Three letters on the occasion of a forthcoming exhibition at the British Museum and a six-week series of broadcasts on the BBC have been sent for publication but it remains to be seen whether they will be.
While a new perspective on German culture is long overdue, as is a departure from the cliche's of Germany being a country identified only with nazis, jack boots, lederhosen, the SS and the the perpetrators of the holocaust, there also needs to be a proper assessment of the role played by the GDR in modern German history away from the cliches of it being reduced to the 'stasi state' and a successor to the nazi dictatorship.
27 September 2014
Two of the iconic cultural figures mentioned in Neil MacGregor’s article (Made in Germany in Guardian Review - 27 September), Ernst Barlach, and Käthe Kollwitz, were celebrated and promoted in the GDR (East Germany), although the former was a committed Christian and the latter a pacifist.
I hope the new exhibition in the British Museum and the BBC series accompanying it will not simply remove the contribution made to German culture by the GDR, as is usually done. After all, two of the greatest theatre men of the twentieth century, Bertolt Brecht and the Austrian opera director Walter Felsenstein, worked and produced some of their best works there and were supported and heavily subsidised by the government. And Heiner Müller, one of Germany’s best modern dramatists was a GDR citizen.The country’s orchestras, under conductors like Kurt Masur were world famous for the excellence of their music-making, the renowned tenor Peter Schreier and baritone Olaf Bär also learned their handiwork there. This welcome exhibition should be an opportunity to reassess German culture, but without the distorting lenses of the Cold War.
28 September 2014
To open his article on German culture (Made in Germany in the Guardian’s Weekend Review - 27 September), Neil MacGregor highlights a wetsuit used by someone attempting to flee East Germany. This is the asinine equivalent of exhibiting a hood used by British troops in their maltreatment of Northern Irish and Iraqi prisoners as an icon of British culture!
He also equates the ‘two [German] dictatorships’ by writing of the ‘…situation under both the Nazis and the Stasi.’ It needs to be stated unequivocally that the Nazis were the government of 1930s Germany, imprisoning tens of thousands of political dissidents, torturing and murdering hundreds of thousands of others in concentration camps for racial and political reasons. The regime also carried out a cultural witch-hunt, burning books and demonising ‘decadent’ artists. The Stasi did not run the GDR, it was merely a very powerful security apparatus, but always under the control of the Socialist Unity Party. It did not imprison thousands or torture its perceived enemies, even if it was often heavy handed and unjust. MacGregor also re-iterates the incredible, often used, but unsubstantiated figure of ‘…one in three of the population were informing on their friends’ to the Stasi. The GDR was a socialist state, even if centrally and bureaucratically governed, and most people lived their lives with little or no relations or connection with the state security services.
MacGregor also writes about Meissen in the same distorted vein: ‘ …so the factory set up by August the Strong received commissions to make official portraits of the leaders of the East German Communist state.’ The factory’s main role in the GDR continued to be to produce traditional first class Dresden porcelain, but it did indeed make small ceramic medallions, mostly commemorating German cultural figures like Goethe, Lessing and Schiller and extremely few of ‘communist figures’.
The author of the feature Made in Germany in the Guardian’s Weekend Review (27th September) writes that ‘Later that year the Russians removed the entire art collection [from Dresden after allied bombing in February 1945]. This may convey the impression that they stole the collection, but in fact they removed it to keep it safe and returned every single piece once the Gemaelde Gallerie was restored. Russian forces took great care to prevent looting of art treasures in Germany and in fact, immediately the war was over, promoted the rapid re-establishment of theatres and music-making, as well as encouraging and supporting artists to begin working again.
It was Britain and the USA that carpet bombed what was widely acknowledged to be one of the most beautiful and culturally-rich cities in the world. They did this with no reflection on what they were destroying - an architecturally unique city containing an immense collection of some of the world’s most valuable art works. The war was clearly coming to an end; Russian troops were poised on the Czech-German border only miles away from Dresden and the city was packed with refugees fleeing the front. By any measure that destruction was a an act of human and cultural barbarism.