German History

My brother continues to be a great source for new story ideas. Just like he recently linked me up with Bruce Bell, one of Toronto’s most well known experts and historians, he recently read about a German photographer by the name of Susanne Schleyer who had just published a new book, “Unterwegs” (“On the Road”) with 100 photos and stories from 12 different cities: Amsterdam, Berlin, Buenos Aires, Jerusalem, London, Paris, Prague, Rom, San Francisco, Saint Petersburg, Venice and Vienna.

I started doing some research on Susanne’s website and realized that she had done other interesting projects and yesterday I spent two hours on the phone, talking with her in Berlin. Susanne is an interesting individual. She is in her early 40s, and studied art and German philology in Berlin and later photography in Leipzig. From 1990 onwards she has undertaken travels for photography projects to Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Russia, Chile, Argentina, Austria, the Netherlands, Switzerland, France, England, Scotland, Italy and the United States.

For her recent book “Unterwegs” (“On the Road”), Susanne created photos in 12 different cities. Then she selected authors to whom she presented the photos and she requested them to write stories, using the photos as inspiration. The book was just recently published in September of 2005.

The project that fascinated me even more is called “Trilogy – A German History Project”, that she did jointly with another artist, Michael J. Stephan. “Trilogy” consists of 3 exhibitions composed of images and sound collages that are each independent but connected. The exhibitions explore German history, sixty years after the end of World War II and the collapse of German National Socialism. With the last witnesses of these times nearly gone, Susanne and Michael set out to search for traces, to come up with a way for asking questions about these times on an artistic and subjective level.

In Part I “Asservate” (“Exhibits” – A German Family Chronicle 1907 to 1997), Susanne explores her grandfather, a family taboo, as he was an official in the NS regime. The exhibit explores 3 generations of German men, her grandfather, her father – a totally apolitical individual, and her brother, all of whom lived in 3 different social orders: the Third Reich, the former communist East Germany, and today’s reunified Germany. While working on this project, she realized that this part of history, which was presented in high school as if it was as far removed as the Middle Ages, was much closer and still touched the present.

In Part II “Bueno! Alemanes en Argentina 2000” Susanne and Michael travelled to Argentina to explore the world of German immigrants who came to Argentina before, during and after WWII. In total they spent almost a year connecting with German immigrants in Buenos Aires. These German immigrants encompass a variety of different groups, including Jewish refugees, non-denominational leftists, economic adventurers and outright National Socialists. They are truly a motley collection of victims and perpetrators who have shock-frozen an image of Germany as it was at the time when they left.

Part III “Sologubovka – Russia” is anchored around the consecration of Europe’s largest war cemetery in Sologubovka, a small village near St. Petersburg. The five-hectare burial site was chosen by the German War Graves Association, which scouted various cemeteries with the unmarked graves of German soldiers in Russia before deciding on this location. The remains of German soldiers from smaller burial sites in the region were also collected and buried at Sologubovka., which is now the resting place of 60,000 German soldiers, around half of whom have been identified. It is estimated that up to 80,000 will be buried here when the cemetery is completed, making it the largest war cemetery in Russia. This lavish cemetery stands in stark contrast to the one single symbolic grave commemorating hundreds of thousands of Soviet victims that died during Nazi Germany’s 900 day siege of Leningrad (the Leningrad Blockade). Incidentally, Susanne Schleyer’s grandfather fell in 1941 and was reburied in the Sologubovka Cemetery, closing the loop of the Trilogy..

For all these projects, Susanne and her partner did years of research, studying historical and sociological texts in addition to spending substantial amounts of time on location to produce photos, interviews and sound recordings. These 3 components of Trilogy were produced between 1994 and 2004 and the exhibitions have been shown in various cities in Germany, including Berlin, the Netherlands, Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Buenos Aires.

In my upcoming interview Susanne will talk to us about what motivated her to do this enormous Trilogy project, and she will tell us of her fascinating experiences along the way, confronting herself with her own family’s history, meeting German and Jewish immigrants in Argentina, and she will share her experiences in Saint Petersburg.

Susanne’s work is of particular interest to me personally, since my father was a Nazi as well who was drafted in 1941 at 17 years of age to fight in the Second World War. As was the case with Susanne’s grandfather, my father is a great enigma for me. I was never close to my father and left my home country of Austria at the young age of 20. It was only in the last year of his life that I had a real conversation with him, with him opening up just a little bit.

My father has been dead now for more than 10 years, and to this day I have never been able to find out what his personal involvement was during the WWII years. The one thing I can say is that my attitude today in terms of being a fervent supporter of intercultural openness and racial, ethnic and religious tolerance was shaped to a great degree as a response to World War II history that touched me personally in the form of my father.

The Second World War still has weighs on many people, 60 years after it came to an end. And it weighs on the descendants of the perpetrators as well as on the descendants of its victims, albeit in different ways. The concept of “collective guilt” in subsequent post-war generations is not fictitious.

My father and his role during this time have remained a mystery to me, and I am grateful for the opportunity to have linked up with Susanne Schleyer, a woman who has taken the initiative to explore her own family’s history in the context of World War II.