Love letter from Buchenwald
What can the world learn from Buchenwald's audio memorial walk to commemorate the 75th anniversary of its liberation?
It was hot with the sun beating down at 27° celsius. Despite there being 200 Weimar citizens, tourists and festival-goers on the 9 km walk, it was silent. We trudged along industrial roads probably unrecognisable to survivors who were forced on the same route to the Buchenwald concentration camp by the Nazis during the Holocaust. A police escort added to the surrealism: we were mimetically tramping through half domesticated orchards and heathland on Ettersberg Hill and gazing down into the vale of Thuringia below. Such beauty, yet such horror happened here.
That was on September 13 this year, a commemoration moved from April to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Buchenwald. It was no coincidence that this allowed Weimar’s renowned Kunstfest to get involved too and that the event turned into an audio walk. A scandal in February, when the liberal factions of Germany’s political spectrum collaborated with the right-wing AfD (headed up by Björn Höcke) to try and oust its Thuringia left wing Prime Minister Bodo Ramelow, sent shock waves through the country and the former East German regime. The Walk to Buchenwald (Gang Nach Buchenwald) was a chance not only to reflect on a traumatic time in Germany’s history, but with Ramelow in attendance, it was also an opportunity to send a strong political statement of togetherness to the AfD, who are themselves, due to racist, anti-democratic and antisemitic tendencies, banned from Buchenwald events.
But the AfD and affiliated groups don’t just try to twist history, memory or reenact the collaboration that helped usher Hitler to power, they also appropriate cultural platforms. Kunstfest suffered interference from right-wing groups in 2019 when they marked 100 years since the forming of the birth of Germany’s first democracy, the national council of which sat in Weimar. To counter, far-right protestors mounted an event on the steps of the city’s Deutsches National Theatre. When Kunstfest responded with their own protest, the fascists tried and failed to take them to court.
Far right-wing groups attempting to use cultural platforms to promote their own messages sends a stark warning to countries such as the UK. In Britain QAnon followers and the UK’s Patriotic Alternative are actively mingling together on conspiracy theory protests on the one hand, whilst on the other political figures such as the Home Secretary Priti Patel, playing right into the hands of the far-right, attack lawyers for their defence of asylum seekers. How long before such far right-wing groups are emboldened enough by a cowed government to start trying to ally themselves with cultural events like the UK Festival 2022 (w/t) otherwise dubbed the Brexit Festival, which in itself encourages a national betrayal narrative?
In Germany though, the arts are being effectively employed to counter right-wing organisations and Gang Nach Buchenwald is one such example.
In Germany though, the arts are being effectively employed to counter right-wing organisations and Gang Nach Buchenwald is one such example. Rikola-Gunnar Lüttgenau, head of Strategic Communications and Public Relations at the Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora Memorials Foundation writes in an email that, “Society needs to be called upon to deal with history and to devote itself to new forms of discourse” in the hope that the walk might be a counter to Thuringia’s and Germany’s growing fascism.
The audio walk was chosen to be a social sculpture, continues Lüttgenau, who said he found the mood among the participants serious and relaxed at the same time. Christopher Korn, the media artist who created the audio walk wrote to me that, "Only in this deep and inner listening do we become aware of the historical catastrophe.....and it is here that we encounter our own mourning or even the trauma that we can bear witness to.” The emphasis is on the individual response as well as the collective. For this reason, Korn chose text by American artist Pauline Oliveros and testimony from Naftali Fürst (Haifa), a survivor now living in Israel.
Undoubtedly the experience on the walk was emotionally complex. People chose to separate themselves from friends and family as if turning into a deep meditation and a silent crying. No one was leading how anyone should respond. And the closer one got to the camp the more silent in oneself one became – especially when we moved past stones, each with the name of a child prisoner written upon it and which was placed along the eerily damp railway, sodden even in the heat.
When we passed through a copse where Russian POWs were executed with a single bullet to the back of the head, a wave of coldness swept through the trees.
When we passed through a copse where Russian POWs were executed with a single bullet to the back of the head, a wave of coldness swept through the trees. There was a kind of waiting coming from the earth, a kind of question. By now the voices through headphones had fallen silent, allowing the walkers to prepare for the camp in a kind of ritualistic embrace to steady us. I am writing this nearly two months later, but there is still a grief welling up. For what was this huge monstrous crime enacted upon human life? For a kind of perverted freedom or in order to shun it?
This is the kind of reflection the event inspired, it was not presided over by officials or politicians telling people what to think or feel. Each was allowed to feel their own way.
For retired farmers Heidrun and Stani there was particular resonance as Stani grew up in the same village, Vrbove, as Fürst’s mother and Fürst often came to visit his grandparents. The couple, in their late 60s and 70s, found the walk arduous, especially in the baking sun, but they say they have children and grandchildren and they are worried for them. They don’t want events like the Holocaust to be repeated. They quote Emmanuel Kant: “The barrier of universal reason lies therein, that true knowledge does not prevent people from wrong decisions because they do not learn from history. And the last justification for personal acting does not lie in truth but in personal gain or in desire.”
If this is so what can an audio walk do against the historical atrocities of the far-right and fascism, against present violence in all its forms and the follies of human nature? Does Germany need something more than memory to shape the future? Time will tell. Yet, at least Germany allows itself to remember its true history, other countries don’t.
Does Germany need something more than memory to shape the future? Time will tell.
I comment to Ralf C. Hemke, the artistic director of Kunsfest, that I am unsure whether there will ever be a time that the UK will collectively remember its own atrocities, especially the colonial crimes it committed in Kenya or India for example. It refuses to face its record on slavery or racism and teach it properly in schools. Even recently, Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch said that, “We do not want teachers to teach their white pupils about white privilege and inherited racial guilt” and that to do so without providing “balanced treatment” would be breaking the law.
As far rights groups in the UK turn their attention to the militancy of the BLM (now renamed the Black Liberation Movement in the UK) as Patel gets more and more absurd and callous in her fantasies about how to treat asylum seekers, it feels that there needs to be a bigger artistic response and commitment which includes and goes beyond diversity and equity and starts to effectively and honestly tackle the UK's crime-ridden violent past. If this doesn’t happen far-right factions will only grow in strength and will grow anyway, as a recent report into Germany’s security forces, where fascism and extremism is on the rise, has proven.
Projects like this audio walk in Germany which embraces public performance, place and community and interrogates not only what we remember and how, but whose story we choose to tell, might be a good example to follow. The project actively and generously involves its audience, it does not just preach from the stage. The action of the reenactment of the walk is ritualistic and connects with our deepest selves and by being about the walk, rather than Buchenwald itself, frees it from political infighting.
By involving people in this way it also manages to level a certain sense of culpability – if not for the past, for the present and how we all behave in it. It gets away from the restrictions of the theatres and the institutions and out into the world.
In a similar fashion the art world in the UK needs to find different kinds of metaphors and spaces to express itself if it wants to be as effective. Projects like the forthcoming Walk with Amal for example. Such projects can actively involve audiences in communities in ritualistic events that can challenge individual tyranny and/or fear and promote human kindness and offer sustenance in the softest of possible ways.
The example Germany sets us, with Gang Nach Buchenwald, is that art has to resist the far right, especially if, as is happening in that country, other sectors can’t.
The example Germany sets us, with Gang Nach Buchenwald, is that art has to resist the far right, especially if, as is happening in that country, other sectors can’t. Whilst it would be hard to imagine right-wing groups in the UK being as militant as those in Germany (although recently a police unit was disbanded because of its extremism), it might be easy to see how it could take place in the US. And as Paul Mason writes, the UK is easily influenced by trends in that country. And in the UK a cynical view would be that its populist government has unconsciously allowed COVID to destroy grassroots theatre and related industries, choking the arts from the bottom up and thus, destroying the opportunity for different voices and oppositional thought. Where will the resistance come from if artists can’t make work, can’t develop and find new ways to engage or can’t make it about what is really happening to our country and to the world?
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