Caught by the River

Shadows & Reflections: Paul Scraton

Paul Scraton | 8th December 2018

Shadows and Reflections: the annual collection of postings in which our contributors and friends look back on the events that’ve shaped the past twelve months. From Paul Scraton:

On an autumn day we travelled through Berlin to the district of Lichtenberg, where the railway tracks lead eventually to Russia and the tall tower blocks at far eastern edge of the city stand guard on the horizon. I’ve lived in the German capital for nearly seventeen years, and I’ve always found Lichtenberg a strange corner of the city. We used to have friends who lived there, who once invited me to dinner with the reassurance that the neighbourhood neo-Nazis would not be around because they were all in Dresden for their annual march on the anniversary of the bombing of the city. I did not know anything about Lichtenberg back then, and my friends’ reassurance was anything but.

I once wrote that it is what you know about a place that shapes your impression of it, and all I knew back then about the district was its reputation for harbouring skinheads and the fact that it was also where you would find the dour ensemble of prefabricated office blocks that once housed the headquarters of the East German Ministry for State Security, otherwise known as the Stasi. I walked through the complex on my way to watch a local league football match, beneath row after row of uniform windows, behind which bureaucrats had worked on the apparatus of oppression, spying on their fellow citizens, collecting their smell samples, developing the surveillance photos.

It is unfair to judge any place on a tiny bit of knowledge; in nearly two decades in the city I have never met a skinhead on Lichtenberg’s uneven pavements, and today the old Stasi headquarters are a place where visitors can reflect on the past while the files that were stored there remain accessible to all who were spied upon, so that they can know the truth about what happened in the German Democratic Republic. It is not only what we know that matters, especially about the past, but what we do about it.

We had travelled to Lichtenberg to visit the Zentralfriedhof Friedrichsfelde, originally opened as a cemetery for the poor, back when this was beyond Berlin’s city limits, and which later became the final resting place for many of the city’s revolutionaries. Just beyond the entrance stands the Memorial to the Socialists, a circular structure containing within it the graves of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, as well as socialists and other political prisoners who died at the hands of the Nazis, and members of the GDR elite who died before the final reckoning of the regime they helped create came to pass.

Die Toten mahnen uns.

These four words stand at the centre of the memorial: The dead remind us. But it is a conflicted place, remembering resistance fighters against National Socialism and the International Brigades who fought the fascists in Spain, as well as the men – and they were mostly men – who built the Berlin Wall and turned the Stasi, from its headquarters just a kilometre or so down the road, against their own people.

The dead do remind us and the stories to be found contained within a district, on a street corner or along the neat pathways of a cemetery still matter, however limited or conflicted they might be. We were not in Lichtenberg on that autumn day for the Memorial to the Socialists, but for another grave a few hundred metres away, beneath the mix of trees that were offering up a riot of seasonal colour as a gaggle of geese crossed the grey sky overhead. We had come for the grave of Käthe Kollwitz, buried in a plot with her husband and other members of her family, beneath a head stone featuring a version of one of her many self-portraits.

When you look at the art of Käthe Kollwitz that she created about herself, you see the same lack of romanticism and unflinching eye that is the feature of all her work. She died at the end of the Second World War and yet her art continues to echo down the decades. Following the death of her son during the First World War, her work – which up to that point had been focused on exploring the suffering and resistance of others, and a commitment to telling the stories of those unable to tell such stories themselves – was turned in on her own suffering. She created sculptures that would stand at the cemetery in Belgium where her son lay; she made woodcuts and etchings that shouted her pacifism and socialism through the pain and anger they depicted; and she created a small sculpture of a mother cradling her dead son that would come, after her death, to stand at the heart of a Central Memorial to the Victims of War and Tyranny in the centre of Berlin.

Something very personal, that spoke profoundly of the artist’s own loss, was now supposed to represent the sufferings of millions, from the soldiers fallen on the battlefield to the victims of the Nazi extermination camps. It is impossible for a single work of art to shoulder that burden. It is unfair to expect it to, and the memorial, unveiled by the-then Chancellor Helmut Kohl in the 1990s, would come in for a lot of criticism. And yet: the power of Kollwitz’s sculpture, enlarged and pressed into a service she could never have imagined, remains obvious to all those who pass by it each day, stopping for a second on Unter den Linden to stand before it.

In the cemetery I placed a conker on top of Kollwitz’s grave and then we walked back towards the gate along a path carpeted with fallen leaves. There have been too many moments this year, when looking at the world beyond those cemetery gates, that it has been easy to despair. Storm clouds are gathering. Fires are raging. Anger is everywhere. In recent years, many have looked to the past for parallels, for the dead to remind us of the dangers that might be lurking down the road. There is a quote that I once heard attributed to Mark Twain, although I haven’t ever found a direct reference, which says that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. Can we hear it today?

It is this mood that pulled me back to the art of Käthe Kollwitz, those sketches and woodcuts, illustrations and sculptures that documented injustice, told the story of resistance and which were born out of righteous anger and grief. But although her art is dark, there is also hope in there, and it is a hope that I have also felt at times this year. In 1924 Käthe Kollwitz illustrated a poster for the World Youth Day in Leipzig. It featured a young person with their arm raised and a slogan, in stark, black letters: Nie wieder Krieg! – No More War.

Despite the despair, there is always the possibility for defiance. The dead remind us, it is true. But they can inspire us as well.


Paul Scraton’s book Ghosts on the Shore: Travels along Germany’s Baltic Coast was published by Influx Press in 2017. His debut work of fiction, Built on Sand, will be published by Influx in April 2019.