One of my favorite podcasts is Chicago Public Radio's Love and Radio, and it's things like this interview with Mathias Rust (in English) that have earned my love.
One of my favorite podcasts is Chicago Public Radio's Love and Radio, and it's things like this interview with Mathias Rust (in English) that have earned my love.
The New York Times looks at art seizures by the Stasi:
Between 1973 and 1989 the East German police, known as the Stasi, seized more than 200,000 objects in hundreds of raids, according to experts and official archives. As part of a broader government program to secure Western currency through the sale of the art, the police went after collectors like Mr. Meissner, who, when he objected, was sent, at 79, to a psychiatric hospital and portrayed as an enemy of the state.
But now, Mr. Meissner’s story has resurfaced, as his son tries to reclaim what he says was one of the most valuable items seized from his father more than three decades ago: a 1705 still life of four chestnuts by the Dutch artist Adriaen Coorte. In court filings in Munich, the New York family that now has the painting says that it was bought 25 years ago, legally, in good faith and with no understanding that it had been seized by the Stasi.
Until recently, few Germans realized that the covert program, with its echoes of Holocaust-era looting, had ever taken place in the German Democratic Republic, said Gilbert Lupfer, the lead researcher for Dresden’s state art collection.
“It was very, very, well, elaborate, and also very secret,” he said. “That’s the reason why it was not known in the G.D.R.”
The purpose of the program, according to historians, was purely financial. East Germany’s economy at the time was faltering, and its own currency, the mark, was too weak to be of much use in foreign trade. Selling art abroad through brokers in Western Europe guaranteed a steady stream of cash.
To depict the seizures as legal, the Stasi declared that the targeted collectors were “art dealers” who owed as much as 90 percent back taxes on the value of their so-called stock. Since no East German could pay the outsize tax bills, archival records show, the Stasi would take 90 percent of the best objects instead.
Doing a bit of research I came across the online version (g) of the Bambergische Peinliche Halsgerichtsordnung, one of the first European criminal codes. It was written by a German knight, one Johann the Strong, Baron of Schwarzenberg and Hohenlandsberg. Johann was 'Hofmeister' (a senior court official) to the Bishop of Bamberg.
From a legal perspective the Bamberg code is forward-looking in many ways, but in other ways it's, er, medieval. And what's even more awesome is that the medieval stuff is illustrated. Directly below we see court officials preparing for interrogation under torture, the so-called peinliche Befragung (g). It's even accompanied by a short poem (anyone want to try a translation in comments?). Below that we see a man about to be beheaded with a sword in the foreground, with a poor bastard broken on the wheel in the background.
A few years ago I bicycled around the Allgäu, a succulent part of Germany on the border between its two large and influential southern states, Baden Württemburg and Bavaria. Gentle hills, meter-wide brooks, and frothy South German baroque churches.
The camera was a Canon Powershot G11, nothing special. The photographer in me regrets the overexposed bits, but overall, it's an eye-feast, and the monastery itself works the magic. Most of what looks like solid marble is actually plaster that resounds when you tap it.
The bleg is this: I paid a couple of euros to visit the museum here, which was detailed -- maps of the monastery's shifting domains, dioramas of the practical winemaking and woodworking and property management of the industrious ora et labora Benedictines, and maps illustrating the fascinating legal history of the local Benedictines: when they were granted their first clerical fiefs, which pieces of land they lost during the War of the Moravian Pretender in 1715, what percentage of their land they rented to tenant farmers, etc.
All relentlessly informative and dull, even for a lawyer. But then one of the pull-out wooden information tablets (the curator had gotten pretty frisky) spoke of The Benedictine Monks receiving the Blutrecht (literally blood-right) from the local prince in the early 1700s. This meant they had the power to enact their own criminal code and inflict corporal penalties. The abbey had become a large local landowner, and the local prince was tired of policing it, so he transferred that authority to the monks themselves. They enacted a crude criminal code, punishing unrepentant blasphemers by death.
Here, the (likely tendentious and unreliable) monastery records describe an interesting case. A local man named Joseph Nickel came to monks' attention. He'd studied in Paris and then returned to Wiblingen to spread his free-thinking views and eke out a living as a highway robber. He even robbed a monk. He was punished a few times. Then one evening he was overheard in a tavern denying the divinity of and blaspheming Mary. He denied nothing at trial, and the monks sentenced him -- as a repeat offender and blasphemer -- to death. They had to have a special scaffold erected since they'd never done this before. He was hung by the river in front of a crowd. The historical account in the museum stressed that the monks were awfully broken up about having to hang Nickel, and, if memory serves, never hanged anyone again.
I remember reading this and being more than a bit surprised, since I'd never heard of a monastery acquiring sovereignty, enacting a criminal code, and actually hanging someone. Perhaps I'm naive.
In any event, that's the story as I remember it, from my memory and blurry photos of the card. I think it's about 80% accurate. My bleg to you is if anyone can find me some other written sources about Joseph Nickel? 98% sure that's his name, because I drilled it into my memory. But I've never found anything more about him. An educated, free-thinking vagabond hanged by monks in the 1700s interests me. Can anyone point me to more information about Joseph Nickel?
Last week I paid a visit to the 'Regierungsbunker,' (Government Bunker), a massive underground complex located near Bonn (West German capital until reunification) which was intended to shelter surviving members of the West German government from a nuclear attack. The core of the bunker was a never-finished railway tunnel under the lush red wine region of the Ahr Valley. Starting in the early 1960s, the tunnel was secretly re-opened and massively expanded to provide space for 3000 people in a sprawling underground complex comprising 17 kilometers. As Wikipedia notes, "The main portals were sealed by manoeuvrable steel and concrete gates built by MAN, each weighing 25 tonnes. The bunker housed 897 offices and 936 dormitories and had 25,000 doors in total. It even had an underground hairdresser's salon." There were even kiosks selling beer and snacks during the frequent training exercises. The whole thing could be sealed off by massive blast doors and circular barriers which rolled into place in 10 seconds.
The whole fabulously expensive thing was shut down in 1997, after the head of government relocated to Berlin. Since no civilian use for it could be found, the interior was completely stripped and sealed at a cost of €16 million. A 203-meter stretch was, however, preserved as a museum, and opened in 2008. The preserved stretch features a command center, infirmary, decontamination rooms, television studio, communications centers, wargames exercise rooms, and lots more institutional-green Cold War frippery from the 1960s and 70s. You'll want to check times before you go -- you can only visit as part of a guided tour, and some days only permit groups to visit, not individuals. But it's well worth a visit.
One thing the guides will cheerily inform you is that the whole zillion-Euro complex was a waste of time. First, because it wouldn't have worked (Wikipedia again):
In 2008 it became publicly known that the shelter would have just about withstood the detonation of a 20 kiloton bomb, comparable to the destructive force of the Hiroshima bomb. Secret surveys conducted as early as 1962 had found that 250-times more powerful weapons were to be expected and it had been made clear that the bunker would collapse if ever hit by a nuclear bomb. Despite this known fact, however, construction was continued for political reasons.
And second, because the Commies knew about it almost from the get-go. Enter Dieter Popp (g). Dieter is a leftist West German who offered himself to the East German military counterintelligence service and became an East German spy in the West, a group known by the deathless East German euphemism Messengers of Peace (Kundschafter des Friedens). He recruited a friend of his, Egon Steffer, in what espionage experts called "an extremely rare use of the Romeo tactic [male version of the honey trap] among homosexuals". Steffer obtained a position handling secret documents and, through Popp, passed them to East Germany. These documents included detailed information regarding the bunker's existence and characteristics. Popp was sentenced to a short prison term after reunification, but protested to the Federal Constitutional Court that it was impermissible to prosecute someone for spying for a former country that was now part of the country that was prosecuting him. The FCC held that was no problem. Popp is still alive, and helps run a Bonn-based organization of former Messengers of Peace which seeks to convince the public that they were just that.
Below a few pictures from the Bunker:
Neues Deutschland (New Germany), the former official press organ of East Germany now turned left-wing journal, reports (g) on a poll of Germans from both the West and former East on their attitudes toward reunification. A few of the more interesting findings:
I don't have much to add here, except that nobody should be surprised that West Germans have a mixed view of reunification, given that they have been paying a special additional tax (the 'solidarity surcharge') for the past two decades to assist in reunification. Nobody likes taxes, and many who supported it in 1997 think it's time to get rid of it.
As a proud owner of a copy of the official National Socialist guide to summer camping (Freude, Zucht, Glaube -- Joy, Discipline, Faith), I was intrigued by this film, recently restored by the National Archives of the USA:
The curator notes:
I have one great party trick. Anytime someone asks me if I’ve ever come across something really cool while working in the Motion Picture Preservation Lab, I tell them about the time we had what looked like footage of a Boy Scout camp and then the Boy Scouts raised a Nazi flag along with the red, white, and blue. Without fail, I get the attention of anyone in within earshot. Then, I tell the assembled crowd that in the late 1930s the East Coast was home to many summer camps for the junior Nazis of America and the National Archives holds the film evidence. They might have been hoping that I would tell them about footage of the Roswell aliens, but the reaction to “American Nazi summer camps” is just about the same.
n Volks-Deutsche Jungen in U.S.A. (German Youth in the U.S.A) you’ll see what first appears to be an unremarkable story of a boys’ summer camp. The film starts with the camp under construction and excited children piling onto chartered buses to make the journey from New York City to Windham, New York in the summer of 1937. The boys pitch tents, unload crates of baked beans, and perform physical fitness drills. If you pay close attention, you might notice that some of the boys are wearing shorts bearing the single lightning bolt insignia that marked the younger contingent of the Hitler Youth, but it’s not until the “Flaggenappell” (flag roll call) at 13:47 that the affiliation becomes clear.
Less well-known is that the DAB also operated as somewhat of a cultural indoctrination organization for German-American children, with activities that are depicted in several of the films we hold. The summer camps, complete with the official uniforms and banners of the Hitler Youth, might be the most visual and chilling example of the DAB’s attempts to instill Nazi sympathies in German-American children. Another film, intended to encourage boys to attend the camp, includes a perhaps unintentionally ominous intertitle that translates to “German boy you also belong to us.”
Look at the German men in those photographs. Erect, athletic, courteous, stylishly-dressed, sexually chaste* and happy. They surely bore, with pride, real Teutonic names like Wolfram, Ekkehard, Adalbert, Friedhelm, Karlheinz, Ulf-Wotan, or Eike-Siegfried. Names that evoke crystalline mountain lakes, Wergeld, jousting tournaments, roving bards, sacred groves, and unmixed ancestry.
Yesterday the German men's national soccer team won the World Cup. But what sort of names did these "'Germans'" have? Per and Philipp are just barely acceptable, but Toni? Kevin? Mario? Sami? Manuel?
Did we lose a war, people?!
* This 1925 poster, from the collection of the German Hygiene Museum (!), reads: "Strive to remain chaste! The best way to do so is bodily exercise! Sports and games, swimming and hiking -- along with serious work, these make it easy to remain sexually continent. Continence is not harmful."
Speak for yourself, German Hygiene Council.
UPDATE: I bet these guys had Real German Names®:
I watched Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter ('Our Mothers, Our Fathers'), the three-part German miniseries that has recently been released to decidedly mixed reviews in the USA under the title 'Generation War'. In the New York Times, A.O. Scott calls it
an attempt to normalize German history. Its lesson is that ordinary Germans — “Our Mothers, Our Fathers,” in the original title — were not so different from anyone else, and deserve the empathy and understanding of their grandchildren.'
...There is good and bad on all sides, a dash of mercy mixed into the endless violence. But the suggestion that the Nazis were not the only bad guys in Eastern Europe in the early 1940s is undermined by the film’s disinclination to show the very worst of what the Nazis did. We see massacres of Jews by local militias in Ukraine under the supervision of the SS, but “Generation War,” for all its geographical range and military detail, steers clear of the death camps.
This omission has the effect of at least partly restoring the innocence of the characters and of perpetuating the notion that ordinary Germans were duped by the Nazis and ignorant of the extent of their crimes — that they were as much Hitler’s victims as his accomplices and did not know what he was doing. They also suffered, after all, but there is something troubling about how the filmmakers apportion this suffering.
Virtually all the reviews name-check the various controversies the film provoked -- Poles were especially frustrated by the depiction of Polish anti-Semitism among partisans.
I rather liked the movie. One thing that American reviewers may not appreciate is its simple technical proficiency. Americans are spoiled -- standards of dialogue, narrative pacing and production design are now so uniformly high in American television series that Americans take it for granted that backgrounds and sets will appear extremely plausible and detailed down to the last cigarette butt or car model, and that dialogue will sound as if it were actually being produced by people in the periods and professions the actors portray. This doesn't mean that show is worth watching or the plot is plausible, but the technical stuff will seem right.
In German shows, alas, this basic level of proficiency can't be taken for granted. Generation War looks authentic, although I'm sure there are minor flaws here and there. The combat scenes are chaotic and gritty, basically copies of Steven Spielberg. Which is fine by me -- nobody does combat scenes in middlebrow war movies better than Spielberg, and there's not much room for individual experimentation, so why not copy the master? The director, Philipp Kadelbach, has worked hard at creating a bloody, gritty, nasty, violent combat background, and deserves kudos for pulling that off.
It's also refreshing to see a German movie that other nations are interested in seeing. German cinema is in at least the third decade of doldrums, producing far too many portentous didactic pieces about parochial social issues or navel-gazing rides on the hobbyhorses of the urban bourgeoisie. Germans are well aware of this problem, which is the subject anguished hand-wringing every year as the German Film Prize goes to yet another group of movies that few have seen and which sink rapidly into oblivion.
One of the culprits is the script review process, necessary to get the public funds with which these movies are made. Any juice these movies might have had is patiently extracted during this process, in which squeamish, picky film bureaucrats carefully remove most traces of originality, political incorrectness, or excessive action. I myself have seen a film script with the review marks of numerous of these prigs, whose favorite means of removing interesting scenes from movies is the phrase 'zu Hollywood' (too Hollywood). Generation War is hardly profound auteur cinema, but it's a gripping, well-made middlebrow drama with well-defined characters (the cast, as is usually the case in German movies, is outstanding) and which doesn't shy away from controversy.
The critics who carp that the movie doesn't do precely-calibrated justice to all who suffered under German rule (no death camps? Polish anti-Semites?) are missing the point. The typical German film would have tried to placate every constituency, and would for just that reason have been a pedagogic exercise. The movie focusses on the five main characters, showing 'their' wars. We see German soldiers committing plenty of atrocities, and witness ordinary Germans gleefully parroting militaristic and anti-Semitic propaganda, denouncing one another, and ruthlessly executing women and children. Not all of the five main characters survive, and the ones who do are all morally compromised. The fact that they also display some sympathetic qualities such as loyalty to friends hardly counts as whitewashing.
American critics seem blind to the fact that Generation War is an anti-war film. Americans and Britons approach a German movie about World War II with an iron framework of anticipations and preconceptions that focus narrowly on one question: Are the Germans somehow trying to whitewash their unspeakable past? Once you put aside this tired framing, you see that Generation War is about the human stupidity, groupthink, and cowardice that lead to war. The non-Jewish German characters start out swallowing Hitler's propaganda about a quick war and the international Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy (while excepting their Jewish friend Viktor Goldstein under the motto of Karl Lueger, former mayor of Vienna: 'Wer ein Jud' ist, bestimme ich' (g) -- 'I decide who's a Jew'). The rest of the movie grinds each of the four non-Jewish characters through a relentless nightmare of betrayal, hypocrisy, moral corruption, and violence that kills a few of them and leaves the rest permanently scarred and profoundly cynical. The viewer is meant to experience this as just retribution for their gullibility and gradually-expanding complicity in evil.
Generation War is a German movie that shows the horror and futility of any war anywhere. It's a straightforward, not-particularly-subtle morality tale about the dangers of nationalism and militarism. American critics might have given that aspect of the movie some thought, considering that just 11 years ago, Americans were -- with truly embarrassing ease -- suckered into supporting a pointless, brutal occupation that has now left over a million injured, 270,000 of whom have brain injuries (counting Afghanistan), not to mention the countless millions of Iraqis and Afghans killed and injured. Whether the echo was intentional or not, it's telling that one of the German characters, fighting partisans and the Red Army on the front lines in Russia, muses bitterly that just three years ago, the German army was 'greeted as liberators' from Bolshevism.