The German Issue: Still Straddling the Berlin Wall

The German Issue provides us with a time capsule from a very different era, but so much of its content remains pertinent.

The German Issue

Publisher: Semiotext(e)
Length: 352 pages
Editor: Sylvère Lotringer
Format: hardcover
Publication date: 2009-10-30

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.

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