>Renft

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A recent blogpost elswhere about “Krautrock” (classic rock music from Germany) got me thinking about a post I had wanted a certain music critic friend to write. He never got around to it so I guess I’ll have to write it myself.
Because: there was a genre of rock music coming out of German-speaking lands which was far superior to the Schlager tripe being fed to television audiences in the BRD (West Germany), and had more heart and soul than the Elektropop that groups like Kraftwerk were playing.  And that was Ostrock, the stuff being generated behind the Berlin Wall. Of special interest is the story of the band Renft, which enjoyed a few short years of real success within the country, before inevitably getting in trouble with the government. The following is from “Stasiland: Stories From Behind The Berlin Wall” by Anna Funder.

Renft may have started off with borrowed western rock songs, but there were so many lies that singing the truth guaranteed them both hero and criminal status. By the end of the mid-seventies the band embodied a lethal combination of rock, anti-establishment message and mass adoration. They were shaggy men with bellbottoms and attitude, they were hot, they were rich by GDR standards, and they were way too explosive for the regime.

Performers needed a license to work. In September 1975 Renft were called to play for the Ministry of Culture in Leipzig to have theirs renewed.

‘I had some western money,’ [ Renft said] ‘so before the licensing hearing I bought a small cassette recorder from an Intershop.’ … While they were setting up to play he turned the cassette recorder on and hid it (behind) his guitar…

But they didn’t get to play. [Ruth Oelschlägel, committee chairperson] asked them to approach the desk. She said the committee would not be listening to ‘musical version of what you have seen fit to put to us in writing because ‘the lyrics have absolutely nothing to do with our socialist reality…the working class is insulted and the state and defense organizations are defamed.”

…”And then she said to us, ‘We are here to inform you today, that you don’t exist anymore.'”
There was silence. One of the band members signaled to a roadie to stop setting up. [Lead singer Christian Kunert] asked, “Does that mean we’re banned?”
“We didn’t say you were banned”, Comrade Oelschlägel said. “We said you don’t exist.”
…[Klaus Renft:] Then I said, ‘But…we’re…still…here.” She looked at me straight in the face. “As a combo,” she said, “You no longer exist.”


Renft records disappeared from the shops overnight. The band ceased to be written about or played on the radio. The recording company AMIGA reprinted its entire catalogue so it could leave them out. “In the end it was as they had said: we simply did not exist anymore” [Renft] said, “just like in Orwell.”

Rumors were put out by the state that the band had split up, that it was in diffulties. It was: it couldn’t play. Some members wanted to stay in the GDR, others knew they had to leave. [Lyricist Gerulf] Pannach and Kunert were arrested and imprisoned until August 1977 where they were bought free by the west.

The band members managed to reconvene and enjoy a few more years of retro-success after the wall fell, although without their poet Pannach, who died in 1999. One by one the original members, their lives shortened by a lifetime of political suppression, alcohol and cigarettes (and possibly the effects of radiation used by the Stasi on political inmates at the Hohenschönhausen prison), died off until there is now only one or two left. Klaus Renft himself passed away in 2006, but the band, now with almost all new members, still plays now and then in venues throughout the “former east”.
Here is one of the last songs they wrote (lyrics by Pannach) before the hammer came down back then.

>Hilde Zach 1942-2011

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The former mayor of Innsbruck was a special kind of politician. First, she loved Innsbruck (it was said that the city was her “only child”). In her eight years in office, I never heard a single bad word said about her.  Second — and here I speak from first-hand experience — she supported the performing arts like no other. She was in the audience, sometimes in the front row, at countless theater and concert performances. You looked out over the stage lights and saw that hairdo, and you knew the mayor was in the house.

A story I heard years ago about her commitment to the city’s cultural life, from those who were there:

The orchestra was about to perform a Bruckner symphony  for a special season-opening concert in the cathedral. The seats were all taken,  and security were either not permitted or not in the mood to let any more people in. Frau Zach arrived at the last minute, as usual, and asked a group of musicians why they were standing outside. When they explained that they were not allowed to enter, the mayor disappeared into the cathedral, and reappeared a few minutes later, saying “Da ist Platz genug drinnen, alle eini!” (There’s room enough, everybody in!) She simply went right over the security personnel’s heads and pushed us all inside!

Frau Zach battled cancer for years, and last March, when the future no longer looked manageable, she stepped down and handed the reins to her deputy mayor.
Her funeral will be held on Friday afternoon. She picked out her requiem music in advance, requesting the Haydn Mass In Time Of War, and a beautiful choral arrangement of Mahler’s Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen the Reinberger Abendlied which she’d heard a few years before at a chamber choir concert (in which I took part.) I will be there on Friday, deeply honored to be able to sing for her again, one last time.

h/t to Günther Hajostek, who remembers that Bruckner concert.

>Fun With The Language

>New York Times op-ed columnist Frank Rich writes about Sarah Palin this week, and in doing so has coined the perfect word to describe her new reality show, and in turn the perfect word to describe the image she presents to the world:

Palin fires a couple of Annie Oakley-style shots before we’re even out of the opening credits. The whole package is a calculated paean to her down-home, self-reliant frontiersiness — an extravagant high-def remake of Bush’s photo ops clearing brush at his “ranch” in Crawford, which in turn were an homage to Ronald Reagan’s old horseback photo ops in his lush cowpoke digs in Santa Barbara.

She’s not really a frontier woman, she’s “frontier-sy”, and as you can see from her political predecessors, it definitely has its appeal in America. Palin, like Bush II and Reagan, works the masses with her image as one of the “just plain folks” (which she most certainly is not) who don’t care too much for that high-fallutin’ fancy-pants higher education.

There’s been lots written over the years about the “dumbing down of America”; I haven’t read too much on the subject* but suspect it springs from a mistrust of “educated folks” that started perhaps in the beginning of the last century already. It’s something that I don’t see much here in Europe, not in this quantity, not as part of the fabric of the popular culture. There is no fitting translation of the English words “nerd” or “geek”; I hear “Eierkopf” — egghead — once in a while but there doesn’t seem to be any massive stigma in being an intellectual (not that I’d know for sure, not being able to call myself one**.) This might be because European intellectuals suffered their own actual pogroms in the past, as they never did in America. There is also the term “Fachidiot” which is, I’m guessing, someone who knows all about one subject and nothing else.

* Charles Pierce’s “Idiot America” is good, but doesn’t get down to why it’s been like this for so long in America, and not so in other countries (in my unlearned opinion.)

** And anyway I feel that for the most part I am treated well here, but any treatment, either preferential or discriminatory, that one receives would have to be viewed through several lenses — gender, age, foreignness, looks, German proficiency perhaps above all — before intellect was even considered. I think.

>The Other September 11th.

>I caught this poem in a film clip at the end of Patrizio Guzman’s documentary “Salvador Allende”, read aloud by its author, Gonzalo Millán. I couldn’t find an English translation of it online, so you’ll just have to accept mine. As this poem deals with another September 11 anniversary, it would be interesting to me if someone wrote about 9/11 like this.

The City

The river flows against the current.
The water cascades upwards.
People begin to move in reverse.
The horses run backwards. The soldiers unmarch the parade.
The bullets leave the flesh.
The bullets enter the gun barrels.
The officers put their pistols in their sheaths.
The electricity flows back into the cable.
The electricity flows back into the plug.
The tortured stop writhing.
The tortured close their mouths.
The concentration camps empty.
The disappeared reappear.
The dead leave their graves.
The airplanes fly backwards.
The missiles rise into the airplanes.
Allende fires.
The flames go out.
He takes off his helmet.
The Moneda is rebuilt like new.
His skull reassembles itself.
He walks back out onto the balcony.
Allende backs up to Tomás Moro.
The arrested leave the stadium, backs first.
September 11th.
Airplanes return with refugees.
Chile is a democratic country.
The armed forces respect the constitution.
The soldiers return to their barracks.
Neruda is reborn.
He returns to Negra Island in an ambulance.
His prostate hurts, He writes.
Victor Jara plays guitar. He sings.
The speeches go back into the speakers’ mouths.
The tyrant embraces Prat.
He disappears. Prat returns to life.
The suspended parts are put back into the treaty.
The workers march by, singing.
We shall overcome!

>Prussian

>Do you know that the name Prussia goes much further back than the northern German kingdom with which we mostly associate the name? Prussia was a group of tribes in the Baltics, and the Prussian language (now dead) was related to Lithuanian. After sweeps and conversion attempts by sundry dukes and bishops from further south, then the Northern Crusades (the Teutonic Knights, who worked for the Holy Roman Empire), the Germans finally moved in for good and took over, and the Old Prussian language died out by around the 17th or 18th century.

As someone I knew once put it, referring to Germans from the area as “Prussians” (which they themselves sometimes do) is like speaking of “Manhattanites” ; yes, certainly correct, but with a forgotten back-story of the people who used to go by that name, long ago.

I mention this because I was reading up on the Amber Road on Wikipedia, and saw that someone was angry about using the term Prussia to refer to the Baltic end of the route. Because to that writer, Prussia only meant German military might and all that. And yet, the writer could have easily looked up the name and learned something.

>Munich History: Hans and Sophie Scholl, Kurt Eisner

>If you don’t know the brief, sad yet courageous story of the Scholl siblings, Sophie and Hans, then go directly to the Sophie Scholl entry in wikipedia before you continue. In all honesty, it’s not clear to me why she gets most of the attention, and her brother less, but perhaps society doesn’t expect a 21 year old woman to be brave, and give up her life for her friends. This one did.

Right beyond those trees in the background, unseen, is the Stadelheim Prison where the Scholls and Christoph Probst were executed by guillotine. As unfeeling as it may sound, they were lucky. The July 20th conspirators, (the non-military individuals, who didn’t get the honor of a bullet to the head), suffered gruesome, drawn-out, painful deaths by hanging with piano wire, after having been given heart boosting meds to keep them going as long as possible. And, of course, being gassed was much worse as well.

“Here lie in their last resting place 4092 victims of National Socialist caprice.” No names, no reasons for their deaths. I think they, too, may have come here through the back door of the prison.
What looks like papers lying on the sidewalk is actually part of a monument to the Scholls and to The White Rose resistance group, one of their methods having been to leave anti-nazi leaflets lying around where there were crowds of students.
The work here combines images and biographical information about the members, as well as examples of their writing. It’s at the front of the Ludwig Maximilian University, Leopoldstrasse, Munich.
Walking back into the city center I literally walked over this before I realized that it too was a memorial embedded into the sidewalk. The figure is meant to remind one of a police body outline. The words above it read, in German, “Kurt Eisner, who on 8 November 1918 proclaimed the Bavarian Republic, later Prime Minister of the State of Bavaria, was murdered on this spot on 21 February 1919.” Eisner has been all but forgotten amid all the turmoil of the 20th century in Germany, but he was instrumental in pulling Bavaria out from under the monarchy by getting Ludwig III to sort of just leave without even officially abdicating. Depending on who you believe, Eisner’s murderer was either acting as a monarchist (being from an aristocratic family) or an anti-semite, himself Jewish but wishing to prove his nationalist loyalties. (He had been shut out of a pre-nazi group because of his mother’s ancestry.)
There is so much history just staring right at you, all over the city.

>Up In The Border Guard Tower

>On the way back from Freiberg, we took a detour off the Autobahn and went hunting for the old East-West border, which is now just a state line again. We knew there were still guard towers standing, we could see them in the distance from the highway. After a few miles of country roads and a a farm path or two, we found them.
Twenty one years of neglect had taken its toll on the towers, but it was clear that we weren’t the only ones to have come up here. Probably the local kids use it as a secret hangout. We were delighted to find them open and climbed up to the top floor.
Nice view up here. I keep telling the beau that this area reminds me of Pennsylvania.
In the photo above, you can see the next tower, center right on the horizon. (It has a satellite dish erected on the roof.) So the space between this tower and that one would have been part of the border, complete with barbed wire and death strip. Not a trace of it is left except for the towers, which are probably too much trouble to dismantle.

>”A Massacre… Would Have Been More Humane”

>ARD, Germany’s “first” national television station, aired an extraordinary documentary last night about the Armenian Genocide. It mixed rare photos and film footage with “clips” of “interviews” — using well-known German actors portraying contemporary witnesses, their lines from those witnesses’ actual reports. The figures included American diplomats and journalists abroad as well as Germans, Swiss, and other Europeans working in Turkey at the time. The actors, all delivering respectfully understated performances, give you the impression that you’re watching actually memories coming to the fore.
The details of the atrocities, culled from collections of reports in the German Archives, are overwhelming in their multitude. The western foreign representatives don’t come off very well either, the implication being that looking away in disapproval was no less than complicity (which is an old story, and probably a very human one, as these things — the crimes and the looking on — are still going on today, aren’t they?)
The documentary makes clear that the Nazis picked up a few things about extermination from the Turk’s actions, like putting deportees into cattle cars (and making them pay for their fares), inventing conspiracy plots in order to brand an entire people “traitors”, executing their own soldiers who did not show enough “mercilessness”, and sending their victims off to some unknown fate with vague words of “resettlement” (death marches into the Syrian steppes), making government seizure of “abandoned property” legal. Hitler’s own word’s, “Who speaks today of the Armenian extermination?”, makes it clear how easy they thought they’d have it, treating their own “undesirables” in the same way (and, later, much worse, when they realized that they could.)
The documentary also discusses how the German government assisted in the flight of the leaders responsible for the genocide, with Grand Vizier Mehmed Talat (Talat Pasha) ending up living comfortably in Berlin until his assassination in 1921. Buried in Berlin, his body was exhumed in 1943 and transferred, with full pomp and ceremony, to Istanbul.
Interestingly, the Turkish courts-martial of 1919-1920 brought death sentences (in absentia) for those responsible, specifically mentioning the Armenian deportations. The new question is why, today, so many Turks experience rage and indignation at the mere mention of the word “genocide”. It’s not universal, of course. After the murder of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink by a Turkish nationalist, over a hundred thousand people marched on Istanbul, carrying signs that read “We Are All Armenian”. Dink’s murderer was following the nationalist line, that even speaking of what happened then is an insult to Turkishness. It would be interesting to know how they got that far away from being able to look at things objectively.

>Filmschau: About Gretel Bergmann and Dora Ratjen

>I just saw a new German film the other day, “Berlin 36”. While the film itself was only so-so as far as how it was made (although acted and shot very well), the true story on which it’s based is actually more interesting that the cinematic version.
Gretel Bergmann was a young promising German track and field athlete when the Nazis came to power. Being Jewish, she was expelled from her athletic club in 1933, but was able to move to the UK and participate in the British Championships, winning in the high jump.
As the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics approached, Germany made some attempts at making themselves appear tolerant, and one such attempt was to blackmail Gretel (with threats made to the family) into coming back to join the German team as their Token Jew. She returned and trained, and even tied the German record at a regional meet right before the games. However, her score was deleted from the books and she failed to qualify for the Olympic team due to “underperformance”.
Now, this is where the story gets (even more) interesting: her replacement on the team, a young woman with whom she’d trained, was Dora Ratjen, who was actually male. Although the story is often portrayed as a Nazi scheme of putting a guy in a dress and sending him out to beat Gretel, the truth is more complicated and, as always, more tragic. Ratjen had been raised a girl but apparently was intersex of some form or another*, and her male characteristics began to show in puberty. She placed fourth at the Berlin Olympics and won the 1938 European Championships. However, in 1938 she was riding in a train when someone reported having seen a man in a dress to the police.
Ratjen came through the ordeal in the clear, but she gave up her athletic career and in 1939 was able to get reclassified as a male, and changed his name to Heinrich. (I cannot imagine this would have been easy to do in Nazi Germany, with their obsession with identity cards and all that. But he managed it.) He returned to Bremen, took over the family bar and never spoke to anyone ever again publicly about his past.
He died in 2008. Gretel Bergmann is 95 and living in New York.

* If you look up “intersexuality” on Wikipedia you can learn of the many different ways the human x and y chromosomes can get out of wack. It’s amazing that so many of us turn out normal.

>Have You Heard Of Herta Müller?

>Neither had I. She has been awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize for Literature.
More significantly, neither had the beau, who is knows a lot about European literature. Wikipedia, in its entry on Müller, says that prior to the award, Müller was little-known outside Germany and even there was known only among a minority of intellectuals and literary critics.
Her writings look like they would fit right in with the other books on my shelves, many of which deal with people trying to remain alive and human under communism, nazism, or any other repressive regime. I plan to pick up a copy of Atemschaukel (the English title, when it comes out, will be Everything I Possess I Carry With Me) pretty soon.
It’s also a welcome story within a larger topic which gets a lot of criticism just for being a topic — the post-war deportation of ethnic Germans from eastern European lands, force-marched either westward into Germany (those that made it alive were the lucky ones) or to Soviet gulags, as was the case with Müller’s own mother.
I am reminded of Gregor Himmelfarb, whose book about his post-war experiences shares similarities with Müller’s latest protagonist, Leo Auberg. Himmelfarb was born in the state of Mecklenburg, Germany, and grew up in the ethnic-German region Siebenbürgen, in Romania. When Germans in Romania were required to obtain Aryan identity cards, Himmelfarb learned for the first time that his Russian father was Jewish. Managing to survive the war, he then faced new difficulties for being the son of a factory-owning “exploitative capitalist”, and above all for being “German”. The Israeli immigration services weren’t much help, as they considered him “not Jewish” (he was finally able to emigrate in 1952.)
Every group of people is made up of individuals, all with their own stories. And, as Herta Müller shows, there are so many unheard stories out there worth learning.