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1989 – 25 years later. Cathérine Hug interviews Robert Menasse (I part)

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In 2009, an exhibition on the Iron Curtain was held at the Kunsthalle Wien, in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall; 35 well-known artists from both East and West took part, including Chantal Akerman, Johan Grimonprez, Anna Jermolaewa, Marcel Odenbach, Ewa Partum and Neo Rauch. The exhibition, curated by Cathérine Hug and Gerald Matt, not only tried to depict an event through art, it also tried to detect pictorial worlds that could subconsciously and critically reflect and capture these intense, hopeful atmospheres.


It was a completely interdisciplinary exhibition, with a number of lectures and discussions taking place simultaneously, for example with the artists Erik Bulatov and Ilya & Emilia Kabakov, as well as Barbara Kruger, with the psychologist Hans-Joachim Maaz, the writer Bora Ćosić, the priest Helmut Schüller, the philosopher Boris Buden, the Slavist Svetlana Boym, the politicians Alexander van der Bellen and Ursula Pasterk, and the economist Rainer Münz, to name but a few. The following conversation with Robert Menasse in Vienna and Zurich at the end of March 2014 took place in this context and against the backdrop of the topicality of European issues. Menasse is a poet and novelist living in Vienna, whose work deals intensely and recurrently with European topics and their complex genealogy. He has been awarded the Heinrich Mann Award (Berlin 2013) and the Max Frisch Award (Zurich 2014) for his work.

Catherine Hug (CH): 25 years ago, on 27th July 1989, the former Austrian Foreign Minister Alois Mock, together with his Hungarian college Gyula Horn, cut a hole into the border fence between Austria and Hungary. How do you remember this?

Robert Menasse (RM): History was faked at the Austrian-Hungarian border on 27th July 1989; it was done for a good reason, namely the hope that this falsification would develop its own momentum and actually become steeped in history. The dismantling of the monitoring systems and borders had actually begun much earlier, at the end of February and the beginning of March, if I remember rightly, so almost three months earlier.

Obviously, this did not yet represent the true fall of the Iron Curtain, it was just a symbolical act by the Hungarian government, in accordance with Gorbachev’s policy of détente. The border systems were indeed reduced, but the borders were still guarded by soldiers. On 27th June, the image that turned this symbol into a historical fact was deliberately produced. This was a combination of Pop Art and political voodoo. The political stakeholders involved were aware that this had to be included in future history books and that it had to become history. They succeeded in this. It became an iconic photo in the history of 20th century press-photography. However, if you look at it carefully, you can see that it is a fake: the border systems no longer existed, so it was arranged to make it look real, but it looks more like a wire mesh fence on an allotment. And look here: Horn is cutting something that looks like a white ribbon. Well, the Iron Curtain was certainly not secured with white ribbons. A journalist later told me that the picture was taken many times and repeated until the counselors, press and politicians were satisfied with it, so it really was an artistic shot. In fact, it is surprising that they didn’t do it in a studio. I later processed this journalist’s stories in my book Schubumkehr (Reverse Thrust).

If I remember rightly, the immediate impact of the picture was not huge, either. As far as I know, it was not published on the front page of any newspaper, which it certainly would have been if what the picture meant to portray had been true. But the picture had a gradual effect, especially on the minds of the people of the GDR. And so the photo was subsequently overtaken by its message, firstly, on 19th August 1989, during the mass exodus of GDR citizens over the Austrian-Hungarian border near Sopron. That truly was a historic day! I have a much clearer memory of that. Nothing was staged or acted, the cameras were just pointing at what was happening and I was sitting in front of the TV, stunned, I was totally fascinated. In reality, the border had not been opened, it was only open symbolically. But hundreds of GDR citizens just crossed it, as if it had actually fallen. The officer on duty on the border that day, Arpad Bella, had received orders to open fire, however he gave orders not to shoot and to simply ignore the refugees. This soldier could have caused a bloodbath, in fact he had been required to do so! And he could later have used the excuse of “orders from above”. But he did not do it. He was a hero. But nobody could have known that at the time, nobody could have anticipated that, completely by chance, a hero of humanity was on duty that day. And here you see what an important role the human factor plays in this story! I later visited and interviewed Arpad Bella. He told me that he returned home late in the evening and his wife slapped him, screaming and crying. She had seen the scenes on TV and had heard that he was guilty of insubordination. She was beside herself with fear; afraid that he would go to jail and she would be left alone with the kids.

Anyhow, the hole in the fence really began to exist at that moment, the hole that Alois Mock and Gyula Horn had created for a photo. As I said, it was fascinating, it was touching, but… how can I describe it?

CH: But…?

RM: It might sound strange, but it was still unreal. In terms of the meaning that this event should have had, and indeed gained later. This was still not the fall of the Iron Curtain; even then, nobody could imagine that it would actually fall. There was a hole in the Iron Curtain, yes, but a hole can be fixed, and even if it was not closed, it was still unimaginable that the power and might of the Eastern Bloc could leak out of this little hole in the Hungarian border, the Berlin Wall could fall and the Soviet Union could collapse. The excitement, this unbelievably emotive feeling that I was witnessing a major event in world history, an epochal change, did not hit me until 9th November 1989, when the Berlin Wall opened. Then I consciously and comprehendingly experienced something that I had not expected to happen in my lifetime, as up to that moment, everything had seemed to be carved in stone for eternity; this was the great upheaval of history that turned everything upside-down.

CH: The shock waves even reached my school in Switzerland; on 10th November, our history teacher came into our class and gave us the day off, after announcing that it had been a historical night. The general euphoria was so great that during the 25th and 26th November 1989 referendum about the abolition of the army, 35.6% voted in favor. In the Canton of Jura, where I lived at that time, the initiative was actually accepted. This was interpreted as a clear sign that the policy of deterrence could no longer be effective and that it was gradually making way for other ideological viewpoints.

RM: Yes, gradually – but at the same time suddenly. At that time, everything happened simultaneously in slow-motion and ‘fast-motion’. It was no longer a process being steered pragmatically by the political elite; it was now a political meltdown, in which reality and possibility merged. There was no tracking of time, because a sense of time became a sense of history, and every second was equally historic. This has never really been looked back on and reappraised. Firstly, why did nobody see it coming, despite many indications and signals? On 8th November, anybody claiming that the Berlin Wall would fall, the Iron Curtain would disappear and the Soviet Union would implode would have been called a dreamer, a utopian or even a lunatic. Secondly, why did nobody back then even vaguely think it was possible to anticipate the impact that 9th November would have beyond the first moments, even though all of a sudden, everything seemed possible and all possibilities seemed to simultaneously become reality. The atmosphere suggested that this was the end of the era of crises and hostilities. Every citizen of the GDR, who suddenly could now go through the Brandenburg Gate, actually took these steps before the eyes of the global public, with the pathos of the astronaut Neil Armstrong, “…one giant leap for mankind!” But isn’t it strange that nobody anticipated where these steps would actually lead, i.e. to entirely new conflicts, world-policy crises and new wars with new stereotypical enemies and the dramatic growth of misery and poverty amongst the “winners”, i.e. Western societies? The prevailing sentiment was that everything would now be possible, but nobody really thought in terms of possibilities! And thirdly, why until today did nobody understand the most obvious, simplest and clearest message of this historical momentum?

CH: Which message do you mean?

RM: Let me take a trip down memory lane. I can remember, as clearly as if it were yesterday – that’s why it bewilders me so much -, that today there is a generation of grown-ups who were born after these events, and for whom the world has always been as it is today. However, I can remember sitting in front of the TV crying. I sobbed – out of affection, happiness and literally FELLOW feeling with this euphoria of liberation felt by all these people stumbling across the Berlin Wall, climbing over it, singing and dancing. Apart from the day my daughter was born, there is no day in my life I can remember that clearly. I instantly thought, this is the decisive, the defining experience of my lifetime, from today my life has a new system of bearings, from today everything will rearrange itself around this new point of reference and stand in relation to it. But today, we have to admit that this has not happened. Before November 1989, the political elites, the opinion leaders and the media had always been of the opinion that the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain were unalterable political realities, entities that could not be eliminated, one could only try to ease the situation and improve life for the people “over there”. From the Western point of view, the so-called arms race was merely a lever for easing the situation and, at the same time, a multi-billion dollar business. But nobody seriously believed that the Soviet Union would collapse. Maybe it had been said in political speeches, with that frivolous audacity that does not expect consequences, that the Berlin Wall had to fall. But from Monday to Friday, the division of the world was a self-evident and acknowledged precondition of all global political affairs, accepted as a political law of nature, one it was in no way possible to abolish. Just as we do business today with China, the Tiananmen Square murderers, while at home we gripe with rhetorical disgust about their human rights situation.

That’s a definition of political pragmatism: take the world the way it is, and call anyone who does not a dreamer! Then silence the dreamers by telling them that their dreams are lovely and we have the same dreams. But then make it plain that anyone who now believes they could make these dreams come true is a lunatic! That’s why everyone was so surprised; the pragmatists, because they had never believed that what they had sometimes claimed, for ideological reasons, would really happen; and the dreamers, too, because they had long ago stopped building their illusions on political pragmatists. This is a historical fact and it also explains the enormous emotional euphoria of that time. We could have drawn a permanent lesson from this! Namely, that what is understood and acknowledged as political pragmatism is petty-minded and blind and will someday be overrun by history. What then enthralled me so much was exactly that: I was experiencing the death of petty-minded, unimaginative pragmatism!

Now we can more boldly and freely ask how we want to organize our life politically and socially, how we can construct a humane and free world. But even though this was the end of the pragmatists, today they once again sit in control of the levers and switches, sweep through governments and institutions and produce a political zombie-world in which people become aggressive but have no perspective beyond what the weather forecast is. I cannot understand how people who experienced 1989 and created a situation in which the Iron Curtain could be torn down, now believe that it is pragmatically unthinkable to regulate the financial markets… For the generation which experienced 1989, the persistent lesson should be that history is feasible, more is possible than you think, so think more boldly from the beginning, don’t think anything is forever, tomorrow it could already be history, because everything that has a beginning in history also has to have an end! It is a strange punchline that after 1989, the ideology of the “end of history” became fashionable, with what however the exact opposite of the experience of 1989 was meant. The experience was, in fact, that everything has an end, even those things we once thought would last forever. However, out of this experience emerged the philosophical idea that now, nothing would come to an end.

CH: How do you understand that?

RM: I don’t know. Maybe because, in the final analysis, the experience of 1989 touches on a taboo; anyone who thinks this experience through to the end must, in the final analysis, be able to imagine that capitalism will also collapse, that the national democracies to which we are accustomed will reach their end, that the ideology of everlasting growth in a confined world will be buried in rubble, and so on. We cannot and must not think like this. The fall of the Iron Curtain was admittedly not foreseeable in this way, but it did not touch on a taboo. On the contrary, it confirmed an ideology. And ideologies are philosophically regarded, necessarily wrong awareness.

However, the consequences of that do indeed touch on a taboo. It is complicated. And at the same time it is ridiculous in the light of history; on the precondition that we consider ourselves to be thinking beings, pursue historical science, fetishize memories, raise monuments, celebrate historical anniversaries and so on, it is almost preposterously ridiculous. Isn’t it ridiculous to believe that from now on, only technologies and medicine will further develop, but not our political and social systems? Isn’t it ridiculous to believe, in all seriousness, that revolutions will only take place in the virtual world of informatics or genetic engineering, but not in political reality? And don’t the agitations of Taksim Square, the Tahrir or the Maidan prove that history is still moving forward, anything but turned to stone – even if the people who start the revolutions are still betrayed…



This is I part of the interview. 

>> Read the II part here.

>> Read the III part here.

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