The Exhibition “Traumwunsch” of Stefan Otto in Gallery Sinne (9 January -1 February 2015) claims to “explore the dark area of his family’s history”. His grandfather was a Czechoslovakian Sudeten German, who served Nazi-Germany during World War II transporting raw materials and equipment along the Danube between Budapest and the Black Sea. This is more or less everything that is revealed in the exhibition about the grandfather’s involvement in the Nazi regime. We learn nothing about Stefan Otto’s grandfather’s role in the Wehrmacht (the unified armed forces of Germany from 1935 to 1946) or about his or his unit’s involvement in the war itself. The exhibition is all together silent about the Nazi crimes.
In order to fill the gaps let’s quickly quote some facts from a historical exhibition project in Germany. The exhibition Crimes of the Wehrmacht portrayed the Wehrmacht’s participation in and responsibility for a war that differed from all others – considering it was what could be called a war of annihilation: “Without the Wehrmacht the Einsatzgruppen and the units of Higher SS and Police Leaders would have been unable to realize the mass murder of the Jewish population of the Soviet Union. The Wehrmacht established military administration headquarters in the field and in towns and villages; these headquarters were the seat of executive power in the area as long as a particular territory was under military administration. All such Wehrmacht headquarters were charged with registering the Jewish population of the region, forcing Jewish inhabitants to wear a readily visible mark on their clothing, and confining Jews to the ghettos. Besides implementing these anti-Jewish measures, Wehrmacht units were also involved in executions. Numerous commanding officers expressly legitimated the mass murder of the Soviet Jews in their daily orders. Members of the military administrations in the occupied Soviet territories also filled their coffers with the property of those murdered by confiscating it, in agreement with the Wirtschaftsstab Ost, as ‘Jewish property’. In their reports the Einsatzgruppen repeatedly emphasized the smooth and ready cooperation with various levels of the Wehrmacht.”1
While this is not mentioned in the exhibition at Gallery Sinne, we are confronted with a much more detailed insight into the grandfather’s travels across Europe after the war, between 1945 and 1948. We see a map of Europe highlighting Otto’s grandfather’s travel route along with a series of romantic poems, framed and hung, which the grandfather composed during his three-year journey and wrote with borrowed typewriters along the way. The poems describe the landscapes he passes through, the weather and the need of a life that is and must go on. It seems as if history starts at 1945 – when the war and the murders actually ended and the concentration camps were liberated. Thus, the exhibition is not about a Nazi grandfather who wages war and participates in exterminating Jews, Roma, homosexuals, communists and others, but about a Nazi grandfather who is a poet wandering around post-war Europe: he is distanced from the Nazi crimes and neutralized, described as yet another lost person. And further, the same way as the grandfather used his romantic poems to overwrite the crimes in Germany, it seems that his grandson uses a romantic representation of research to overwrite the problematic history of his relative. In this way, the research seems to do the same as the poems, which is to hide and silence more than it shows.
Excavation of memories
All around the exhibition space the soundtrack of the highly aestheticized video can be heard, giving a sentimental atmosphere to the nature-romantic poems, the map of his walking route across post-World War II Europe and the artist’s similarly nature-romantic paintings. As we don’t hear about any crimes, the grandfather himself, “a Nazi and a German” becomes victim of war and his story is presented as one of human suffering. In the text accompanying the exhibition, the gallery director Markus Åström claims “Stefan Otto’s art is an excavation of memory.” He invites us to identify with the lonely Nazi on the road, asking: “What was [he] thinking when, scared, starving and disillusioned, he traipsed through Europe looking for his loved ones?” But what memory is excavated in the exhibition? We have seen that it is not that of the grandfather’s involvement in Nazi crimes. That “area” of their family history remains untouched. Instead, what Otto is perhaps excavating are the human sides of the old Nazi, individualizing the past overshadowed by him being a Nazi, and even showing that he was a creative person, a poet.
In his review of the exhibition in the newspaper of the Left Alliance, Kansan Uutiset (3/2015), leftist art critic Otso Kantokorpi goes so far in depoliticizing the historical events that he first describes his own grandfather’s imprisonment at the Tammisaari prison camp after the Civil War in Finland and seamlessly continues with Otto’s grandfather’s story of being captive in the prison camp of the Red Army in Romania. This comparison with Kantokorpi seems quite problematic as Kantokorpi’s grandfather was a red revolutionary, and Otto’s grandfather was a Nazi. In his review, Kantokorpi speaks of a trauma and its duration. At this point, at the latest, we are left with some questions: Who is traumatized from World War II? Can we talk about trauma and disillusionment in the same way when addressing the side of the Nazis and the side of their victims? Who should we emphasize with?2
Associations and meanings
For Kantokorpi, the most impressive work in the exhibition is the large video projection with a 15-minute spectacle of collapse and crumble in an urban space. The only nod to any time or location is a sex advertisement and another for a lubricant cream. Not so far fetched, Kantokorpi writes that the visual effects in the video associate in his mind with discharged semen dissolving in water. Another element in Stefan Otto’s exhibition is a huge puzzle collage of various square-shaped black & white photo-prints, over which an enormous image of Otto’s grandfather is printed. The realization of the work is clumsy and kitschy. At closer observation, the collage includes current and historical images of the extreme left and extreme right, mixing them up and grouping them seamlessly together as if they were equally bad or equally good. The face of Otto’s grandfather emerges from this synthesis. Despite the highly conservative message, this work is the second most impressive piece according to Kantokorpi, who seemed to like the exhibition overall.
The exhibition text tells us that the starting point for Stefan Otto to begin working on an installation about this difficult topic are his grandfather’s poems written during his post-war travels. The poems in the exhibition are not translated, so for someone who does not know the German language, it may not be obvious that there is repetition of words such as “Heimat”, “Krieg” or “Blut,” which are associated with the language of the Nazi regime. In his book The Language of the Third Reich, Victor Klemperer writes “[m]aking language the servant of its dreadful system, [the Third Reich] procures it as its most powerful, most public and most surreptitious means of advertising.”3 Another example is the word “ewig” (eternal), which appears repeatedly in the poems. Aside from its religious connotation, this word was also excessively used in the dictionary of the Language of the Third Reich (LTI), in which Nazis themselves portray Nazism as the heroic Teutonic religion. Klemperer writes: “Ewig is simply the most forceful special case amongst the numerical superlatives, which are themselves but a special case in the midst of the ubiquitous LTI superlatives.” In Stefan Otto’s exhibition the meaning and implications of the language of Nazism are left without any analysis and instead figure as part of the romanticized narration of his grandfather’s journey.
As discussed above, the exhibition sentimentalizes the journey of a Nazi and asks us to emphasize with him. In his exhibition text Åström writes: “The story of this family can act as a link between then and now. We live in a Europe that is still in an age of mass migration.” How are we to understand this comparison? Does Åström want to say that today’s immigrants are also fascists? Or does he mean to say the Nazis were not so bad after all?
Minna Henriksson and Nora Sternfeld
1 Hamburger Institute for Social Sciences, Crimes of the German Wehrmacht. Dimensions of a War of Annihilation 1941- http://www.verbrechen-der-wehrmacht.de/docs/e_ausstellung/p_voelker.htm#top
2 Harri Mäcklin in Helsingin Sanomat (Kulttuuri 22.1.2015) is along the same lines in his review, titling his text as “Natsi-isoisän kohtalo koskettaa näyttelyssä” (the destiny of the Nazi-grandfather touches in an exhibition).
3 Victor Klemperer, The Language of the Third Reich, LTI – Lingua Tertii Imperii, A Philologist’s Notebook, Translated by Martin Brady, Bloomsbury London 2013, p 16.