Deutschlands Jubel, Conny Kind
Major and minor tales of autumn 1989
1 Roll up, roll up! And protest: this collection of images is a disconcerting provocation. And what is being provoked is German history – that of autumn 1989. Is that really necessary? Those that take reunification as the theme for a photo chronicle are taking on an honourable obligation. The documentation of the long-deserved end of the SED regime and victory of liberty: the Peaceful Revolution in decorative motifs – was that asking too much? Instead, dislocated, often private images, unworthy of our enormous reminiscences in the German anniversary year of 2009.
This is how it should have been done: you begin with morbid pictures of the downfall of the GDR (reducing the landscape to ruins, without the need for weapons). Driving the people out of the country or onto the streets (West German embassy in Prague / Genscher, Monday demonstrations). On 07 October 1989 Erich Honecker & comrades celebrated the 40th anniversary of the founding of their republic, whilst the Volkspolizei beat and arrested the people (show Honi and Gorbi on the stand during the FDJ torchlit parade, contrast with uniformed violence and fleeing demonstrators). Days later Honecker resigned, Egon Krenz took over (show grinning Krenz).
The victors were the people. On 04 November 1989 the Festival of Peaceful Revolution kicked off in Berlin. Hundreds of thousands strolled revolutionarily through the centre of the GDR capital (show smiling marchers, with a grinning Krenz with wolf-like muzzle on a poster, “Grandmother, what big teeth you have!”) and listened to 26 prophets of the new age on Alexanderplatz. Who can forget how Christa Wolf preached against the turncoats. Steffie Spira ordered the SED Politburo, “Resign!”. Stefan Heym called: “What a transformation!” (show speakers, with shots of the attentive crowd, possibly also Günter Schabowski, who was whistled heartily.) On 09 November Schabowski gave his famous stuttering performance for the world’s press, with the Wall falling as a consequence (show Schabowski, with extensive images of people shouting “It’s unbelievable!”, lines of Trabants and dismayed border police). Finally, a visualisation of the opening of the Brandenburg Gate on 22 December 1989.
There are numerous representative photos for all of these historic moments. But no, the workaholic organisers of this collection refuse, with a few exceptions: small diversions into major history, which almost appear to be alibis. Only two motifs, Thomas Steinert’s toppled advertising pillar and Sighard Gille’s wobbly demo impression, capture the crisis of the period, 09 October 1989 in Leipzig.
Why is that good? Because we have had enough of the official pictures. We know them inside out. They no longer appear distinct. They fail to move any longer. They express nothing personal. They have become common and spent, worn out. That can change. But we would first need something to distance us from the familiar story of autumn 1989 with its classified chronology.
2 I am an east German, a reporter by profession. In the nineties I was East reporter for “Die Zeit”, which at that time had no other east Germans on its staff, but a readership that was around 95% west German. In actual fact I was a haulage operator. I transported east German stories from places where they were commonplace to places where they were unknown. At the same time, I was also an envoy. I negotiated – between eastern bitterness and western ignorance, between conflicting ideologies, between history and personal stories. History creates a historic image, a doctrine. It defines how things were. Personal history often protests against this. In chorus, it cries: that is not true, that was not everything, I experienced things differently.
Who is right? Both are. If they listen to one another. 1976 saw the appearance of one of the most important books of GDR literature, Christa Wolf’s Kindheitsmuster (Patterns of Childhood). The book fractured a taboo. It enquired: is it allowed to recall a happy childhood in Nazi Germany, even though one is aware of the outrageous crimes committed by the Nazi regime? The answer is: yes, it is allowed, and often true in individual experience. As a judgement of the era itself, it would be a lie.
But what is an era? It is rare for large-scale and individual history to coincide in the manner they did on 09 November 1989. Such simultaneous dates generate collective experiences that everyone recalls similarly – nearly everyone. My recollections of 09 November 1989, the night the Wall fell, is: nothing. I slept through the sensation, in Geneva. On 05 November, the morning after the major Alexanderplatz event, I was permitted to travel to Switzerland – a church trip and a privilege that, with the benefit of world historic hindsight, would turn out to be a punishment. A Berliner travelling through Switzerland when the Wall came down has missed out on history. The whole of Switzerland missed out.
On 08 November a colleague from Stuttgart travelled with me from Lucerne to Milan, just like that, to drink a cappuccino, like in his youth. The car radio reported that the politburo had resigned in East Berlin. After the St. Gotthard tunnel the radio switched to Italian. I lit a candle in Milan cathedral. I was happy. And completely rattled.
This is how I felt on 10 November in Geneva. At breakfast, suddenly fluent in French, I read the incredible news in a newspaper: “DÉCISION HISTORIQUE: LE MUR DÉMANTELÉ! EUPHORIE À BERLIN !” A voice inside said: shit. Could they not have waited until I got back? As was my task, I paid a visit to the World Council of Churches. There I was greeted with sparkling wine, as an envoy of a heroic people (no other eastern comrades were available). I stood sheepishly on the banks of the Rhône and watched the river flow down towards France. East Berliner Gabriele Eckart had a similar experience in France:
I only know that I walked and walked, along the Rhône
The Seine and the Loire beneath the skies that
Drew all gravity from me like a straw
Oh country where I only followed my head
That flew away from me like a balloon
On Sunday, 12 November, I strolled through the Herbstmäss in Basle, a leisurely festival on the Rhine. I ate maroni in the late autumn sunshine and tried to picture how united Berlin must be celebrating at that time. Suddenly the sedate Swiss Sunday was interrupted by a newspaper vendor crying “extra, extra!” Aha, I thought to myself, even Basle has learned of the fall of the Wall now. Far from it. The extra was appearing for altogether more local reasons. The inhabitants of the Laufental valley had just taken a referendum to decide that they wished to join the Canton of Basle. This incredibly news was worthy of an extra edition. I failed to buy the newspaper, instead turning to a record stand for Bob Dylan’s new album, Oh Mercy. With Dylan in my bag I felt less lost.
All of my attempts to pass off my Swiss story as an authentic fall of the Wall tale failed. And yet I was in just as much of a turmoil as any good easterner. Did I not cry? Yes, but in the wrong place. My reminiscences are consequently excluded from the historic, collective narrative. My photo of 09 November is also highly unrepresentative. I found it hidden in a suitcase: Susanne in her summer dress, standing laughing at the fountain, splashing the camera. On the picture she has written: “I only allow water and CD on my skin.”
Well. A striking motif, so anti-collectively and indelibly linked to my story. Viewers of this exhibition may feel something similar. Only a few of the photos are typical of the autumn the wall fell. But the dates enable everyone to place their own memories alongside them. Your own history is the one in which you are the subject. My Switzerland goes well with the GDR-distant images of Kathrin Senf (07/09/1989) from the Georgian mountains; of Werner Mahler and Wolfgang Kil (08/09 and 20/09, tracing the escape route of Walter Benjamin in the south of France; of Wim Wenders (21/11), travelling through remote Australia; of Peter Oehlmann in Stonehenge (11/10), who notes: “When I returned, my country was a different one. I had fallen out of time somewhat, like the Japanese man in front of the standing stones.” And Karin Wieckhorst, in Rome on 01/10, writing the name of the eternal city in capitals as a counter-world to the GDR. That was “the West” at the time of the Wall, wherever you could get a foothold: the other side, freedom, pars pro toto, Rome and Geneva just as West Berlin.
And then we turn homeward and look in the other direction. Like Alfred Seiland on New Year’s Day 1990 in Mödlareuth, the Thuringian village divided by the border. Now the East is over there, and here, on the western village pond, duck houses are floating.
3 I find many pictures of this exhibition project to be in the long tradition of the East German photo realism that counteracted the official state images. At one time, in the SED state, this type of seeing and documenting uncovered the ruling ideology through reality. A peripheral defiance emerged, from Arno Fischer to Harald Hauswald, to name just two, whose most famous images became icons of the actual GDR. This peripheral view is very familiar to me. My father was a pastor, I studied theology. Theologically speaking, God’s actions and the revelation of the Christian history of salvation also occurs sub contrario, in a contrarily concealed, anti-official manner, far from power, in the stable of Bethlehem. It is subsequently possible to view any place in which one finds oneself as the centre of the world. And to photograph it, wherever you are.
Two pictures stay in my mind in particular. One is by Jens Rötzsch, taken in Bucharest on 27 December 1989: a type of team photo of the Romanian people, of a sort not permitted during the upheaval in the GDR. The nucleus is formed by the soldier. This is accompanied by the breathlessly-noted report of Rötzsch, made in Bucharest during those days. I awoke in Heringsdorf on 27 December 1989 to hear on the radio that Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu had been shot. To this day I am thankful for the fact that no shots were fired in the GDR at that time, and acknowledge a certain part in the Peaceful Revolution to those that did not open fire.
My other favourite image consists of the two series taken by Tina Bara on 21 September and 20 October of her friend Conny, who had left the GDR. An exchange of letters in 2009 reveals that photographer and subject have different and very diffused memories (was it in Wroclaw? In Kraków?). In addition, the bed of the naked beauty also contains a Gauloise man with existentialist glasses, fuelling the imagination of the observer. Twenty years later, Conny confesses to her friend Tina that there is “something that was concealed”: “From my last days in East Berlin I had been accompanied by an involuntary pregnancy, which seemed to me like invisible threads trying to draw me back to where I came from – and where, as I now know, I will always belong. I would like to remember that unborn being with these pictures (…) It was a turbulent time, but deep inside life was articulating itself in its own way.”
There´s more to the picture than meets the eye, sings Neil Young in the song “Hey Hey My My”. This applies to all pictures, as does the converse side: there was and is vastly more within us than is capable of being expressed and formulated. Each image also conceals. Each explanation is selective. Each memory is jointly structured by what has been forgotten. Each draft of history is speculative and pursues current interests. History, major history, is a mass organisation. It generalises individual sentiment and makes emblems from personal impressions. It compresses individual experiences into a typology. It harmonises the countless dissonances of life to a cantus firmus. It ignores that which it does not need.
Does the historic account of autumn 1989 need Conny’s never-to-be-born child?
No. That is not important. Do we need to know Conny’s story? Who does it benefit? Me, the individual observer. The open observation, the non-standardised glance. This photo project serves to dissolve the emblems of major history, to regain the individual voices, and does so in a visual manner, similar to the verbal achievement of Walter Kempowski with his synopsis “Echolot”. The unsynchronised is rendered simultaneous. All voices are valid, all images have the same rights. They correspond via the observer, without hierarchy and conclusion, although there is a finale, Thomas Wolf’s triangular junction of 03 January 1990, providing a discreetly symbolic view of an uncertain future. Alles ist im Fließen, alles ist im Gehn / Sterne rasen auch, wenn wir sie stehen sehn. (Everything is flowing, everything is going / Stars are racing too, although we see them standing still). The words, written for the Klaus Renft Combo in 1972, of Kurt Demmler, who sang on Alexanderplatz on 04 November 1989. Schwere Bahnhofsdächer über uns gestellt / Gleise wie ein Fächer in die weite Welt / Zeit für mich, weine nicht, halt gefangen dein Gesicht / wie man auch sein rotes Blut gefangen hält. (Heavy railway station roofs above us / Tracks like a fan, spreading out into the distant world / Time for me, don’t cry, keep hold of your face / Just as you keep hold of your red blood.)
The personal stories are in a state of constant flux. Major history, as much as it would like conclusion, has no cause to complain about this. It is not threatened by the individual history, quite the opposite. The individual streams of remembrance flow into it and preserve it from withering and becoming redundant. There is one thing that all forms of history have in common: in the direction, the analogies of the time passed. The photo preserves the illusion of the frozen moment in time – temporary. As Wilhelm Busch put it: “Eins, zwei, drei! Im Sauseschritt / Läuft die Zeit, wir laufen mit …” (One, two, three! Quick march! Time marches, and we march with it…)
The initiator of this collection, the photographer Frank-Heinrich Müller, was born in 1962. The majority of the photographers that he invited to submit images from their own personal autumn 1989 are of this generation. We, the current middle generation, perceive the ambivalence of memories of 1989 most strongly: as a division or multiplication of our own biography. We have a life before and after reunification. The GDR encompasses a significant part of our own time. When the Wall fell we were still young enough to face the future with our full energies. But it is all of our times that make us what we are, and reference one
When these pictures were taken the new era had yet to begin. In twenty years time its sheer duration will far exceed that of our old epoch. Then we will probably recall it differently and view these images from a more detached angle. Or more freely, because the feelings of ’89 are fading? Or with resignation, because the experience of a diminishing lifetime forms the basis for reminiscence? Or with happiness at what remains of the day?
The past is full of opportunities. This book is filled with them. Its essence is the poetic documentation of a present that we were incapable of imagining at the time. The images formulate no definition. Many appear to have been taken incidentally, in keeping with the motto of the diarist Victor Klemperer: “Collect life, without asking what for and why.” Presumably the pictures would surprise themselves today. Or be surprised at us, if we were to say what they signified. And what followed. Kurt Demmler took his own life on 03 February 2009.
4 My football reporter idol Wolfgang Hempel, who died in 2004, once told me about one of the saddest days in his childhood. This was 22 June 1941, a Sunday. In the early morning, 14-year-old Hempel walked to Erfurt railway station to catch a train for Berlin, where the final of the Greater German Championships was to be played in the afternoon: Rapid Vienna against Schalke 04.
Schalke was the boy’s favourite team, the great, beloved team of Fritz Szepan and Ernst Kuzorra. The giant cauldron of the Olympic Stadium was filled to the brim as Rolf Wernicke, Germany’s most famous sport reporter, recited a fiery tribute to Führer and Wehrmacht over the public address system. SIEG HEIL! screamed the eighty thousand and leapt to their feet. Schalke attacked, Schalke scored, Schalke led 3:0. Rapid missed a penalty by Bimbo Binder, their biggest star, who went on to score three goals. Rapid Vienna won 4:3. The boy fled the stadium. Sobbing, he left the unknown city, to the Anhalter Bahnhof, back to Erfurt.
Wolfgang Hempel broadcast eight football World Cups, including the “miracle of Berne” in 1954, West Germany’s 3:2 final victory over the almost unbeatable Hungarians. And yet no game in his life, he said, had the same effect on him as that final in Berlin, which later proved to be a historo-philosophical example. The fact that Nazi Germany had invaded the Soviet Union at dawn that day was wholly lost on the boy. But Schalke had lost, which is why 22 June 1941 was remembered as the terrible day that it truly was.
Really? So was that which the Vienna fans cheered wrong? That depends what you are looking for, major history or minor history. Both continue to compete with one another. Minor history likes to dismiss the major variant as propaganda, major the minor as mere personal details. And yet would be happy to be able to get so close to the people. I remember a song from my childhood that describes this inextricable co-existence wonderfully:
1760, da gab´s den alten Fritz,
1805 die Schlacht bei Austerlitz.
Doch das ist mir ganz egal. Wichtig für mich ist:
Gestern um dreiviertel zehn, da hast du mich geküßt.
(1760 there was Old Fritz,
1805 the Battle of Austerlitz.
But all this is of no importance to me. What is important is that:
Yesterday, at quarter to ten, you kissed me.)