Tuesday, 10 September 2019

Hamburg 3

A spectre haunts Germany...

Let's get this one out of the way, before moving on to more cheerful stuff. One of the many things I admire about Germany and the majority of the German people is the thorough and responsible way they have addressed the terrible burden of the Nazi past. Unlike, say, Britain's relationship with slavery or the imperial past, most Germans have accepted responsibility for crimes they themselves did not commit, but which, it can be argued, were committed in their name. British politicians cannot even bring themselves to apologise for the Amritsar Massacre of 1919. One very visible expression of this German desire for atonement is the project to insert so-called Stolpersteine ("stumbling blocks") into the pavement outside the former houses or apartments of those – mainly but not exclusively Jews – who were forcibly deported to extermination camps.

They're uniform in size with a typical German cobblestone, and simply and unsentimentally record the known facts. For example, from one of the Stolpersteine above:
Hier wohnte
Lea Kleve
geb. Bachrach
Jg. 1878
Flucht 1936 Holland
Interniert Westerbork
Deportiert 1942
Ermordert 10.9.1942
(Here lived Lea Kleve, née Bachrach, 1878; fled to Holland 1936; interned at Westerbork; deported to Auschwitz 1942; murdered 10/9/1942).

Having noticed some of these brass pavement plaques in Berlin streets last year, I had assumed this subtle memorialisation of individual Holocaust victims was a civic or governmental project. However, it turns out to be the initiative of an artist, Gunter Demnig. To call his work an "art project" may seem to trivialise it, but essentially that's what it is. It's well worth reading about Demnig's aims and methods at the link. Apparently, in 2018 the 70,000th Stolperstein was laid in Frankfurt: that's a lot, but there's still an awfully long way to go.

Talking of art, another Nazi-related problem that Germans have inherited and tackled with admirable diligence is the theft of art and antiques from Jewish families, and their subsequent deposition in various public and private collections. In the short time I had in Hamburg I managed to visit several museums and galleries, and perhaps the most impressive of these was the equivalent of London's Victoria & Albert Museum, the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, or MKG. Being a museum of art and design, MKG keeps in its collections precisely the sort of items that would have been looted from prosperous Jewish homes. Furniture, silverware, ceramics, paintings... It is a magnificent assemblage of objects, beautifully displayed and interpreted, but there is always the nagging feeling: where did all this stuff come from? Crucially, however, the museum has taken a proactive attitude towards establishing provenance and, where possible, restitution [1]. Indeed, one of the rooms is dedicated to showing the sort of research that is carried out in this regard. Where provenance looks dodgy, but the original owner has not been identified, a red Raubkunst? ("looted art?") flash is added to the label. Personally, I tend to think that all such fancy stuff is better held in public museums, anyway, but I suppose I might feel differently if the Rembrandt had belonged to my own murdered grandparents.

"Looted art? Research into the provenance of the MKG collections"

Flashed label on a cabinet of silver medallions
Typical provenance:
1892 Paris, Workshop of Oscar Roty
until 1939 in unknown Jewish ownership
1939 Finanzbehörde Hamburg (the city tax authority)
1960 via the "silver allocation" to MKG

Of course, one mustn't pretend that all Germans are of good conscience, or that Nazi-style attitudes and politics have been hermetically sealed in the past. Far from it. Sadly, fascism is not a virus that can be eliminated, like smallpox, by an assiduous programme of antifa vaccination. The far right is active here in Britain, and across most of Europe, after all; there will always be work to do to ensure that the monster does not re-awaken or, if it does, to put it back to sleep. But who is better placed or more motivated than our good friends in Germany to do that work?

Anti-AfD graffiti in Altona

1.  What do you mean, what about the Elgin Marbles? Listen, we've got a till receipt for those! Wait, it's here, I'm sure, somewhere...

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