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Public Space, Public Art, and Public Memory

Responding to the Neo-Nazi Trial Verdict in Jena

Jeffrey C. Goldfarb is off today. He has selected this piece on the complexities of public memory as this week’s Gray Friday post.

 

On Wednesday, July 11, 2018 the verdict of five of the National Socialist Underground (NSU) members was given in the Higher Regional Court in Munich. Beate Zschäpe, the only surviving of three murderers (two were found dead), was sentenced for life, for participating in ten racially-motivated murders between 2000 and 2007. Eight of the victims were of Turkish descent, one was Greek and one was a German policewoman. The trial lasted five years, during which it became clear that the police and municipalities in the various cities where the murders and arson took place ignored evidence, shredded documents and disregarded warnings about the scope of violence possible by Neo-Nazi cells. All the while, both the press and the police criminalized the victims and their families in what was termed the “Döner Murders,” which assumed that working-class migrants were killing each other. The victims’ families have not been compensated. They were repeatedly interrogated by the authorities without apparent ground and many have long lived in fear that the terrorists will return “to finish what they started.”

The original terrorist cell was built by three right radicals in Jena, a city of about 110,000 in the state of Thuringia, in former East Germany. I work at the university in Jena and was invited to participate in a ceremony on the day of the verdict in memory of the victims, organized by the Young Community of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Junge Gemeinde Stadtmitte). Under the hashtag #KeinSchlussstrich (literally “No closing line,” or perhaps more idiomatically, “Don’t close the books!”), nationwide demonstrations commemorated the victims and drew attention to the racially-motivated murders and violence performed “in the middle of the community” in cities from Hamburg to Munich, including Kassel, Nuremberg, Rostock, Dortmund, and Cologne. These protesters demanded that the investigation not end with the verdict. They did so in solidarity with the victims and because there is a Neo-Nazi terrorist network in Thuringia — and nationwide — of individuals who walk around freely.

“Truly, I live in dark times!” wrote the Young Community, citing Bertold Brecht’s poem “To Those Born Later,” on launching a week of activities that included an opening of a youth-curated exhibition “Where Our Lives Remain.” On Wednesday, July 11 about 70 people participated in remembering the Neo-Nazi terror inflicted on mostly Turkish migrants. Members of the community held photos of the victims. Katharina König, member of Die Linke (The Left Party) in Thuringia, read the victims’ names and spoke about a society in which racist violence is allowed. During the opening of their exhibition, members of the Youth Community spoke about their experience as individuals who both the police and society want out of public spaces. They voiced their pain about having left school, about the lack of support from adults around them, and the friendship and solidarity they strive for in this community. Its leader, Reverend Lothar König, is well known and appreciated in the anti-fascist and left scene in Thuringia, and has been tried for his resistance to police violence in anti-fascist demonstrations. König is about to retire, and the fate of the young community and the building that hosts their activities is unclear.

On the day of the verdict, the Berlin-based Poet, playwright and author Esther Dischereit was interviewed for “Deutschland Radio Kultur.” She reflected on the day: “Justice could not be reached and is not at all possible. Not when we know that many members of this network walk freely and can commit more murders; when there are terrible entanglements between police, prosecutors and the protection of the Constitution. [Under such conditions,] there cannot be a final stroke [schlussstrich].” When asked whether, as a Jew she feels “especially vulnerable,” she turned back the question and replied that when Muslims and migrants live amidst a social milieu that sees them as a threat, and a society that thinks that there is no racism, there is a long way to go until “we” can discuss any closure. In response to the murders, Dischereit wrote an opera called “Flowers for Otello: On the Crimes That Came Out of Jena,” which begins with lamentations of the lives and social worlds that are forever shattered, and continues by exposing the blindness to racism that was made visible during the terror attacks, a blindness that acts as if racism ended in Germany with World War II.

To understand why both Dischereit, in the interview, and the demonstrators focused on the term schlussstrich (final stroke), it is necessary to return to the opening of the Holocaust Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin in May 2005, where Wolfgang Thierse, then president of the Bundestag, said the memorial is not and cannot be a schlussstrich that moves Germany past the Nazi era and the murder of European Jews, Sinti and Roma, Homosexuals, political prisoners and the disabled. In both cases, the focus on victims and victimhood coupled with the yearning for closure in a community that questions whether past (and possibly future) victims can ever be its members, are alarming. Being a problematic minority in the eyes of the state is still what the organizers of the demonstration and memorial ceremony on July 11 felt.

The moderator of the discussion on July 11, “To Whom the City Belongs,” Manuel Vogel, is the dean of theology at the University of Jena. He introduced me to the members and we held a public discussion of questions the participants raised regarding political action in public spaces, gentrification, and resisting marginalization. The youth, believed not to be able to endure long school days, participated in a four-hour discussion which was interrupted once by the heavy rain and as lightly, when two professors who walked within the podium area were invited in and walked away to the crowd’s smiles. Andrea Nachtigall of Ernst Abbe University of Applied Sciences in Jena and Andrej Holm of Humboldt University Berlin explained how citizens can claim space for self-expression in today’s cities. Such space has been recently heatedly debated within the city, Lutheran Church and university circles, when a graffito in the center of Jena, made in a skater-park by some of the members of the young community, was deemed dangerous.

It showed, among other symbols, demonstrators throwing a Molotov cocktail. The young CDU claimed that in order to prevent any potential violence against the police, the graffiti would be covered and indeed, a big red heart was recently drawn over the Molotov bottle. Manuel Vogel compared the fear of incited violence with another work of art which hangs in a place of honor in the main university building, that of Hodler from 1909 titled “Excerpt of the Students in the War of Independence 1813.” If the graffiti calls for violence, perhaps also the monumental painting by Hodler also does, suggested Vogel, in a move that was deemed scandalous, for it compared public art for and by the masses to art by an acclaimed painter, which the university in Jena prides itself to have as its own. A professor of Jena University has resigned membership in the parish council of the Jena Lutheran community in protest against Vogel’s comparison and defense of the graffiti to remain in town.

Being in public and freedom of expression are crucial themes in the three interrelated affairs I have had the fortune to witness and participate in, in the last week in Jena: the memory of the Nazi terror in the midst of the city by antifascist activists and supportive community members; the youth-curated exhibition of their removal from “legitimate” public spaces; and the skater-park graffiti as a sign of their dangerous presence. Only a discussion that will consider the diverse groups not as a threat but as equals, will enable a shared public space that bridges differences in political orientation, skin color, religion and ethnicity, or it will continue to hurt the very fabric of democratic society further.

Irit Dekel is a Research Associate in the History Department at Friedrich Schiller University, Jena. She studies memory politics, ethnic relations in Germany and their representation in media, and museums.

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