PSA Regarding Monuments, Others

Jacob Birken
Oct 20, 2018 · 9 min read

I have lived in Kassel since 2015, but wasn’t there on October the 3rd, 2018. In Germany, October the 3rd is a holiday: Tag der Deutschen Einheit, the “day of German unity”. Unity, here, refers to re-unification, the 1990 Wiedervereinigung of the two states separated during the co-called ‚Cold War‘ (the semantic shift between unity and unification might turn out as less trivial than thought). Most people don’t go to work on this day, which was brought up by Kassel’s mayor as an argument for the removal of a large monument previously placed on one of the city’s central squares: On any regular day, the logistics involved in dismantling the monument and transporting its huge concrete fragments through Kassel’s streets would have proven too much of a tax on commuter traffic. October the 3rd fell on a Wednesday this year. As weeks do, this one would have ended on a Sunday — October the 7th — and thus another day in which the regular German most likely wouldn’t commute to work. There must have been some urgency to this monument’s removal that made the national holiday more feasible than the following Sunday.


While I have been living in Kassel since 2015, I arrived in the state of Hessia about 30 years earlier. Kassel is located in Hessia’s north; the region where I spent my youth is more to the south, near Frankfurt, in an area geographically defined by the rivers Rhine and Main. On October the 3rd, I was not in Hessia but travelling the East Coast of the United States, from Washington DC up to Boston. Just a few days earlier, I had been talking to my Bed & Breakfast ‘flatmate’, a Black Navy co-pilot who, apart from having studied engineering and history, had spent some time in Frankfurt working at the US embassy and was fluent in German. Inevitably, our discussion moved on to politics and immigration. There was one thing that struck her in Germany, my flatmate said: All of her immigrant friends used to answer that they ‘had a German passport’ when asked about their nationality. Not so in America: Once you’ve lived here, you were — an American. She was right. This is what I say: “Ich habe die deutsche Staatsbürgerschaft”, a disclaimer about my possession of German citizenship rights (I do say that “I’m from Germany”, when abroad; yet I won’t say that “I’m a German”).


The monument dismantled on October the 3rd is not one of the usual commemorative slabs that remind Germans of the one or other aspect of their history; this one was produced for the documenta 14, the contemporary art show that draws thousands of visitors to northern Hessia every five years. It was designed by Olu Oguibe (born in Nigeria, living in the US) and bears a single sentence on each of its sides; a quote from the Bible, Mt 25, 31–46.

“Ich war ein Fremdling und ihr habt mich beherbergt”

This is the German inscription; the same sentence adorns the other sides, in Kassel’s other most common three languages: Arabic, English, Turkish. The German phrase is not the one you’d usually encounter; it’s from a nowadays rather rare 19th century translation by Joseph Franz von Allioli (in a modern adaptation of Luther, it’s “Ich bin ein Fremder gewesen und ihr habt mich aufgenommen”). This less than obvious choice might have been a quirk of a search engine that Olu Oguibe used while designing this piece, but as the Allioli Bible was quite commonplace up to the mid 20th century and also sold abroad, it might simply have been the ‘German’ bible available in the US — and a rather interesting detail in regards to emigration and hospitality, even if by coincidence.

Here’s the English translation: “I was a stranger and you took me in”.

This being the second decade of the 21st century, the meaning of Oguibe’s piece needs no further explanation; sufficient to note that its original title is “Fremdlinge und Flüchtlinge Monument”, a monument for strangers and refugees. While we can read the quote as a reference to Christianity’s twin ideological roots in compassion and persecution two millenniums ago, the obelisk is both a contemporary and local artwork. In contrast to other commemorative monuments, it points less to a specific moment than to what Germans like to call ‘Willkommenskultur’: The act and attitude of hospitality to strangers, and especially those in need — in short, towards refugees. Formally, the monument is rather humble. Referred to by everyone as the “obelisk”, this is just the usual Egyptian-style pillar as seen everywhere between Heliopolis and the National Mall, irreverently cast in concrete rather than being cut from stone.

The dismantling of Oguibe’s work in the early morning hours of October the 3rd, 2018, might have been brash, yet came as no surprise — months of debate had passed since the initial propositions to acquire the monument as a permanent public art piece after documenta’s closing; on October the 11th, it was announced that the monument would now be re-installed in the nearby Treppenstraße, a less central but still rather representative spot in down-town Kassel. As usual, the discussions about the monument’s future often centred on formal or economic aspects of the work. Much could be said about the persistent misconception of art as an un-commercial ‘labour of love’ here (after Oguibe agreed to the relocation to Treppenstraße, one of the ubiquitous social media trolls claimed that he should no longer be called an “artist” after betraying his principles; as if principles where the currency in which artists paid their rent and groceries).

Yet, the monument’s ‘welcoming’ message was its most contested quality. As a rule, public debate in today’s Germany does not focus on the debated topic, but on the involvement of the so-called “Alternative für Deutschland” (AfD) in said debate. The AfD, originally founded as a neo-conservative libertarian party, turned into a general organ of reactionary politics in just a few years, mostly fuelled by a surge of racist sentiment in the German ‘former East’ and, increasingly, the West. During the discussions surrounding Oguibe’s monument in 2017, AfD council member Thomas Materner announced to stage protests in front of the monument “for every attack perpetrated by a refugee”, perpetuating the well-known narrative of the refugee as criminal or terrorist, and immigration as invasion. As a response to the scheduled visit of Olu Oguibe in early August 2018, Materner informed the press that his party would organize a public ‘reception’ for the artist. This act of ‘unwelcoming’ was not to happen — Materner retracted his announcement shortly after, most likely unable to mobilize enough of his followers.

Nevertheless, we — a loose group of people from the Kassel arts & culture scene — organized a more welcoming public event on the day of Oguibe’s arrival. Our ‘picnic’ was neither announced in favour of, or against the obelisk’s permanent installation in Kassel, but as a statement for open civic discourse about arts and cultural participation. In terms of visibility, it was surely successful — both in Kassel itself, and in the national media, which had been eagerly waiting for a new chapter on the monument’s story. Interestingly, most articles mis-represented the ‘picnic’ as a protest in favour of the monument’s preservation; they also, again, regurgitated the provocations of Materner and his party. In the Süddeutsche Zeitung, one of the major left-of-centre liberal German newspapers, the author — despite being obviously critical of Materner’s agitation — even named the AfD as the third-strongest force in the city council, while the right-wing party remains not only behind the SPD and CDU, but as well — with 8 compared to 13 seats — behind the Greens. With minimum effort, Materner and his cronies managed to gaslight the debate about the obelisk into a debate about their party.

Inevitably, the dismantling of the monument thus was framed as an AfD victory, both by the press (the Süddeutsche author, again: “the last documenta art work vanishes under AfD pressure”) and the party itself, who wrote up the obelisk’s demise as a “success” in a Facebook post titled “let’s pop the corks”. In fact, the party’s influence on decision-making within the city council and administration is marginal; another of their assaults on contemporary arts in Kassel, an embezzlement charge against the documenta management, was recently brushed off as baseless by district attorneys. The city council’s resolution against the permanent installation of the monument on the central Königsplatz might have been bolstered by the votes of AfD members, but would have never passed without the SPD and CDU votes; furthermore, the resolution did not preclude an installation elsewhere in Kassel. Just as well, the monument’s removal on October the 3rd was not set in motion by Materner, but by SPD mayor Thomas Geselle — and the compromise for its installation on the Treppenstraße reached in direct communication between the mayor and the artist.


When we arrived in Hessia in the 1980ies, we briefly lived in a place then called “Asylantenheim”, public housing for asylum seekers. We spoke a foreign language and were bearing a name quite unpronounceable for most Germans. Not so our neighbours: They were Germans, yet from the other Germany, one behind a closed border; they, too, were “Fremdlinge und Flüchtlinge”. This is part of the story behind German re-unification, yet one that has been cast aside for the sake of German ‘unity’. Despite the overt racism that shapes the current debate on immigration, much of the anti-immigrant sentiment on display during and after the dissolution of the former ‘Eastern Block’ relied on the same tropes now invoked in the 21st century. In 1989, a poster issued by the government promised “open hearts, open borders”: “Willkommen bei uns”, a phrase that translates as “welcome”, yet adds a seemingly superfluous qualifier, “bei uns”, “with us” — “us” meaning the West that will gladly accommodate the new citizens from the East; “us”, possibly, also meaning a future community encompassing Germans from both East and West. This Willkommenskultur was not meant to last. Soon, people were distressed about the influx of predominantly uneducated and potentially criminal young males; about social benefits administered to immigrants instead of ‘natives’ in need; about the administration under chancellor Helmut Kohl having “lured” GDR citizens into the West — three decades later, the same accusations adorn the comments sections of any internet article remotely related to current politics, updated to reflect 21st century fears and phantoms.

In February 1990, popular magazine Der Spiegel noted, someone in Hamburg had vandalized the “open hearts” posters, having cut out the “Willkommen bei uns” phrase. The Spiegel ends its article by quoting the mayor of a small town in Western Germany: “Hoffentlich wird die Mauer bald wieder dichtgemacht”, “hopefully, the Wall will be fixed up again soon”. This is eight months before the administrative re-unification of Germany, which will hitherto be commemorated on October the 3rd; this is a story of strangers and refugees.

This is, also, a story about fear. Concerning the numbers of immigrants from the GDR in 1990, SPD politician Henning Schaerf warned about possible “urban wars as in the USA” once the Germans from the East would end up in segregated housing projects in the West. The people from the GDR threatened to become a “catalyst for social unrest”, popular magazine Spiegel wrote in 1989, “and possibly for changes in the voting behaviour of Germans in the West”. This fear of a shift in public opinion might also explain the reasoning behind the strangely coincidental dismantling of the monument on the 3rd of October; if anything, the ‘unity’ that was on display here was not the result of however complex, however fragile processes of unification, but simply the result of a fear of dissent — and a lack of grit to counter it. These are the current dialectics of German politics: An allegedly ‘pragmatic’ dismantling of an allegedly unpopular monument on a highly symbolic day signalizes ‘unity’ towards potentially unruly citizens, while a compromise reached several days later informs an international audience that we still are in the town of documenta (this actually adorns the website of Kassel’s administration: “Documenta-Stadt Kassel”). These dialectics don’t know either thesis nor synthesis, just a clumsily navigated obstacle course of whatever antitheses anyone can come up with.

The AfD had tricked everyone including themselves into thinking that they were the driving force behind the monument’s dismantling. They were wrong, and Oguibe’s work will soon find a new home in down-town Kassel. Here’s an idea: The city should invite the artist next October, the 3rd; there is lots to discuss about foreigners and their place in society on a day like this. They should, also, invite refugees — the ones that recently arrived, but also those who might very well have been both welcome and unwelcome strangers at another point in history, and who are part of a story that should not be just an off-handed display of national unity, but a reminder and celebration of whatever it takes human beings to overcome the borders that separate them.

Sources

AfD Kassel-Stadt. “Die Sektkorken knallen!Facebook, October 3, 2018.

Hagemann, Florian. “Verfahren gegen Verantwortliche der documenta 14 eingestellt”. HNA, August 9, 2018.

Hermann, Andreas. “AfD will bei Oguibe-Besuch gegen den Obelisken demonstrieren”. HNA, July 31, 2018.

Hermann, Andreas and Werner Fritsch. “documenta-Kunstwerk Obelisk: Die AfD spricht von ‘entstellter Kunst’”. HNA, August 17, 2017.

HNA.AfD verzichtet überraschend auf Demo gegen den Obelisken”. August 3, 2018.

Lorch, Catrin. “In Kassel zeigt sich der Riss, der durch die deutsche Gesellschaft geht”. Süddeutsche Zeitung, August 10, 2018.

Lorch, Catrin. “Kassel baut Flüchtlingsdenkmal ab”. Süddeutsche Zeitung, Oktober 4, 2018.

Der Spiegel. Das Faß läuft über”. September 18, 1989.

Der Spiegel.Wieso kommen die noch?” February 19, 1990.

Wemicke, Christian. “Lieber Prämien für’s Dableiben”. Die ZEIT, February 2, 1990.

Jacob Birken

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