Deutschland im Herbst

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It’s one of those amazing coincidences that in Germany a single day is the anniversary of a number of essential historical events, most of which are interconnected: 9 November. That day marked the beginning of the ill-fated Weimar Republic. It’s the day of Hitler’s failed 1923 putsch. It’s the day when in 1938 large-scale violence erupted against Jewish citizens and their property in Nazi Germany (“Kristallnacht“). And it’s the day that marks the fall of the Berlin Wall.

There are a few relatively minor other events on that day. But you can probably see how that particular day, late in those gloomy, gloomy German autumns, has particular relevance. In fact, autumn itself plays an outsized role in the German mind. Germans are gloomy, gloomy people, and the physical decay of the plant life combined with shorter and shorter hours of daylight at a time when the sun won’t peek out behind heavy clouds appears to portend something ominous to happen.

Ever since 1977, when a wave of left-wing terrorism shook West Germany, autumn itself became associated with possible political and societal doom. If you lived through that period (I did at possibly the worst possible time in my life, being old enough to understand something was seriously amiss but not only enough to be able to process it), you’ll remember what a ghastly affair that time was.

Ten years ago, a movement emerged in Germany that in the relatively short period of time since would result in what can only be viewed as a severe crisis of democracy in a number of East German states. People took to the streets to demonstrate against immigration and Islam, styling themselves after the protestors that had brought down the East German regime decades earlier.

Once the refugee crisis and the Covid pandemic hit Germany, the movement only grew, and it attracted any number of  people: fascists, extreme nationalists who aren’t fascists (I know this sounds like a weird distinction), conspiracy theorists, people on the far left of the spectrum who finally found a cause to join to voice their rather primitive anti-American instincts, and those attracted to Vladimir Putin’s fascist russia (it’s not clear where these people fit on the political spectrum, and, frankly, it doesn’t matter).

Please note that the categories aren’t even mutually exclusive. It’s not easy to wrap one’s head around where exactly someone like Sahra Wagenknecht, a politician that formerly was extremely pro-Communist but now routinely spouts fascist talking points, fits. What does matter, though, is that all of these people ultimately want to destroy Germany’s democracy and create something else (which might or might not look like Putin’s russia).

Even as many of the details here are uniquely German, the basic underlying principle is universal. You can find the same toxic mix of, say, people believing in conspiracy theories while loving Putin in parts of the Republican Party in the US. But of course, things are a little scarier in Germany, because that’s the country that started World War 2 in Europe, the country that is responsible for the Holocaust.

My country. If the above doesn’t contain reasons enough to be gloomy, I don’t know what else you’d need.

Regardless, part of the toxic mix on display by these anti-democratic forces is their open disdain of the media, where anything that even remotely might have something to do with the media — let’s say a camera — makes the holder of said device a person that virulent hatred is directed at (and open violence is often not that far away). So for Felix Adler to take his camera to photograph some of the protestors that still meet regularly is a gutsy move.

“Every Monday evening in Germany ten thousands of people demonstrate,” he writes, “mostly situated in Eastern Germany and not much noticed by the media and the rest of the people, the demonstrators seem to live in a self-affirming parallel world.” The evenings do not provide much like for a camera; but there are things you can do with a flash that carry the potential to throw things into sharp relief.

And that’s what Adler did. In his photographs from Deutschland im Herbst (Germany in Autumn), people and items appear against a sea of black. Photographically, it’s a simple device.

Visually, it makes for an astonishing effect: the melange of political delusion and craziness is separated out into some of its constituent parts. Individual aspects suddenly take on special meaning, even if the mix of it all never ceases to be little more than a bunch of political lunatics attempting to destroy the very democracy that grants them the rights to protest in the first place.

Adler published the work in the form of a set of cards that comes with a booklet. The booklet contains a conversation about the work, conducted by and with a journalist, an art critic, and a writer. Unfortunately, there is no English translation in the booklet. However, I suspect that without added context, some of the details discussed by the trio might be difficult to understand for someone who is not from Germany.

In light of the glaring problems that Germany is facing right now, including especially the fact that the neofascist AfD party appears to have become the strongest political force in larger parts of East Germany, work like Felix Adler’s Deutschland im Herbst is essential, a much needed reminder that photographers can indeed play their part in trying to stem the far-right tide in their country.

With larger parts of Germany’s so-called conservative parties now openly embracing far-right talking points (“woke” etc.), Germans who have learned their lessons from their country’s past and who still believe in political decency will have to make themselves heard. It’s heartening to see many hundreds of thousands of Germans taking to the streets to protest against the neofacism in their midst.

More of Germany’s photographers might want to think about whether they can also contribute to efforts to sustain the very democracy that makes their work possible.

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