The German Issue

Annette Weisser

Tags: Contexts

Contexts / 08.12.2009
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Some time ago, an acquaintance in Los Angeles lent me his copy of The German Issue, a magazine on German culture and politics published by Semiotext(e) in 1982, after I mentioned I'd been researching the Allied Forces' reeducation films at the University of California film archives. I was immediately fascinated: in terms of design, production and choice of texts and images, The German Issue was familiar and foreign atthe same time, brand-new yet outdated. Of course, almost any print product forges a link between past and present, but The German Issue seemed to possess some mysterious and direct connection with the present, as if its presence in the here-and-now might be able to influence the past, and vice versa. It gave the impression that if the trails laid by the book on its appearance in 1982 had been followed, the cultural-political climate in reunified Germany would be different. Not a time machine of a magazine, then, but a wormhole.

In the reissue, the magazine's copy shop aesthetic is instantly familiar (sadly, however, the new version lacks the manually inserted umlauts of the first), and so too is the brash rhetoric of the series of images, with photographs of piles of corpses in liberated concentration camps appearing alongside shots of Volkswagen Beetle chassis on factory assembly lines, or pictures of a Wurst counter and its wares. Images of machines and police officers in action, German shepherd dogs and the then infamous German politician Franz-Josef Strauss - punk fanzines of the period looked much the same. But in between the rest one discovers cryptic material and close-ups - but of what, exactly? Concentration camp photographs that might be film stills, or heaps of shoes that on closer inspection prove to have been photographed at the summer sales. Is it all a faintly sadistic game toying with the German guilt reflex? A recurrent motif is the border separating East and West Germany: a pictorial strip, which runs through the whole book and divides the pages into two unequal halves, begins in New York with photographs of Wall Street and culminates in a comic strip about a former member of the League of German Girls (BDM), who, thanks to the reeducation efforts of liberating GIs, becomes an all-American sweetheart. A wall of pictures. While the names of the authors are mostly familiar, it's unusual to see these thinkers, writers, artists, film-makers, Berlin underground celebrities, political activists and sexual libertarians all in one place. Sylvère Lotringer, who lacked any knowledge of German, thought up The German Issue together with Heidi Paris (to whose memory the reissue is dedicated) and Peter Gente, the founder of the Berlin-based Merve Verlag publishing house: 'Peter kept a basket of articles he found interesting, which he occasionally assembled into small books. Some of them found their way into The German Issue, even though Peter hadn't read them all. He instinctively knew what would be good, and the selection of authors we made together is probably one of the best that could have been done at the time, and certainly remains unequalled to this day.'1

Gente's basket contained, amongst other things, a hilarious report by film-maker Herbert Achternbusch about a trip to California; Ulrike Meinhof's essay 'Revolt' on the situation of foster children in state-run institutions, a review by Michel Foucault of Pierre Boulez's legendary production of Richard Wagner's Ring cycle from 1976; Martin Heidegger's response to an attack published in 1950 concerning his relation to National Socialism; a manifesto-like text by Hans Jürgen Syberberg in defense of his controversial Hitler: A Film from Germany; a conversation with Charlotte, a then well-known Berlin transvestite about her struggle for sexual self-determination under different regimes; and texts by Christa Wolf, Maurice Blanchot, Félix Guattari, Alexander Kluge, Oswald Wiener, Joseph Beuys, Andre Gorz, to name a few. Lotringer contributed a number of interviews, such as ones with French artist Christo about his idea of wrapping the Reichstag; with playwright Heiner Müller about life on both sides of the Berlin wall (Müller, who chose to live in East Berlin, had been one of the privileged GDR intellectuals who were allowed to travel freely); with Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a prominent figure of the student movement in both France and Germany who later became co-founder of the German Green Party; with Paul Virilio on his concept of 'Pure War'; with William Burroughs on terrorism; or with Annette Humpe, singer of German New Wave band Ideal, on guilt.

The German Issue appeared as a follow-up project to Autonomia, which Semiotext(e) likewise reissued two years ago. Wholly dissimilar at first glance, both magazines are permeated by Lotringer's interest in new social movements - operaism in Italy, and the women's, peace and squatters' movements in Germany. What was visible in these movements was a new form of political agency that left behind the hierarchical structures of the communist party and its Marxist-Leninist cadres, and by extension the militancy of the Red Brigades in Italy or of the RAF in Germany. Lotringer once more: 'When The German Issue was first published in 1982, the world was still starkly divided into two antagonistic blocks and our intention was to loosen them up in all sorts of ways, as we did earlier with other binary oppositions that regulate culture. The wall that used to separate East and West Berlin at the time was the stark embodiment of the struggle between the two systems, capitalism and communism, and it runs as well through every page of The German Issue.'

And exactly there, in fact, lay the line of flight offered by the thinking of the 'new French philosophers', as they were known at the time, who had advanced far beyond the narrow political horizons of even the 'undogmatic Left'. (In 1982, according to the interviewee Humpe, it was still considered hip among left-wingers to 'know somebody who know somebody who knew Ulrike Meinhof.'2) To that extent Lotringer's German friends Heidi Paris and Gente were his natural allies, since Merve's mission as a publishing house in Berlin was similar to that of Semiotext(e) in New York: to make accessible - in Merve Verlag's case, to a German-speaking audience; in Semiotext(e)'s to English speakers - the writings of Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Guattari, Baudrillard, Virilio and Jean-François Lyotard. Such an inclusive ethos remains palpable throughout the magazine: The German Issue resulted from an attitude of collaboration, confidence and intellectual curiosity.

The first time I picked up a text by Deleuze and Guattari, I was in my mid-twenties and had already turned my back on the 'anarcho-autonomous' left-wing scene - and Anti-Oedipus (1972), which appeared in Germany as a sleek Suhrkamp Verlag paperback in 1977, was not exactly appealing to punks up for some street action. In this context, The German Issue, with its bold layout and non-academic approach, would have been the missing link we could have done with back then, in provincial south Germany, in order to slot the new French philosophers into our own political landscape. (And in that regard especially: Jean Baudrillard's contribution 'Our Theatre of Cruelty' on the German autumn of 1977.) Now as a resident of California, I can view my country from the outside through The German Issue and concoct my own history to serve to my North American friends as a plausible legend. 'The German Issue is as "untimely" today as it was twenty-five years ago,' says Lotringer in the preface - and equally useful, I am tempted to add. The decade that led up to the fall of the Berlin Wall seem to have been removed from our collective memory together with the rumble of that monument. A revisitation of the 1980s - the acute fear of global nuclear extinction, the distinct knowledge that because of our geopolitical position Germany would be the first to go, and the complex and conflicting ways in which these fears resonated with our own responsibility for the Holocaust - clarifies our sense of what Germany has become by turning our attention to the anxious self-awareness it has lost in the process.

Footnotes
  1. All quotes from Sylvère Lotringer, introduction to The German Issue, New York: Semiotext(e), 2009.