FRArt Unschärfe im Möglichen (Unsharpness in a Possible)

1. Introduction

  • type: Article
  • ref: DOC.2021.96

Description of the project as of July 2018

How the National Socialism emerged, how it ruled, what crimes it committed and who those responsible were, seems elaborately interweaved into a solid narrative of certainty. We can describe in-detail most of the historical facts. Yet, a human comprehension of the extent of what was possible to happen is not attained by now: we don’t understand the sense and the reasons in their entirety. This unfinished process leaves us in speechless contemplation and, at the best, in a constant state of awareness. But at the worst, it could also serve as the ground for the continuous recurrence of nationalist and far-right positions. This is where we are today.
In the municipal archive of my hometown Nuremberg I have discovered disturbing photographs, notes and letters, which give another perspective on the participation of private citizens and their involvement in the Nazi system. Last year, I was looking into the editorial collection of the newspaper "Der Stürmer" (The Stormer), founded 1923 by NSDAP member Julius Streicher in Nuremberg. What laid bare in front of me on a quiet desk sorted in serially numbered folders, revealed perfidy and avarice on a larger scale. Julius Streicher, since 1925 Gauleiter of Franconia, used the newspaper "Der Stürmer" as his private political organ to provide the system with extremist anti-Semitic propaganda. His fanatic hatred toward Jews and his ruthless call for their displacement and extermination was almost the only content of his magazine. Published on a weekly basis, it had an increasing circulation within the German Reich until its closure on February 22, 1945. The editorial files, confiscated after the war by the US-American military government, are now archived and accessible at the Nuremberg archives, classified as "Stürmer"-archive/E39.
The articles of the newspaper were written by Streicher himself, made up by unpaid freelance "reporters" or out of volunteers’ contributions, who expressed their compliance. Soon after the first publication, Streicher realized the potential of involving his readers into the making of his journal. He published requests for participation in his paper, asking to send him more material. Thus, thousands of letters from all over the Reich and its occupied territories were delivered to the editorial office in Nuremberg. They contained indications of businesses run by Jewish Germans and also names and pictures of people who were buying in those stores. Numerous photographs of Jewish neighbors and prominent citizens were taken in the street and submitted to the newspaper. Usually the senders, who rarely hid their identity, attached an anti-Semitic and racist comment to their photographs. Often the reader’s contributions exposed a denunciation of fellow Jewish tradesmen, landlords, doctors, teachers or private persons in order to damage their reputation and finally take their position or absorb their businesses. The material came from different sources, made and compiled by ordinary German people. In many cases, it was purloined out of abandoned or expropriated Jewish homes. Thereby also several hundreds of personal belongings of Jewish people, like family photos, postcards, certificates, manuscripts or Judaica came into possession of the publisher.
"Stürmer"-archive/E39 comprises 3.503 folders, altogether 81.400 digital files. The process of sighting every file is an investigation into political, social and geographical history but also a survey regarding authorship, provenance and ownership. Interesting for me are on the one hand different aspects of photography: time, place, circumstances of the making of the images, the photographers’ point of view, their accessibility to the motifs, photo-technical knowledge but also the economical possibility of having a camera and making photoprints. On the other hand, I am constantly viewing the perspective of the perpetrator when I am looking at those photographs. What were the intentions of individuals to take such pictures? The photographs reveal an individual motivation for “tracing” fellow human beings and document their private and professional activities under specific racist parameters. It was about “identifying” Jewish citizens – and other people, who did not fit into the racial ideology of the German Reich – and expose them to a public eye. Former fellow citizens should be isolated out of the crowd and separated from society. Those images of segregation bear witness of the division of society during the Nazi regime. But people were not only “trained to watch” by state propaganda. Many of the “observers” – confirmed in their established prejudices – were just waiting for a chance to be part of the official thinking. What followed was a continuous intertwinement of mutual confirmation between parts of the society and the government, a joint hostility against a group of people. A process, which also can be observed in present-day social and political behavior.
Streicher was one of the major war criminal defendants at the Nuremberg trials and was sentenced to death in 1946. Although not having been part of the active planning and execution of the Holocaust, the tribunal constituted a crime against humanity „for his 25 years of speaking, writing and preaching hatred of the Jews. (…) In his speeches and articles, week after week, month after month, he infected the German mind with the virus of anti-Semitism and incited the German people to active persecution.” Yet, those readers’ letters and photographs in the archive disclose another responsibility: they reveal the interest motives of German people. This material does not show the Germans as victims of an ideology, infiltrated by fanatic propaganda. It rather unfolds the human motion of avarice. People were not just supporting a call for denunciation; their contributions came unsolicited. The documents were sent to the editorial staff of "Der Stürmer" on a voluntary basis without any direct pressure from the authorities. It turns passive followers into active promoters of hate. There was no direct force, no peer pressure, there were no sanctions, if one did not betray one’s fellow citizen. The self-serving motives of Germans, who took part in this daily agitation, played into the hands of the governmental anti-Semitic propaganda and finally profited from the process of expropriation and „Aryanization“.
The main subject of my artistic research is the construction and practice of observing: das Sehen machen (the making of seeing). This seems especially relevant today, in times where politicians and online opinion makers irresponsibly exploit racist resentments in their campaigns. Three years ago, when I first had the idea to work on that particular archive, I couldn’t imagine the latest political and social developments. When I now go through the archive E39, some of the documents are so topical that I have the feeling of getting the latest news. It could be out of those blogs, which are resonating in the internet, fed daily, hourly, every minute, by millions of users, expressing themselves. Not handwritten with ink on the backside of a black-and-white photography and mailed in an envelope but typed on a computer or mobile phone and publicized on social media. The language is exactly the same, same the hate, same the ideology. There is nothing novel to it. While viewing those historical documents, present-day European and international nationalists and right-wing followers gain political and intellectual ground, deforming the language and sowing racism and segregation. The concept and wording of hostility, similar to those of the predecessors of the last century, makes history coming full circle to be new here again.
Then and now we are confronted with parts of a society that choose to abandon legal and individual accords of humanness. Does this "army of angry citizens" just succumb to the populist appeal or do they make a conscious choice? What discrepancy lies between the theory of justness and the actual opinion and experience of equity in Western societies? In the last decade, a new kind of xenophobia has emerged based on “fear of a foreign infiltration” and an ostensible “loss of own culture”. Newly aligned Identitarian movements and their widespread youth organizations form up against global migration and multiculturalism. Their concepts contain the notion of an “ethnopluralism” seeking a “purification” of ethnicities by separating them into nations or cultures. Every ethnic group should stay at “their place” and should not intertwine with other groups nor enter into the territory of each other. The notion of “ethnopluralism” considers the own identity endangered by all foreigners who try to immigrate and assimilate. Here the main question is, who is identified as a “foreigner”? Who would be dangerous for the “ingroup”? And how would homogeneous and separated territories be established, if not with ethnic cleansing?
The readership of Streicher’s newspaper actively contributed to the writing of hate. Back then it was a new approach to edit a “political” magazine with nonprofessionals – out of people’s unverified contributions. It was not only reverberating propaganda but literally representing the “people’s voice”, the actual opinion of large parts of the society of this time. Therefore, in this present research, it is not just to relate denunciatory behavior to a medially dictated political ideology, but to investigate the social and cultural mindset, which can be activated within every individual at any time. Today’s online self-proclaimed platforms provide a hardly censored arena for incitements to hatred – an unlimited, constantly cumulating echo chamber of mutual confirmation of hostility and resentments.