part of the Soviet-occupied territory before the socialist East German state was founded in 1949. After graduating from the Leipziger Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst, Dammbeck worked as a freelance artist in the DEFA Studio für Trickfilme in Dresden and created animated short films. Back then this was a space for critical artists and dissidents to produce subtle sociopolitical reflections and commentary on the repressive East-Berlin dictatorship. Some of Dammbeck‘s work fell victim to censorship and a few of his exhibitions were prohibited. In 1986, Dammbeck and his family were finally allowed to leave East Germany. They profited from East Germany’s policy of selectively granting exit permits to relieve the country of some of the mounting pressure of increasingly organized and popular anti-government movements. Three years later, the popular movements would play a central role in the fall of the Berlin wall and the subsequent reunification of the German state.

Arriving in West-German Hamburg, Dammbeck meanwhile refrained from the temptation of many a dissident to uncritically (and profitably) join in the pervasive chorus of early 1990s liberal-capitalist triumphalism. Rather, he retained a more nuanced and critically observing position. This distance of the observer is what characterizes a series of documentaries he produced between 1992 and 2004, later assembled as the tetralogy “Art and Power”.

The perils of suspending judgment 

(…) I happened to see a documentary on television about the first Auschwitz trial in Frankfurt am Main. I saw gray and blurred pictures. The trial seemed soberer and more unspectacular than the staged theatricality and the pomp of the Nuremberg Trials, more like a work situation. It was late, and I was a little drunk. I turned off the TV. Yet a thought stuck in my brain: Wouldn’t my generation have the same thing to do with their fathers? Go there and ask questions about why it did go wrong, but not repeat the mistake of the 1968 generation and cast a judgment. Just leave the story like it was told. (Lutz Dammbeck, Durer’s Heirs)

To this day, Dammbeck’s documentaries have frequently attracted the ire of critics and viewers alike. Reading the original response of the press in the 1990s to contemporary criticism, the most infuriating aspect of Dammbeck’s work seems to be his lack of an overtly critical commentary of his interview partners. Whether it is observing Nazi or socialist GDR art, critics have accused Dammbeck of being too complacent and uncritical with his protagonists. Perhaps, this too is the position of a person who has become ideologically homeless, suspicious of power, someone who does not want to identify with the self-righteous position of the current winner, the unchallenged meta-voice behind the camera, allowed to produce definite meaning.

Arguably, to this day, to be a quiet observer and seriously engaging with marginalized positions while suspending judgment continues to risk infuriating all sides and has little space in a culture that thrives on the social media logic of polarization, echo chambers and badge commitments to political phraseology. Communist Capitalist! Fascist!: More than ever, these words have become mere catch-all phrases and empty-meaning-and-selective-history containers which can signify something different to everyone who uses or identifies with them. Rather than clarifying the conceptual debate, they increasingly act to prevent any sort of meaningful political discussion which attempts to reconcile, nuance and synthesize instead of divide.

Lutz Dammbeck’s method could not be more contrasting. When talking to the protagonists, we can hear his own voice inquire skeptically and stoically, but there is no easy wholesale judgment from this position of historical retrospection, no feelings of superiority. When investigating the Nazi sculptor and Hitler protegé Arno Breker, for example, instead of condemning and demonizing the entirety of philosophical and aesthetic influences culminating in Nazism, Dammbeck does something infinitely more subtle and precise. He asks “at what point did it become monstrous?”

Modernity and its discontents

“It seemed increasingly clear to me that we actually know nothing about this relatively short period of time. (…) This idea seems absurd and curious, of course, given the number of books, films and explanations about fascism and the years between 1933 and 1945, which grow daily and pile up into high mountains, but we know (almost) nothing about it. And we won’t learn much more about it either.” (Lutz Dammbeck, Film Diary)

 In many ways, Dammbeck’s documentaries read like an archeology of what contemporaries have dubbed the culture wars – the frictions of the politically varied radical reappraisals and critiques of the present whose main logistical vector is the internet as a crowdsourced archive and alternative civilization excavation/dream machine. Even formally, Dammbeck anticipates the internet age’s aesthetic of ‘post-critical’ enclave culture: His investigations are as highly personal and subjective, as they are non-linear and rhizomatic – hyperlinked – of sorts. Perhaps prototypical of the more recent works of Adam Curtis or Mark Lombardi, in Dammbeck’s work research becomes an art form in and of its own.

In terms of content, “Art and Power” constructs the 20th century as an aesthetic-political antagonism between the forces of modernity and antimodernity. It thereby renders intelligible current cultural-political debates in the same legacy. By investigating the champions of antimodernity and its (German) romantic intellectual center, Dammbeck portrays the origins of a great deal of today’s political (and proto-political) movements assembling those enemies and losers of modernity: the alt-right, ethno-nationalists, traditionalists, luddites [2],  MGTOW [3] etc. He thereby portrays modernity in all its ambiguity, this force dubbed a “positive barbarism” by Walter Benjamin which has arguably both lead to unprecedented levels of societal freedom and liberation, but, in its permanent and ruthless challenge to tradition and iconoclastic desire to desacralize, revolutionize and overthrow, also created a legacy of instability, alienation and uprooted cultural anxiety.

By pursuing the legacy of anti-modernism in the West [4], with all its internal contradictions [5] and obliterated cultural grievances, he inevitably arrives at an investigation of modernity itself.

The last part of “Art and Power” mysteriously and evocatively subtitled “The Net – LSD, the Unabomber, and the Internet”, which managed to propel Dammbeck to a certain underground fame beyond the German post-reunification context, excavates modernism’s neglected material substructure and investigates in how far the current cultural trajectory is also the result of the very real experiments in cultural engineering (now often an accusation leveled at progressives by ‘liberal’ conservatives).

Such an enterprise again risks causing disquiet and unease. After all, while it is generally accepted that fascist and socialist regimes maintain a tight grip on their cultural and artistic production, the role of liberal regimes remains comparatively shrouded in mystery. Isn’t it precisely the claim that liberal states grant full freedom of expression? “The Net” answers to this claim by revealing how the contemporary Western anti-authoritarian personality has its origins not in mere chance and an arbitrary cultural trajectory usually associated with emancipatory 1960s youth culture. Rather, viewers learn that the development of culture has been “helped along” by hidden forces of the CIA-funded Macy Conferences with the active participation of a techno-scientific elite. Inspired by the horrors of the Second World War and Theodor Adorno’s study on the authoritarian personality and to forever avert the dangers of fascism, this complex of creators and intellectuals supported by the parapolitical institutions of the state devised a concerted effort of a scientific destruction of the authoritarian personalitytype associated with the specter of fascism in general and Germany in particular.

 Dammbeck thus dispels the last myths of the 20th century of an autonomy of the cultural sphere in the Western world and joins groundbreaking works such as those by Francis Stonor Saunder [6] on the CIA’s funding of abstract expressionism during the Cultural Cold War, or Gabriel Rockhill’s recent investigation of the CIA’s anticommunist promotion of postmodern “French” theory in US universities [7]. Dammbeck’s work thus forces us to radically reevaluate the Western cultural legacy of the 20th century which continues to exert its influence on aesthetics and politics today.

The filmmaker thereby reasserts the (ultimately very modern as ruthlessly critical) perspective of the internet age as one of popularized radical disenchantment. Exposed to the meticulously crowdsourced archives of internet information, political theory, philosophy, and culture lose their innocence as independently developing ideas and instead become reattached to a network of people instrumentalizing them for concrete interests and the pursuit of political power. As viewers, we witness a sort of Deep Sociology, a materialist critique of ideas, which is re-connecting thinkers and the formation of ideas to institutions: the usually hidden process of the creation of a superstructure by a network of individuals working for state, cultural and economic institutions [8]l’eternel retour du concret.

With Art and Power, Dammbeck invites us to observe his careful and evocative snapshots of culture-as-power-constellation: an assemblage of personalized portraits, interviews and institutional connections constituting Gramsci’s historical blocks as tales of cultural dominance and hegemony. In the puzzled faces and unstable positions of the protagonists, who suddenly find themselves disenfranchised from the apex of power and cast into suspicion, we can read the tales of a volatility of ideological hegemony and dominant narratives with creators as their sometimes unconscious and tragic protagonists.

Ultimately, we should view their example as one of political hope. One that allows us to step outside and estrange ourselves from our own historical context. It reminds us of our own active role in constantly creating and reassessing culture – and those things can change, and a final judgment has not yet been cast.

Nicolas Hausdorf is an editor, analyst and essayist living in Melbourne. His essay Superstructural Berlin was published by Zero Books in 2015.

Notes

[1] See also “Kultur und Skandal“ in arena – Australian magazine of political, cultural and social commentary (no. 152)

[2] Paradoxically often inspired by Dammbeck‘s interviewees and the pop-culture status of Ted Kaczinsky, the US anti-technology terrorist, aka the Unabomber.

[3] Men Going Their Own Way, a movement that interprets men as being structurally disadvantaged in the war of the sexes and proclaiming a sort of gendered secession from women corrupted by contemporary culture.

[4] In Nazi Art (“Time of Gods”), GDR art (“Durer’s Heirs”) and a circle of 1990s right-wing avantgardists based around Vienna’s Akademie der Kunst (“Master Game”)

[5] The modernist situationist strategies of Viennese antimodernists shown in “Master Game”, for example.

[6] See for example “Modern Art was CIA “weapon”, The Independent, 22 October 1995 and “Who paid the piper. The Cultural Cold War, 1999.

[7] “The CIA reads French Theory: On the intellectual labor of dismantling the cultural left“, The Philosophical Salon (2017) available from http://thephilosophicalsalon.com/the-cia-reads-french-theory-on-the-intellectual-labor-of-dismantling-the-cultural-left/

[8] Dammbeck in this way also anticipates philosophy’s New Realism of the late 2000s.

Credits

Picture 1 – ”Versuchsanordnung (1), 1978“, copyright Foto: Karin Plessing

Picture 2 – ”Versuchsanordnung 3, 1988-1990″, copyright Foto: Bildmischer LKA Düsseldorf

Picture 3 – ”cabin, 2006“, copyright Foto: Christoph Irrgang

Picture 4 – ”Versuchsanordnung (2), 1978“, copyright Foto: Karin Plessing

Other Sources

Goethe Institute Melbourne Link to the event Kunst und Macht – https://www.goethe.de/ins/au/en/ver.cfm?fuseaction=events.detail&event_id=21302682

DEFA-Stiftung, biography Lutz Dammbeck – http://www.defa-stiftung.de/DesktopDefault.aspx?TabID=1677

Lutz Dammbeck: Herakles Konzept – http://www.herakleskonzept.de/material/index.php/herakles-konzept-95.html

Traveling Mozambique: Family History and Search for Traces

“For all of us there is a twilight zone between history and memory; between the past as a generalized record which is open to relatively dispassionate inspection and the past as a remembered part of, or background to, one’s own life.” Eric Hobsbawm

It is June 5, 2018 and I am preparing for a one-month research trip to Mozambique. While I have planned this trip as part of my dissertation on the Cold War relationships between Mozambique and the GDR, I chose to take along my father, who had worked in Beira, the fourth largest city in the northeast of the country, during the 1980s on the construction of the railroad line Beira-Dondo. As part of his contract, he brought his wife and his two daughters along. Our family stayed in Mozambique for two years before returning to the GDR in 1984. What would he recall after all those years? Would he be able to remember the places he worked? Would those places still look the same, will they have vanished, or changed completely? And what would I remember, as I was only three years old when we left for Mozambique. Although he had shown us slide after slide in the 1990s, those images and stories had faded over time. Would I remember anything? I decided to bring some of these photographs with me in the hopes of locating some of the places from my childhood.

Arrival

In the early morning, we arrive in Maputo. As the capital of Mozambique, it is our first stop. All East Germans arrived in Maputo first, stayed there for a couple days before departing to their final destinations. Although it is winter season, the air is hot and humid. I catch myself thinking, “thank goodness I did not choose to do field research here in the summer”. We settle into the apartment, and then take a walk through an upper-class neighborhood. We travel through the fenced and highly-secured embassies, passing women selling fruit and vegetables on the street. I can feel my father’s happiness returning after all those years, as well as his eagerness to explore the city. His excitement is contagious; I cannot wait to explore the country with him and rediscover all the places from the photos.

Looking for Rubi

copyright Katrin Bahr

One of the most intriguing photographs I bring with me is of a building with a sign that reads RUBI. Once the tallest building in Maputo, it is located on a corner along the Avenida Samora Machel. Illuminated, the big four red letters resemble an advertisement. Beyond receiving the photo from my father’s collection, I am unfamiliar with its details. Similarly, all my father remembers is that it was taken in Maputo. I know tracing down images without any details would be a difficult task, but I am nonetheless hopeful. One day, after finishing some research in the Arquivo Histórico de Moçambique, we see a small park with a craft venue in the middle. Suddenly, I freeze, trying to contain my excitement. There it is: my RUBI building. Its colors had faded but the structure of the building is still intact. RUBI’s discovery motivates me to look for more places, buildings and signs corresponding to my photos. Over the next two weeks, as we travel to Beira, Dondo, Mafambisse, Messica, Chimoio, Manica and Machipanda, I take my own photos of places, buildings and signs I discover. In doing so, I myself restage moments of family-time my father captured and change narratives.

Dom Carlos Hotel

copyright Katrin Bahr

Our second stop is Beira, the city we called home for two years. The airport is small. In comparison with Maputo, everything seems more provincial. As soon as we sit in the car that brings us from the airport into the city, memories begin to resurface for my father. We drive along a bumpy-sandy road, passing people on bikes and a modern Chinese hotel complex. My father is shocked at how much has changed and repeatedly comments that the city “did not look so run down in the 1980’s”. We pass the Dom Carlos Hotel where new incoming East German families had stayed until they were able to move into their assigned houses and apartments. The next day, we visit the Dom Carlos while taking the “Macuti neighborhood” tour. One of the pictures I have with me is of a hotel and was taken by one of my father’s colleagues. It depicts the modern architectural building sometime in the early 1980’s, painted blue, and surrounded by trees. Once a hotel on the rise in Beira and a destination for many foreign aid workers, today it stands abandoned and in an unsettled owner-and-property situation. Even the attempt to put some fresh paint on the walls does not prevent the hotel from looking like ruins. The roof and windows are absent, and the outside walls are plastered with cell phone advertisements.

copyright Katrin Bahr

My Memories

When it comes to abandoned places, I am the first one who wants to take a closer look and explore the inside. I am curious to see if I would remember anything there. I step inside, and immediately I am drawn to a painting on the wall, amazed to see that it is still in full display, completely untouched. I would imagine that in Germany this type of abandoned building would have already turned into a graffiti project. As I take a picture of the painting, I remember that I had gone through some photos earlier showing East German families celebrating Christmas at the Dom Carlos Hotel. Later on, back in our hotel, I go through my digital collection and locate the image I thought I remembered seeing. It is a photograph my father had taken during a Christmas get-together at the hotel. East German families and their children sit in the lobby, gathered around a table with an illuminated, plastic Christmas tree. Someone is playing the accordion while others unpack their presents and take pictures. Looking at both images, one can decipher the beauty and destruction of the hotel over the passage of time. It is both fascinating and odd that the only piece that survived it all, is this painting; it is as if it holds on to the memories of that time—those now forgotten and buried in rubble.

copyright Katrin Bahr

My Mother

Over the next days, I still wonder if my memory of Beira was constructed through the photographs from the 1980’s. I receive an answer to this question once we visit our old home. Driving along a road at the shore, I am surprised to see that our former house is closer to the beach than I expected. I had also pictured the neighborhood differently with only one side of the street spotted with houses. The other side—I imagined—must have been just bushland with banana plantations. Right there, I realize that my memories are misled and made up from the stories my mother had told me. The entire street consists of terraced houses which have been there since the Portuguese occupation. Respectfully approaching the current tenants, we explain to them that we lived “here in this house”. I ask for permission to take a picture of me standing on their balcony, the very same way my mother once stood there being photographed by my father. The shade-giving papaya tree at the house’s front was taken down and replaced by a small palm tree. The house still looks the same despite its barred windows having undergone some color changes. Now, the garage is closed off and the small gate replaced by a larger one. The house continues to host families who work for the Caminhos de Ferro de Moçambique (CFM), the railroad company my father worked for.

My Father’s Happy Place

copyright Katrin Bahr

We then go further into the country to stop at different project sites my father worked at. My father worked for the CFM in Beira and occasionally traveled throughout the country for work assignments. With difficult road conditions en route to projects and security measures at the project sites, these assignments sometimes took days and weeks to complete. For this, he had to leave the family behind. Therefore, we only heard the stories about these places and later saw photos he took. I realize the importance of documenting his return journey once I see his reaction to these places. I begin to restage the photos of him in the same locations today. This means placing him into pictures—a reversal, as he had photographed his daily work and family life behind the camera. I choose two older pictures I have of him and restage them.

The first one is a reenactment of a 1983 photograph at Ifloma—a wood factory one-hundred-fifty miles from Beira—in Messica. My father had worked here for several months, though he cannot remember the details of when the picture was taken. He surmises: maybe a quick stop after a long workday on their way back to Beira or the project housing they stayed in. The image seems a little bit off since the other person in the photo either did not want to be photographed or did not realize that a photo was being taken. He is bending down, distracted by something. To reenact the picture is easy since only the car and the shoes seem to be different. Later, when I compare the two pictures, I realize that my father has always worn checkered shirts.

My Father’s Defeat

copyright Katrin Bahr

The second photograph I take of my father is connected to a longer story at one of his work sites. In Beira, my father and I have permission to join construction workers from the CFM in Dondo on their repair and maintenance machine to the Pungue Bridge. One of the best visually documented projects, I heard stories of its construction, bombing, provision and final repair. It feels natural to go and see the bridge today. When we hear that the organized trip with the CFM fell through, we try to get to the bridge ourselves on a dam through the sugar cane fields in Mafambisse. Unfortunately, a regular car is only able to get you so far. So, the picture I take in comparison with the one from the 1980s portrays both, pride and defeat. Pride—after finishing the project of reconstructing the bridge, and defeat—as we are not able to get to the bridge on our own. I again realized how important it was for my father to revisit these places when I talked to him on the phone the other day. I asked him how, after a month of being back in Germany, he reflects on it. His first sentence is: “We could have made it!” It had really bothered him to not be able to visit the Pungue Bridge again.

Conclusion

The importance and impact of this trip differed for me and my father. I desired to see places my father had worked at and revisit the city we lived in. In sum, I was searching to validate my memories. What made the trip so special was that I was able to do this with a close relative – my father – who had lived and worked there. I was able to see the places in photographs and listen to the narratives from the photos he had shown me; they had fascinated me ever since. Furthermore, I also learned new things about my father. Not only that he’s been wearing plaid shirts since at least the 1980s, but also his gratitude of being able to visit Mozambique one more time. He never talked about going back, but I know now that it had been on his mind for an entire year since he left.

For me, the trip resurrected memories that I heard from my parents but was only now able to place into a geographical and social context. It is a family history that creates its own narrative separate from that of the collective. It is an individual approach of retracing (East German) history. Using private photographs as a visual narration aid is not just a tool for documenting personal lives; it is a powerful agent of historical change and challenges prevailing narratives that go beyond times and spaces, bridging past and present as a continuing story.

I would like to thank Feling Capela who inspired me to write this story down.

Relaunch and New Blog!

Welcome to our new blog! Since the beginning of the Third Generation network initiative, we have connected with different scholars in the US and abroad. We are also working on new projects and have been busy with our own research. Now that the foundation for our network is set, we would like to try new avenues.

The idea for this blog came out of a trend we have observed in recent years, in which scholarship and perspectives about the GDR are more and more disconnected from what is happening in present-day Germany and from the people itself who experienced this time. For this reason, we will use this blog to provide information about new projects, to share thoughts on recent discourses and present exciting research, and fresh ideas that go beyond the boundaries of time, space, and generations without losing sight of its subject. The blog is intended to be a loose form of academic and non-academic dialogue, welcoming a broader audience of people who would like to contribute to this subject.

Please enjoy, share and comment!