Echoes of the Brother CountriesHaus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, 3.2. – 20.5.2024

«What is past is not dead; it is not even past. We cut ourselves off from it; we pretend to be strangers.»1

These are the opening lines of Christa Wolf’s Patterns of Childhood, a novel published in East Germany (German Democratic Republic, or GDR) in 1976 that considers from where we can remember and how we might be estranged from our pasts. Wolf was addressing the National Socialist period of her own childhood and her dissociation from it, from within a state whose doctrine of «lived anti-fascism» permeated all areas of public life. The exhibition, Echoes of the Brother Countries, What is the Price of Memory and What is the Cost of Amnesia? Or: Visions and Illusions of Anti-Imperialist Solidarities relates in several ways to these questions of memory in the face of political ruptures, of the «echo» of past visions of the future, and of the responsibility of the present towards its own shared or disputed past.

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Germany prides itself on its memory culture (Erinnerungskultur) when it comes to its reckoning with its history pre-1945, but this is a partial view. Its socialist period, incomparable to its NS period, but forming a significant part of its twentieth-century legacy, has largely been absent from public discourse and memory culture. Contributing to this, the visible insignia of the GDR-past, such as the People’s Palace (which has been replaced by the reconstruction of the former imperial Hohenzollern Palace) in the heart of Berlin, have literally been erased, sanitizing Berlin of its socialist past, and creating a semblance of continuity with deeper (pre-Nazi, pre-1933) German time. It is therefore exciting to see HKW, one of unified Germany’s largest cultural institutions, in the second year under its new director Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung’s tenure, investigate the echoes of Germany’s internationalist socialist past.

The idea behind Echoes of the Brother Countries can be summarised in the assertion that cultural institutions in the Federal Republic of Germany such as HKW will remain half blind and in silent amnesia if the entangled internationalist history of Germany is only viewed and discussed through the lens of the so-called West.1 By paying attention to the predicaments of East German histories (and their afterlives), a more capacious picture becomes visible, including what architectural theorist Łukasz Stanek calls Global Socialism—a memory, or history of a form of global development wherein the aims were ostensibly towards cooperation, internationalism, anti-imperialism, and forms of distribution more fair than the rampant competition in the globalising, privatising and imperialist capitalist economy.2

The clause Visions and Illusions of Anti-Imperialist Solidarities invokes the memory of National Socialist and German colonial history—the «old worlds»—whose critical questioning became an asset of ideology rather than a lived memory culture in the politics of the GDR. Criticism of imperialism was an integral part of the political and cultural self-image of the GDR, however it was usually targeted against the United States or West Germany, rather than a critique of the GDR’s inner imperialist or nationalist remnants.1 It is no coincidence that the Berlin Wall was heralded not only as «anti-fascist», but also as an «anti-imperialist protective wall». The forms of anti-imperialism that took place were outward facing and aimed towards making links with socialist and communist oriented nations and organisations but failed as anti-racist movements on a domestic-national level. HKW is interested in how transparent this was to the average GDR citizen, a question that orients our view of the memory landscape and brings its own echoes to the political surge behind the right-wing extremist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in the current political climate.

Centering the Periphery

The so-called brother countries refer to those joined together through the 1955 collective defence treaty known as the Warsaw Pact organised against NATO, the Western military alliance. They represent a Cold War geography that can still be felt in the legacies of migration and cooperation, as well as in violence and discrimination, in Berlin and Germany more broadly. Echoes of the Brother Countries purposefully brings into view not only the everyday lived realities of the GDR, but the exhibition elevates its relations with the brother states, in particular the socialist and non-aligned states within the postcolonial world, such as Mozambique, Tanzania, Cuba and Vietnam, as well as anti-imperialist movements that worked with or were supported by the GDR’s institutions and policies. As well as celebrating «proletarian internationalism», the GDR gained international legitimacy through its relations with newly decolonised states, a necessary move in light of West-Germany’s Hallstein Doctrine (1955–72)—by which the FRG imposed economic and political sanctions on states that granted the GDR political recognition.

The exhibition highlights micro-historical accounts or minor memorialisations of the encounters that people from brother countries had with GDR cultural institutions, universities and art schools, and as contract workers within companies. It includes contemporary artworks that reflect on the memory of the GDR, works produced during that time, film screenings, sound archives, correspondences, political ephemera and a small accessible library. The exhibition stages these objects either as originals, accessible to read or watch, or printed on large, coloured fabrics.

Echoes of the Brother Countries is both a research project and an art exhibition. Through its sometimes corresponding, sometimes disintegrating forms, the exhibition opens multiple modes of engaging with GDR history and memory, but it is also difficult to navigate, occluding any wall texts, which means that the viewer has to browse the handbook in relation to all objects. While the fragmentary, multi-layered nature of the exhibits withstands a coherent curatorial narrative, it is certainly to be acknowledged that these micro histories from the so-called periphery are now being inserted and exhibited in the imperial core, in Berlin, at one of Germany’s major cultural institutions, and are following on from the increasing attention paid to GDR history and contemporary entanglements in the German cultural landscape in recent years.2

The Price of Memory

One of the central political foci of Echoes of the Brother Countries is the non-payment of sixty percent of wages that Mozambican migrants to the GDR, to this day, never received. Approximately 17,000 Mozambicans travelled to the GDR as «contract workers» after 1979. After reunification, they were expelled and forcibly repatriated without full payment for their labour. This led to weekly protests by madgermanes (playing on «made in Germany») that take place every Wednesday in Mozambique. These protests echo through the exhibition, cropping up in numerous texts, artworks and archives. Ndikung writes that «[t]hey had been assured that a substantial part of their wages would be transferred to personal accounts in Mozambique. But the money remained in the GDR, was offset against Mozambican state loans, and credited to the GDR on the hard currency market—which included the socialist-oriented Mozambique». Likewise, Cuban contract workers also received only forty percent of their wages, the other sixty percent being transferred to the Cuban state. These contract workers were betrayed by all parties, and as Ndikung points out, remain occluded from the iconic visual language of the global proletariat, as well as the political culture of «remembrance».

Here, the price of memory lies in the quantity of unpaid wages, the debt that Germany owes to those it has not remunerated. The cost of amnesia is paid by those whose lives were torn apart by discrimination, maltreatment and expulsion or deportation. The critical question here is exposed on the level of the state: what was the Federal Republic’s responsibility in this after 1990, once it had swallowed the GDR? Why were East German contract workers more easily expelled, and how were they any different from West German Gastarbeiter who became «naturalized»—albeit with a myriad of conflicts—in the FDR? Such questions are absent in the exhibition. Their omission betrays a symbolic or weak politics of memory that displaces justice to an unknown future. It testifies to a larger imperative in state-funded political art: stop speaking before actual politics are put at stake.

The Secular Liturgy of Remembering

In Patterns of Childhood, Christa Wolf writes, «[t]he present intrudes upon remembrance, today becomes the last day of the past. Yet we would suffer continuous estrangement from ourselves if it weren’t for our memory of the things we have done, of the things that have happened to us.» In addressing her Nazi past from within the GDR in the 1970s, Wolf was searching for a language to speak and write, and for a way of relating to obscured parts of herself. She recognised how her memory had failed her. How «forgetting must have gratified a deeply insecure awareness (…) which can instruct our memory behind our own backs». She acknowledged instructions that she gave herself, and followed: to supress, avoid. Don’t speak about certain memories, words, sentences. Don’t ask questions. This practiced self-estrangement obliterates memory, and highlights a tension within echoes that I want to address.

Since Echoes of the Brother Countries compels us to consider the politics of remembrance, and Wolf compels me to consider today as the last day of the past, I want to state that I am writing this in March 2024 amidst a frenzied, dizzying escalation of violence and spiralling war of propaganda that circles around historical complexities and different interpretations of memory that in itself shows the limit of memory politics in the sense that Enzo Traverso has called a «secular liturgy of remembering», where remembering takes on the role of confession that renders the present discontinuous from the past, which is now repudiated.

Echoes of the Brother Countries is funded by the Federal Agency for Civic Education and the German Federal Cultural Foundation. The chairwoman of HKW’s supervisory board is Claudia Roth, Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media of Germany and a politician within the Green Party whose most recent noteworthy statement was that she applauded the Israeli filmmaker Yuval Abraham, but not his Palestinian co-author Basel Idra, for their Berlinale contribution No Other Land (a film about Israel’s illegal occupation). This strange and absurd reaction exposed (again) the anti-Palestinian racism at the heart of the German Staatsräson, expressed in an almost schizophrenic mode. The elephant in the HKW’s room then, is how the institution relates its investigations into German memory culture to the very heated topics of today, especially as an institution sitting right next to the chancellery in the heart of Berlin, funded almost entirely by the federal government, and headed by Ndikung who was directly appointed by Roth’s predecessor. When I asked the curators via email how they understood their intervention within the present climate, I received no reply.

Fragile Solidarities

Pedagogical in its aims, and addressing children, young people, and students’ and workers’ practices, Echoes of the Brother Countries cascades throughout HKW’s architectures. It is installed as flags launched along the Anna Seghers garden. On one side, flags show comics made by school children that translate interviews with GDR witnesses. These were developed as part of a project led by artist and art teacher Dejan Marković with artist Hamed Eshrat, extending this memory work to schools. On the other side, Zohra Opoku’s flags hang as self-portraits of the artist blending with her environment, exploring the ambivalences in self and place. The exhibition is said to spread like a quilt, patching together every aspect of the building. The curators described their desire for HKW to embody a kind of porosity and openness.

Dito Tembe, Madgermanes (2023), series of 8 reproductions of original oil paintings on canvas (detail), courtesy of the artist. Installation view of the exhibition Echoes of the Brother Countries. What is the Price of Memory and What is the Cost of Amnesia? Or: Visions and Illusions of Anti-Imperialist Solidarities, Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW), 2024. Photo: Hannes Wiedemann/HKW.

Reproductions of works adorn the outside of the building such as the mural by Chilean artist César Olhagaray, a member of the revolutionary Ramona Parra Brigade that painted Chile’s streets with murals in support of Allende’s programme before the military coup in 1973. Olhagaray was one of 2000 political refugees who fled Chile after the coup, arriving in Dresden in 1974 and studying at the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts (HfBK), a key historical location throughout this exhibition, the school’s history is being one of migration as students travelled to GDR to study. Reproductions from remaining photographs of Olhagaray’s murals, namely Solidarity (1986/24) and Untitled (Allegory of the independence of Moçambique), (1983/24) are present in the space. As reproductions they are totally transformed. No longer the objects of collective labour, but incorporated and translated into the museum, these murals seem unreachable in their historical and political significance, their language inaccessible, reduced to décor.

As well as Olhagaray, a group of students’ works from the HfBK is present. Abed Abdi, a Palestinian artist, travelled from Haifa in 1964 through his connections to the Israeli Communist Youth Alliance. His black and white graphics, depicting uprooting, refuge, loss and longing, are testament to his experience of forced displacement during the 1948 Nakba, after which he lived with his mother in refugee camps in South Lebanon and Syria. His works also depict solidarity (especially focussed on Vietnam) and resistance, and casual scenes of workers and German villages.

At HfBK Abdi studied with Lea Grundig whose works are also on display. Grundig, German-Jew and communist, founded the Dresden Assoziation revolutionärer bildender Künstler Deutschlands with her husband Hans, among others, in 1929. After two arrests because of her communist party membership, Grundig fled Nazi Germany in 1939 to Palestine. Following the founding of Israel, she returned to Dresden in 1948, where she became professor at the HfBK. In this context, she worked with Abdi, both of their lives were profoundly influenced by traumatic histories that are deeply interconnected. In Germany’s present political debate, this interconnection is made taboo; the Nakba is either erased from view or seen as a necessary violence of state founding, both visions obliterate Germany’s responsibility in the present. In an interview from 2022, Abdi describes being inspired by Grundig’s work in particular, in relation to both of their experiences of seeking refuge.1 A visible influence on both artists was Käthe Kollwitz, Grundig’s teacher. This is one of few works in the exhibition that lightly, discretely explores the GDR’s relationships with the Middle East. The lack of exploration into the GDR’s history of internationalist solidarity in this area is a missed opportunity to meaningfully intervene in Germany’s dogmatic public discourse.

Christoph Wetzel, Das jüngste Gericht [The last judgement] (1987), oil on fibreboard, 165 x 250 cm, Museum Utopie und Alltag (Kunstarchiv Beeskow) © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2024

Christoph Wetzel’s painting Das jüngste Gericht (1987), produced in the GDR, depicts children from Congo, Chile, Ethiopia, Lebanon, Palestine, Nicaragua, and Vietnam staring accusingly at the viewer from a judge’s lectern. I look at the children. I am positioned as the accused. The children were once the judges on crimes of exploitation and racialised violence faced by workers from the brother countries. Today, these children seem to accuse or judge us on our current crimes. One young girl holds a pen, as if writing the judgement against the viewer on the exploitation of children in mines in Congo, of the violence against children and the destruction of their futures in Syria, Sudan, the Ukraine, Myanmar, Lebanon, and Gaza in its transformation into a graveyard of children. Wetzel’s powerful painting is held by the Beeskow Art Archive, a collection of 23,000 objects including paintings, photographs, print graphics, sculptures, medals and so on. Wetzel’s work is shown alongside two other paintings and a textile work, made as a cooperation between students at Weißensee Academy of Art Berlin and the Vera Mukhina Higher School of Art and Design in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) symbolising the (German-Soviet) friendship between these two places.

Contradiction and Condemnation

A series of «Thematic Resonances» are also displayed throughout the main foyer. Fragments of micro and institutional histories of workers from the brother countries are presented in letters, sound recordings, photographs, pamphlets and brochures. They address protests, education exchanges, migrant labour conditions, female bodily autonomy and reproductive rights.

The history of the GDR’s «Gesetz über die Unterbrechung der Schwangerschaft» is a very interesting example. Passing in 1972, the GDR committed to legalising abortion, building on campaigns led by the Demokratischer Frauenbund Deutschlands (DFD), an anti-fascist women’s organisation that built itself to half a million members in 1949. Following its criminalisation under the Nazis, abortion had been briefly decriminalised in 1947/48 in the Soviet occupation zone in Germany because of large numbers of rapes of German women by Red Army soldiers and postwar impoverishment. There are a number of strange and difficult vicissitudes in this ongoing struggle.

As US-American historian Dagmar Herzog shows, where communist women in the Weimar years had claimed «my body belongs to me» (Mein Körper gehört mir), and this was partially re-adopted in the immediate aftermath of WWII, already in 1947 the soon to be GDR state prosecuter, Hilde Benjamin, refuted this feminist stance. Benjamin argued that the state could intervene in women’s bodily autonomy «on the grounds that a society had a prerogative to ‹secure its progeny›»,1 an argument that echoes both colonial and National Socialist stereotypes about national purity. Abortion was recriminalised by the SED in the immediate aftermath of the formation of the GDR until 1972, but prenatal, maternity care and financial subsidies were also guaranteed, and unwed mothers were no longer discriminated against, thus women were cast as workers and childbearers.

In light of this, the materials in the exhibition show that though the DFD had some kind of outward internationalist orientation, over time, it became more concerned with family and household affairs. One blindspot of the DFD’s commitment relates to migrant women. Vietnamese women who came to the GDR as contract workers encountered anti-pregnancy clauses in their contracts. These workers would lose their jobs and be deported if they became pregnant. As such, they were regularly given contraceptives and feared for their fertility health. This was also the case for Cuban and Mozambican female workers. Additionally, marriages of contract workers were also forbidden, creating a racist, exclusionary and hierarchical model of societal participation (not citizenship).

Although the GDR claimed to be nonracist and anti-imperialist, these materials portray the contradictoriness of this history on a domestic level. Following Hilde Benjamin’s anti-feminist sexual conservatism, these anti-pregnancy and anti-marriage laws can be read as an echo from Imperial Germany, when, starting in 1905 German colonial settlers introduced anti-miscegenation measures in German South West Africa (present day Namibia), measures that were used as precedents for Nazi blood laws.2 These materials point to the ongoing presence of racism in the German socialist worldview or structure of feeling.

In addition to this discriminatory history, the archival section also contains photographs of Vietnamese migrants demonstrating against police violence in August 1993—post-reunification—in Marzahn, Berlin. The murder of Amadeu Antonio (1990), that of Nguyễn Văn Tú (1992) by a sympathiser of extreme-right party Deutsche Volksunion, as well as attacks against Vietnamese immigrants and a hostel used by Mozambican contract workers post-unification, and racist murders that took place during the GDR and remain unresolved to this day are presented in archival materials and documents, processed and recognized in their cautionary factuality for a German post-1989 culture of remembrance. The exhibition highlights active memorialisation campaigns that aim to address the causes of these tragic incidents that remain marginal to German memory culture, just as it reveals the socialist worldview as fearful, incapable of addressing its internal weaknesses, of admitting its own violence, racism and anti-feminism.

However, the exhibition doesn’t simply condemn the history of the GDR to its discriminatory engagement with citizens of brother countries. A series of posters that advertise the kinds of political messages and slogans present in the GDR’s anti-imperialist and internationalist principles, countering the West. The posters depict messages of solidarity towards liberation movements in Algeria, Nicaragua, Palestine and anti-apartheid struggles in South Africa. These posters are accompanied by songs and magazines including Für Antiimperialistische Solidarität published by the GDR’s own solidarity committee, and Sechaba, the ANC magazine, published from exile, relaying histories of solidarity both from below, and on the level of the state, that produced a rich political culture. These works amplify the ambivalence of the GDR, pointing to how for example the GDR’s «Africa policy» positively impacted revolutionary anti-imperialist and liberation struggles, such as cooperations with the African National Congress in South Africa, the MPLA in Angola, the South West African People’s Organisation in Namibia and so on, on the African continent, while the FRG was collaborating with apartheid South Africa.3

Echoes of Past Futures

I want to pause on two contemporary works. Echoes ring out in Ângela Ferreira’s Klutsis goes to Algeria nº2 (radio orators series) (2024). Reflecting on the revolutionary use of radio as political tool for liberation, in particular in the context of Algeria, Ferreira constructed a radio sculpture for HKW. A Mozambican born, Portuguese South African, who grew up in apartheid South Africa, Ferreira was inspired by Soviet constructivism as artistic form with political content, in particular the work of Gustav Klutsis. Working with constructivist models allowed her to produce structures that emit political communication. Here, the structure that the radio stands on is a physical rendering of a Klutsis drawing.

During her research, Ferreira found references to Radio Algeria Speaks (1931) by Soviet (now Armenian) artist Vshtuni. This reference to Algerian anti-colonial struggle using radio links two of Ferreira’s concerns. The FNL’s underground radio station that mediated the Algerian struggle for independence, including Frantz Fanon’s writing on radio as political tool of liberation, and the history of constructivist art. The audio that echoes throughout the space is an anti-imperialist transmission from FLN, newly recorded for the installation in Arabic, German and English.

Kiluanji Kia Henda, Karl Marx, Luanda (2005), inkjet print on fine art paper (triptych), detail. Courtesy of Galleria Fonti, Naples

In the same space, Kiluanji Kia Henda’s Karl-Marx-Luanda (2006/23) a triptych of photographs depict a fragmenting and eroding boat, a ruin of the sea, ruined by the sea, with the words «Karl Marx Luanda» emblazoned across its hull. This is one of a fleet of twenty fishing boats grounded on the Santiago beach in Angola. The boats were part of a failed fishing cooperation between Soviet and Angolan socialist states. Kia Henda describes this as an image of Marxism as a boat grounded in the tropics. The ideas this fleet of boat carries, its aspirations eroding like their materials: Marxism-Leninism was defeated, or failed, and Angola became capitalist.

Kia Henda’s video The Cemetery of Boats (2024) uses the memory of socialism to speculate on a different trajectory. Based on archival photographs belonging to his father whom he narrates as a fierce communist, the film projects a communist future in Angola, where the words of Marx are combined with Ubuntu philosophy, a philosophy emphasizing collectivism and the interdependence of humans on another. Kia Henda uses memories of his own past, possible futurities, and the inheritance of archival, photographic, and biographical material in his artistic research to burst open a lost narrative, a lost future.

Emotional Structures

Ndikung claims that Echoes of the Brother Countries attempts to explore the depths of the sociopolitical relations, the psychotrauma of pre and post German reunification, in order to «understand the price society pays for the erasure of memory and identities» (Reader). In my view it presents moments of history in public space that can now be investigated, the wounds of that history can be explored, put into language, continually struggled over, for example in terms of wage restitution. But if it is to be meaningful, it cannot shy away from the current struggles over memory, and hide in its relation to 1989. This is where political education or unsplit, inclusive memory politics can become meaningful.

I want to return to a lesson from Christa Wolf’s Patterns of Childhood. She counters the myth that in the past, people remembered more easily, decrying this as an assumption or half-truth. She writes, «A renewed attempt to barricade yourself. Gradually, as months went by the dilemma crystallised: to remain speechless, or else to live in the third person. The first is impossible, the second strange. And as usual, the less unbearable alternative will win out».1

Wolf continues her novel in the third person, as the option she finds to put the past into language. Wolf’s own story was troubled. In her later life, after much conflict and withdrawal, after the so-called Literaturstreit, she writes that «literature will be called upon to perform the same task it must perform in all times and places: to investigate the blind spots in our past, and to accompany us into our changing future». Her country, the GDR is gone. The Brother countries are transformed. Nothing is resolved.

Echoes of the Brother Countries also reminds us that the assumption that memory itself changes anything, is wrong. People knew. People know but turn away, accept the taboos, relegate their memory to amnesia, and bury history. If we are continually exposed to political, emotional or familial neglect, it will rub on open wounds, preventing their healing. Experiences of neglect can become negative teachers, from which one learns to limit expectations, internalise and rationalise felt disappointment, creating a part of the self that is shut down, neglected, pushed away, derided, doubted. We can shut ourselves down so successfully that we obliterate our own memory. Our own memory can be displaced by forms of compulsion, that play out automatically. As well as forming a full critique and account of state and capitalist and racialised violence, as well as militarised brutality, we need to look into the structure of self-barricading to find ways to communicate with each other and with the past.

fn.:
  1. Christa Wolf, Patterns of Childhood, Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1984, 3.
  2. Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung «What is the Price of Memory and What is the Cost of Amnesia? Or: Visions and Illusions of Anti-Imperialist Solidarities» in Echoes of the Brother Countries, Reader, ed., by, Eric Otieno Sumba, Archive Books 2024, 14.
  3. Łukasz Stanek, Architecture in Global Socialism: Eastern Europe, West Africa, and the Middle East in the Cold War, Princeton University Press 2020).
  4. See Norman Aselmeyer, Stefan Jehne, Yves Müller (eds.), »Die DDR hat’s nie gegeben« Leerstellen in der aktuellen Erinnerungsdebatte, in Merkur 880, September 2022, 27–41.
  5. See for example Re-Connect. Art and Conflict in Brotherland at MdbK Leipzig in 2023, or Revolutionary Romances? Global Art Histories in the GDR at Albertinum Dresden (currently on view).
  6. Interview with Abed Abdi, 19.04.2022, Videocall between Berlin and Haifa, https://artinnetworks.webspace.tu-dresden.de/de/beitraege/aus-haifa-an-die-hfbk
  7. Dagmar Herzog, Sex after Fascism: Memory and Morality in Twentieth-Century Germany, Princeton: Princeton University Press 2005, 191.
  8. James Q. Whitman, Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law, Princeton University Press 2017, 94.
  9. Reader, 25–27; likewise artist groups organised exhibitions such as Artists Manifest Solidarity in the Struggle against Racism and Apartheid in 1978. Schleicher cited in Reader, p. 30.
  10. Wolf, «Momentary interruption» in Parting from Phantoms: Selected Writings 1990-1994, trans Jan van Heurck, University of Chicago Press, 1997, 13.
Bio:
Rose-Anne Gush is an art historian, theorist and educator. She lives and works in Graz, Austria. [Mehr lesen]