Berlin, August, 2006. After two weeks traveling from London – where I used to live at that time -, Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam, I had arrived in one of the most fascinating cities of the world – at least in my imaginary, which could easily be confirmed later. Summer breeze was blowing through the cafes and bars of Prenzlauer Berg. Kastanienallee was the perfect picture of how Berliners could enjoy their lives on a Saturday afternoon, with groups of friends and families hanging out and experiencing all types of foods and drinks, listening to different kinds of music and appreciating the sunny weather. All way down to Alexanderplatz distinct generations were sitting together in front of yellow, blue, green and red buildings talking about life and keeping problems completely away. Alone, I observed that and could barely believe that only a little more than 15 years earlier that part of the city was not that colourful and had nothing similar to that.
On the other side, Mitte was also full of people on the pavements observing passersby. Unter den Linden was like an anthill made by tourists that after walking the whole day could finally have some rest in the “Biergarten(s)” around. The city was beautiful, alive and tender following a World Cup that Germany had hosted less than a month ago and only a few days after the Swedish trio Peter, Bjorn and Jon had launched the classic “Young Folks”. You could feel the tenderness in the air. You could feel the spirit of happiness flowing freely in such a vibrant and great atmosphere. It was simply wonderful.
I knew, though, that at least in one of the seven days that was going to stay there I needed to take some time to cross the city and leave all that happiness and good vibrations behind. It would not be easy or pleasant, but I needed to do it. The goal was tough: Sachsenhausen.
No country exists without its history. Or, perhaps equally as important, the specific way it deals with this history: its memory culture. These memory cultures tell us a lot about a specific society, as it tells us one important thing: how it chooses to deal with its past. Memory culture refers to all practices of memory and commemoration, as well as education about the past – and, especially, the darker pages of its history.
One such country is Sweden. Traditionally a militarily neutral country, its post-war memory culture was concerned with exactly that: its perceived neutrality, especially in Europe’s most traumatic experiences in the twentieth century. There has been a shift in Swedish memory culture since the late 1990s, with Swedish historians paying more attention to Sweden’s role in World War II, and its perceived lack of involvement in the conflict. The country now has its own institute for Holocaust commemoration, which uses the Holocaust as a starting point to discuss issues of tolerance, called ‘Forum för levande historia’ (Living History Forum). Why has Swedish memory changed so drastically since the 1990s, so many years after World War II?Continue reading “Collective Memory in Sweden: the Living History Forum”→
In times where hate crimes against Muslims and Islamic religious sites become more frequent in European countries, and the new American president calls for surveillance against mosques and a total shutdown of Muslim immigration, one cannot help but wonder: are Muslims the new Jews? After all, it is easy to draw parallels from now to past times where Jews were heavily discriminated against and excluded from social life in both Europe and the US. And still, comparing the contemporary situation of Muslims in Western, predominantly Christian societies with the situation of Jews in the past might be an illegitimate endeavor. Right-wing populist hate speech against Muslims is terrible, no doubt, but it does not include the genocidal rhetoric that was spurred in Nazi Germany. At least not yet.
So, the claim that ‘Muslims are the new Jews’ is normatively problematic. Nevertheless, the resentments against both groups appear to be comparable phenomena. Both present-day Islamophobia and the anti-Semitism of Nazi-Germany fuel fear and hatred towards a religious minority, and both reduce individuals to their membership within the minority. Can we thus make the claim that Islamophobia is the new anti-Semitism? Let’s take a closer look at anti-Semitism in order to compare these two.
Western Anti-Semitism Before and After World War II
The discrimination against Jews in Western, historically predominantly Christian societies is many centuries old. The term anti-Semitism, however, has been coined only in the second half of the nineteenth century. Ever since, it has been used as a synonym for racial Judeophobia, i.e., the fear and hatred against the ‘Jewish race’. One can detect geographic, cultural, and temporal variations of anti-Semitism in the Western World. Anti-Semitism was at times merely a social issue, especially in the U.S. and Great Britain. At other times, anti-Semitism became a highly politicized issue, especially in Germany and France at the turn of the nineteenth century.
In order to compare Islamophobia with anti-Semitism, it is crucial to look at the different phases of anti-Semitism. History short: prejudice against Jews essentially evolved from the early religious (ergo: Christian) anti-Judaism over modern anti-Semitism to contemporary anti-Zionism. The modern and secular anti-Semitism racialized Jews by conflating religion and race and in doing so, constructed an essentialist Jewish identity. At the turn of the nineteenth century, the Jews became Western societies’ most important constitutive Other. In other words, they became the cultural out-group (‘them’) that was opposed to the in-group (‘we French/Germans/Americans’). The atrocities of World War II and the Holocaust did not eradicate anti-Semitism. Contemporary anti-Semitism, however, does usually not appear as blatant racial discrimination against Jews. It rather appears in the form of anti-Zionism, that is the opposition to the state of Israel and its politics.
Comparing Islamophobia and anti-Semitism
To begin with, the claim that Islamophobia is the new anti-Semitism must be narrowed down. Islamophobia cannot be in itself the ‘new anti-Semitism,’ since we have seen above that the new anti-Semitism has a rather geographical focus. The claim only makes sense if we say that contemporary Western Islamophobia strongly resembles anti-Semitism in its content. More precisely, it resembles the racialized anti-Semitism of the pre-World War II era. This is because both Islamophobia and this racialized anti-Semitism conflate race and religious identity, and are directed against members of a minority – not against them as foreigners, immigrants, upper class, etc. They construct Muslims and Jews, respectively, as an essentially different and dangerous cultural Other.
Looking at how right-wing populists all over Europe and the U.S. use Islamophobia to push their hateful political agendas, it seems as if Islamophobia has similar functions as anti-Semitism had in the past, such as the construction of Western identity by creating a scapegoat for current issues and challenges. Hence, Islamophobia not only resembles anti-Semitism, but has also replaced anti-Semitism in public discourse. Indeed, although anti-Semitism still exists in the Western World, it is publicly tabooed and sanctioned since World War II (especially, but not only in Germany). Islamophobia is a comparable form of racism against a religious minority that is nowadays acceptable in political discourse. This becomes apparent when observing European right-wing populist discourse such as by the French far right party Front National: whereas party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen was an outspoken anti-Semite, his daughter, Marine Le Pen, has worked to distance the party from its anti-Semitic image. She for instance banned all anti-Semitic discourse from party communications. However, Front National merely seems to have substituted anti-Semitism by Islamopobia. Islamophobic paroles and slogans play a big role in many of her speeches.
We can conclude that Muslims might not be the new Jews, but Islamophobia can indeed be called the new anti-Semitism – not in the meaning of the concept itself, but in the functions that this form of racism has for right-wing populists in Western societies. The heated public debates about Muslims and Islam reveal a deeper negotiation of cultural identity and the perceived loss thereof in increasingly heterogeneous societies. Islamophobia has herewith become a tool for counter-cosmopolitan collective identity building both in the U.S. and Europe.
It is a cold and grey Saturday afternoon, just one week before Christmas and I am rushing over the empty Platz der Menschenrechte, Human Rights Square, in front of the old German weapons and munitions production factory in Karlsruhe. This huge building was constructed with German Pünktlichkeit during the First World War and managed to avoid demolition in the late 1970s after having been a reliable space for the preparation of violence and destruction. With sentiment echoing Adorno’s phrase, “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” the city of Karlsruhe in the post-war decades seemed paralyzed and helpless to interact with this huge memorial of violence production in its heart.
It wasn’t poetry that brought a spirit of hope into the massive walls in Lorenzstraße – at least not just that. In the 1980s, the artist group “99.9% leerer Raum” moved into the old factory, just before, in 1984, the first ever email was received just a few kilometres away at the Institute of Technology in Karlsruhe (KIT). At that time, enthusiasm for new and connective technology of communication had awoken to end the rather destructive technology of weapons, which had dominated the atmosphere of the massive building. In 1987 the association for arts and media technology was founded, and eight years after the ZKM (Zentrum für Kunst und Medien), the Centre for Art and Media, opened in the old German weapons and munitions production factory. Since then, the building has hosted exhibitions with a focus on media and communication technology. It is, however, an unusual exhibition for the ZKM, which I am visiting today. Usually, visitors come to stroll down memory lane between the antiquities and rarities of computer and video games, or to discover new developments occurring in the digital arts. Although this exhibition does not focus on technology and media art, it fits perfectly in this historic building.
“Art in Europe 1945-1968” is the title of the exhibition, curated by Eckhart Gillen and Peter Weibel and their Russian colleagues Daria Mille and Daniel Bulatov. It is a cooperation between the Centre for Fine Arts (BOZAR) in Brussels, the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow and the State Museum Exhibition Centre ROSIZO in Moscow. The exhibition contains more than 500 diverse works of about 200 European artists. In Karlsruhe it has the significant subtitle, “The Continent that the EU does not know.” The curators aim to give a second perspective on the dominant narrative of post-war Europe. They present works by artists, who have responded to the breakup of a divided continent after a decade of destruction.
“Art in Europe 1945-1968” focuses on a central cultural space. One that was damaged and torn apart several times during the 20th century. The curators present artistic developments, stemming from the huge area that is geographical Europe. With artwork coming from anywhere between the Ural Mountains and the Atlantic Ocean, the exhibition draws on many sources in its goal of opening up a new narrative with regards to a shared past. The curators claim that until today historiography looked at the arts of the 20th century as divided into two main streams. Firstly, there was abstract expressionism, which is seen as a symbol of freedom in the West. Then there is social realism which, according to these curators, has been seen as a conservative kind of art, an art bent to serve the communist political system in the East. This exhibition, however, is an effort to engage with the history of art in Europe in a less simplified manner. This exhibition explores these themes through comparison, by finding similarities, and understanding differences in a socio-political approach to interpretation.
While walking through this huge exhibition, taking up two floors with an immense amount of art work, I can sympathize with the curators and let myself get lost in the many pictures, sculptures, films and photographs. It is hopeless trying to discover everything: this exhibition is the product of more than twenty years, and 200 people, full of creativity and extreme emotions. It is by accident, that I find the small Picasso, “Pigeon, Blue Variation” from 1951, hidden on the back of one of the huge white walls. The difficulty of mapping this great quantity and variety of art in post-war Europe can also be seen through the different strategies of structuring the exhibition in the three hosting places in Brussels, Karlsruhe and Moscow. In Karlsruhe it is organized into the five chapters “Trauma and Remembrance,” “Cold War,” “New Realism,” “New Visions,” and “Utopia 1968”. While 1945 is interpreted as ‘hour zero’, 1968 is defined as the starting point for a new relationship between West and East. What might seem like a very linear and horizontal approach, is in fact an attempt to entangle spaces, to invite visitors to discover art works that have not shared the same space before. Curator Peter Weibel calls it an active plea for understanding Europe – a goal which is just as important today as it was in 1945.
The idea of “Art in Europe 1945-1968” was conceived already in 2012, and it was supposed to be shown in Russia first. However, after the crisis in Ukraine and the strained relationship between the EU and Russia, many important sponsors withdrew their financial support. It is in these grey and cold days, that it becomes more important than ever to take a break and discover new perspectives on what shapes Europe: memories and trauma, war, utopia, and new visions. Now, in times of a critical public discourse regarding Europe, and in times of planning the building of walls, it is maybe more appropriate than ever to consider the leading questions of “Art in Europe 1945-1968”: “what is Europe?”
What I take with me walking back from the ZKM, in the old German weapons and munitions production factory in Karlsruhe, over the Human Rights Square, is the idea to keep my eyes wide open and to search for hidden ideas. Ideas that are not omnipresent in the main discourse surrounding us today. There was a lot happening in the period between 1945 to 1968 in Europe. It seems like a period of conflict and inconsistency . There is also a lot going on in Europe today, and it is essential to reflect on the present patterns of perception and communication. “Art in Europe 1945-1968” shows that it is worth challenging established constructs and opening a discussion about a common past and a common future. Despite or precisely because of its confusing multitude of pieces, visitors of “Art in Europe 1945-1968” can find a new way of looking at Europe in the past and in the present. I interpret this exhibition as a liquid reflection on arts and European society. It commutes between the East and West in Europe, and changes its setting in each location. It is not a fixed construct which needs to be consumed in a certain way, but one that underlines different perspectives. An exhibition is more than its images or sculptures. It represents a reflection on the everyday reality of artists and curators, and it grows in the space where it is shown, and with each visitor approaching it. “Art in Europe 1945-1968” communicates with its surrounding and with its audience and it is worth, I believe, taking your time to look, listen, reflect and respond.
The exhibition “Art in Europe 1945-1968” can be visited in the ZKM until 29th of January 2017 and afterwards in Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow.
I land in the centre of Europe. A small airport welcomes me back home.
When I think of my country, I always picture a charming lady. She has an entangled past to share with travellers.
Long ago Belarus used to be part of a huge powerful country, which comprised of Poland, Belarus and Lithuania. The state was the second one in the world that adopted a Constitution in 1791, and was recognised as a cultural and military centre of Europe for many centuries. A huge part of that culture remained forgotten and silent for a long time, but now it is slowly waking up from the period of integration with the other 14 soviet states, which affected several generations of the state’s culture.
A small shuttle brings me to the closest metro station. Just a while ago, all the station names were dubbed in English to make it more convenient for travellers. The other two main languages you will find are Russian and Belarusian. They both are equivalent, according to our Constitution, but people are using Russian more these days. When parents have the option to choose education for their children in one of the languages, Russian becomes more prevalent due to the Customs Union and the economic relations between Russia and Belarus.
“Belarusian definitely shares more roots with the western languages than Russian.”
Belarusian, in fact, is markedly different from Russian. I remember one time when I stayed in Warsaw, to my surprise after several days I started to understand the language and could say simple sentences like “No, I am not getting off the bus now”. Compare the words “paper” in English and “papera” in Belarusian with “bumaga” in Russian. Belarusian definitely shares more roots with the western languages, and proper Belarusian speech is very hard to comprehend for Russian speakers.
I get off the metro in the middle of Minsk, at its only ancient part – Nemiga. The Second World War destroyed the city and it was all rebuilt from scratch in 1944, modelled in line with the best Soviet architectural traditions. My great-grandfather used to tell me that when standing on one edge of the city he could see quite far – there were no roads or high buildings to block the view at all. Walking along the Svislach River, I look at the row of ancient remains of Troitskoye Predmestye (Trinity Suburb), where the families of famous Belarusian writers like Kupala and Bogdanovich once lived; these days the sight attracts brides and girls who crave for a new Facebook profile picture.
“The Second World War is a huge part of the history of the country…”
The Second World War is a huge part of the history of the country. From 1941 – to 1944 the country was occupied and people kept fighting as they could: in cities and in forests. There are many remarkable monuments from that period. Visit Brest Fortress, for instance, where you can read the words written by a dying soldier “I’m dying but I won’t surrender. Farewell, Motherland. 20.VII.41” , which really makes the blood in your veins freeze. Another breath-taking place is Khatyn, which until 1943 was a typical Belarusian village to the northeast of Minsk. On 22nd March 1943 it was burnt to the ground killing all of its inhabitants. There were many villages that, just like Khatyn, were never rebuilt after the war.
The post-war Soviet period was a very controversial and difficult time for the culture of the country. Nevertheless, even with all the Soviet drawbacks, the government managed to save the country that was destroyed by the war. Many famous factories and plants, schools and universities opened during that period.
“The Soviet Union disappeared from the map. The predictability of life disappeared together with it.”
The state has changed a lot in the past 20 years. The Soviet Union disappeared from the map. The predictability of life disappeared together with it. Borders fell down. There were many possible ways of development for the country to choose from, a huge variety of things to do and to believe in.
As I walk along the river to my apartment, I see many people on bicycles. Belarusian people are slowly letting their identity show. There are many festivals and sport events which are held in the city, and I am very happy to be part of the huge Erasmus Mundus community of Belarus.
Two German guys ask me for directions, and I am glad to show them around. Many tourists come to the country to see the main lakes: the lake Narach, which is the largest lake in Belarus, and the Braslau Lakes, a unique lake system that attracts fishermen from all over the country.
“Foreigners sometimes get scared of our ‘strong’ currency, but…”
From a local grocery shop, close to my apartment, a loaf of bread costs 8,000 Belarusian Roubles; 1 Euro amounts to 11,500 Roubles. Foreigners sometimes get scared of our ‘strong’ currency, yet after getting a breakfast for less than a Euro, it is funny to realise that all the Belarusians are millionaires!
I finally reach my flat and sit comfortably on the bed with my laptop. I look at the smiling faces of my European friends on Facebook. Many of them keep saying that visiting Belarus is very hard due to the strict visa policy between the European Union and Belarus. I would respond that this paperwork is possible to do if you want; and it can never keep friends apart.
“Belarus, a young country with blue lakes for eyes in her early twenties again.”
Belarus is now in a beautiful transition period from its post-Soviet state: a young country with blue lakes for eyes in her early twenties again, looking for her identity and trying all of the new opportunities she has ahead. So if you are open to breaking stereotypes, you want to see some very atypical architecture and to explore a new culture – you are more than welcome to Belarus. We will meet you, show you around, and definitely have the craziest nights after eventful days.
Nadezhda Fomenok, Contributing Writer
Nadezhda is a senior year private international law student, living in Minsk, Belarus. From 2011 to 2012, she studied in Bilbao as an Erasmus Mundus exchange student. This experience helped her develop new interests, among which are the culture of the European Union in the view of integration and how Belarus could be a part this process. Nadezhda dreams of successfully graduating from her course in 2014 and finding her own way in the big world. In her spare time she reads Paulo Coelho and sketches her greatest ideas.