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Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Consider The Nazi

Indeed, consider him. It's usually a him. No, not the efficient cog in the late 1930s horror machine based in Germany, I mean the essentially powerless portly fellow with the swastika tattoo and the bizarre opinions about Jews.

He holds some odious opinions. Opinions which, even in this post-God postmodern era without those firm nails of divine judgement and moral certainty upon which to hang my rhetoric, I could argue cogently are evil, wrong, opinions. Let us anyways stipulate that Nazi-ism is not merely stupid but objectively wrong.

Still, the Nazi is a human being and as such agrees with me on many points. Do we want a warm place to sleep tonight? Yes. Enough to eat? Assuredly. Do we want the same for our friends and loved ones? Of course. Do we like fried foods? Probably. Beer? Likely. And on and on. The Nazi is a fully three-dimensional human, and in the same way we share DNA with our hairy cousins the apes, he and I (and by implication, he and you) share an immense amount of stuff. Banal, human, stuff.

Being human, the Nazi has within him the capacity for change and could, at least hypothetically, alter his (again, thoroughly odious) opinion on Jews some day.

I do not intend to apologize for his odious beliefs, nor to rationalize them. They are odious. But he, he is human.

Let us now examine Jörg Colberg's most recent review. I don't have the book, I don't know what the book really says, I have no opinion. I have perused the publisher's advert, which you can as well. So, what I know, is Jörg's position on the book, and also the way the publisher is pitching the book.

Now, Colberg's discussion is something to behold. While there's a little more to it, he casts this book as a Lovecraftian story about Small Town Germany, referring more than once to a sort of hidden underlying horror and dread that characterizes, if not actual small towns, at any rate the Mahler's vision of small towns. Small towns which, according to the thumbnail bio Colberg offers us in this piece, he appears to have precisely no experience with.

Having lived in some small towns in America, I can report that I at any rate never actually was aware of any such lurking horrors. But perhaps Germany has a Cthulu or a Shub-Niggurath slumbering under every town with a population in the range of 5,000 to 20,000 souls. I confess myself doubtful.

The publisher's pitch provides us with an unrelentingly depressing series of pictures which, to my eye, do not support Colberg's hidden horrors, but do support the idea of the young people as a kind of freak show. I do not see how to read the picture of the two girls with their clutches as anything other than pathetic, as rubes out of place in their home, but equally doomed to be out of place anywhere their cute clutch purses would fit in.

Not that anyone who's in these pictures is likely to read Colberg's review, or to flip through the publisher's slide show. A few might see the book, which might itself support or not the ideas that appear on the web. It's possible that they would be distracted by the pictures of themselves enough to not notice, even if the book does indeed expound these self-same themes.

I do not see any way to understand Colberg's remarks, or the publisher's position of this book, in a way that is particularly flattering to the people in the book. There is, probably, some truth in the book. But it is not a full truth. There are almost no circumstances in which people do not, from time to time, laugh. Surely small town Germany has more hope and more joy in it than we are led to believe? Surely these small town rubes are fully three dimensional human beings, rather more like us than different from us?

Colberg's review of the book, and the publisher's pitch on the book, both characterize this book as one which fundamentally declines to offer up its subjects as fully human. I am inclined to suspect that the book does, in fact, offer us up caricatures, a litany of two-dimensional (or less) freaks and rubes. It's certainly the chic thing to do. If you want a book deal, you'd better pin all your pictures to the wall, and throw out all the ones with someone smiling.

While there is more to it than simply this, Colberg and the publisher (and maybe the Mahlers as well) are offering up the rural and small town people of Germany yet another tiny insult, another in an endless barrage of small cuts offered by the self-styled urban sophisticates to those who have not been able to "escape" from the "lurking horror" of not being a cool Berliner in cool Berliner clothing drinking cool Berliner cocktails in a cool Berlin club playing very loud, but cool, Berliner music.

Is it any wonder, really, that when the jovial fellow from Alternative für Deutschland turns up with his brochure full of horrendous ideas, there these people look at the brochure with some interest?

"The Jews, you say? What's exactly is a Jew, anyways?"


  1. Having photographed lots of small towns (and currently living and raising kids in one) it's usually the case that their strength is the thing that these photographers are framing as the lurking evil undercurrent. Probably pissed they couldn't get a vegan latte or something.

    1. It is impossible, I think, unless one is a sociopath, to spend enough time in a small town to MAKE these photographs without coming to understand that the people there are indeed people. Often kind, generous, people. Sometimes venal and stupid, but no moreso than elsewhere, and so on.

      So, I think it requires an effort of will to put together a book like this, one must actively seek to put together what one knows to be a lie, or at any rate a truth so partial as to be close to a lie.

      Why would anyone do this?

      Well, certainly the MFA crowd favors the dead-eyed 1000 yard stare, and it's certainly what... well, I hesitate to say it sells, because nobody buys this shit. It gets printed in small elite editions, and lauded by self-styled elite people and maybe gets you into the chic galleries and collections? I don't know.

      Anyways, the Mahlers cannot possibly, to my mind, be so blind as to actually imagine that their book is a genuine telling of the situation. They are making Art designed to be approved of by the likes of Herr Colberg.

      Unless, I suppose, I am horribly mistaken about either Germany, the book, or both.

  2. Small towns everywhere seem to evoke fear'n'loathing in metropolitan types: for the rest of us, they're just the place where you grew up and (if your vision extended that far, and if you could) fled at the first opportunity.

    That said, you're absolutely right about the political consequences of those in the Westminster / Washington / Berlin / Paris bubbles averting their eyes: Trump, Brexit, "gilets jaunes", etc. That Wittgenstein thing about "if a lion could speak we could not understand him"? That's how it is between the political class and "the people"... The people speak, but the politicos can neither hear nor understand. Result: anger and resentment. Mix with politically-imposed limited hopes and horizons... Result: explosive.

    I hope Herr Rink will have something more apposite to say about Kleinstädte. There's an interesting comparison to be made between this work and that classic of the photo-book genre, Michael Schmidt's "Waffenruhe" from 1987.


  3. I am not who you think I am. I am not who I think I am. I am who I think you think I am. Or something like that.

  4. The words "nazi" and "jew" appear nowhere in Colberg's review. The images in the book appear to be banal and innocuous. Whachoo smokin'?

    1. That is correct. Neither do they appear in the publisher's web page for the book. I have made the connection from Art World Would Be Elites to the rise of populist authoritarian movements myself.

      Drawing that connection is precisely the point of my remarks here.

    2. The writer was just constructing a 3 dimensional character out of a 2 dimensional cliche that everyone understands. Something that the photographers didn't do because muh serious photo book.

  5. I dunno. Just another boring photobook ostensibly about the exodus of young people from small towns which are dying out, no jobs, no future.

    The pics don't really say any of that per se, and could as well have been shot around where I live, which is part of a large, North American city.

    Know what's sad? Not small towns, it's the soul-crushing homogeneity of western culture.

  6. Love it, stirring up the hornet’s nest.
    It is a German book, full of Romanticism, Weltschmerz and the loss of Heimat.
    How the complicated concept behind „Heimat“ could not make it into the English language does not really surprise me.
    But „Kleinstadt“ and even more so „Kleinstädter“ (so someone living in a Kleinstadt) equals being „Sub“, not necessary subhuman, but different in a negative way.
    You may actual make it into something bigger, Berlin, Rio, Tokio and still remain a Kleinstädter. In this way Kleinstadt stands for failure. And „Schande“ (shame).
    AS a German you are supposed to feel that inherited „Schande“. That inherited guilt deluxe that only Germans can have and every German has to have.
    Otherwise he would be a „Nazi“. This is why Merkel-Germany is so fundamentalist pro-immigration (paying off the guilt) and why the Nazis are Nazis even without having stupid ideas about Jews.

    Germans feel that they have to earn the right to laugh and the right to live. They earn this by paying off the guilt (see above) or they remain what they fear to be: Kleinstädter. Or Nazis.

    I am allowed to say that. Because I am German. But before that I am human. And it is only as a human being that I may have some better feelings.

    1. I am not sure if I have this right.

      Do you suggest that the book, and the related material I mentioned, is maybe "truer" than I believe it to be? That it reflects a fundamentally German kind of despair, that is more true and more completely a description of these people and their lives than I imagine?

      It looks a lot like plenty of work we see about America, where it is NOT true, but I am not a German, and am merely guessing when I extrapolate to German culture.

    2. Now this is getting a bit complicated. Because I have only seen the couple of photos following your links. But, and this is quite a big BUT, the title contains more than you would expect reading Colberg’s review.
      And this „more“ we might call, as you did, „German despair“. That is not only caused by the terrors of the Nazi regime but is also part of the German forlornness that found expression in the „dark“ German Romanticism.
      In my understanding the above „German despair“ might be seen as a special form of 1000-yards-staring and need for a general joylessness. Anything else would be „banal“. And the easiest way for not dealing with the life behind the despair (that eventually leads to a human dimension) is following an established role-model or a „school“. In this way the photos (the few I have seen) are quite banal and could have been made anywhere in the world. Yet the title is „profound“ and multilevel.
      The question then is: what is a title? Can it be seen as a „key“ to the understanding of a presentation of pictures? Can a weak photo be saved by a title? Do not know. Do not really care. But quite enjoyed your post (and its title).

  7. I disagree that there is a "wrong opinion". It is your opinion, there is no right or wrong to it. It may well be stupid, odious, evil, asinine, ill considered or any manner of foolishness - but as the opinion of the person who has it - it is not "wrong". They may well be "wrong" in expressing it publicly and/or openly, but their opinion is their opinion and not wrong, nor right.

    1. While that may be true, I wrote "let us anyways stipulate that..." deliberately to indicated that the absolute or relative truth of this was nothing I wanted to argue here, not was it particularly of relevance to the things I actually wanted to say.

      That said, I think I could probably do a decent job of making that case that, in practical terms, these ideas are Just Wrong. We'll never know, though!

  8. Hello, this is Herr Rink speaking. While I do not own the book, I've seen some of the pictures and read an accompanying interview with Mrs and Mr Mahler in the German news magazine "Die Zeit". As I got them, the work was about the tension between the social life in these small towns and the exodus into the big cities. The latter is a big problem here in Germany, as it leaves small towns and villages with a decaying infrastructure and an overaged population. For instance, even though we have a shortage on housing here, in many small towns houses have depreciated so much that heirs of houses refuse their inheritance. Demolishing and disposing costs more than their actual value, so they fall into ruins.
    While we certainly have a problem with neo-nazism here, showcasing this is not an objective of the discussed work.
    Final remarl: The Mahlers do not belong to the MFA crowd, since they were already photographers in the former GDR (communist east Germany). They were founding members of the Ostkreuz photo agency, which hosts many photographers from the former GDR.

    Best, Thomas

    1. Thank you, Thomas!

      When I see this kind of work about the USA, I recognize it as a carefully edited and fundamentally untrue telling. Alec Soth is making a fictional, and unflattering, picture of the USA.

      I don't know how it is in Germany, a previous commenter seemed to be implying there is more truth in the Mahler's telling than is obvious.

      Similar pictures, different country? I am willing to believe that it reads quite differently in Germany.

      But anyways, neither Soth nor the Mahler's are trying address the rise in populist authoritarianism. I think that the former is, in a very small way, *contributing* to it, and I am unsure now about the Mahlers.

  9. Hi Andrew, I live about 5 km from where Ute Mahler has a professorship. If you have some specific questions I can try and go and ask them.

    1. I have to say, that is a somewhat alarming offer!

      I think if I had one question to put, it might be:

      "This book appears to portray the people of these small towns to be ignorant, weak, and almost freakish. Do you think that it does?"

    2. Also: "When did you stop beating your wife?"

  10. It's not easy to present a town in any thorough way in photographs. I have one "personal" book I made on Blurb, 70 pages of Duluth, MN photos, and you might easily get the impression that there are hardly any people here, and those that are here, are usually seen in the distance, small figures among the buildings, in our city of 85,000. I'd be wary of any book presenting a city of 75,000 people as an accurate sort of profile without maybe a couple thousand pages and plenty of text. But you can get hints of the city in shorter forms, and you have to see if you trust it after fully reading it. I have a book I just found used called Visions of China, 1957-1980, by Marc Rimboud. Gorgeous photography. Quite interesting. Absolutely a tiny, tiny slice of an enormous country. It's probably less about understanding China, than understanding Rimboud in China.

    1. It seems to me there are a few things one can do.

      You can try for a sort of holistic/impressionist rendering of the town. While even a small town to "too big" to really nail down in anything less than a monumental work, you might be able to sort of skim the surface and show the breadth of the thing.

      Alternatively, one can select some facet of the town, and dig more deeply into that. An industry, a subculture, the architecture, wintertime, whatever.

      Implicit in both, though, is a sort of idea of truth. Whatever it is you show is not the whole thing, but t is ideally, more or less, consistent with the whole thing. Someone who does grasp the town fully would recognize your work as a piece of it, as a truthful but incomplete telling.

      Finally, you can throw that to the dogs, and just do something untruthful, something that perhaps appears to be one or the other of the things above, or something completely other, but which in any case nobody FROM the town would recognize particularly.

      My question, really, is which the Mahler's book is.

      I do know that much of the work we see in America is the third kind. While it might be a truthful telling of the MFA student's reaction TO the place, TO the people, the people themselves would recognize no part of it as themselves, as their lives, as their circumstances.

      Well, not much, anyways. There's always "well, yes, we're poor" but not much past that.

  11. Just some random thoughts from another German guy:
    One commenter already used the word "joylessness", and that is exactly what you can find in a lot of small towns in Germany. Of course not all people living there are like this, but you can find a lot of genuinely unhappy guys.
    I did a lot of hiking in some parts of the world, and in my expirience there is a big big difference between small towns in Germany and the US. I had some not so nice encounters in my home country Germany and from these pictures in the book I do recognize a feeling of being in a small town with narrow minded people... Living in Germany is so different than living in the US, I think, Germany is such a small country, so people think smaller... and the houses are often a lot closer to each other than in the US, maybe living in a "narrow" environment leads to narrow minds... I never had that feeling in small towns in the US, neither in the south nor in the north.
    Does that make sense?
    Does it show up in the photographs? Maybe in the picture of the bus stop...
    So maybe it is a cultural thing, maybe you guys from the US cannot fully understand what small town Germany feels like... it is different from small town USA.

    1. Small towns in the USA can be incredibly narrow as well ;) And, by all accounts, the people in them can often be just as terrible as that narrowness would suggest.

      But sometimes these self-same people reveal remarkable breadth, humor, compassion. They might hate black people, but to downtrodden whites (or sometimes, incomprehensibly, to black people) they behave as decent, generous, open-hearted people.

      And, often, the people are simply not as narrow and bigoted and stupid as one might imagine, sometimes they turn out to be pretty much like me, albeit not quite as handsome.

      Perhaps Germany has managed to produce a more resolutely narrowminded bigot, with less in the way of unrevealed depths. I have to admit that I would be suspicious of such a claim, though, since it's exactly the kind of thing those cool Berliners with their cool cocktails WOULD say ;)

    2. I knew you would say all that. And you are right. I could tell you a lot of those stories about people in the US. But I am no Berliner and Germany has produced different narrowminds than the US. Germany is small and narrow compared to the US. Germany has so much more rules and regulations. Germany has traditions that date back to the stone age, while the culture of the US is mostly based on immigrants who came just a couple of generations ago. (Ok, some came from Germany, but those were open to something new and took risks while the others stayed home.) And then our Nazi history, of course. And lots of other stuff.
      Well, you are right about humans being humans. But I think the mindset is different because of the environment we live in. I am still trying to escape the German small town mindset after so many years...
      And the pictures: maybe I am not a fair judge, because they remind me of this narrow minded people and their joylessness. So that is what the pictures achieve...

    3. I am perfectly willing to imagine that 1000+ years of tradition produces a human being that is in many ways completely incomprehensible to me. I have no referents here, not even close.

      Maybe Kleinstadt hits the mark exactly, in which case "Aig, how terrible" I suppose?

      It seems almost as if you feel Jörg's "lurking horror"?

    4. Thinking about it, Mark might have a point here. I've never been to the US, but my parents spent a couple of vacations there. My father told me that 1. the people there were the friendliest he met in any country (and he's seen a lot of the world on his business trips); and 2., the vastness of the land gave him a feeling of freedom that he's never experienced anywhere else. So indeed there appears to be a big difference between Germany and the US.
      Speaking of these creepy stone-faced folk one sometimes encounters in Germany, who radiate an aura of frustration: Yes, of course I know them. But they are not particular to small towns, and I do not think they are typical of our country.

      Best, Thomas

    5. Yes I feel it. And always keep in mind the line from Paul Celan's poem about the Holocaust: "Death is a master from Germany". This is the world after Auschwitz, and our grandparents lived here when it happend.
      Most of Germany is different now, it has changed a lot, but in some places something is still lurking.

  12. Just one more comment about nazis in small towns. A couple of years ago, I had to go on a business trip to a customer site in Schwarzenberg/Aue, Erzgebirge, near the Czech border. Until 1989, this was GDR territory. Well, the city looked somewhat run-down; in the communist economy, it was hard to obtain goods like wall paint and stucco, and even nowadays it is not exactly a wealthy part of Germany.
    Anyway, we had to drop off our rental car at a local gas station, and while my colleague handed over the keys and did the paperwork, I took a look around. And on a parking lot right behind the gas station, there they were: Your stereotypical gang of skinheads. Massive guys in Doc Marten's boots, muscle shirts, heads shaven, gathering around an old BMW. It scared the hell out of me!
    On the other hand, we found the "regular" local folk helpful, friendly and polite on a level which you won't find in western Germany.

    Best, Thomas

    1. Hello from Saxony, Erzgebirge. I've been leaving here for nearly 3 years. Nazis are still there, but thankfully the huge majority of Saxonian citizens is not. :-)

  13. I just want to add that the sentiment, 'Nazis are human too' is a very dangerous one, for it is exactly what Nazis want -- to be accepted as 'normal'. But the Nazi philosophy and history are so far outside the norm, that they are effectively inhuman monsters. Perhaps there are people, human beings, who are so unhappy with their lot, they feel it is better to be a monster. This is not something we are obligated to just accept or sympathize with. Post-war Germany understood this, and passed very strict laws about it.

    Very clearly, the Mahlers' book is not about Nazis and what drives them, nor is it casting a small town as some hellgate of lurking evil. That premise is a simply a bizarre projection that says a great deal more about its inventor than the book, the photos, or small towns. Teens will be teens, full stop.

    1. In general I reject arguments of the form "A leads to B, which is bad, therefore A is bad" but I take your point. It *is* important to be attentive to that point in history when the harmless albeit awful bigot down the street turns into an organized party that is getting seats in the Bundestag. At that point (i.e. now) things are starting to go pear-shaped and we should do something about it.

      Which is precisely what I am, in my tiny way, trying to do here.

      Again, the Mahlers clearly have no agenda about the AfD here, they're distinctly not talking about Nazis. I have been explicit that *I* am drawing that line. The hellgate of lurking evil is Colberg's idea, not mine (and, apparently, there is at least one resident of Germany who thinks Colberg has it right.)

      Your last paragraph strikes me, therefore, as a bit of a non sequitur.

      My thesis is that Art of this sort is part of a larger more-or-less neoliberal trend which leads in a fairly straight line to the AfD winning seats.

      Clearly, not everyone sees is that way, and that is perfectly OK, and I am very much enjoying the conversations.

  14. I grew up in small town USA until the last 15 years. What are you smokin'? I am Jewish (yes there are small town Jews). I had a great upbringing. Now in a big urban area, full of educated, elite, judgmental folks like you. Much more Antisemitism here by far. Call it what you want but you have it backwards.

    1. I don't quite understand your point, but I think you may have misunderstood my remarks. I am accusing nobody of antisemitism, or of being a nazi.