Art is Not a Crowbar: the Lesson of 1933

From the old Celtic fortress, which became a Roman fortress and Imperial Seat at the great crossing of the Rhine, we look south across the city of Breisach.

This city on a rock in the river, with Germany at its back and France before it, does not remember World War II. It remembers broken men returning home, remembering their sacrificed friends, the stillness and comfort of death and a freedom that looks forward not back. Art is rather blunt and political here.

In the City Museum, 3500 years of history are portrayed, with the exception of 13 years, between 1933 and 1945. The city was the first in Europe to put itself behind an idea of a stateless Europe. Look at Helmut Lutz’s representation of the Goddess Europa (a kind of department store mannikin) riding the great bull of Minos like a surfboard, as it breaks out of the cobbled street. In a German context, a pile of bricks like this, well, that’s what the cities looked like in 1945. Women piled up the ruins and showed their men where to build them back up into houses. None of this mourning in graveyards, eh. Get on with it.

The German woman of today, however, might have a different take on it.

But, let’s not forget that in the City Museum, 3500 years of history are portrayed, with the exception of 13 years, between 1933 and 1945. In their place, there’s a window, eh, and you can look out on the street, and not just any street but the Langer Weg, the long road. As part of a government project to boost a broken economy and put men to work, it was cobbled in, as you can see, 1933, as a symbol of the Nazi’s favourite metaphor, the long road they had taken to power. In 1945, the swastika in the red circle was removed and so the circle became a null — a zero.

Well, one can hope so, but it’s not the only thing missing from the museum. The people of Breisach (and indeed all of Breisgau, this warm region in the Middle Rhine between the Black Forest and the Burgundy Gate) are a mix of Germans, French and Celtic peoples. It’s part of the Nazi’s long road to power that the museum consistently portrays the history of Breisach from a roman point of view, and the military and hierarchal tradition that descends from that, to a people who were conquered and dominated by those romans. It’s no different in my valley in Canada, the Okanagan, where rock and weedkiller are considered beauty (and worth a sizeable investment)…

… yet indigenous culture is considered “wild” or “weedy,” and many people won’t eat the berries, in fear that they are poisonous…

… and the planting of weeds and weedy trees is considered landscaping, even though the trees die before the houses are finished.

And nothing about the context in which all this takes place, either in Breisach or Vernon, British Columbia. It’s often said “History is written by the victors,” but, here’s the thing: that’s a one-way street to 1933. In that world, the Germans and the Celts honour roman art as a casual gesture, but, really, sit down under the German-Celtic trees and drink beer.

Well, not every day. This is the old city centre, where no one goes, because it is a museum of a country that is no more: West Germany. Europe is something else now. If it’s going to survive, it’s going to have to do what we’re learning in Canada today: to include the conquered as a vital part of its story. After all, conquered women are everyone’s mother here, and free ones the only ones living. Or we hope so.

Stupid statues rising out of Nazi bricks aside. The alternative is to be conquered again and to view history with continued bewilderment. Art is more than a political crowbar.


4 replies »

  1. The Roman point of view you mentionned recently took my attention – Europeans and their overseas descendants, why are “we” educated since the early school years to accept civilisation by war and imperialism by this implanted feeling to be on the right side? Most of the today people are definitely not, wherever the live in the world, they are the descendents of the overwhelmed by the “roman way”.


    • Yes, it’s bizarre, isn’t it. What struck me in Breisach so profoundly was that here was a population consisting of Celtic, German and Roman traditions and genes, and yet only the one story was considered worth telling. It’s that missing 2/3rds that is so important, just as in the history of 21st century literature, the missing 80% of 20th century literature is a ghost, in the face of which 2oth century literature is an illusion. I hate it when bad information leads to bad interpretation and bad decision making. I want the children to thrive. Right now, there is so much fear. I suggest that the fear is caused by the ignorance.


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