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Poison in the air

Why German artists should keep their hands off Hitler. By Georg Diez

Jonathan Meese loves to play Hitler. He could be seen recently on a MySpace site striking a familiar pose, silly boy as mass murderer, with his right arm stiff in the air, looking serious and determined in a black Adidas tracksuit top, black jeans and a cowboy hat with Adolf scribbled on it in big blue letters. "Everything has to come back up again stinking!" it said next to the photograph.

Jonathan Meese with Adolf hat.
Photo: Jan Bauer / courtesy: Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin

"Hey funny guy, please quit with that nazi crap! YOU ARE PATHETIC!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" said a commentary posted a few days later by someone who was obviously unaware of how popular it is in Germany to act as if Hitler were still terribly fascinating, an übervater, a permanent historical presence – only to have one's picture taken one more time in the Führer pose; to bring up all the Germanic crap again, all the evil words and flags and signs and poses; just to amuse oneself with a little Nazi onanism.

One name for this popular game could be 32 ½ going on 33: the permanent flirt with the state of emergency; the fascination with the totalitarian; fun with evil.

Fascination, obfuscation, clarification always have been weirdly connected around the character of Adolf Hitler. In some cases, particularly in recent years, in the case of Bernd Eichinger ("The Downfall"), Bruno Ganz and the Parkinson's Hitler twitching in the bunker, it really isn't clear why this story is being told again – except perhaps to summon up the devil again, show him to two million Germans in the cinema and thereby keep him alive. Hitler's shadow is long, but not as long as it is made out to be. And even when the talk turns to Sophie Scholl, to the role of the resistance, or now to Stauffenberg and Tom Cruise – it often seems as if we Germans just can't or won't let go of Hitler.

"Images cannot be dispelled," Jonathan Meese once said, with Hitler in mind. "If you want to be rid of certain images, you must give them the chance to fight themselves." But it doesn't look like Meese wants to dispel Hitler; it seems more like an invocation. And the strange thing is that precisely at the time when the last eye-witnesses are dying and in a generation that seemed so free of this shadow, the temptation exists to tap into the energy of evil. In his major exhibition in Frankfurt, Meese stuck a picture of Hitler above his self-portrait and wrote "Vater" next to it on the wall.

But Hitler continues to be a popular image for German artists and intellectuals to wank over, however bizarre this might seem abroad. Meese stages his on-line Hitler posing and his whole Germanic carryings-on with an anti-authoritarian gesture – which can only serve to conceal the kick which he gets from this authoritarian strutting. This is not about post-modernism, this is not about deconstruction, it is about using Hitler's power. Dirty is good, is the old art reflex at play here; dirty is fun, the excusatory logic behind it.

But it's not funny. It's not funny when Meese gives Eva Braun as his MySpace girlfriend, a neo-Nazi centrefold, in an up-beat Obersalzberg pose with a polka dot skirt. And it's also not funny when his friends include Richard Wagner and Pope Pius XII, Hochhuth's "Deputy", the Pope who kept quiet about the persecution of the Jews, this figure of historical ambivalence in all its holiness – whereby "ambivalence" conceals a slight but real, original fascination. Meese, with his Hitlerisms, is not going down particularly well in these days of low-level democracy and grand coalitions.

Over Easter for example - when else would heathen-rousing celebrations be held – the Volksbühne in Berlin played host to Meese's totalitarian child's birthday party which spanned an entire weekend, with Meese's stage design for Wagner's "Meistersingers" and his own theatre piece "De Frau", a sprawling female gesamtkunstwerk. The Volksbühne often hosts various forms of occultism or anti-rational obfuscations, something especially popular in Berlin in 2007. "Soon, the trees will be washed with blood," the announcement read for the Volksbühne piece, Babylon must fall: "Steel-storm feeling, not consensus and liberalism. Psychedelics and humour in constant warfare, a good overall mood, at least as good as in the autumn of 1914."

That sounds like the kind of national-Bolshevist mock attack against boring democracy that Volksbühne director Frank Castorf favours. But his favourite artist, Meese, who loves filling his paintings with penises and Iron Crosses, has long become a darling well beyond the Volksbühne, in an almost embarrassing way. For example, he of all people received the Culture Prize of the Berlin tabloid B.Z., delivered with a gushing address by FDP leader Guido Westerwelle. And he designed all the book jackets for a Frankfurt publisher's autumn titles. Many, it seems, want to warm themselves at the fire of dangerous ideas.

In Berlin these days, one encounters a new thirst for the irrational, anti-democratic and totalitarian in all sorts of corners. In a rundown ballroom somewhere in Kreuzberg sits Christian Kracht, author of "Faserland", a mildly nihilistic swan song to the Federal Republic of Germany. In a recent novel, "1979", he sent his main character - an eternal dandy like himself - to a gulag in the Chinese desert, where he finds happiness in starving. On this particular evening, Kracht – who wishes he could be a new Stefan George (rectionary man of letters in the 1920's and 30's) with a secret and a circle and a couple of disciples thrown in for free – has staged a seance of sorts. Kracht's voice glides through the smoky air, as if from a far away. He drinks wine and reads from his new book, "Metan", which he has written together with Ingo Niermann, who sits twin-like beside him. "It's easy for metanity to take over millions of often defenceless pensioners, and to act through them, " he reads. " Most of them brought by bus, they stand engrossed in lively discussions in front of their favourite holiday destinations, historical buildings or seascapes, in moderate climate zones, and they ruminate. They are emissaries of the Metans; they are Metan."

The book deals with primates, the atom bomb, white people and a secret power. Its genre is situated somewhere between a joke and a shock; it is about a force at work in the world, because without a theory of everything, there is no conspiracy theory: the Metan that wants to control the planet. Via (political theorist and Crown Jurist of the Third Reich) Carl Schmitt, Kracht and Niermann ultimately wind up at Eugene Terreblanche, leader of the Afrikaner Resistance Movement, who carries "in his mind his own dream of the recreation of the human race" and already has made headway in his fight against the black majority "with a good example," poisoning the river that flows into Mozambique with cholera and "for the first time in world history" poisoning entire warehouses of food with anthrax spores.

Here, too, Kracht, himself a fine observer and stylist, is cultivating his fascination for terror, as described more or less in his collection of stories, "Mesopotamia", inspired by the Japanese Aum sect. He also is cultivating his fascination for totalitarian chic, which he last documented in the illustrated book, "Die totale Erinnerung" (Total Memory). In it, Kracht pays homage to North Korea's Kim Jong Il as a splendid theatrical production, "the last, great, now practically museal, manic project of humanity, yes, its greatest artwork." In his supposed visit to the country, he feels like he is in a movie. And the aggressive naivety, the intended superficiality with which he describes North Korea, function almost like a caricature of everything that critics of pop culture have always feared. At the least, Kracht's introduction to "Die totale Errinerung" uncovers a remarkable link between pop culture and totalitarian thinking – not a direct connection in terms of content (except perhaps in the shared belief in the power of the image) but more like a biographical disposition – even some dandies flee the playful lightness of pop and end up caught in the rut of totalitarian thinking. Or in the rut of Catholic fundamentalism.

And that is exactly what Paul Claudel's "Trilogie" (Die Gottlosen) is about – a five -hour theatre evening put on at Berlin's Maxim Gorki Theater: an anti-Semitic polemic in its middle section, but otherwise simply an anti-populist and anti-democratic celebration of the old, god-given order, an order completely lost in the terrible battles of the French Revolution and the Enlightenment. A "curiosity inspiring provocation" is what director Stefan Bachmann calls it. The author, Claudel, he feels has been underestimated, but "today more than ever we need his inspiration, his existentialism, his awareness of history, his creative thinking"; in this trilogy, you can see "where we come from, how we define ourselves, and what we lack."

Admittedly, Bachmann is a theatre director who once possessed great facility; he was one of those civilized types who understand that pop is the key that intelligent people try to use to open up the present. If he now says that what he misses in the theatre is a deathly pale serving of clerical fascism, and dynastic guilt-and-atonement gibberish, then times really have changed. It is remarkable less for the reactionary material than, once again, for the what seems to be put-on naivite with which a kind of anti-liberal prayer service is held, critical of everything connected to individual freedom or responsibility. Claudel pits his death cult against the sole secular belief, in humanity.

It's a favourite motif among enemies of reason. And food for thought can be found in yet another interesting project of this pop-totalitarian age: Ingo Niermann's book, "Umbauland. Zehn deutsche Visionen", (reconstruction land - ten German visions) published by Suhrkamp.

In ten chapters, Niermann tries to clarify a question rarely posed these days: "Who will save Germany?" The chapters bear titles like "Homesickness," "Hand-made" or "Democracy Bomb." He wants to create a new language, Spoken German, which is radically simplified and oriented towards English; he gives a brief presentation of the "Church of Euthanasia", which tackles the problem of an ageing society in its own way; and he wants to build a "German wonder of the world," the largest building anywhere – a pyramid 1,000 metres high and 1,400 metres wide, to contain all the dead in the world. But of course not us Germans.

What is so disturbing about Niermann's book is the matter-of-fact, nudge-and-wink humour, the harmlessness, even niceness in the tone with which he presents his visions. In "Metan" and also in "Umbauland" he conveys world history like a spooky comic strip, an absurd science fiction story. Niermann cites from "Beyond Armageddon" an anthology on the "survivors of the mega war". Niermann combines this with a plea for a German atomic bomb, and an atomic bomb for every country, particularly Libya and Cuba, in order to ensure world freedom.

"If we are anything, we're prophets," says Ingo Niermann, who allowed himself to dream up all-encompassing societal visions in Peking. One could also join Isaiah Berlin in calling it the temptation of totalitarianism that takes hold of intellectuals and artists when the calmness around them begins to drone too loudly; or if they scent something on the horizon, something more exciting or uplifting than democratic monotony. Because they are particularly keen to cultivate this distaste for the individual, because they indulge themselves in fantasies of cleansing and revolution, which find their redemption in destruction.

Such phenomena are common in pop music, from Laibach and Rammstein to the French dance-hit of the season by the band called Justice, best danced to under a large, glowing cross. What is new is that artists from the cultural mainstream are also venturing into these regions of darkness, as are artists who are all in their late 30s and belong to the generation that has long left the shadow of Hitler and totalitarian fascination. Politicians are justifiably criticized when they repeat nonsense about Herr Filbinger. Artists, on the other hand, are much less restricted. One could say they sense that totalitarianism is in the air, that it is drifting toward us from radical Islam.

The idiocy of politicians is usually reactionary. But the idiocy of artists is sometimes visionary.


The article originally appeared in German in Die Zeit on 12 July, 2007.

Georg Diez is a freelance journalist for Die Zeit.

Translation: lp and ta. - let's talk european