Yulia Komska, The Icon Curtain: The Cold War’s Quiet Border (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015).
Reviewed by Jeffrey Luppes, World Language Studies, Indiana University South Bend
The Iron Curtain did not exist, according to Yulia Komska, author of an eye-opening and impressive new study of the prayer wall that emerged alongside the West German-Czechoslovakian border after World War II. In fact, Komska disputes the notion that the divide between Europe’s free, democratic West from the repressive communist regimes of the Eastern bloc during the Cold War can be considered a single entity. Instead, she contends, each section must be viewed as having a “highly discontinuous, site-specific history,” and it would behoove scholars to analyze them accordingly (9). In other words, as Komska convincingly argues, we should treat separately each segment of the boundary “from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic”—as Winston Churchill dramatically put it in his speech in Fulton, Missouri in 1946—and consider it unique.
The section of the Cold War divide under analysis in Komska’s book is particularly exceptional. First, as Komska reminds the reader, the boundary established after World War II, which bisected the primeval Bavarian Forest from the Bohemian Forest was not without precedent. The powers that be had demarcated their territory in this quiet corner at Europe’s heart in similar ways at various points in history, none of which was ever fully accepted or recognized by the locals (14). As she states: “While the border’s Cold War-era redesignation as the Iron Curtain had undisputed significance, the fact of division was qualitatively, and not quantitatively new” (22). Second, defying our expectations, this segment of the border between Eastern and Western Europe was not a lifeless concrete barrier and was far more permeable than one might expect, especially, if one only thinks of the Berlin Wall or the inner-German border—even when these segments of the Iron Curtain are not mentioned explicitly, comparisons of this region to them loom large in the background throughout the book. Moreover, Komska claims the West German government never showcased this particular segment of the border like it did the “anti-fascist protective wall” in the former capital and the inner-German border along the Elbe. This created a vacuum, in terms of representations and appropriations, which was rapidly filled by civilians, in particular, the Sudeten Germans—many of whom had been violently forced to leave their homes on the opposite side of the border and settle in West Germany (7–8).
It was those Sudeten Germans and the multitude of ways they interacted with and responded to the border, Komska asserts, which made this stretch of the divide truly distinctive. After all, the Sudeten Germans had ready access to their old Heimat and were the only group of expellees who could, in some cases, even still see their former homes. Indeed, they established viewing towers from which they could identify their old cities and towns. As the author shows, the Sudeten Germans were unusually active at the postwar divide. They produced a wealth of written, spoken, visual, and architectural representations of their experiences with and at the border. Drawing her sources primarily from their Heimatblätter (homeland leaflets), she interprets the Sudeten Germans’ religious icons, travelogues, photographs, and poetry—which, all together constitute what she calls the “prayer wall”.
Another of the examples of this strain between recognition and rejection of the border is what she calls “nostalgic bifocalism,” which is best described as “the tension between Heimat seen and Heimat remembered, vision and image, seeing and longing” (187). Regardless of who now administered the territory, their lost Heimat was still German. After all, for the Sudeten Germans, the divide not only delimited East from West and the political systems those denotations encompassed, but rather the past from the present.
The conflict’s key vocabulary—containment, spheres of influence, bipolarity—reflected a relational dynamic in which the enemy was clearly visible and identifiable. The Iron Curtain, furthermore, cast the self/ Other division in geographical terms. And yet … Heimat was not “Eastern” or foreign enough, and the West … not sufficiently home-like. As a result, the East was reproachable but not irredeemable (177).
Komska’s approach in exploring the Sudeten Germans’ representations is novel. In order “to provide as creative an interpretation as possible” (28), her methodology incorporates art history, geography, literary studies, visual studies, travel studies, and ritual studies. She claims her analysis “marks a substantive disciplinary departure” from other studies of the Iron Curtain which have been historical, sociological, or anthropological. Along these same lines, she claims her book is path breaking in that it “provides the first concerted look at the actual Iron Curtain through representations rather than events, through genres and forms rather than experiences. It is a close reading of contextualized forms, not a search for facts” (12). She takes this cultural studies approach, Komska notes, because of the breadth of cultural phenomena encompassed by the prayer wall. The topic is so large that she did not find it possible to limit her approach to any one field of study (28).
While I appreciated the originality of her endeavor, I occasionally found her explanations of the next theoretical approach confusing and distracting. Once the text returned to more description and analysis, however, the clarity of her overall arguments returned. Komska offers an unconventional, very persuasive new way of thinking of the Iron Curtain. The Icon Curtain is the kind of seminal research that will spawn additional investigations of other segments of the Cold War divide using more traditional approaches but perhaps also new studies of more familiar stretches based on her innovative methodology and multifaceted cultural historical approach—all of which I would welcome. Her argumentation is sound and her mastery of a trove of rarely examined sources is quite remarkable. Ultimately, the book looks at how the Sudeten Germans reacted to the new divide, the notion of an “Iron Curtain,” and to the Cold War itself. Clearly, the Iron Curtain was not as “iron-hard” as we might think. While, for many people, the “Iron Curtain” conjures up images of watchtowers, armed guards, floodlights, and concrete barriers, Sudeten Germans imagined and experienced the border between Bavaria and Czechoslovakia differently, as the sources Komska examines attest.
Robert C. Holub, Nietzsche’s Jewish Problem: Between Anti-Semitism and Anti-Judaism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016).
Reviewed by Klaus Berghahn, German, University of Wisconsin, Madison
Robert C. Holub latest book is the sum of his long-standing interest in Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy, especially his ambivalent relationship toward the Jews, his interest in Judaism, and his opposition to political antisemitism of his times. Twenty years ago he wrote an introduction to Nietzsche’s philosophy for the Twayne Series, in which he dealt with Nietzsche’s response to social and scientific issues of his time, including the German Question, women’s emancipation, and Darwinism. As an aside, he also wrote an article “Nietzsche and the Jewish Question,”1 in which he attempted to make sense of the various and sometimes contradictory statements Nietzsche made about the Jews and Judaism, but he concluded “somewhat indecisively” that we cannot reach any simple conclusion. He intended to return to this topic in a book-length study, but for a decade his energy was absorbed in administrative duties at Berkeley, Tennessee, and UMass Amherst. When he joined the faculty at Ohio State University in 2012 as an Eminent Scholar, he resumed his research on Nietzsche’s Jewish problem, and the book that he published four years later is a judicious and complete study of this topic that will stand for decades to come.
Holub scrutinized all utterances of Nietzsche about the Jews, his views on Judaism and antisemitism, and organized them thematically and chronologically. First, he dealt with the reception of Nietzsche’s anti-Judaism from the beginning of political antisemitism in the 1880s through the postwar period when Nietzsche was exonerated from connections with anti-Jewish ideology. Nevertheless, this trajectory was, as Holub states, “anything but straightforward.” It neglected Nietzsche’s early antisemitism under the influence of Bernhard Förster, his brother-in-law, and Richard Wagner’s Judeophobia. Even his polemics against antisemitism in the 1880s were neglected, and during the Weimar Republic and especially during the Third Reich his reputation as a right-wing advocate of racism was solidified. Today, Nietzsche’s reputation as a cultural philosopher and critic of antisemitism has been restored, albeit at the expense of neglecting his Judeophobic utterances.
The next chapters are ordered chronologically and give us a detailed view of Nietzsche’s relationship to Jews and Judaism. In his youth, there were no anti-Jewish utterances, and only when he enrolled at the University of Leipzig did he begin to emulate a new cultural anti-Jewish orientation, which he never lost for the rest of his life. When he entered the Wagnerian circle in 1868, he was influenced by Richard’s and Cosima’s unabashed Judeophobia and adapted an openly negative attitude toward contemporary Jewry, which he later, on the advice of Wagner, toned down or eliminated. After his break with Wagner, his views on Jews and Judaism were more favorable, especially since he made now the acquaintance of three assimilated Jews, who admired him: Paul Ree, Siegfried Lipiner, and Joseph Planeth. Holub, however, still detects some racial slurs against contemporary Jewry in Nietzsche’s writings.
Holub demonstrates convincingly how complex and contradictory Nietzsche’s confrontation with the Jewish Question in the nineteenth century had been. But, there is no question that Nietzsche opposed the political antisemitism of his time. To avoid any misunderstandings, Holub repeatedly stressed the point that Nietzsche’s anti-Judaism should not be confused with the racial and eliminating antisemitism of the Third Reich. This should, however, not lead to the wrong conclusions that Nietzsche was a philosemite or that he took part in the ongoing toleration debates. What framed his fierce polemics against antisemitism was the Berlin Antisemitism Debate, which the historian Heinrich von Treitschke instigated 1879 with his pamphlet “The Jews are Our Misfortune.” This resentment was supported by the prevailing Christian antisemitism of the Prussian Court Chaplain Adolf Stoecker, the founder of the Christian Socialist Party. As I already mentioned, his break with Richard and Cosima Wagner was another reason to turn away from antisemitism. But, Nietzsche’s strongest criticism is directed against Theodor Fritsch, his brother-in-law Bernhard Förster, and others of their ilk, who were all in agreement about the undesirability of Jews in German society, against the citizenship rights of Jews, and their financial influence in the Second Empire. For Nietzsche, his opposition to this political antisemitism had ideological and personal reasons. In 1878, he criticized the crude antisemitism of the journalist Fritsch in his pamphlet Anti-Semitic Correspondence, which influenced antisemitism from the 1880s until the Weimar Republic. Nevertheless, his anger was mainly directed against Bernhard Förster, whose antisemitism had estranged him from his beloved sister. All this did not mean, however, that Nietzsche abandoned his anti-Jewish sentiments.
In his conclusion Holub rejects once more the notion that Nietzsche could be connected with National Socialism and its antisemitic ideology or that he was free of anti-Jewish resentments as he was exculpated by research after World War II. As Holub reminds us, “we cannot—and should not—view [Nietzsche’s] remarks on historical and contemporary Jewry through the lens of later events, ideas and ideologies” (xix). Indeed, it is the virtue and the accomplishment of Holub’s study that he gives us a clear outline of the reception of Nietzsche’s philosophy, especially of his Jewish problem, and in addition, that he critically situates him in the controversy of the Jewish Question in his own time.
Robert C. Holub, “Nietzsche and the Jewish Question,” New German Critique 23, no. 3 (1995): 94–121.
Stephen F. Szabo, Germany, Russia, and the Rise of Geo-economics (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015)
Reviewed by Meredith Heiser-Duron, Political Science, Foothill College
For anyone interested in political economy or the German-Russian-American relationship, this is a must read. This volume poses some excellent questions about this triangular relationship and the disparate impact of politics and economics on it. The author makes the claim that if geo-economic power becomes more important in Germany as a civilian power, then five changes will occur in Germany’s foreign policy approach. He bases these ideas primarily on a 2011 article by Hans Kundnani:1
- (1)National interest will be defined in economic terms.
- (2)Germany will shift from multilateralism to “selective multilateralism.”
- (3)Business, especially export business will have more influence on shaping German foreign policy.
- (4)Economic interests will prevail over human rights, democracy promotion, and other non-economic interests.
- (5)Economic power will be used more to impose national preferences on others.
For specific economic support, the author cites trade figures: that u.s. trade with the Russian Federation is worth approximately $ 40 billion, while the figure for German trade (a country one fourth the size of the u.s.) is $ 63 billion. That clarifies how much more weight Russia carries for Germany, especially when one considers German dependency on Russian natural resources. Still, one has to deal with the political factors and how these trends are interpreted.
This is where the book is a little less successful. For example, when Szabo argues that Barack Obama and Angela Merkel are unemotional realists, this is an oversimplification of Merkel’s leadership style even prior to the refugee crisis. Also, while these leaders had a relatively friendly relationship at the end of Obama’s time in office, it was not that way at the beginning. The changing nature of this relationship requires some additional review. A full section on the leaders of all three countries and their place in their political party systems would have been helpful.
While Szabo has a five-page section on German political parties, he does not cover the interplay between those parties and never mentions the Left Party (previously the Party of Democratic Socialism), which has had a strong voice on foreign policy towards Russia, and, at a minimum, has influenced the tactics of Social Democrats. This is especially important because his conclusion emphasizes the priority of domestic politics in Russia and Germany in determining these countries’ bilateral foreign policy. Germany still focuses on a social market economy, as pushed by the Social Democrats, Greens, Left Party, and even the Christian Democrats. That makes Germany a different type of economic power than, for example, the United States.
Nevertheless, the author’s coverage of economic and business interests, such as German and Russian lobbyists, is excellent. Also, his in-depth information about German think tanks working on Russia as well as interactions between business figures and politicians is quite remarkable. Szabo’s section on Gazprom is especially detailed and insightful (69–81). Also, his short case studies (backgrounded in grey) are very useful, ranging from coverage of visa liberalization (53–5) to coverage of drones and German security (101–102).
In his conclusion, Szabo addresses each of the original five claims, and I would concur with four of his five conclusions, although he sometimes overemphasizes the impact of economics by not considering policy areas where the record is more mixed. As to his first two claims, while economic interests have become more dominant in shaping German foreign policy, he argues that the record on selective multilateralism is more mixed with Germany playing a strong role in European sanctions on Russia in 2014 but within the eu framework. He finds abundant evidence for his third claim that German businesses will drive foreign policy. Concerning his fourth claim, Szabo concludes that economic interests have been elevated over noneconomic interests such as human rights. But here, I would argue the record is much more mixed as we see in other case studies such as the recent refugee crisis. Finally, Szabo argues that only beginning in 2014 has Germany used its economic power to emphasize its preferences, so it is too early to predict if this will continue.
Whether one describes Germany as a core power or a Gestaltungsmacht (a power that can shape outcomes and events), there is no question that Germany’s foreign policy has been impacted by its increasing economic power. Whether Germany has abandoned its role as a civilian power is much more debatable. Stephen Szabo has provided an excellent framework and thought-provoking case studies to foster this ongoing debate.
Hans Kundnani, “Germany as a Geo-economic Power,” Washington Quarterly 34, no. 3 (2011): 31–45.
Juan Espindola, Transitional Justice after German Reunification: Exposing Unofficial Collaborators (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).
Reviewed by Sara Jones, Modern Languages, University of Birmingham
Germany’s approach to working through the German Democratic Republic (gdr) past has often been considered exemplary. And yet it has not been without controversy, particularly when it comes to the files left behind by the Ministry for State Security, or Stasi. The Stasi records law, passed in 1991, provided file access for victims, journalists and researchers and the possibility of vetting (or “lustration”) for public services, media, and some private companies. One of the most controversial aspects was the often sensationalist revelations about the involvement of more or less famous individuals with the Stasi as informants, or Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter (im). In Transitional Justice after German Reunification: Exposing Unofficial Collaborators, Juan Espindola examines this practice through the lens of empirically oriented political theory. Specifically, he explores if and how public exposures of im are intertwined with notions of respect and self-respect for both victims and perpetrators.
In the introductory chapter, Espindola argues that exploring transitional justice measures through a “many-layered” (12) approach to respect can demonstrate how these processes both promote and undercut respect and self-respect for individuals and groups. Following an overview of the historical context and the processes of working through the gdr past, the book is comprised of five carefully argued chapters examining different aspects of respect and self-respect in public exposures of Stasi informants and with reference to particular case studies, for example, Manfred Stolpe, Thomas Lawinky, Karlheinz Schädlich, Kerstin Kaiser.
In the first of these chapters, Espindola explores the conflict between public exposures and privacy laws. Here, respect for the victims conflicts with the right to reputational integrity of the former informants. Ultimately, Espindola contends, the claims of the victims outweigh those of the informants, as “through their actions, collaborators weakened theirs” (86). Building on these arguments, in the subsequent chapter, the author analyses public exposures of im as a form of “shaming interpellation” (104), that is, as a practice that constructs an ideal citizenry in opposition to the transgressive behavior of the informants. Espindola rightly points out that this form of interpellation simplifies “taxonomies of complicity and resistance that are in fact complex” (109). Moreover, the construction of a dishonourable “other” to stand in opposition to the honourable self is in fact a form of disrespect of the former informants and to some extent other eastern Germans (131).
Chapter 5 considers these issues from a different angle, that of moral responsibility and agency. If, Espindola asks, we are to respect im as fully fledged agents then must we not hold them accountable for their actions? If so, he argues, public exposures of im are acceptable and respectful because they assume that the individual is a free person able to provide explanations and justifications for his or her behavior. This, in turn, can contribute to a more nuanced debate on the reasons behind an individual’s decision to cooperate with the Stasi and the range of different levels and forms of collaboration. On the other hand, the focus on Stasi informants as the only ones morally responsible for sustaining the Socialist Unity Party (sed) dictatorship risks exculpating other citizens of the gdr who were imbricated in the regime in different ways.
Chapters 6 and 7 consider the projected outcomes of public exposures of informants in terms of eliciting public apologies by perpetrators and the potential for reconciliation. Espindola explores the differences between private apologies, which necessitate a dialogue between wrongdoer and the offended person, and public apologies, which might not involve victims at all. Public apology on the part of im is demanded, as in this way former informants reaffirm the moral and social codes of the new society. Apologies become mere performances, however, if there is no involvement of the victims and no possibility for them to assert the “victim’s prerogative” to “set the terms for forgiving the wrongdoer” (206). The hollowness of this form of public apology is matched by hollowness in the promise of reconciliation as reward for the apology. As Espindola puts it, in the context under consideration, “there is a divorce between the promise of political forgiveness or reconciliation … and its genuine ‘supply’” (210). In other words, former informants might atone for their actions, but they are not often forgiven for them.
Throughout the book, Espindola carefully weighs the often-competing claims of respect on the part of victims of the Stasi and informants. In this way, he gets beyond attempts to demonize those individuals who chose—under greater or lesser degrees of coercion—to work with the Stasi and considers the interpersonal and sociopolitical consequences of exposing their complicity. Importantly, Espindola analyses former im as equal citizens who are deserving of “respect” in the sense of recognition of their personhood (even if we deem them deserving of dishonor or disrespect for their actions). Nonetheless, in my view, there is one blind spot in Espindola’s otherwise highly differentiated discussion. The author states that he hopes to “avoid an approach that reduces the phenomenon [of public exposures] to the outcome of current struggles for power … or to ideological disputes around the legacy of the communist past” (35). This is indeed important and leads to some very interesting conclusions. Nevertheless, it also means that Espindola does not position himself explicitly within these debates. Rather, his view on the East German past emerges through his presentation of the case studies and indeed the political-theoretical exploration of the key concept of “respect.”
In particular, a greater consideration on East German subjective experience within the authoritarian system might have permitted deeper reflection on the concept of participation and of commitment to the socialist project. Despite the attempt, especially in chapter 5, to consider the complexity of Stasi collaboration, his use of language points towards a refusal to take genuine (and continued) belief in the project of socialism (and therefore its defense) seriously. He describes the actions of im as either voluntary, unscrupulous or “out of self-interest” or “misplaced patriotism,” or “out of fear or under duress” (141). The belief that cooperation with the Stasi might have been acceptable for socialist citizens is described as a “false belief” (154). This characterization would seem to either demonize former im, or to take away their political agency, in a way that the author so successfully avoids elsewhere in the book.
Indeed, we might well concur with Espindola’s implicit assumption that informing on one’s friends, neighbors, and colleagues is morally reprehensible in any society. Nonetheless, recognition of the complex relationship of many East Germans to the state in which they lived would seem essential to understanding the actions of many im and also their reactions to demands for public apology. The rejection of belief in socialism as an alternative to capitalism is, after all, not simply a debate about the past, it also relates closely to how Germany conceives of itself in the present and the “antitotalitarian consensus” that is engrained in the state-mandated approach to working through the past (Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit). In this sense, without necessarily engaging in the “ideological and partisan reductions” that Espindola rightly seeks to avoid, a greater awareness of how these debates are intertwined with expectations regarding how former informants should respond to such “shaming interpellations” would have expanded the reach of his arguments.
Despite this one reservation, in my view Transitional Justice after German Reunification is an important and highly interesting contribution to the study of postsocialist political and social Aufarbeitung. It looks at a central aspect of the processes of working through the past through a new disciplinary lens and presents a series of nuanced arguments both for and against public exposures of former im. Ultimately, Espindola tentatively concludes that im exposures can be supported as a “nonideal mechanism for achieving (imperfect) justice” (27). He adds that this “nonideal mechanism” might be improved by a more differentiated and careful approach to the past—an approach that this book in many respects exemplifies.
Jost Hermand, Das Liebe Geld! Eigentumsverhältnisse in der deutschen Literatur (Cologne: Böhlau, 2015)
Reviewed by Klaus L. Berghahn, German, University of Wisconsin, Madison
Jost Hermand’s latest book is an amazing collection of twenty essays, which deal with a rather neglected subject of literature, namely how financial aspects of life are integrated into narrative and dramatic structures. Money has ruled the world since antiquity, and how the power of money has shaped history had been the subject of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. How money also influenced the production, distribution, circulation, and reception of literature has been the topic of sociological research for decades. But, this extrinsic approach to literature has often neglected the intrinsic dimension of money in literature. How money, “Das liebe Geld,” has also shaped the structure of literature since the Late Middle Ages is the topic of Jost Hermand’s book.
In a lengthy, well-documented introduction he sketches the influences money and property have had in the shaping of history, the formation of different societies, and how this is represented in literature. He first defends his method polemically against purely formalistic or idealistic approaches to literature, and then outlines three questions that deal with money and property in the following interpretations: What was the social background of the authors? How clearly did they recognize the socioeconomic tensions of their times? What kind of critical, reformist, or utopian proposals did they make?
During the Middle Ages feudalism was the ruling system of government and the economy. The dynasties rewarded their vassals with land and titles, and the nobility and knights spent their time in warfare, diplomacy, and courtly festivities, while the lower classes had to work for them. This heavenly inspired ordo lasted until the middle of the twelfth century, when feudalism slowly transformed into a society where the burghers of the Free Imperial Cities gained more and more influence, and the circulation of money became ever more important. The merchants of the sixteenth century became the homines economici of the times, and they dominated literature in the Luther-inspired Protestant work ethic.
Money always adapted to power, as the following pages prove. After the catastrophe of the Thirty Years War, a new form of government developed under the influence of French Absolutism. In it, the bourgeoisie lost its financial power and could no longer compete with industries that were supported by the courts. The French Revolution seemed to reverse this development and to reinstate the power of the bourgeoisie, but Prince Metternich’s period of restoration soon nullified these advances in Germany. During the industrial revolution, which started around 1835, the power of money influenced the structure of society even more, since now a new underclass of exploited workers developed. The revolution of 1848 did not change much of the prevailing class structure, and even Karl Marx’s and Friedrich Engels’s analysis of the capitalist system could not yet influence the social imbalance of the time. What changed between 1850 and 1870 however was the demographic structure of society. While 60 percent of the population was still working in agriculture before 1850, this changed dramatically during the next two decades, after which most of the population consisted of independent burghers, craftsmen, and workers. German unification of 1871 under Otto von Bismarck’s conservative government did not change this societal structure. Nevertheless, the working class slowly found its voice in the Social Democratic Party and in the literature of naturalism. World War I and the November Revolution of 1918 increased the suffering of the population, especially of the working class.
Although Germany’s economy recovered in the 1920s and became the second largest among the industrialized nations, the Great Depression after 1929 led to massive unemployment and an increase of radical parties like the Communists and National Socialists. When Hitler came into power on 30 January 1933, he immediately outlawed the Communist Party and established his dictatorship under the euphemism of “people’s community” (Volksgemeinschaft), which only glossed over class differences and remained basically a capitalist system. After the catastrophe of World War II, the Germans suffered more than ever and paid dearly for the atrocities they committed.
After Germany was divided in 1949, the two parts experienced different developments. While the East suffered the brunt of the reparations for World War II, the West soon recovered slowly with the help of the Marshall Plan. By the end of the 1950s, the Federal Republic was again one of the strongest economic powers in Europe and the working class participated in this boom, with the dirty work was now done by foreign guest workers. The reunification of Germany on 3 October 1990 meant first of all hardship for the workers in the East since many of the nationalized factories were closed, which led to high unemployment and thousands of workers drifting to the western regions. The capitalism of the West had triumphed over state socialism in the East, but at a high price for the East. The promise of a “flowering landscape” in the East was slow in coming and combined with many crises. While the plutocracy of capitalism flourished, Germany with her many un-and underemployed workers became one of the “richest poorhouses” in Europe.
In view of this rather dark outlook, Hermand desperately looks for voices which share his concerns, and he mentions a few. In Herbert Schui and Echart Spoo’s 1996 book Geld ist genug da. Reichtum in Deutschland, the authors criticize the social politics in the Federal Republic, and in the Erfurter Programm by the same writers, they dealt with article 14.2 of the constitution, “property obligations,” which was cosigned by eleven prominent Germans. In addition, Hermand mentions Jutta Ditfurth’s manifesto Zeiten des Zorns. Warum wir uns vom Kapitalismus befreien muessen (2012) and Hans-Ulrich Wehler’s Die neue Umverteilung. Soziale Ungleichheit in Deutschland (2013). But, he thinks that these voices have not found an echo in Germany. And yet, the optimist that he ever is, he ends the introduction with a leftist pun from the 1980s: “If it remains as it is, it cannot remain.”
Simon Ward, Urban Memory and Visual Culture in Berlin: Framing the Asynchronous City, 1957–2012 (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2016).
Reviewed by Marcus Colla, History, University of Cambridge
Few places express the complexities of material memory more vividly than Berlin. Over the past twenty years, the seemingly unlimited fascination to be derived from the city’s intricate balance of past and present has produced a mass of scholarship, much of it subsumed under the rubric of memory studies. Many of these works, naturally enough, concentrate on the moral and political complications generated by the spate of Nazi relics and memory sites scattered throughout the German capital. Others have focussed upon the accommodation (or nonaccommodation) of East German history into the unified city. In his Urban Memory and Visual Culture in Berlin, however, Simon Ward offers a refreshing approach, far removed from the customary focus upon the politics of Berlin’s unhealed urban scars.
Ward’s monograph investigates instead the contrasting experiential qualities of the “synchronic” and “museal” urban gazes in Berlin. That is to say, he is concerned with the manner in which architects, critics and, most centrally, film-makers, curators, and artists have peered through the fissures of the radically “timeless” city to expose and examine the idiosyncrasies of a place whose urban past is both magnetic and irrepressible. Ward is less interested in architectural forms of resistance to modernity’s forward charge than with the subtler ways in which the cracks in the modern urban façade are identified, experienced, and represented in culture. Beginning in 1957 and continuing almost to the present day, Ward draws upon a rich supply of case studies from photography and film, with the ultimate product less an argument as such than an imaginative and neatly woven tapestry of varying and contrasting responses to Berlin’s “obsolescent” historical spaces.
The most difficult segment of Urban Memory and Visual Culture in Berlin is its introduction, which consumes an improbably large number of pages. Here, an almost-overwhelming array of conceptual terms and theorists is hurled at us. It is often easy to get lost in this array and to lose sight of that at which Ward is actually aiming. While the author develops the contours of his theoretical approach with great sophistication, one cannot help but feel that large parts of the theorizing are unnecessary. Often, they make sense only once applied to the case studies of the subsequent chapters.
Fortunately, however, Ward has a knack for examples, which help enormously to clarify the meanings of his dense theoretical work. His first chapter—“Remembering the ‘Murdered City’”—deals with postwar attempts to develop the “synchronous” or timeless city, and the modes of resistance these attempts encountered, most notably through the eventual preservation of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church on the Kurfürstendamm, threatened by demolition at the hands of synchronic planning. Insofar as it deals primarily with decisions undertaken by politicians, architects, planners, and conservationists, this chapter contains the book’s most “traditional” substance. Its narrative charts the descent from the highpoint of the “concept city” in 1957 through the increasing visibility of “musealization” in the city over the following decades.
But this historical narrative is not completely clear-cut. From the outset, Ward does not allow the seeming omnipresence of the “synchronic city” to belie opposition to the era’s dominant planning paradigms. He gives careful attention to observers like the publisher Wolf Jobst Siedler (from whom he adopts the memorable phrase “the murdered city”), who for many years personified in Berlin’s mass media the “museal urban gaze,” drawing attention to neglected pockets of urban history set among the empty concrete wilderness of the modern city. Siedler’s obsession with loss and the antimodern critique from which it derived assumed an ever-greater influence in the coming decades.
Yet, while the influence of critiques such as Siedler’s is well documented, Ward may have reflected more on the providence of the “synchronic” paradigm it targeted: what was it about the postwar era that supplied modernist planning with its hegemonic power? Among planning circles in Berlin, the resolute emphasis upon traffic-centricity, “circulation,” the full exploitation of space and an aversion to ornamentality were predicated on the idea that the city’s historical structures and artefacts were irrelevant and insignificant. Rising from the ashes of Stunde Null (zero hour), there is an apparent logic to this in the case of Berlin. But, the fact that this was far from a Berlin-or even Germany-specific phenomenon surely warrants some contextualization.
In his second chapter, Ward traces the re-emergence in cultural consciousness of urban pasts between 1975 and 1989. From the perspective of the “museal” gaze, this period was marked by two significant developments. First, the increased tendency of critics to view the postwar modernist frenzy, like Siedler, as the city’s “second destruction,” and, second, the timeless city’s begrudging recognition of its own history. In this context, Ward’s analysis of the Topography of Terror is of particular value. As a site once subjected to the tyranny of the synchronic gaze but increasingly granted significance on account of its historical “aura,” the story of the Topography of Terror neatly encapsulates the swelling emphasis in the 1980s upon notions of place authenticity as loci of collective urban memory. Central to Ward’s sweep is the manner in which interpretations of this site echoed readings of “other, less immediately charged, ruin sites” that at the same time were “grappling with the appropriate form of a museal urban gaze,” such as the Anhalter Bahnhof. By drawing this connection, Ward suggests that while the critical urban gaze with which he is concerned is far from apolitical, it is nevertheless defined in terms of the “place memory” of the site rather than its historical meaning as such. There is more than one context in which to read responses to even the most burdened of memory sites in Berlin, and the affirmation of a “museal urban gaze” is one of them.
In his final two chapters, Ward analyzes perceptions of Berlin under a new paradigm: the “city as a museal space in itself.” While he documents a period of intensified urban engagement on the part of the city’s two governing powers, however, Ward explicitly eschews an analysis of official commemorations. Instead, he addresses the articulation of the museal urban gaze through such works as the “Mythos Berlin” exhibition at the ruin of the Anhalter Bahnhof, the reconstruction of the Nikolaiviertel in East Berlin (a part of the city’s 750th anniversary celebrations in 1987), and Wim Wenders’s seminal Berlin film Wings of Desire (1987). As these examples demonstrate, Berlin’s past assumed an enhanced visibility in this period.
While Ward’s approach cleverly illuminates continuities in urban memory across periods of drastic political change, these chapters also document the startling rapidity with which cultural memory was revolutionized by the events of 1989. The fall of the Berlin Wall created, almost instantly, a rash of obsolescent sites throughout Berlin’s East, as buildings and places relying for their significance on the presence of the communist state found themselves stranded and purposeless in the new unified city. At the same time, this very process transformed many of these sites into overnight monuments, of which the most celebrated was the Palast der Republik. Ward returns to the ruins of this structure in his epilogue, in which he relates his own fortuitous discovery in 2009 of a brief written testament to place memory among its scattered concrete fragments. “The gdr,” reads the note, “is not worse than the Nazi era. And it is also German history. I enjoyed coming here for thirty years.” It is a nice touch, and reminds us of the subjective dimension of memory that every student of Maurice Halbwachs must necessarily confront.
It would be impossible here to touch upon all aspects of a work with the density of this one, and it is to Ward’s great credit that he is able to interlace approaches from memory studies and film criticism into a fine historical narrative. Yet, there remain a handful of omissions that bear mentioning.
First, while Ward professes to cover all of Berlin, the former East German capital remains conspicuously marginal, despite its clear scope for relevance. We detour eastwards through the demolition of the Stadtschloss in 1950, the construction of the Nikolaiviertel in the 1980s, the works of the photographer Ulrich Wüst, and the quietly subversive urban gazes employed in the films Die Legende von Paul and Paula (1973), Solo Sunny (1980), and Die Architekten (1990). While Ward’s overriding emphasis upon the continuities between West and East provide a refreshing take, the latter still features too little. This is to be regretted, especially as the author’s concern with the experiential quality of encountering historical space surely offers great potential to transcend the predominantly political factors that most distinguished East from West. Indeed, Ward explicitly argues that the correlations between Wüst’s works and those of the West Berlin photographer Michael Schmidt “speak to a broader sense of convergence in the museal gaze between East and West.” But, is this to imply that it followed a certain divergence in the preceding decades? If so, it would have been useful to understand precisely how this divergence arose in the first place. Can it have been simply a product of politics?
Second, the rapidity of Ward’s narrative cannot avoid providing the impression that Berlin was islanded as a locus of planning, with the consequence that we learn precious little about the impact of cultural and political shifts in the wider world. We might not know it from this work, but Western Europe more generally experienced something of a collective reaction to the synchronous city in the late 1960s and 1970s. To be sure, Ward expertly charts how this change in attitude manifested itself in West Berlin. Yet given that it is one of his stated aims to resist a focus upon Berlin’s urban “scars”—that is to say, its uniqueness—the broader cultural phenomenon probably also needs to be addressed.
An additional (though less substantial) criticism is the editing: while Ward generally writes with acuity and precision, a few of his more convoluted sentences suffer from phantom question marks and rogue commas, with the unfortunate consequence that the flow is needlessly disrupted. Still, despite these shortcomings, Urban Memory and Visual Culture in Berlin is an innovative and insightful take on the contested memory of a city whose infinite complexities never fail to captivate, and will be of great value to students of history and cultural studies alike.