Donnerstag, 16. April 2015
How appropriate then that in Grass' last interview – for a Spanish newspaper – the writer said that he feared humanity was 'sleepwalking' into a world war.
'We have on the one side Ukraine, whose situation is not improving; in Israel and Palestine things are getting worse; the disaster the Americans left in Iraq, the atrocities of Islamic state and the problem of Syria,' he told El Pais. 'There is war everywhere; we run the risk of committing the same mistakes as before; so without realising it we can get into a world war as if we were sleepwalking.'
Over two days of meetings in Lübeck, the G7 Foreign Ministers focused discussions on the Ukraine conflict, difficulties in the Middle East and the rise of terrorism around the world. The dangers of these unsettled times were not lost on Frank‑Walter Steinmeier, who told the Lübecker Nachrichten newspaper, 'Almost 70 years after the end of the Second World War, no one would have expected questions of war and peace to resurface in Europe.'
Earlier this week the German defence ministry announced that 100 mothballed Leopard 2 battle tanks will be brought back into service in what is widely seen as a response to rising tensions with Russia. At the same time Russian Navy vessels reportedly sailed through the English Channel on their way to the northern Atlantic for anti-aircraft and anti-submarine defence drills.
Günter Grass was a pacifist, opposing the installation of nuclear missiles on German soil, warning that a unified Germany might once again threaten world peace. For many he was Germany's moral conscience, even after he revealed that he had been a member of the Waffen-SS during World War Two.
'My silence over all these years is one of the reasons I wrote the book,' he said on the publication his memoir Peeling the Onion in 2006. 'It had to come out in the end. It was a weight on me.'
Until that time Grass had maintained that he had been a flakhelfer during the war, one of many German youths pressed into relatively innocent jobs like guarding antiaircraft batteries.
In a letter of condolences to his widow, German President Joachim Gauck wrote that the writer had moved the people of Germany, inspiring them and provoking thought. His works are an 'impressive mirror of our country and will remain part of Germany's literary and artistic legacy.' In her letter to Grass' widow, Chancellor Merkel said that Grass had shaped post-World War Germany not only artistically, but also socially and politically. Foreign Minister Steinmeier said, 'Grass was a father figure for philosophy and literature in the Federal Republic as our country grew to maturity.'
In awarding Grass the Nobel Prize in 1999, the Swedish Academy praised him for embracing 'the enormous task of reviewing contemporary history by recalling the disavowed and the forgotten: the victims, losers and lies that people wanted to forget because they had once believed in them.'
May his warnings now be heeded, and we not 'sleepwalk' into a new world war.
Donnerstag, 9. April 2015
Biermann – the Berlin-based street photographer featured in this month's Meet the Germans artist profile – has a gift for being in the right (or wrong) place at the right time. On September 11th 2001 he was en route to work in New York when the World Trade Center was attacked.
'My subway train stopped on 18th Street,' he told me when we met in Berlin. 'I ran on downtown, used my press pass to get through the police lines, shot photographs until I ran out of film. I saw the second tower burning. When it fell I – along with thousands of others – was evacuated over the Brooklyn Bridge...'
Biermann paused, recalling the horror of that September morning, remembering the cacophony of crashes and cries.
'That was the first time in my life I used colour film,' he told me, his voice subdued. 'I hadn't been able to buy any black-and-white in the panic.'
During his years in New York, Biermann took thousands of evocative street photographs. In 2003 he moved home – with them -- to Berlin.
'I decided to follow my heart, and to try to make it as a street photographer. At first I supported myself by working in kitchens. Then slowly I started to land freelance commissions: a newspaper assignment here, a gallery opening there. I created portfolios for actors. Somehow I've made it work.'
As with his New York images, Biermann's Berlin photographs capture fleeting moments of city life: elderly women eat candy floss beneath the clouds at Tempelhof, Japanese tourists flash the peace sign at Checkpoint Charlie, a sleeping man lies under a plastic sheet on the banks of the Landwehrkanal, disco balls float above an open-air party during the Carnival of Cultures, a child dashes through a park behind giant soap bubbles.
His finest 40 black-and-white Berlin images have been self-published in 'Terrassen am Zoo'. In addition Biermann has self-published a series of his New York photographs – including the haunted colour images of 9/11 – in 'Leaving Today'. His other books include 'Before Revolution' on Cairo and the soon-to-be published 'Don't Call Me', a series of portraits of New York women.
'The city is my studio,' he told me. 'Often I spend whole days – six or seven hours – walking the streets, following my instincts, looking for the right composition, the right moment, the right image. A "street photographer" looks for the unusual in the usual. He lives for coincidences, for the moment when chaos merges into a powerful visual composition. He needs to be curious. He must want to explore life. To my mind, the anonymity of the big city is vital.'
At the end of our interview Holger Biermann said, 'To do this job you have to love what you are doing, and just keep going.' He sighed and added, 'I dreamed of being a photographer for most of my adult life. Today I am living that dream. This is my way through life.'
Donnerstag, 2. April 2015
In my part of town Mercedes-loads of middle-aged Germans are buying apartments as pied-à-terres, for investment or – more often than not – for their sons and daughters. Across the city in trendy Prenzlauer Berg, 1,500 rental apartments became owner occupied in 2013 alone. The eagerness of incomers to invest has been pushing up prices and squeezing out long-term residents, much as happened 30 years ago in London’s Notting Hill when Rastafarians were bought out by the family-moneyed 'trustafarians'.
And it's not only Germans who are putting their money into secure real estate. Due to the international financial crisis, canny foreigners from both within and without of the Euro zone – who normally would have invested their savings in the stock market – are helping to fuel Berlin's property boom.
As a result the Berlin Senate last month voted to all-but ban the conversion of rental properties to owner-occupied apartments in a large parts of the city. These new protected areas cover about 160,000 homes and may well be extended to a wider area in the near future. With the new law the Senate hopes to slow down gentrification and to preserve the mix of social classes.
For years Berlin had fostered a reputation as a renter's paradise, where tenants paid little and were well protected by the law. Property prices stayed low because of the lack of industry and because of the unwelcome presence of 20 divisions of the Red Army in East Germany. Yet even 20 years after the fall of the Wall, only 16% of Berliners owned their own home in 2011, compared with 50% in London.
But now across the country, Germans seem to be changing their views on property ownership. In Berlin prices are rising at almost twice the national average rate. In time the city is expected to become as pricy as London and Paris.
Will the Senate's new laws arrest the dwindling supply of rental homes? Hopefully … but probably not. Developers will simply focus their investments on other parts of town, outside the protected 'no-conversion' area. And so, homogenisation will become the real threat to Berlin, as property prices continue to rise and young people (and the young at heart) are priced out of this dynamic, mixed and infuriating capital.
Donnerstag, 26. März 2015
In 1985 on the fortieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War, the-then West German President Richard von Weizsäcker spoke honestly about Germany's responsibility for the Holocaust. He declared that the country's defeat had been a day of liberation. He expressed his belief that Germans, in facing their past, could redefine their identity and future.
In the West, Weizsäcker's speech was liberating. West Germany – in a courageous, humane and moving manner -- was continuing to subject itself to national psychoanalysis. Its insistence on memory – on truly facing the past – was both Freudian and anciently Jewish: the conviction that for the psychic health of a society past atrocities had to be unearthed and confessed, as a condition of healing. As a direct consequence of taking responsibility for its history, Germany has become an open and dynamic society today.
But at the time in East Germany, where ideology had twisted the history of the Third Reich beyond recognition, the speech was all but unknown (apart from by a young Angela Merkel who had acquired a rare copy and was struck by it). In the communist myth, Nazism had been a form of capitalism. Hitler had been a puppet, propelled to power by AEG, Siemens and the Dresdner Bank. These 'Western' firms – alongside British monopoly capitalists – had initiated the Second World War to feed their voracious hunger for raw materials and new markets.
According to the propagandists' official line, East Germans had fought to destroy the Nazi dictatorship from the earliest days. During the war communist cells had supposedly operated in every neighbourhood and factory. German Communists were said to have called on German soldiers to halt their meaningless fight and surrender to their true comrades, the Soviet Army. On national holidays, in speeches and in school text books, East Germans children were taught to embrace these lies, for they both gave legitimacy to the regime and freed them from their parents' guilt.
Germany's relationship with Russia has always been difficult, as both countries fear the meddling and encroachment of the neighbour. Today it is doubly complicated as President Putin uses Russian foreign policy as a tool for expanding his personal power and wealth. Yet without the Red Army, Nazism might well have triumphed in Europe, and the continent would be a very different place. Hence it is important not to forget the sacrifices of Soviet soldiers in their response to Hitler's brutal invasion of Russia.
In Berlin there are three Soviet War Memorials, the largest and most moving being in Treptower Park. Beyond two huge kneeling soldiers and stylized, red granite Soviet flags opens a geometric expanse flanked by 16 stone sarcophagi (one for each of the 16 Soviet Republics). Beneath them lie 5,000 of the 80,000 Soviet soldiers who fell in the Battle of Berlin in April–May 1945. At the head of the memorial rises a 12-metre tall statue of a brawny Soviet soldier (by sculptor Yevgeny Vuchetich) holding a rescued German child and massive sabre, with a broken swastika crushed beneath his boot. Much of stone and granite used for the memorial's construction came from the demolished New Reich Chancellery.
It is an epic, arresting structure; resplendent in heroic images of both the real and mythical narrative. Among its sculptures, reliefs and flame bowls is a quote from Joseph Stalin in both Russian and German: 'Now all must recognise that the Soviet people with their selfless fight have saved the civilization of Europe from fascist thugs. This was a great achievement of the Soviet people to the history of mankind'.
The Treptower Soviet War Memorial is among the most moving structures in Berlin. It is also a place that demands honest reflection and soul-searching on questions of identity, memorialisation and the shifting identities of perpetrators and victims. At the end of the Second World War over 15,000,000 German men had gone missing from the Reich, either lost in battle or locked for years to come in Soviet gulags.
Donnerstag, 19. März 2015
Berlin has never much cared about its past. It is a living city, for all its ghosts; a place that is always reinventing itself. 'Berlin ist eine Stadt, verdammt dazu, ewig zu werden, niemals zu sein,' wrote author Karl Scheffler over a century ago. ‘It is a place doomed to forever become, never to be.’
Berlin's identity may not be set in stone, but its history does endure in brick, mortar and concrete. As in every city, residents shape their own identity around historical buildings and structures. Berlin's visitors flock to those same places – the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag, the Wall, Hohenschönhausen prison -- to try to glean a sense of the place.
But for all its show of openness, Berlin is a city where everything conceals something else. Due to its bitter, bloody, buoyant past, as well as the enduring secret world of its elites, much of the capital remains unseen (not unlike the inner lives of many Berliners themselves).
Since 2009 the Irish journalist – and Berlin resident -- Ciarán Fahey has tried to penetrate the city's concealed worlds, by exploring its abandoned buildings. In his hugely popular blog 'Abandoned Berlin' Fahey – under the pseudonym 'Spudnik Ó Fathaigh' which might be loosely translated as 'the Irish Berliner' – has uncovered over 40 locations from former East German leader Erik Honecker's nuclear bunker to a secret Soviet missile site to abandoned asylums and the long-closed Spreepark with its broken ferris wheel, crumbling plastic dinosaurs and over-grown magical mystery tour.
'Every crumbling building, creaking floorboard, fluttering curtain and flaking piece of paint has a tale begging to be told,' writes Fahey. 'Abandoned Berlin is an attempt to document the past, uncover hidden history and preserve the memory of neglected glories – as they are now. The buildings may be falling down, vandalized and abused, but they maintain stoic dignity through the dust and decay. They want visitors! They want to share their memories!'
Thousands of residents and incomers alike have read Fahey's engaging texts, then followed his practical advice to retrace his steps. Discover Berlin's 1936 Olympic Village! Stop by the old Iraqi embassy! Chase the rats – or be chased by them – at the Pankow Schwimmhalle! The Guardian included 'Abandoned Berlin' in its best city blogs from around the world.
'Nothing stays the same,' admits Fahey. 'Even abandonment and neglect are comforting in the face of almost certain development. Bland apartments, generic shopping centers – who knows what perils await? Links to yesteryear are scrubbed clean and sanitized, historical mementos covered in concrete or plaster, everything forgotten under the guise of progress. Personally, I think this is a shame. I’d much rather see these places preserved as they were. It rarely happens unfortunately. The story of Tacheles is indicative of Berlin falling victim to greed and corporate sway. There are many more. East Side Gallery is an on-going example. They knocked down Palast der Republik! Don’t get me started…'
Earlier this month Fahey's best 28 places – along with his evocative photographs – were published in a gorgeous bilingual book 'Verlassene Orte / Abandoned Berlin'. In his passionate introduction to the book, Fahey reaffirms his determination to chronicle the stories of Berlin and its constantly changing places. "Documentation, I feel, is the best we can hope for. Grasp what remains of the past through the present. This is an attempt to remember someone else's memories.'