Dear King of Holland

Last year I translated The Nights of Tino of Baghdad by Else Lasker-Schüler. One thing I have come to recognise about labours of love – a category to which this project certainly belongs – is that they never really end. You can engage intensively with the life and/or work of a particular figure for a book or article, but the publication date is often just one marker in what proves to be an ongoing relationship. After I translated her fragmented tales of Semitic mysticism, and researched her life, Lasker-Schüler has retained lodgings in my mind. In March I posted about her appearance at the Bauhaus in Weimar 100 years prior, and more recently for the Rixdorf Editions blog I translated a film treatment that Lasker-Schüler contributed to a visionary pre-World War One project.

As it turns out, Lasker-Schüler also book-ended my lockdown period. In February, the last exhibition I saw before Germany largely closed for business was Else Lasker-Schüler, “Prince Jussuf von Theben” and the Avant-Garde in Wuppertal, the industrial Rhineland city where she was born in 1869. Having dwelt so intensively in her life, to be among the artefacts of her existence – the first editions, the drawings, the letters, the journals, the ephemera – was a thrilling, almost overwhelming experience.

And now here I am at my first post-lockdown exhibition – “Planet Motzstraße”, which also takes Lasker-Schüler as its subject. Frankly I’m excited, if a little wary, just to spend time in a building that doesn’t sell groceries. It turns out distancing isn’t going to be a problem – there are only two other people here, and this on the first Sunday of the exhibition run. Not great for the museum, but a fact that I, asthmatic and pneumonia-prone, appreciate (naturally I’m wearing a mask because I’m a grown-ass adult).

The venue is Max Liebermann Haus, which in 2016 hosted an impressive and immersive account of publisher, patron and diarist Harry Graf Kessler. The show I am here to see now is much smaller, the low-key presentation more suggestive of a Wedding loft space than a prestigious institution at the very heart of the city, right up against the Brandenburg Gate.

It is a location that would certainly be familiar to Lasker-Schüler; during the First World War she first exhibited her graphic works in a gallery in the building on this site that was destroyed in the Second World War. Over a hundred years later, this new show was inspired by the discovery of a cache of correspondence in Lasker-Schüler’s hand, which turned up earlier this year at an antiquarian trade fair in Stuttgart. As with the Kessler show, the challenge is to take resolutely two-dimensional forms with low visual impact (diaries in Kessler’s case, here letters and postcards) and make them three dimensional, experiential.

The enormous corpus of Lasker-Schüler’s correspondence already fills a number of volumes, recording her exchanges with the likes of Erika Mann, Gottfried Benn, Erich Maria Remarque, Franz Marc and Karl Kraus. Here the recipient (no return mail is recorded) was someone far more obscure: Nicolaas Johannes Beversen, a girls’ school principal and literary critic in the Netherlands who had reviewed Lasker-Schüler favourably in Dutch newspapers. The 15 letters and 49 postcards cover the period 1905-1930, the peak of her creative powers.

Most of these missives were sent from Lasker-Schüler’s Berlin base, a hotel on Motzstraße in Schöneberg (hence the title of the exhibition), and much of the correspondence has gone by before the two even meet. Lasker-Schüler complains about her publishers, mentions a visit to “antisemitic Munich” and presents the facts of her life with telegraphic (or electronic) concision – “my husband I was a doctor my husband II is a musician and is a much better match for me”, in reference to physician Berthold Lasker and critic and composer Herwarth Walden. We witness a growing intimacy between the correspondents, and Beversen evidently provides the perennially penniless writer with material assistance. With her recurring habit of casting associates as characters in an ongoing performance that played in her mind, Lasker-Schüler refers to Beversen as the “King of Holland”, and often signs off as “Tino” or “Jussuf”. At one point she grows curious about her unseen pen pal, suggesting – more presentiments of electronic communication – that they exchange photos.

Some of the originals are displayed in vitrines, but all are visible in facsimile, hanging from the ceiling. To bring them to life the curators have added a QR code for visitors to access a reading of the text of each letter or postcard. At first this is disappointing – surely the reason you venture out into the fraught, infectious world and enter a museum is so that, for once, you don’t have to experience the vastness of existence through the banal prism of a phone. But it also creates a compelling intimacy; hearing Lasker-Schüler mentioning the sexually transgressive writer and cabaret artiste Dolorosa, someone loitering at the edge of my awareness for some time now, I felt as though a good friend were sharing longed-for news of a mutual acquaintance.

The objects themselves offer so much more than the literal meaning of the text (otherwise you really could just experience them by phone). There is the expressive handwriting, the Expressionistic self-portraits and other graphic elements the writer includes. And there are the wider stories; as hyperinflation takes hold in the early 1920s, the message is reduced to a minimum with the writing surface monopolised by increasing numbers of postage stamps, their face value now in the millions. But there is more to learn here.

Downstairs is an exhibition covering the life of Jewish-German artist Max Liebermann, who owned the original building on this site and, much to the displeasure of Kaiser Wilhelm II – who always took an invasive interest in his subjects’ cultural activities – built a studio with extensive skylights on its roof. A banner here preserves one of Liebermann’s most famous statements in its original Berlin dialect – Ick kann janich so viel fressen, wie ick kotzen möchte (I can’t eat as much as I want to puke), his response to seeing the Nazis march through the adjacent Brandenburg Gate with flaming torches as they took power in 1933. Liebermann, forced from his official positions, died in 1935; his wife Martha committed suicide in 1943 before she could be transported to Theresienstadt. There is still more to learn here.

Now, I’m wary of heavy-handed warnings from history; they can quickly turn self-righteous, fatalistic, value-signalling, kitschy, vapid. Op-ed columns are full of late Weimar conditions, Reichstag fire warnings. They are fired by a high-brow version of the sentiment that drives a lot of tourism to this part of Berlin (or drove – we ain’t outta the woods yet). Come and join a Segway tour and feel a frisson as you pass the site of Hitler’s bunker on your way to pulling a sadz selfie at the Holocaust Memorial. But sometimes the parallels are just too crass and copious to ignore.

So let me take you back and tell you what I see as I stand here in the Max Liebermann exhibition obeying a sign on the floor warning me to keep 1.5 metres from other patrons, of whom there are none. To the right of the banner bearing Liebermann’s emetic pronouncement, a window looks out onto the columns of the western front of the Brandenburg Gate. I see a loud group a few hundred strong, mostly men, mostly middle-aged, all – as far as I can see – white. Some carry the flag of the German Empire (which you know they only carry because the other red-white-and-black flag is illegal). There are American flags and the occasional Russian flag as well, and their love notes to Putin are chalked in front of the Russian Embassy just down Unter den Linden.

This is the hard core returning after the previous day’s major outbreak of viral stupidity, a demonstration against the government’s anti-corona measures (which these days basically amount to wearing a mask when indoors with strangers and not going to the football, an approach that has proved largely successful and which 90 percent of the German population believe is appropriate or, indeed, not strict enough). Sworn enemies of “snowflakes”, these are the people who whine like toddlers when asked to do the bare fucking minimum to save lives, including their own. On the day of the march, elsewhere in Germany the Health Minister was spat at and subjected to homophobic abuse. Antisemitic dog whistles have become open slander. Poisonous anti-migrant, anti-refugee polemic is all too common.

Strange alliances are at work, with what the German press generously refer to as Esoteriker finding common ground with the far right. One of the most notorious agitators over the summer, whose statements are littered with the most bizarre and offensive of antisemitic conspiracy theories, is (or was) a celebrity vegan chef; a failed run on the Bundestag was triggered by an unlicensed naturopath with dreadlocks. But why did they even bother? Their ideological sympathisers, the Alternative für Deutschland, could have just propped the door open from inside. And their fellow travellers have far more than vile words in their armoury. Although it gets little play outside of Germany, and not nearly enough within, the country has been subject to waves of far-right terror since reunification which make the Baader-Meinhof actions of the 1970s look like a church picnic. And not infrequently with the strategic ignorance of law enforcement authorities.

What has this got to do with an exhibition about Else Lasker-Schüler? Everything. Lasker-Schüler was beaten up in the street by far-right thugs even before 1933, and forced into exile once their overlords made it into power. And now they’re back – in the streets, in the legislatures. The AfD have seats in the Bundestag and each of the 16 state parliaments, and as well as finding a forum for their hateful anti-immigrant, climate change-denying rhetoric, they have insinuated themselves onto numerous committees with the aim of “Germanifying” culture. While they’re declining in polls (and if this were a more comprehensive political snapshot of the nation it would also cover the huge rise in support for the Greens), the AfD is not going away in a hurry.

Now, I spend a lot of time thinking about the past, but like you I live in the present. I know what I saw. Max Liebermann, Martha Liebermann and Else Lasker-Schüler would have recognised it. That fascists feel emboldened to gather once more at the Brandenburg Gate … the sheer shaming, fucking disgrace of it all – it’s enough to make you puke.

3 comments

  1. I feel your pain regarding the stupid alliance between the fringes and the right-wing nuts. Great post.

  2. My dear James I suspect we are all feeling the burn of rising fascism. We have more than the California fires to contend with—our own wanna be Hitler and trying to end a 4 year nightmare.
    As usual your post is cogent and timely but generations whatever’s are ahistorical and so we suffer our own Shitler and hope for good results in November. But his stormtroopers are armed and vowing to let loose if Trumptraitor is not declared the winner.

  3. James, excellent piece. Thank you. I understand completely about letting out lodgings in the mind after the translation is finished! I want to read your book. I agree fully ability the problem of QR codes that force phones into the museum experience. Please keep wearing your mask and stay healthy!

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