Thursday, 27 November 2014

Conscience and Conflict: British Artists and the Spanish Civil War

Pallant House Gallery
Until 15 February then touring to
Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle 7 March – 7 June 2015

Amazingly this impressive exhibition is the first of its kind in the UK to focus on British artists’ contribution in support of the Spanish Republican government in its struggle against General Franco’s fascist coup in 1936. It is surprising that no one had attempted this before, because support for the Republican Government at the time was undoubtedly the last major mobilization of working people and artists in support of any cause, in this case that of the democratically elected republican government of Spain and at the same time combatting the rise of totalitarianism in Europe. If the example of the thousands of international volunteers who went to fight in Spain and the passion with which so many artists lent their support had been followed we may have avoided the inexorable rise of Hitler and the horrors of the Second World War.

Simon Martin, the curator of the exhibition, and the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester should be warmly congratulated on mounting such a fascinating, informative and deeply moving exhibition. They have managed to bring together an amazing collection of works, from Picasso to Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, from Clive Branson to Victor Pasmore, Frank Brangwyn and R.B. Kitaj. And works on display are not just any old second-rate paintings or sculptures but carefully selected and representative works by the artists involved, many hardly seen in public before.

In its breadth of styles, from formalism to surrealism, constructivist to expressionist and social-realist, the exhibition demonstrates how this campaign inflamed the passion and commitment of artists who may have been poles apart in terms of their artistic sensibilities and goals, but were united in seeing the struggle to support Spain’s republican government for what it was: a turning point in European history and a decisive battle to determine whether the continent would move forward on the basis of democracy or be swamped by barbarism.

The coming together of so many leading artists and the thousands who actually volunteered to fight, as well as the hundreds of thousands who attended rallies and donated food and money, was in sharp and shameful contrast to the attitude of western governments and our political elites who, under the guise of neutrality and non-intervention, sabotaged the efforts of the democratically elected Spanish government to win support and defeat fascism. The consequences, as we well know, were apocalyptic.

Apart from the art works themselves, the accompanying texts are extremely informative and devoid of the usual reactionary prejudices or retrospective patronization of the movement in support of Spain. They also pay due respect, without pulling any punches, to those in the Communist and Labour Parties who were in the forefront of that campaign.
This cohesive and meticulously mounted exhibition provides a salutary history lesson through the medium of art, as few manage to do.

The exhibition also includes the showing of an evocative short documentary made by Ivor Montagu at the time, sadly with its sound track missing. It eloquently conveys the hopes, the heroism and atmosphere of the period with its black and white, ‘cinema verité’ imagery. It incudes shots of a mass rally addressed by Clement Attlee, and of Harry Pollit, the General Secretary of the Communist Party, talking to International Brigaders in Spain itself and the first volunteers, smiling and waving, as they march, full of hope, along the platform of Liverpool Street station on their way to France and bound for Spain.

It is impossible to single out any individual work from this rich collection of cartoons, paintings, sculptures, posters, photos, banners, pamphlets and documents, but I will mention several as examples of the riches in store for those who make the effort to visit the exhibition.

There are heart-wrenching photos by the talented Austrian-born photographer Edith Tudor-Hart of refugee Basque children fleeing the fighting and arriving in Britain – a country they have never visited, don’t know and whose language they don’t speak.

A series of sensitive charcoal drawings of militia men and women by Felicia Browne have a particularly emotional force when one knows that they were the last works of art completed by this Slade-trained and very talented artist. She was one of the first of the international volunteers to fight in Spain, and one of the first, and certainly the first woman, to be killed, on 25 August 1936, at the Aragon front near Tardentia. She was a member of a band of raiders that attempted to dynamite a fascist munitions train. The party was itself ambushed and Browne was shot dead while assisting an injured Italian comrade.

There are several paintings by Clive Branson, like Felicia, a Communist Party member, who chose a straightforward, socialist-realist style for his brightly coloured paintings. They may not represent everyone’s favourite artistic style, but they certainly powerfully reflect the social and economic relations of the period. He also completed some fine drawings of a number of his fellow International Brigaders in Spain. Edward Burra surreal painting, ‘War in the Sun’ (1938), represents a totally different take on the issue.

There is a moving if somewhat sentimental poster printed from a lithograph by Frank Brangwyn and designed for the Spanish General Relief Fund, with its central stark figure of a working class mother hugging her baby and surrounded by other desperate children tugging at her skirts; the allusion to religious paintings of the Madonna and child is deliberate.

Edward McKnight’s haunting poster appealing for medical aid to be sent to Spain utilises a copy of the gaunt head of a saint by El Greco to haunting effect. Other, powerful posters in the show are by anonymous artists.

Many of the artists represented in the exhibition belonged to the Artists International Association which brought together hundreds of British artists who were determined to use their art in the struggle against fascism.

Also available is a wonderful and richly illustrated catalogue, with text by curator Simon Martin and with an excellent introduction by acknowledged expert on the Spanish Civil War, Paul Preston.

Different Every Time – the authorized biography of Robert Wyatt
By Marcus O’Dair
Pubs Serpents Tail
Hdbck £20

From the cover of this book Robert’s gloriously bearded face stares out at you like an Old Testament God. But its seemingly judgmental and deadly serious expression conceals  a man of great generosity and tolerance, with  a prodigious talent and mischievous wit.
            Once a minor star in the celestial heaven of popular music, he metamorphosed to become an iconic, widely admired and influential pater familias of the popular music scene.
His background story is well-known – as drummer and vocalist with the band Soft Machine during the sixties, moving on to form his own radical group Matching Mole, before, in June 1973, tragically falling out of a fourth floor window in a state of alcohol-induced stupor and breaking his back. He was then only 28 years old, and since then has been confined to a wheelchair, but hasn’t let that stop him making music, despite periods of depression and despair.
Together with his indefatigable and also hugely talented partner, Elfrieda (Alfie) Benge – as his manager and sometime lyricist – he has ploughed his own musical furrow with a stubborn determination. Over the years his unique style of music-making has attracted many other diverse figures from the pop, classical and jazz world to collaborate with him, from Brian Eno and Elvis Costello to the eccentric, but super-talented, Ivor Cutler, Paul Weller and Björk, to name only some. During his Soft Machine days he also toured with Jimi Hendrix in the States.
            His music certainly can’t be pigeonholed, crossing the boundaries of pop, jazz and classical – a hotch potch of musical influences­ – but in the end with the unmistakable stamp of Robert Wyatt. But what marks him out as different from most popular musicians is his strong humanitarian and left-wing political views on which he refuses to compromise.
Jonathan Coe in his introduction sums it up when he writes: ‘More and more, Robert Wyatt sounds like the voice of sanity. Sane  songs for insane times. No wonder that I, and countless others, have been inspired and uplifted by them for so long, and will remain forever grateful.’
            The Soft Machine was the first rock band to perform at the Proms in 1970, even though that performance was not one of its most memorable ones.
After leaving Soft Machine, he set up a new group called Matching Mole. And although he couldn’t read musical notation at this time, he was still able to produce innovative music which, he says, he conceives in visual terms.
In August 1972, Matching Mole went into the studio to record their second album, Little Red Record, with its title’s allusion to Mao’s Little Red Book and with a cover to match its ultra left aspirations. Those early days of political engagement were inchoate and, looking back, even for Robert perhaps, slightly embarrassing. However he went on not only to mature musically but also politically. He still regards Marxism ‘as the least silly way of analyzing world events – what a marvelous way of putting it! Over the years, he had drifted slowly from  a Liberal, Fabian Society type of background to the far left, where he remains. Both Alfie and Robert were initially in the Labour Party, but after the disappointments of the Callaghan government and the general world situation, they joined the Communist Party in 1979, attracted by its clear class stance and its internationalism.                    
Talking about his ideas on socialism, he says: ‘I just took this imagery of what seemed to me a perfectly reasonable idea, of which the failures were being highlighted so as to discredit the whole idea … To me culture is pudding. It’s lovely, and I’ll always eat one. But to me, on its own, it’s not a full life’s diet for the brain. And the politics, to me, is indeed the protein’. But politics for Robert is also a ‘secular religion’. But he hasn’t let his fascination with Marxism rob him of his wicked sense of humour.
In 1974 soon after he was released from hospital, he and Alfie got married, despite facing a seemingly dire economic future. Thanks to the generosity of friends – the actor, Julie Christie, bought a house for them and Pink Floyd did a benefit gig among many others. Warren Beatty, Julie Christie’s then partner, who, after had even offered to pay for private healthcare treatment, but Robert declined, preferring to stay in Stoke Mandeville hospital under NHS care. The renowned DJ John Peel was a keen admirer of both Soft Machine and Matching Mole; he also became one of Robert’s close friends and gave generous support.
In the 70’s his enforced sedentary existence encouraged him to read more and watch films. He and Alfie started devouring left wing literature, watched Open University programmes on TV and went to the London Film Festival. In this way he underwent a late educational spring.
            Although Soft Machine and Matching Mole had been signed to the Virgin label, Robert decided to leave of his own accord – the only one to have left Virgin in this way, he says. He then signed up with Geoff Travis’s independent label Rough Trade which was run as a co-operative and which issued almost all his later albums.
            During his period in the Communist Party, he took part in a benefit concert at London’s the Roundhouse for the Clyde shipyard workers, he became involved in the Art against Racism and Fascism movement, and supported the big 1984-5 miners’ strike as well as working with Jerry Dammers from the Specials to produce the record, The Wind of Change, to raise money for the Namibian freedom struggle (led by SWAPO). 
In 2004 he was shortlisted for the Mercury Prize – Britain’s most prestigious popular music award and in 2005 won Mojo magazine’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
            Although no longer a member of the Communist Party, he is still very much a convinced leftie and still reads the Morning Star.
            O’Dair relates an epic story of a fascinating, humble but heroic individual. It is exceedingly well written with an honest determination to get under the skin of its subject, but without any unnecessary fawning or dodging of awkward facts. While understandably focusing largely on Wyatt’s musical development, it doesn’t underplay the role politics have played in his life and work.

How the world was saved from a nuclear catastrophe

Most people of a certain age will clearly remember where they were and what they were doing when the Cuban missile crisis erupted in 1962. We all thought our days were numbered and a nuclear world war was about to be unleashed. This, though, wasnt the last time of such a scare. In 1983 the world once again stood on the brink of a nuclear holocaust, but few realised it. ABLE ARCHER wont mean anything to most people.

Ronald Reagan was elected president of the USA in 1980 and ushered in a period of aggressive armaments build-up and crusader rhetoric against the evil empire. He, along with his close political ally, Margaret Thatcher embarked on a new and dangerous confrontational policy. He surrounded himself with fanatical anti-communist warriors, like Richard Perle (the Prince of Darkness), Dick Cheney, Caspar Weinberger, Paul Wolfowitz and George Bush etc who were all determined to confront the Soviet Union. After years of detente, the Helsinki Accords and a general easing of tension, the world was once again plunged into a new phase of the Cold War that threatened to become very hot with these dangerous brinkmanship policies.

Reagan declared peaceful coexistence a dead duck. He gave the green light to a giant rearmament programme with the idea of forcing the Soviet Union into an armaments race it couldnt win and thus tip the strategic balance in favour of the USA. He announced his SDI (Star Wars) project and ushered in a new arms race with the aim of bringing about the ruin of the Soviet economy in the process.
Neo-conservative Perle put in place plans for a doable and winnable, limited nuclear war against the Soviet Union by means of a carefully orchestrated, decapitation strike out of the blue. In US neo-con circles the talk was about knocking out the Soviet command, control and communications centres (C3), leaving the Red Army running about the farmyard like a headless chicken without being able to fire a single missile back. To this end the Pentagon prepared the stationing of new, highly accurate, intermediate range Pershing II missiles in Europe, which had the capability of decapitating the command, control and communication centers of the political and military leadership of the Soviet Union within five minutes from start in Germany. Thus this deployment would clearly be a game changer and tip the strategic balance decisively in favour of the US/NATO. Washington and NATO publicly justified this planned undermining of the East-West-balance as a necessary reaction to the new, medium range SS20 missiles the Soviet had just introduced in Eastern Europe. In contrast to the Pershing II, however, the SS 20 while augmenting Soviet options in case of war in Europe did not upset the strategic balance, as they could not hit C3-targets in the USA.

In 1979 as part of its medium range nuclear modernization programme NATO took the decision to deploy new cruise and Pershing II missiles in Europe. The first particularly destabilising Pershing missiles were deployed in West Germany in autumn 1983. Because of this provocative escalation and the concomitant reduction of launch warning time tensions were stretched to breaking point. All the more, as the Soviet leadership was absolutely convinced by then, that the US were seriously planning a nuclear surprise attack under the cover of a large scale manouevre. In order to gain advance knowledge of such plans, the KGB and the Soviet Military Intelligence GRU within the framework of operation RYAN had been ordered already back in 1979 to give top priority to scan and collect all sorts of information that could indicate preparation for such an attack and which would allow if possible to pre-empt it through a counter attack. Through a series of unfortunate accidents, world events and other technical developments by autumn 1983 entire sets of indicators, some true, some by mistake, that fitted the Soviet high commands anticipation of how the lead in scenario of the US/NATO C3 decapitation attack against the USSSR would look like flashed red alert. And while NATO moved into the field for its giant Able Archer exercise close to the German-German border, Soviet nuclear weapons were readied for the preemptive strike. At one time, Soviet nuclear bombers were sitting on the tarmac in their East German airbases, engines running, waiting for the order to go. If this order had come, most likely nuclear holocaust, at least for Europe and the UK would have ensued, if not all-out nuclear war.
We were spared this end largely due to the efforts of one man: Rainer Rupp, who at the time held a top job in NATO headquarters in Brussels, but at the same time was secretly working for the GDR foreign intelligence service HVA. He was not your common or garden spy, but a man who was prepared to give vital information to the GDR and Soviet Union in order to help ensure continued peace in Europe and to help prevent an accidental or deliberate outbreak of hostilities. He was convinced, as he could see from NATOs own cosmic top secretdocuments that the Soviet Union was not planning a deliberate attack or first strike against the USA nor a conventional invasion of Western Europe.
Rupp had become politically radicalized as a student after seeing the re-emergence of neo-Nazi forces in Germany and witnessing the virulent anti-communism that was being whipped up. He was not prepared to sit idly by and let a third world war take place.
As a highly intelligent and assiduous worker, he soon rose within the NATO hierarchy to a position of trust and responsibility. He knew every detail of the plans concerning a potential third world war, whether it involved a strategy of Massive Retaliation, (Mutually Assured Destruction or MAD) or Flexible Response. In either case, central Europe would have become a place of unbelievable destruction, with a massive death toll and widespread contamination.
A conventionally waged war was not considered an option by NATO because it felt the Soviet Union would win such a war. Its strategy involved the early and first use of tactical nuclear weapons, already stationed close to borders to the Warsaw Pact - the policy was based on the concept of either fire them or lose themif a border conflict flared up. Massive Retaliation was certainly not an immediate option for either side, as they both knew that in all likelihood they would both be doomed. Confining the theatre of war to Europe using the flexible response option was certainly very much in the interests of the USA.
Richard Perle, State Secretary in the Pentagon for planning and policy, was of the opinion that a limited nuclear war against the Soviet Union could be fought and won without massive damage to the US. Back in the early 1980s they knew that the Soviet Union had an advantage in terms of conventional weaponry as well as the large size of its armed forces and would prevail in a non-nuclear war scenario. Therefore the nuclear beheadingoption appealed to the criminal warmongers in the Pentagon as it seemed to present a realistic chance of succeeding.
In the autumn of 1983 the worst case scenario looked s if it was about to unfold. Reagans crusader rhetoric and his Star Wars programme, together with the decision to station Pershings in Europe had raised tensions. The Soviet Union now had only minutes of warning in the event of a nuclear attack. It considered that NATOs previous policy of defence preparation had now been transformed into one of waging a pre-emptive war. It had already experienced surprise invasions into its territory in the Second World War, which cost the USSR 27 million lives, and it didnt wish to be caught out again.
The political tension had been further sharpened in that same year by the downing of the Korean airliner KAL 007 on 1 September. The full story, why that passenger plane deviated by almost 90 degrees from its course to deeply penetrate a highly sensitive Soviet defence area where strategic missile were hidden, has still not been adequately explained. But the incident took place at a time when the USA had been actively provoking Soviet defence reactions at different places along its long borders in order to assess the reaction of the air defence systems, monitor communications, identify and locate the respective C3 centers. The inexplicable straying of Korean Airlines 007 into Soviet airspace over the sensitive region of Kamchatka and the refusal of the Korean pilots to respond to calls to change course made the Russians doubly fearful. Rupp has serious doubts that the deviation of the Korean Airlines plane over Soviet airspace was a genuine mistake, all the more, as he has seen months later a secret assessment about the Soviet C3-centers in the Far East, which had been sent by the US-military intelligence Agency DIA to the Situation Centre in NATO where Rupp served on a rotating basis as Chairman of the Current Intelligence Group. In this document the DIA called the successful identification of the C3 centers in der Soviet Far East as a windfall gainof the downing of KAL007
Many years later, Rupps suspicion war corroborated, at least indirectly, by statements from a former high-ranking CIA officer and subsequent official CIA-historian Ben Fisher. He admitted that after Reagans assumption of the presidency in 1980 a highly dangerous period began with extremely provocative violations of Soviet borders on land, sea and air in order to test its responses.
ABLE ARCHER took place in that context. The planned combined NATO exercises for the autumn of 1983 were viewed by the Soviets as a pretext for a first strike. They were not prepared to wait for a first strike to hit them and they desperately needed to know urgently if such a plan was indeed about to be put into practice. They were convinced that ABLE ARCHER was not simply an exercise but a ruse to initiate a first strike. The Soviets knew that after the stationing of new US missiles in Europe they would only have a warning time of around 5 to 8 minutes if they wished to retaliate in the case of a pre-emptive strike. Any misunderstanding on either side could lead rapidly to a nuclear catastrophe.
The exercises were carried out under very realistic conditions and the scenario from Moscows perspective appeared to be a preparation for a first nuclear strike. The manoeuvres took place over ten days, beginning on 2 November and involved all Western Europe. The aim was a simulation of a co-ordinated deployment of nuclear weapons and their use. What was particularly alarming was that there were new elements in the exercise: middle-range nuclear weapons were brought onto the field for the first time and absolute radio silence was maintained; a new code format was introduced for communications. And, for the first time, leaders of all the NATO countries were involved which also alerted Moscow to the unusual high political significance of the exercises. Moscow also thought, wrongly, that the USA had put its troops on the highest alarm stage, DEFCON 1. In reality DEFCON 1 was only simulated during the exercise.
Convinced of an immediate US attack, the Soviet Union put its own strategic nuclear forces on red alert. The smallest mistake would have unleashed a catastrophe. Even Gorbachev later declared that the situation at the time was as dangerous as the Cuban missile crisis, but with an even greater nuclear potential.
The US had already been holding its missile forces in a state of high alert preparedness since 1981. Rupp, because of his inside knowledge, felt the Soviet concerns were unfounded. After all, he himself was involved in the NATO-Situation Center (War Room) at the highest level in the NATO exercises and would have known if Able Archer had been used as a cloak to lunch a surprise attack against the USSR. Moscow was informed of this, but still remained extremely suspicious. They demanded firm proof that this was the case. So Rupp, at great danger to himself, was able to provide it and by doing so was able to reassure the Soviet military leadership and head off the start of an accidental nuclear holocaust.
As a result of his later exposure as a spy, due to the defection of a top GDR counter intelligence officer in 1989, he was given a 12 years jail sentence in his home country of Germany. At the same time a former Nazi guard from Auschwitz who was co-responsible for the deaths of thousands was handed down a three and a half year sentence. West German agents who had been imprisoned in the GDR were all released immediately.
Years later, at a conference on international espionage in 2005 in Berlin, the former CIA-head for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, Milton Bearden, congratulated the former Head of East German foreign intelligence HVA, the legendary Markus Wolf, saying that thanks to his excellently placed source in NATO-HQ in Brussels peace had been saved in 1983, as he had been able to calm the recipients in Moscowand in this way, avoid a nuclear war.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Review of: Germany: memories of a nation
(16 Oct-25 January 2015)
Room 35, British Museum

An exhibition in Britain which attempts to illuminate the contribution made by the German nation to world culture is long overdue. Many Brits would be hard put to think of anything German beyond nazis, jackboots, humourlessness, lederhosen and beer gardens.

At its height, from the 16th century onwards, German culture and language came to dominate much of central Europe, from Basle (in Switzerland) in the west, to Prague (now the capital of the Czech Republic) and Koenigsberg (now Kaliningrad in Russia) in the East, as well as the outlying Hanseatic cities around the Baltic and North Sea, in Norway, Estonia, Latvia and Denmark. 

It could be argued that Germany, as a nation, has had, since classical times, more impact on European and even world culture than any other European nation. Its philosophers, scientists, writers, artists, and composers, as well as its bankers have profoundly influenced the way we live and think today. Germany, situated at the core of Europe has more common borders with other states than any other European nation; this has contributed to its problems as well as being an advantage.

This curators of this new exhibition, looking back over 600 years of history, have selected 200 German objects around which they have attempted to weave a cohesive cultural and historical fabric. It is, of course, over ambitious, and unavoidably reflects contemporary political perspectives as much as it offers genuine illumination. Minimal textual explanations don’t help either. While such modern approaches to museum exhibitions can provide genuine insights and offer illuminating connections, they can also create short circuits and undermine more profound understandings.

The curators of this exhibition readily admit that they have ignored the many philosophers and musicians Germany has produced, but they have also ignored medical pioneers, scientists and most writers. There is also much else that has been ignored and their reasons for selecting some objects and not others are obscure if not downright obtuse.

Historically transformative events like the Peasants’ War in the 16th century, the 19th century struggle for German unification and the 1848 revolution, as well as the student rebellion of 1968 are all ignored.

The exhibition was conceived as a response to the anniversary, in November, of the fall of the Wall, so that in itself perhaps indicates the political justification.

The visitor is met with a video of milling, euphoric crowds celebrating the fall of the Wall, together with a poster of that time with the slogan, ‘We are one people’ on a map of Germany.

The wall text tells us that ‘The citizens of East and West Germany had lived for decades under very different political systems, but they shared many deep memories, which they brought to the new state.’ It gives no intimation that West Germany imposed its own systems on the East and has denied the former citizens of the GDR the right to make their own contribution, never mind sharing in the creation of a new Germany. The text goes on to tell us that East German demands for more freedom and democracy in 1989 ‘shifted to an emphasis on speeding up reunification’. No mention of the fact that a genuine demand for more freedoms in the East was hijacked by West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl for his own electoral purposes and that it was he who demanded an acceleration up of the unification process before East Germans could fully develop their own concepts.

The exhibits take the visitor on a confusing and whirlwind tour. From two delightful portraits by Cranach, including his famous Luther portrait, together with a Holbein and three large, anodyne landscapes by Carl Carus alongside a mini Caspar David Friedrich. There is a Kaethe Kollwitz self-portrait and a woodcut of her memorial to the murdered communist Karl Liebknecht. This is in connection with a description of her birthplace Koenigsberg (today Kaliningrad, but we are dubiously informed by the caption that ‘it remains in Russia today’, not that it is now part of Russia as a result of the post-war settlement).

The Bauhaus movement is highlighted with a superb baby’s cradle which looks like a practical demonstration in geometry and is a magnificent work of art in itself: A v-shaped cot, its sides painted in bright red and yellow, is bound at each end by two black hoops of steel forming its rocking part. It’s like a three-dimensional Mondrian painting, and was designed by Peter Keler in 1922. There are also several small posters of Bauhaus design.

A Gutenberg bible symbolises German advances in printing and literacy and their connection with Luther’s 16th century Reformation movement that took Europe by storm. 

Surprisingly the exhibition does include one of the original Communist Manifestos and of Marx’s Capital, but they are somewhat incongruous here with no wider connections.

Goethe is given pride of place in the form of the famous Tischbein full-length portrait, but his contemporary Schiller who was arguably the better playwright, is not.

Brecht and the Berliner Ensemble are represented by a small model of the scenery for Mother Courage, but no mention of the fact that Brecht and his theatre were based in the GDR.

A tacky model of the Friedrichstrasse Underground and check point linking West and East Berlin is included, probably because it was rescued from the GDR’s Ministry of State Security and was ‘used for Stasi training to ensure that no East German escapes’. A wet suit which was, the caption says, used by an East German who tried to escape to the West symbolises ‘the many people who attempted to leave the impoverished communist state of East Germany’. (According to UN data, the GDR had one of the highest standards of living in Europe - something any unbiassed visitor could validate, even if it was much lower than its Marshall-Plan aided counterpart in the west. Most of those who left the GDR did so for reasons other than ‘fleeing poverty’)

Hans Barlach’s powerful bronze sculpture Floating Figure is a fitting commemoration of human resilience and hope, even in times of war. But again, no mention is made of the fact that he and his friend and contemporary, Kaethe Kollwitz were both celebrated in the GDR, their portraits on postage stamps, their works revered and monographs published. In the West they had both been largely ignored until after the Wall came down.

The nazi period is dealt with largely in terms of the holocaust and the extermination of the Jews, with no mention of the mass extermination of Slavs, gypsies, gays, the disabled, socialists, trade unionists and communists. Nor is the role played by big business in Hitler’s rise mentioned.

Historical processes and key events are given only superficial coverage. That the setting up of a the Federal Republic of Germany in the western sectors in 1949, soon followed by the introduction of a separate currency was in contravention of understandings laid down in the Potsdam Agreement is totally ignored. The setting up of the GDR and introduction of its own currency in response to the former is glossed over. The museum text says glibly that ‘two states were established - the German Democratic Republic and the Federal Republic’ , implying that the former preceded the latter, and with no further explanation.

An example of a German bank note from the the massive inflationary period during the twenties is shown in connection with the introduction of new post-war currencies in West and then East Germany. These, the caption tells us, ‘reflect the different perspectives on German history…East German notes feature revolutionary figures such as Karl Marx, while West German notes took their cue from the age of the artist Albrecht Duerer’. The fact that of the five GDR banknotes, two featured Goethe and Schiller is conveniently ignored as this would upset the convenient black and white political imagery.

The exhibition is receiving considerable hype here in Britain but clearly also in Germany if the press opening is anything to go by. There appeared to be more German journalists and ‘experts’ than British milling around - such a rare occasion is it for the British to be taking a serious look at German history and culture.
Although the actual exhibition is limited and in quite a small venue, there is a daily broadcast over six weeks by the Museum’s director, Neil MacGregor, of over 30 episodes dealing with the exhibition and where he goes into more detail. However, even here he replicates the jaundiced view of the GDR experience and sometimes historical details are either factually wrong or distorted. He has also written an accompanying book to be published on 6 November. The museum is also hosting a number of lectures by the usual suspects, film showings and public forums. 
Showing in the British Museum cinema as one of the events around the exhibition is the film The Murderers are Among US, the first post war film to deal with the nazi period. It was made by the DEFA film company and largely shot in the Soviet sector. Originally the film was to be titled Der Mann den ich töten werde (The Man I will kill) but the script and the title were changed because the Soviet authorities were afraid that viewers could interpret it as a call for vigilante justice and the killing of former nazis. 
Murderers Among Us was first shown on 15th October 1946 in the Soviet sector. It was shown on GDR television on November 1st, 1955 and in the Federal Republic only in November, 1971. That, too, is something you are unlikely to be told. Nor will the many anti-nazi films made by the GDR. be mentioned or shown.
While this exhibition has to be welcomed as an overdue gesture of recognition for German culture and as a contribution to a better understanding between our two peoples, it is also very disappointing because it doesn’t question simplistic shibboleths or the Federal Republic’s monopoly of the interpretation of more recent history.


Letter to Prof Lodge of Limerick University re our letter exchange in the Guardian about the GDR.

16 October 2014

Dear Prof. Lodge

Thank you for your letter and the paper by Anthony Glees you sent. Yes, short letters in a newspaper are never an adequate means of expressing opinions or for putting over cohesive arguments. 

Like you, I abhor torture and maltreatment wherever it takes place and whosoever practises it. And, as I made clear in my Guardian letter, I certainly don’t want to appear to be an apologist for or defender of activities and behaviour of the GDR’s state security services. 

What motivates me to take up this issue is a determination to counter what has become the characterisation of the whole GDR experience as a ‘Stasi’ one and that the country was simply a totalitarian, oppressive and unjust state (Unrechtsstaat in Federal German terminology); there is no attempt by western politicians, historians or academics to offer a more differentiated picture or to undertake a genuine attempt to understand the GDR experience through the lives of those who lived it. 

There have been a multitude of books written by those who lived in the GDR about their experiences (including my own small booklet) but these, with the exception of those that confirm the already jaundiced picture, have been totally ignored. I lived and studied in the GDR for four years. I also married (twice) GDR women who were born and grew up, studied and worked there before coming to the UK. My mother taught in the GDR for ten years and continued to live there after her retirement.

My argument is simply that while the State Security apparatus played a powerful, significant and often unsavoury role in the country, its activities did not impact negatively on everyone by any means and many people led normal lives without any contact with them at all.  Of course, if you were an active dissident or operated against the system, you would undoubtedly find yourself in conflict with them. But, after all, every nation has its security apparatus (just look at how the security forces here have infiltrated protest groups) and some are more or less brutal and oppressive. In the GDR, the aim of the security services was also to protect what they deemed to be national security. 

I also agree with you, that a definition of torture (although “the use of psychological and/or physical abuse in order to terrorise or cow a victim to extract a confession or information” is a decent enough definition I feel) is not always easy and there are degrees of brutality. I am sure the Stasi did use methods at times that were certainly not commensurate with what I would deem ‘humane treatment’, although they would be at the less brutal spectrum of torture, I would argue. And it is likely that more brutal methods or mistreatment were implemented in the early years (late forties and fifties) and certainly less, if at all, in the later decades.

Anthony Glees’s paper which I read, only serves to underline my point. His premiss is that the GDR was an ‘Unrechtsstaat’ and he attempts to prove his point with all the weapons at his disposal, and with no effort of balance. His sources are almost if not totally exclusively West German or British.

One needs to ask: why if the GDR was such a horrific prison camp have there been no more than a handful of ex-Stasi officers convicted (despite thousands of investigated cases) - and the few that were convicted have received small fines or bail. Why if the system was so horrendous have around a third of former GDR citizens regularly voted for the PDS/Die Linke, the ‘successor party’ to the old ruling SED? And why do many more feel that with unification the baby was perhaps thrown out with the bathwater and they may have lost more than they have gained?

There is an interesting book written by an Austrian CIA operative (together with the Stasi man who interrogated him) who was captured by GDR authorities and held in Hohenschoenhausen: Verheizt und Vergessen by H. Sieberer and H. Kierstein (Berlin: edition ost 2005). While he doesn’t paint a glowing picture, he underlines that he was never maltreated or tortured and appears to have more anger about his incompetent CIA handlers than his GDR captors!

Or the book, Die DDR unterm Luegenberg [the GDR under the mountain of lies], edition ost, 2010, written by Ralph Hartmann, the GDR’s former ambassador to Yugoslavia. In the book the author has a chapter titled, ‘Stasi-Folter und Stasi -Terror’ (Stasi torture and Stasi terror) in which he demolishes the accusations of systematic torture carried out by the state security forces. In this same chapter he deals specifically with Hohenschoenhausen and relates that the director of that prison museum and a chief ‘crown prosecution witness’ is Hubertus Knabe, a West German, and well-known and oft quoted ‘SED expert’. On taking up his post he declared  Hohenschoenhausen to be ‘the Dachau of communism’. he alleges that the ‘torture cells’ that are on show have been fabricated post-GDR. There is also a train carriage there and railway tracks ‘to transport prisoners’ which are clearly supposed to be a reminder not of Dachau but of Auschwitz. However in GDR times there never was a railway track or trains for transportation to and from the prison. The museum is well-funded by the government because it serves to underline the official demonisation of the GDR.  The book’s author maintains that the present museum has had other elements and evidence of torture added since which were not there when it was used as a prison. 

In Glees’s paper he quotes figures for deaths in Hohenschoenhausen  ‘of between 900 - 3,000’ [a large and inexplicable margin of difference] and that ‘water torture was used there regularly’ but gives no source for this. His other source for such figures is Die Gedenkstaette fuer die Opfer politischer Gewalt et al., Die Vergangenheit (1996), an institution set up by the Federal government with the express purpose of denigrating the GDR.

But even Glees writes that there were 173,000 IMs (Stasi informants) - hardly the one in three quoted by Neil MacGregor in his original article (that would be over 5 million!).

Glees is well-known as a very conservative figure, specialising in security issues and with close ties to the security services. In 2010 was appointed a professor of trust (Vertrauensdozent) by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. Not exactly a neutral observer!

There was a lot wrong with the GDR and there was serious distortion and restriction of democratic rights, civil rights and personal freedoms, but it was not a nazi-like state and nor was it one big prison camp.

I hesitate in quoting Goebbels but his alleged statement that if you quote a lie often enough it will stick is certainly valid in this respect.