Berlin’s tour guides often joke about a certain obsession of British and American visitors. Whether in town on an art history tour or for a gynaecological conference, almost every Anglophone eventually asks about the Second World War. Where was Hitler’s bunker? What happened to the flak towers? Can an air raid shelter be visited? ‘Why o why can’t Brits and Americans just leave the past behind?’ wail local guides.
Beyond the stereotypes, and the tourist industry’s implicit exploitation of the darkness in the city’s past, there is an important point to be understood. Berlin is an exemplar. No where else in Europe – and perhaps in the world – is the story of man’s ability to create, destroy and rebuild better experienced. And Germany is open and dynamic today as a direct consequence of reflecting upon and taking responsibility for its history.
This month a sober reminder of that vital, edifying process is published in Berlin. In the 1930s Hein Gorny was a respected and successful commercial photographer. His joyful image of a woman throwing her child into the air, and poised to catch it, was used in a major advertising campaign for the German National Railway. But when the Reichsbahn discovered that the woman in the photo was a Jew – as well as Gorny’s wife -- he was accused of ridiculing the railway. He was told to divorce the woman if he wished to continue as their photographer. When he refused all commissions from German companies and institutions stopped. He had to make a living by taking portraits of horses and dogs.
In 1945 Gorny -- with the help of the American military photographer Adolph Carl Byers -- managed to sneak onto a small aircraft and fly over his devastated hometown, cameras in hand. At the time the airspace over the city was tightly controlled by the Allies, and German nationals were banned from flying over Berlin. Gorny became the first German photographer to take aerial pictures of the capital just a few months after the end of the war, capturing in black and white shocking images of the shattered ruins.
For years Gorny and Byers’ photographs were considered lost, until they were discovered and published by the Berlin-based Collection Regard. Marc Barbey, a Parisian economist, collector and owner of both gallery and imprint, works to rediscover once-renowned photographers and photo artists who have since faded from memory. He considers Berlin the perfect city for his collection.
‘Both its history and its incredibly fast development are vividly present in everyday life, creating a dynamic field of tensions in which I hope to engage with fellow art and photography enthusiasts,’ he said. ‘I can’t imagine any place better than Berlin than to do just that.’
Barbey celebrated Hein Gorny’s aerial photography in the exhibition Hommage à Berlin. A book of the exhibition has just been published in German, French and English.
Why remember? As I gazed at Gorny’s sad and haunting images I recalled George Santayana words. ‘The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again.’