The Happening

“There is no German identity without Auschwitz”


„[T]here is no German identity without Auschwitz“ (Dr. Joachim Gauck, Federal President of Germany; 27.01.2015) Nothing might be more accurate than this quote from Joachim Gauck, the Federal President of Germany. But, at the same time, nothing might be less a matter of course in today’s Germany. It cannot be denied that Germany is the model pupil in the politics of remembrance of the Holocaust and other NS-atrocities. But this politics, this culture (and some might want to add, this industry) of remembrance implies also a culture of forgetting.


Joachim Gauck’s speech – as remarkable it might appear to most of us who are well aware of the post war discourses on German identity – echoed in German and Foreign media for a day, only for a day. Richard von Weizsäcker’s speech in May 1985, however, caused Germany and the Western world to sit up and take notice of what he said for months: “Yet with every day something became clearer, and this must be stated on behalf of all of us today: the 8th of May was a day of liberation.” Those words caused the Israeli Government to invite Weizsäcker as the first German politician to officially visit Israel. Undoubtedly, it was a speech about history that made history. 30 years have past since that speech and barely have we witnessed such controversial debates on commemoration since then, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin might be an exception here. One worth a thought, indeed, and I will come back to it shortly.


What happened in the last 30 years is the ritualization of remembrance. And with this ritualization comes a politic of symbols or politics of symbolic gestures: wreath-ceremonies – and none as authentic as Willy Brandt’s Warsaw genuflection in 1970 – name reading ceremonies, speeches, and among others of course, memorials. Symbols and metaphors used in this ceremonial commemoration culture make little impact, the times of earth-shaking words has past, because the rhetoric of commemoration is emptied of meaning and therefore cannot motivate emotional, political or moral engagement or outburst.


The times when Hannah Arendt, Theodor W. Adorno and Jean-François Lyotard proclaimed the essential ethical dimension of any dealing with the Holocaust, and often ended with the impossibility of representing the Holocaust in words, can only be remembered today, too. Those times have past as well.


The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is an exception, as I stated before, because it renounces any symbolic meaning. Although visitors feel themselves to be reminded of gravestones, the site was not designed to represent a cemetery. In fact, making use of an algorithm fed to a software program, Peter Eisenman avoided any direct human and artistic influence on the actual design of the memorial.

„Germany Surrenders“

This is the background of an event that took place in May 2015 at Furnace Park in Sheffield as part of the Animatograph Project “Bellotograph”. “Germany Surrenders” was designed as a “Happening” about the commemoration of the end of World War II in Germany and in Britain. Aware of the dilemma of having a range of symbolic gestures at hand to commemorate historical events but none of them holding any specific and authentic meaning, the Happening provided an experimental space to explore the commemoration rituals of both German and British cultures. In order to do this, the Happening was scripted but lacked an anticipated outcome or didactical intention. It also required, therefore, flexibility in its script; audience participation would be unpredictable as well as the actors’ reactions. This open layout was essential to the premise of creating a transnational social sculpture of commemoration.


To mark the ceremonial character of the Happening I chose the frame of a religious procession. The procession also fitted with the ‘community building’ purposes of commemoration rituals in regard to national identities. As much as Auschwitz is fundamental for today’s German identity, the Victory in Europe is also essential for British notions of identity (the BBC covered the 70th anniversary with a five day special feature on the various remembrance events taking place in early May). We managed to find a location with an upper and lower level which was important to me, since prominent memorials, such as the Buchenwald Memorial, for instance, work with a topography that allows for a procession of large numbers of people uphill.


When the audience of the Happening approached the site they noticed a man digging the ground with a spade. It would be this man who would begin the procession. When he heard the church bells calling the visitors to gather at the lower level, he carried the spade and handed it over to the procession leader. As you can see in the trailer, the Happening follows the framework of a procession – more or less – integrating several commemoration rituals of both Britain and Germany. I decided to go for the speech I mentioned in my last post by Joachim Gauck and, correspondingly, the speech held by the British Prime Minister David Cameron on the same day. Cameron’s speech was a remarkable example of how to assemble the rhetoric of political speeches on the remembrance of the Holocaust and fitted perfectly with intention of the Happening .


Each speech was followed by an appropriate symbolic act that was to compliment the speeches’ commemorative rhetoric. In case of the Gauck’s speech, in which the main message was “there is no German identity without Auschwitz”, we used the hole that was dug in the opening of the Happening to heap up soil from approximately 20 NS-concentration and NS-extermination camps and finally to plant an oak tree.  The oak tree is not only a relic of German mythical heritage but it was also meant as a reference to Joseph Beuys – one of the most important post war German action artists. The procession was marked as a Happening by the presence of this oak tree. Furthermore, the oak tree is also a reference to Great Britain since it is the national tree of England. However, I also felt that poppy seeds would be the most appropriate and best known symbolic act for this occasion, and the audience was therefore asked to spread poppy seeds onto the soil just moments after David Cameron ended his speech. And they did so. Surprisingly most of the spectators participated in the rituals taking place – they followed the procession, they carried the jars with the soil, they heaped up the soil, they spread the poppy seeds and, what I still find striking, they repeated the words “We shall remember” and “Hallelujah” on command after they were called out over the megaphone.


The megaphone was only one of the devices, along with three cameras, a dictaphone and a visible script, used to expose the making and staging of the whole event. And, by naming this, I point to the fundamental ambivalence of the Happening, an event designed to create or evoke authentic moments on the one hand and, on the other, to undermine any notion of authenticity.


The Happening explored whether there remains any remnants of meaning or authenticity within the used up rhetoric and symbols, whilst challenging the notion of the construction of national identity. In general the concept of a Happening is not to give answers but to raise questions. And most crucial to the project was the idea of providing people with the experience of commemoration rituals. Those who participated experienced something. And hopefully, they felt uncomfortable during and after it. I did, and still do. I felt uncomfortable using the soil, I felt even more uncomfortable planting the oak tree, and listening to the German national anthem brought the whole situation to a head.


Of course Joachim Gauck was right to say that there is no German identity without Auschwitz. And of course, we must remember the victims of NS atrocities. But with commemoration simply becoming a matter of course, and especially with Germany turning commemoration simply into political correct gestures, the culture of remembrance is threatening to become a culture of forgetting.