Saturday, 19 November 2016

Critical remembrance

When I was at school, I had a German pen friend.  Monica lived on the edge of the Black Forest and I visited her twice; I had a bit of an agenda for the second visit as I was accompanying the school football team and one player in particular, but whatever my motivations, my German was pretty impressive after a month in her company.  She lived in a three storey house with three generations of her family and what struck me on both visits was her grandmother, who always dressed in entirely in black.  When I asked why, it was explained to me that it was because she would never forget the war and the losses suffered by her family.  By the time of my first visit she had dressed in black for 45 years.

Fast-forward twenty years or so and I am thinking again about how we remember the past.  It's taken me a while to go back to Germany, but I finally managed to get to Berlin for a long weekend.  It happened to co-incide with Remembrance Sunday and the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall. In the same week of the US elections, the opportunity for an exploration of the rise of fascism couldn't have been more timely.

Site of Nazi HQ, Berlin
I visited two museums - firstly the 'Topography of Terror' which despite its slightly sensational name is possibly the most forensic and detailed exhibition I have ever seen.  Built on the Hotel Prinz Albrecht site of the Nazi SS headquarters, it is a catalogue of the rise of fascism, but also a call to action; one of the aims of the foundation is to 'actively confront history and its aftermath.'  The word 'topography' is interesting in itself; the geography of the site is laid out, although little physical evidence remains apart from a few cellar walls.  It suggests a detailed mapping and examination of a landscape at a point in time, a similar notion to the 'cartography' concepts of Rosi Braidotti*, who suggests that we have to map out our history (personal, political, social and cultural) in order to fully understand and learn from it.  The detail of the documentation, records, photographs and artefacts allows visitors to see every perspective and peer into every dark nook and cranny of Nazi history.  The story is laid bare as if presented to a court; there is no sentimentality, blame,sugar-coating or biased interpretation. What you make of it is up to you, but the facts are undeniable and all the more powerful for that.

The second museum was the DDR; an interactive examination of life in Germany's first socialist state.  The DDR for me was the white shirts of the East German football team I saw on TV as a child, the numerous defections and disappearances of sports-people, and of course the fall of the Berlin Wall which is etched on my memory in one of those 'I can remember where I was then' moments. The museum includes a to-scale mock-up of an East German high rise flat, complete with 60s wallpaper, original clothing and a drinks cabinet (they consumed a horrendous amount of alcohol per head, unsurprising really).  The similarities between the two museums and extremist ideologies were striking. Fascism and communism are at either ends of the political scale but come around to mirror each other in many ways; love of the military; corruption at the top; propaganda; enforced patriotism. In both states control was very quickly taken of the education curriculum (always an early warning sign).   If these things sound familiar in present times, we would do well to keep Lawrence Britt's 'Fourteen Defining Characteristics of Fascism' close at hand.

It is said that 'art is on the side of the oppressed', and in a wonderful counterpoint to the stark reality of history in Berlin's museums, creative, affirmative expressions of art are found everywhere. Through the glorious graffiti in the East of the city, the wall-turned open air art gallery by the banks of the spree; the stelae of the Jewish memorial and the empty bookshelves of the book-burning memorial at Bebelplatz.   Art allows us to seek out an alternative world, where 'imagination is a power of cognition and a medium for alternative meaning-making and expression'.**

Detail from the Berlin Wall, East Side Gallery

The last few weeks have been personally tough in many different ways and on many different levels. This trip left me feeling humbled and more privileged than ever to work with teachers who are doing their best to work for a world of social justice, where people still believe in art and creativity, where they see their role being more about developing critical thinkers than consumers of information.  It's a difficult path to tread and becoming harder; but a good place to start this work is always with ourselves. As Foucoult wrote, "The strategic adversary is fascism... the fascism in us all, in our heads and our everyday behaviour, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us."**  We need to work on our own 'cartographies', examining critically our own informed beliefs, values and subjectivities, in whichever way works best for us; only after doing this can we help others to do the same.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Peter Eisenman

*Braidotti, R. (2013). The Posthuman. Polity Press.
**Clover, D. and Stalker, J. (2007). The Arts and Social Justice. Leicester: NIACE.
*** Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1972). Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. University of Minnesota Press.