Posts 
 Post 35: 6/30/07


Processing DE:
Berlin Wall/Buchenwald

You can observe here the emergence of a link between the thesis that a subject is of the order not of what is but of what happens—of the order of the event—and the idea that the individual can be sacrificed to a historical cause that exceeds him. (Alain Badiou, The Century, 100)

The idea is that if we wish to attain the real of time we must construct it, and that, when all is said and done, this construction depends entirely on the care with which we strive to become the agents of truth procedures. Let us then praise the century for having borne the epic proposal of an integral construction of time. (Ibid., 106)

30 June Saturday–1July Sunday

8–9 Ruppiner Strasse, Berlin

I have come to the end of several weeks’ stay in Berlin, more or less as one arrives at a station immediately before one’s final destination. This sense of being immediately prior to getting off the train, I noticed, is constantly reinforced by protocols of exits and entrances in public transportation in DE: “Einsteigen, bitte; züruck bleiben, bitte” being the overvoiced routine whenever the doors close prior to departure, and “ausstieg links/rechts” being announced (at least on S-Bahns) just before arrival. There’s also a curiously ethereal musical phrase that occurs at the end of the line of every bus or tram, which signifies “everyone will exit the bus at this time; the bus/tram will go no further”—as one steps down. One could compose a montage of sounds that serve as subvocal cues for framing time and space in this manner: for announcing arrivals and departures; for new text or voice messages; for crossing or not crossing the street; for oversized trucks backing up.

Each of these sounds provides an existential punctuation mark that depends on its sonic substrate but invokes specific meaning frames: this is the form of a journey by train or streetcar or bus; the sending and receiving of messages has a structured protocol (you have mail; the cell phone is now switched off); time and space are subdivided into forms of intention that anticipate the senses (so that a blind person knows when the light changes via sonic signal); and masses exist in space in ways that exceed absolute knowledge (not only in Heisenberg’s terms, but simply that the driver of the garbage truck cannot see what’s immediately behind him). German culture has made such devices of intentionality into a public language, and something of a reflexive sense of language itself is structured into these devices. Between frame semantics and techno sampling, a semiotic architecture of sound is presented to the senses.

 

 

The field in front of me is a particularly marked station on the long train ride that was the twentieth century: it is an empty space or urban void or disused area or construction site left over from dismantling a stretch of the Berlin Wall. It may or may not be being preserved as a relic or memorial space; as I observe it now, a concrete path from an earlier era (of patrol duty? hasty reurbanization? a bicycle or jogging path?) bisects the large open space up to the point where a private plot of ground is set off by a chain-link fence. Where this fence intersects the previously existing concrete path (which continues through the yard area set off as private), a profusion of native foliage has overgrown the fence, forcing anyone walking on the path to skirt it to the right, thus creating a new path. There are several such new paths (to and from the concrete one, which preceded them), as well as an overgrown, poorly maintained sidewalk from the DDR era on the left, and a row of trees which screens the border zone from Bernauer Strasse, which would have been separated by the Wall as a roadway in the West.

The space I am writing from did not exist as inhabited space in the period of the Wall (1961–89); it is a new construction, with all the superior design features and building details (state-of-the-art elevator; steel and glass entryway with shiny buttons and video camera; teak floors and wood-plank balconies; dispersed and tasteful lighting; new materials for dining counter and electric range) developed in the West. The building at one point might have seemed triumphalist; now, it is a relatively upscale address in an up-and-coming neighborhood that no one would mistake for bourgeois. Numerous twenty-somethings live here; their baby prams are everywhere; they may have promising careers, or the beginnings of same, but no one has a lot of money. The slogan “arm aber sexy” (poor but sexy) is Berlin’s motto this year; there is still a lot of unemployment, but living conditions are great. As an abstract good, “liveability” in Berlin exceeds the standards achieved by any American city, which would die for the café on the corner. And there are opportunities: the owner of the apartment where I am staying is renting it for money to pay for a year-long round-the-world junket to Malaysia and India. She’s a tall, aggressive, somewhat brassy woman who works as a school teacher and seems absolutely driven to make it to the next moment; I fit in to her plans, so she likes me (I think).

 

 

There are two pieces of construction equipment and project trailer for the soon-to-be-completed set of apartments just across the street, as well as a free clothing box that sees a lot of activity, night and day, and an undefined shed with corrugated roof that may serve as a shelter for the bus drivers who end their run directly in front of this address (their engines turned off, of course). There is a small amount of construction debris that no one is picking up (but not too much) and an outdoor toilet. The field of the former space of the Wall is now covered with white, purple, and yellow flowering plant life, mostly unknown to me, but I do see several patches of ragweed. In this field, a lot is going on: one night, a pair of men had prolonged, loud sex right in the middle of the path (at one point, a couple walking from the U-Bahn down the path had to figure out how to get past them); there are have been several people sleeping in the field; one young woman ran from behind the line of trees on Bernauer Strasse to the middle of field, pulled up her skirt, squatted and pissed, and then ran back laughing to her friends on the street.

On Sundays, with the sun out, everyone seems on the way to the nearby flea markets of Arkonaplatz and Mauerpark. Directly in front of the window I am looking out of now is a Mietkaserne (working-class, five-story apartment) with blue, corrugated, industrial siding facing me, covered with aggressive, stylized red graffiti. The stark plane of the siding contrasts with the perspective lines of the streets and sidewalk, as well as of the Wall area itself—a visual device for interrupting progressive narration, or the illusion of same, that I wrote about in the work of post-Soviet painter Erik Bulatov (e.g. Krassikov Street, which I discuss in The Constructivist Moment). But this is a different space, with a different progressive history. Behind the stretch of former Wall, and a couple of blocks of newer or renovated apartments, is a 50-meter tall smokestack: industrial cement, with two red and white grid patterns on its side (aircraft warnings?), and plume of white smoke or water vapor escaping. It is this smokestack that has caught my attention, that I have been focusing on, beyond the tableau of post-Cold War allegory in front of me.

 

 

Yesterday, at 3:49 in the afternoon, I boarded a bus marked “Buchenwald” in the Goetheplatz, right in front of the Rathaus in Weimar. I had decided to split my tour between Enlightenment and Terror; between my arrival by Inter-City Express at 11 a.m. and that moment, I had visited the Weimar Bauhaus Museum, Schillers Haus, Goethes Haus and Museum, the Nietzsche Archiv, and had a glance at Goethes Gartenhaus in the park along the Ilm River, before hustling back through the center of town to the once-an-hour bus. My first reaction was to find it more or less obscene that the transit authorities could advertise the northbound no. 6 bus with an enormous LED display saying “Buchenwald” on the front. People milled around the bus stop (for numerous lines) as they would anywhere; no one seemed to have the slightest problem getting on the bus; the driver did not give me a knowing look as I boarded, even though I was obviously headed to the end of the line (with backpack and even camera around my neck); and no one on the bus seemed to think there was the slightest thing out of the ordinary. As we headed past the Hauptbahnhof, under some railway tracks, and up the hill (Ettersburg Mountain, as it is known), the bus gradually depopulated. By the time we arrived at stops called “Obelisk” (for a memorial marker set in the middle of a traffic circle, probably from the DDR); Glockentürm (for the Soviet-style Mahnmal or “memorial to an event that exceeds narrative comprehension”), which looks out over the distant valley, and the Buchenwald Gedankstätte complex, there were only three people left.

I did not like it that the driver was taking me to this place. The first site one passes are the ruins of the train depot where those to be interned or deported were transferred. What one sees next is a large parking lot in front of a semicircle of four-story barracks, in good condition, reminding me of the renovated military buildings at Fort Barry or the Presidio in San Francisco—from the same era, the same war, serving pretty much the same function: to house troops. But these were the 5,000 SS guards for the internment camp, not yet visible down the hill from the housing area. I found the sumptuousness of these buildings already to be disturbing, and didn’t know whether I favored more their continued use or letting them fall into ruin. As it is, they house an archive; some educational programs; the visitor center and bookstore; and it seems that quite a number of people work there. One of them was being fixed up; there were cement mixers with a industrial corporate logo, plastic sheeting, scaffolding, and new fixtures going in.

 

 

I fumbled my German quite a bit asking when the bookstore would close and whether there was a place for my pack. Everyone seemed very helpful but no essential information was communicated so I had to figure things out for myself. There was copious signage: everything was marked, with state-of-the-art route markers, maps, and narratives in four languages (German, English, Russian, and French). The way to the camp is down the hill, it is clear, from the point you are standing at now. Before it dawns on one that the camp is, precisely, what one is seeing, one encounters a wide, straight concrete road that was used to march prisoners from the railway terminal to the camp itself, passing directly in front of the SS commandant’s headquarters. The spatial logic of hierarchy here is ubiquitous and always allegorical, I would soon see. Just so, a progressive narrative marches detainees past the controlling perspective of the commandant up to the internment camp gates: modernity trumped by the will to power, to which all are subject.

The gates themselves are famous, with the wrought-iron motto “Jedem das seine” (to each his own: fate, judgment, deportation, death) and the clock on the tower stopped at 3:15 p.m., the hour of liberation when inmates overran the remaining camp guards just before the Americans arrived. (A few days later, the troops would march the citizens of Weimar up to the camp, to show them what had been going on.) I felt sick: the anticipation of these icons had made their reality a deep joke that kept on telegraphing its message: your arrival here has been anticipated; it is inevitable that you should come. Now that you have arrived, this is the reality you could only imagine. The real reality, the one “we” (those who grammatically construct the syntax of “jedem das seine”) have arranged for you. And all I had to do was take the no. 6 bus to achieve this effect, of the Real behind the real stating the priority of its orders. Think of what the others experienced that led them to understand the nature of the Real in terms they could never have anticipated.

 

 

 

 

I had, only a few weeks prior to visiting Buchenwald itself, seen a powerful re-presentation of its real conditions in a film from the DDR titled Nackt unter Wölfen (Naked under Wolves; dir. Frank Beyer, 1963). “Realistic” both in execution and worldview, the film was shot either in the camp itself or in a carefully reconstructed version of it. The film was a staple of moral education in the DDR, and a friend who grew up in that era said that it now seems stereotypical: the party line on Antifaschismus as a unifying concept, even if conditions in the camp are accurately portrayed. The main gate of the internment area was clearly identifiable in the opening shot, with an assembly of inmates on the sloping field directly in front of it. Immediately to the right, thick smoke poured from the crematorium smokestack, an image imprinted on my memory forthwith (to be cued by the site of smokestacks anywhere else, for example at the far end of my view across the former Mauer, or looming above last night’s festivities at the reconstructed industrial site of the Kulturbrauerei, where the poetry festival’s rap concert was staged).

Stepping into the camp of Buchenwald itself, I experienced some disorientation when confronted by the large open area directly in front of the gate: this was the former parade ground/inspection area, where prisoners were assembled and drilled. Anyone too weak to make assembly was culled from the mass and sent off to a different fate, most likely deportation. Behind that open space, which importantly sloped upward at a not inconsiderable incline toward the command-and-control center of the prison gate, were the foundation stones of the prison blocks, each marked by a separate stone: Block 1, Block 2, Block 3. Many were used for specific inmate groups and were memorialized accordingly: for Jews, Bulgarians, Sinto and Roma, homosexuals. In all things, the Nazis separated according to category, arranged categories in a hierarchy, and applied force to lock their distinctions in place. The film version explores, from the perspective of socialism—which in the DDR version would refuse distinctions of rank and nationality within a larger horizon of “man” inherited from the nineteenth century, and thus its political deployment of realism—a politics of distinction in realist terms: these were the social arrangements that were given and enforced; they were “material conditions.”

 

 

Jews, Russians, intellectuals, communists, homosexuals are thus portrayed as distinct from each other but having a common interest in group solidarity against their captors: the anti-fascist politics of state formation of the DDR. The central device of the film was a “kleines Kind” (little boy), a 4-year-old Polish Jew smuggled into the camp in a suitcase and hidden by the inmates in the final months of the war. The incident was historically accurate, according to signage; there were in fact about 400 children in the camp. The child becomes a metonym for Hope, and the basis of solidarity between disparate individuals who had been separated by category. This struck me as a somewhat mechanical version of the “melting pot” unity typical of American war films of the period, but toward a similar end: the construction of a Popular Front/anti-fascist unity that defines who you are. The characters know who they are at the moment of revolt, overturning the repressive order that separates them, storming the prison gates, and establishing community at the moment of liberation. Hence, the time is memorialized at 3:15.

Immediately to my right was the crematorium, exactly in the spot represented in the film—only today not pouring black smoke. This was the second shock of anticipated reality. The crematorium had an eerie density, as if its construction of brick and cement were a subtraction from the abstract space of the capacious field where the inmate blocks were arrayed. It is located just a bit to the side, but was there all the while; one could not live in the camp without the immediacy of death alongside. There seemed to be no one around as I walked into the crematorium courtyard, through an open door. The first thing I saw was a porcelain sink. Not only that, a porcelain dissecting table, with a drain for fluids. A chest of medical instruments, with just a few on display. This was the dissecting room or pathology lab. Next room: another porcelain sink. The sculptor Robert Gober seems to have picked up on the design and materials of these sinks as a motif. Now I am really into it, one thinks. Death’s plumbing. In the next room are two large brick cremation ovens, with three open doors each. A special metal gurney had been constructed to feed bodies to the flames. Signage indicates these ovens were developed by such and such a company, giving name and location. I wondered if it is still in business.

 

 

The crematorium was not constructed as a part of the “final solution”—one would have to go to Auschwitz or elsewhere for that. Its size was a response to the high mortality among inmates, given the conditions they were exposed to, and specifically after a dysentery epidemic in the camp. My recall of precisely when the crematorium was constructed, however, is beginning to blur. Again I felt sick, vaguely convulsive, I wanted to bolt from this space. Between the two ovens were a profusion of flowers that had been recently left, along with a banner appealing for world peace. To the side, a privy and toilet were on display; these had an effect of connecting bodily shame directly to the crime. Cowardly, ashamed of the body, cruel: Allen Ginsberg would explore this relation in his work. The hero of Nackt unter Wölfen was a spitting image of a young Allen Ginsberg, but also a socialist intellectual, with spectacles (which of course would be smashed during interrogation). The cell in which the interrogation took place was supposedly in a police building in Weimar, thus establishing a connection outside the camp. Another room held a series of urns in which ashes had been secreted; these had been found secretly buried throughout the camp, but were assembled here. Another sculptor’s project came to mind: Allan McCollum’s 10000 inert, mass-produced, hybrid objects. (Some of his work—a series of empty frames, depicting nothing—appears on the cover of my collection Frame.)

I stepped into the courtyard. A plaque informed me that I was standing on the spot where Ernst Thälmann, socialist intellectual and head of the KPD (German Communist Party) was murdered. Shot on his arrival at the camp. I routinely swim at the Schwimmhalle in Thälmann Park in Berlin, a model urban development of the DDR. My feelings about Thälmann are mixed, as is his legacy: though he died a resistance hero, he also implemented the Stalinist policy of not uniting with the SPD when Hitler’s minority government came to power. Had the KPD and SPD joined, the NSDAP would not have won its absolute majority a short time later. And thus things would now be different. But Stalin was playing a game with history, betting on his eventual winning hand. The DDR turned out to be the last move of that failed strategy. I stood on the spot where Thälmann was murdered, anticipating that outcome; there was a memorial plaque. His body was carried into the “corpse cellar” through that door. I went down into it. It was a cool, plastered room where corpses were stored. And created: on the wall was a series of hooks, as for sides of beef, where strangulations took place (not hangings; there would be no body drop to break the neck). 1100 persons were killed in this manner.

 

 

 

There was a chute for the delivery of corpses from above; I returned to the courtyard to inspect the opening for the chute. It was like a chute for coal or any other material delivery. It was said that bodies were stacked “like cords of wood.” I walked through the courtyard into another small and open door. By this time, I was joined by several other people, so my reactions were in some sense in relation to theirs as well. Everyone acted stunned, slowed down, and somewhat dissociated. Later a non-German man, speaking German, asked me if I thought the height-measuring device with the slot behind the neck was used to kill prisoners. Yes, I thought so. This was the way Russian prisoners of war were dispatched: shot in the neck as their height and weight were measured. There was a reconstruction of the horse-drawn sled that carried masses of bodies shot in this way to the ovens. There was also a room, connected to this method, that displayed Nazi medical procedures. A photography of human form titled “Mensch”; an eye-exam chart of letters (seeming to me to be in the wrong order); and medical paraphernalia. I took pictures of all these things and will display them here if they turn out.

The crematorium was the impact zone, and little else needed to be said. You could not get closer to the event than that: a small brick building as a monument to the unspeakable. What was left was to investigate the more dispersed traces of what occurred: the foundations of buildings destroyed, the buildings that remain, two large-scale historical exhibitions, also the field of unmarked burials from the Soviet occupation and use of the site, when interned former Nazis, and others who fell into the security net, died at comparable mortality rates. After the fall of the DDR, the site of their burial, in a field behind the limits of the camp proper, was discovered. It is now marked by metal columns in a thin forest just beyond the perimeter: another aesthetic moment of memorial culture. While I felt that the shame of the DDR in not publicizing this use of the camp in the period after Stalin was being somewhat overplayed, the regime was complicit in Stalin’s crimes, albeit in the context of the greater crime of the Nazis: most of those who died in this manner were interned in the East Germans’ form of denazification.

 

 

In the West, outcomes were often less severe, as witness the fate, established in the exhibit, of the prison commanders and guards. Only the highest among them were executed; many of the others were tried and re-tried, often becoming free by the early 1950s. A discourse of these differences in denazification was a part of the Cold War; at the DDR exhibition in Berlin (“Parteidiktatur und Alltag in der DDR,” Deutsches Geschichtliche Museum), a "Braunbuch" was on display that listed former Nazis later prominent in the BRD (West Germany); an answering tome was produced in the West. I am writing this overlooking a stretch of the former Berlin Wall, with a working smokestack immediately behind it in the distance, as I have said. My exploration is thus of one of the origins of the Cold War: the void left in Central Europe by Nazism’s crimes, and what lies beneath it. The recovery of that history, for me, is a political question that underlies any narrative of the present. Or any nonnarrative, for that matter: a primary concern is how artistic representation, separated from cause and effect, does its work.

It is hardly for an aesthetic experience that one visits a site like Buchenwald, but its entailments for literature and art after the war are everywhere clear. The field of former inmate dwellings, now simply the trace of their foundations: the device of the trace. The abstraction of the Real from its material construction, and the reconstruction of the Real by abstract material means. The use of voids to represent what cannot be expressed: the memorial to Jews killed at the camp, which, like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, creates a negative space within the trace of the foundations. The serial but uneven repetition of stainless steel columns placed at intervals at the site of the Soviet-era graves, with a living forest as defining context. The entire history of site-specific art demands an understanding of historical sites that have been denied, as Kristine Danielson’s account of Robert Smithson shows (in a paper presented at the 2005 “Authorship” conference in Tübingen): unrepresentable history is the ground of the site-specific. The abstract meanings that may be constructed around decontextualized objects separated from their initial purposes, which cannot be known: the pile of cement fence posts, with their hook for electrification wires, stacked outside the exhibition hall as a metonymy for stacks of corpses, on the one hand, or as a device used by Joseph Beuys in his deployment of materials (cf. his use of streetcar poles at the Hamburger Bahnhof), on the other.

 

 

The slope of the field itself, entirely abstract in its dismantling of progressive narration, thus signifies the perverse logic of the site, its reversal of the achievement of the summit or highest point as the goal of history. Here, precisely the opposite is the case: history moves in reverse of any progressive narration; to go up the slope ends finally in being looked down upon from the summit of humanly denying repression. The masters look down on the slaves from the perverse height of Enlightenment. I experienced this directly as a physical fact, as I trudged up from the exhibition hall back to the entrance gate/guard tower as the close of the site drew near. I had been walking around the area for several hours and had earlier done the same in Weimar: I was a bit fatigued. Imagine what the effect of being summoned to inspection must have been for someone living in these conditions: on 500 calories a day (food allotments were carefully measured), with little heat in winter; subject to disease from overcrowding; psychologically reduced to the point of bare existence. And one must find the energy to get up the hill and in line for inspection—a scene staged in Nackt unter Wölfen—or face the most dire consequences.

Finally, it was the perverse core of the site’s construction, its reversal of the “good” that societies measure themselves by, that leaves one with the sickest feeling of all. This was more than intended; it came together through a perverse, underlying logic that was entirely coherent and structured. This is why Buchenwald was built only eight kilometers from Weimar, fount and origin of Enlightenment and the German concept of Kultur as unifying. “When I hear the word Kultur,” Goebbels said, “I reach for my gun.” That act was not simply a volitional affirmation of the racist will to power: it was an effect of an underlying structure, whose logic is discernible in the traces of a site like Buchenwald. Its being discerned is an act of reconstruction, of course, but such a reconstruction is part and parcel of Adorno’s “new categorial imperative”: that such a thing should never happen again. Adorno's ethical dictum is important in two senses: that ethics is grounded in history, and that it requires acknowledgment from others. In the reconstruction of perverse history, one can only turn to the site of what refuses comprehension. It is not simply a matter of witnessing but of making something of what is found there. Explanation conjoins the ineffable in the work of art. The imperative to represent what cannot be comprehended makes the unity of abstract art and narrative a truly productive field.

 

 

[Copyright © Barrett Watten 2007. Not to be reprinted without permission, except in short excerpts in electronic media.]

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