The German Issue: Still Straddling the Berlin Wall

[7 March 2010]

By Alan Ashton-Smith

The 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall took place on 9 November last year and was marked by numerous cultural happenings ranging from publications and exhibitions to a U2 concert.  Publisher Semiotext(e) marked the occasion by reissuing its journal, The German Issue, which first appeared in 1982. Only seven years separate that year from the turning point of 1989, whereas we now have two decades hindsight; in spite of their relative closeness to the Wall’s demise, we should note that none of contributors foresees the end of a divided Germany, so impassable was the border that cut through the country—and through Europe.

However, the occasions when the contributions are prescient are plentiful. The German Issue provides us with a time capsule from a very different era, but the most fascinating thing about it is that despite the huge change that occurred in Europe after 1989, so much of its content remains pertinent. There are articles that consider the flaws inherent in both communism and capitalism, comments on the Arab-Israeli conflict, and musings on the function of the terrorist. Although the lens through which The German Issue views the world is now alien to us, the image that it captures is one we are very familiar with.

The physical object of the journal – which is in fact a hefty hardback book – is itself a metaphor for Germany divided into East and West. Its pages are split into two by a series of images that runs right through the book; this means that it is as though we are presented with two texts, one above this border and one below it. The articles that begin above the boundary never cross it, continuing onto the next page once they are confronted by the strip of photographs. Although the texts cannot physically cross the border, those situated opposite one another often share themes and notions. This means that the impression we are given is of a space divided into two by a fixed border that cannot be crossed by physical objects, but through which ideas and information can flow.

This conceit, combined with the content of the articles, serves to make The German Issue appear as a manifesto, setting out the way that the intellectual elite of 1982 wished to present Germany. And the list of contributors includes many of the heavyweights of criticism: Blanchot, Foucault, Heiddeger, Virilio, Guattari and other names of similar stature all appear within its pages.

However, the underlying message set out in The German Issue is clearly directed by its editor, Sylvère Lotringer; although he states in his introduction to the new edition that he retained a detachment from the issue of Germany during the volume’s compilation, since he does not speak the lanaguage. Nevertheless, he makes himself present throughout, conducting several interviews (presumably in French or English), commencing with the dramatist Heiner Müller, who had the freedom to travel between East and West and thus straddled the Berlin Wall. This is reflected in the fact that while his interview is contained within the upper half of the text’s physical border, there is also a piece by him on the other side. Lotringer also affords himself the freedom to cross the wall; his interviews appear on each side.

These interviews are one of the elements that provides the feel of a manifesto: they appear as a series of collectively conceived declarations, and their inherently conversational structure gives them a sense of immediacy that sets them out as direct and honest statements of intent. (It’s significant that none of the interviews are written up as continuous prose; all of them retain the rawer format of mere lines of dialogue.)

So what is actually set out in this manifesto? And to what extent, if at all, is it relevant to our understanding of recent historical events? Firstly, since the primary subject matter is a country that is divided into a communist and a capitalist side, we should expect to have to consider the stance Lotringer and his colleagues adopt regarding these systems. In fact, no one side is chosen; the view held is that there is essentially little difference between them.

This is the consensus from commentators who hail from each side of the divided Europe. Christo, the Bulgarian-born artist known for his wraps of major buildings and landmarks says, ‘Technically, the way communism is practiced is not that different from what exists here. In both cases, it’s really a matter of state capitalism.’ Meanwhile, Lotringer’s view is that ‘Capitalism and Socialism may prove to be simply two different ways of controlling the sphere of production and insuring the discipline of work, especially in the post-industrial era.’

This is a sentiment that demands examination within its context. The failure of capitalism is a very familiar concept at the moment, at a time when our economic infrastructure has crashed and our governments are still fielding criticism for assisting failing banks. Rewind 20 years and this is less of a hot topic. Not only was the developed world at the close of a decadent decade of unmoderated consumption, but also The Berlin Wall had fallen; the oppressive socialist regimes of the Eastern Bloc had been quashed; the capitalist West was victorious. In the years that followed, as the formerly communist countries of Eastern Europe struggled to catch up with the more established economies of the West, the superiority of capitalism seemed self-evident.

But seven years prior to 1989, when The German Issue was initially published, this was not such a certainty. Although many people in the West, who had heard tell of the hardship of life under Soviet rule, were grateful that they lived on the capitalist side of the Iron Curtain, for the critics and philosophers writing in this text, it was not a case of one system being better than the other, but simply that they were different from one other. Here in the present day, when the major capitalist powers of the West are in economic turmoil while socialist China booms, this seems very perspicacious.

If there is talk of revolution in The German Issue then this tends to be aimed at West Germany. On one hand we can see this in organised politics, as with the Alternative List, a new leftist party that was elected to the West Berlin assembly in 1980, and which states that its aim is ‘to become a political factor in this city, with one leg in Parliament and one leg outside it.’ This is reminiscent of a quote from the interview with Heiner Müller: he says, ‘I like to stand with one leg each side of the wall. Maybe this is schizophrenic position, but none other seems to me real enough.’ In both politics and the arts, therefore, we detect a desire for decompartmentalisation.

The other factions seeking revolution in West Germany are leftist terrorist groups. Then most prominent of these was the Red Army Faction (RAF), in which there was a recent resurgence of interest after the 2008 release of the film The Baader-Meinhof Complex. The RAF’s activity reached its peak in the autumn of 1977 with the kidnap of Hanns-Martin Schleyer, an industrialist and former SS officer, who was offered in exchange for imprisoned RAF members, including one of their founders, Andreas Baader. When no deal was made after 40 days, a Lufthansa plane was hijacked by members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which had connections with the RAF. The plane was landed in Mogadishu, and another offer of exchange was made; this time the RAF prisoners would be bartered for the plane’s passengers.

Again, the deal was turned down: the plane was stormed by a German anti-terrorist squad and the hostages were freed. The following day, the RAF prisoners were found dead in their cells, apparent suicides. A day later, Schleyer was found dead in the trunk of a car.

A Circular Chain of Events

A Circular Chain of Events

The whole of the Germany that is presented here is contained within images of America. This reflects the influence that American culture had on Berlin, both inside and outside the American sector.

The threat of terrorism is of course another subject raised by The German Issue that has great relevance today. What distinguishes the RAF from the terrorist groups that are active today is that Lotringer and his co-editors are prepared to give these terrorists a voice in the journal. The possibility of senior members of Al Qaeda being interviewed in any publication today, or explaining their ideologies in print, is extremely unlikely. This is partly due to the immediacy with which they would certainly be apprehended if there was any clue to their location (in addition, the interviewer would probably risk charges of collaboration), but also because certainly many would protest that their views have no valid place in the media.

cover art

The Baader Meinhof Complex

Director: Uli Edel

(US DVD: 30 Mar 2010)

Does this indicate that attitudes to terrorism have changed, or that terrorists have changed? Perhaps both of these factors are possibilities. There are various articles in the text in which what it means to be a terrorist is discussed. Jean Baudrillard describes it as a ‘Theater of Cruelty’, saying that ‘Terrorism is not violent in itself; only the spectacle it unleashes is truly violent.’ He concedes that there is a threat from terrorism, but declares it to be inherently unsuccessful: “The force of the terrorists comes to them precisely from the fact that they have no logic. The others do: it is quick, effective, flawless, without scruples; it is why they ‘win.’  If the terrorists had won, they would not make the errors that they do, but they would no longer be terrorists.”

Baudrillard is of the opinion that Andreas Baader’s death was staged by the German government. He says that the difference between this kind of killing and the acts performed by terrorists is that “if [imprisoned RAF members] were liquidated and it can be proven, then the masses guided by the truth of facts, would know that the German State is fascist, and would mobilize in order to wreak revenge.” Interestingly, Hans-Joachim Klein, a former terrorist who is interviewed, claims to believe that the deaths were suicides. He sees a limit to how far terrorism can go, saying that if the kidnap of Schleyer and the Lufthansa hijacking could not succeed, then any further attempts would be futile.

William Burroughs, who is another of Lotringer’s interviewees, is perplexed by the idea of limitation, saying, “It’s puzzling to me why they don’t go any further”, and suggesting that nuclear or biological weapons could be obtained by terrorists with ease. Lotringer notes that it is the political and ideological beliefs of terrorist groups that requires them to impose limits. He also says that while terrorists have no territory, “they’re colonizing the media” – a trend that has only escalated in the intervening years.

After the incident at Mogadishu, the German government pronounced that it would henceforth not negotiate with terrorists. This is a sentiment that has been echoed by many governments since, and a statement that we have heard repeatedly in the years since 9/11. The German Issue provides a frame of reference for it in its discussions of the events that became known as ‘German Autumn’, and uses the left wing terrorism that was active at the time to open up moral debates about terrorism that are unlikely to lose their relevance. The treatment of the RAF prisoners, for example, has a contemporary counterpart in Guantanamo Bay, while the terrorist aircraft hijacking is familiar to any contemporary generation.

Less familiar today are the politics of the RAF, which was informed by the dichotomy of communism and capitalism that came head to head in Germany. The RAF considered that West Germany was a fascist state, and that the remnants of Nazism had not been successfully eradicated. Although some RAF activity continued into the ‘90s, the fall of the Berlin Wall shook up their left-wing ideas somewhat, and they eventually wound down. Evidently some of them changed their views: Lotringer mentions in his introduction that one of the RAF members he interviewed, Horst Mahler, has since become a Holocaust denier and leader of the Nazi party.

However, the Palestinian terrorists who carried out the hijacking of the Lufthansa plane remain active, and the Israel-Palestine situation remains divided and unstable, more volatile than divided Germany was. The Mogadishu incident is for easier for us to relate to today than most of the RAF’s other attacks – an Arab group hijacking a plane has more contemporary resonance than a guerrilla attacks in a country that technically no longer exists – so its importance as a discussion point within The German Issue is integral to the volume’s continued impact.

Looking at the RAF retrospectively can also reveal some interesting points. Their opposition to Western capitalism is reinforced by their connection with the Palestinians, but the links between West German and Palestinian terrorists are, on closer inspection, deeply loaded. Such connections put the West Germans alongside a group that opposes Israel, and the idea of a German faction that is anti-Israeli is somewhat concerning, particularly at a time when there were still many who remembered life under the Third Reich, and all the more so considering the RAF’s claim to be anti-fascist.

What binds The German Issue together and ties it to the present is the way it presents the relationship between Germany and the USA. This literally opens and closes the volume: the border of images begins with photographs of Wall Street and ends with frames from an American comic, which seems to be a post-war story about a young woman escaping her Nazi past and moving to the US.  So the whole of the Germany that is presented here is contained within images of America. This reflects the influence that American culture had on Berlin, both inside and outside the American sector.

Lotringer likens West Berlin to New York, defining them both as islands that are culturally different to the territories that surround them. This is not an entirely unreasonable comparison, but the fact that Berlin had its composite culture thrust upon as a result of its divisions means that it cannot be fully equated with the more organically formed New York. However, New York is relevant as an influence on Berlin: the enthusiasm for punk that took hold of West Berlin, and the associated squatter movement, which was the political starting point for a number of leftist radicals, came from an American culture that had its foundations in New York.

And so we observe a circular chain of events. The American cultural influence in Berlin ultimately gave rise to the actions of terrorist groups like the RAF, which acted in opposition to the West German state, which had been manufactured in part by the US. In providing a series of texts that serve to draw our attention to such vectors, The German Issue holds up the divided Germany of the Cold War as a microcosm of the world. Reading it in its reissued form, we find that the issues it contains transcend not only space, but also time.

Alan Ashton-Smith has a PhD in Humanities and Cultural Studies from the University of London, where the subject of his thesis was Gypsy Punk. He lives in London, and is Live Reviews Editor for the music website Shout4Music.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/121329-the-german-issue-still-straddling-the-berlin-wall/