Vortrag / Rede Warburg Lecture:

Reading the Soil. A German Garden

Achtung Datumsangabe: Das genaue Datum der Warburg Lecture konnte bisher nicht eruiert werden. Sie fand vermutlich nach 1989 und vor 1994 (Tod von Jeschajahu Leibowitz) statt.



I want to dedicate my little contribution to this conference to the late Professor [Yeshayahu] Leibowitz, because he was for us young German writers, artists, scientists etc., more then anyone else our contemporary. He was the only one who told us to go on and do our work and not despair.
Therefore, for me, this is a kind of way to say thank you to Professor Leibowitz.

Aby Warburg told this Young generation of artists, historians, philosophers and musicians to recognize history and this was a very special aspect of a complete scientific method, which he worked out and called iconology. Within this theory of how to recognize the world, you have this special way of looking at historical material and images in combination with text, or text in combination with images. The most important aspect of the work is that Aby Warburg always insisted on it not just being orientated toward paintings and text. One of these major aspects, especially during the time when he was very shocked by the history of the First World War, was to tell younger people to go out and understand the earth.
The main aspect of reading the soil, as he did when he was living with the native Indians at Oraibi in New Mexico, is to convert remembrance into what he referred to as a Greek term Mnemosyne. Because there is no proper translation in English for this word, I have to translate it metaphorically.
We all are told, that we have to remember, because remembering facts of our lives and the lives of people who lived before us, our culture, heritage and so on, are the inner circle of what we call our identity. Warburg discovered that not mere remembrance, not to forget the fact is the inner circle, but to transform remembrance into social memory (Mnemosyne). The most important aspect on his thinking was that you could not live without memory, but to create memory you have to forget.
What an art historian does is to give you the facts you have to remember on the subjects of arts, architecture and so on. Then you yourself when studying art history have to transform this remembrance of the facts into social memory. This is a kind of transcription of what Mnemosyne means in Greek.
It is very important for it is a contribution to the discussion about the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin and this contribution comes from Warburg though he has been dead for a long time.
This contribution means that all the Germans and other people in the western world, who are discussing the Holocaust memorial in Berlin and how it should be installed and where and which size and so on, start with the idea that the memorial should encourage younger Germans to listen to their ancestors, to their fathers' generation, and to remember, what this older generations remember as a part of their lives; their experiences, their feelings, their cultural attitudes, etc. But these memorials are construed memorials.
You all know about the difficulties involved in installing this kind of monument with the intent that we avoid forgetting. But Warburg told us that a memorial leads to forgetting. So you have to forget to create a memorial and you create a memorial to forget. Only in social memory, this mystic, this scientific aspect of creating a history, a scientific one or a literal one by writers or by scientists, the most important aspect is that you transform the mere remembrance into a level of continuity within the history of the cultures of mankind. And of course our cultures, the Mediterranean cultures and others are the proof that we all really have social memory.
Warburg experienced that so many of these so called humanists of his time knew every fact out of the history, the development of the culture in Germany since Wagner's time, but they didn't have any social memory. They knew so many things, but still they signed in 1914 the so-called "Blankovollmacht". This declaration is one of the cruellest documents in German history. It was nothing more than a promise of absolute loyalty towards the Austrian Emperor. It was a promise that cost millions of men and women their lives. These men who signed this document were the very best in their fields in Germany. All brilliant people with brains, outstanding people. But, though they all had this knowledge and they remembered everything, they had no social memory. Therefore they signed this Declaration which allowed them to enter the First World War and commit such horrors like destroying humanity and its cultural carriers, for example the library in Leuven. That is the reason why Aby Warburg had a psychological problem after 1916 until 1924. He had to undergo treatment in clinics. He was not able to make clear to his colleagues that they failed as historians for instance, scientific scholars of the history of their own culture. They did not succeed in building up social memory. They only reiterated on the facts, which you can remember.
When reading about this and trying to reinstall Aby Warburg's position in Germany after the Second World War which was mostly done by Martin Warnke, an intellectual successor of Warburg, we tried to create an example for what Aby Warburg meant when he said: "try to study stamps, to study the images on ties and the images of clothes, on coins, etc. that were developed in the last 2000 years or even longer. Start with this kind of imaging and text, text/image-relationships, but then leave this, turn toward the place where you live, look at your environment and try to understand what has happened up until now. These are not pictures, nor are they texts to be read, nor were they prepared to be transformed into memory."
A German Forum - The Warburg way
In 1981, Uli Giersch, Francois Burkhardt (at that time, the director of the International Design Center of Berlin) and myself tried to give an example of how Aby Warburg started to work. 12 years he was able to do it himself but then - as you know - other things intervened and the iconological methods were used by about 5 to 6 art historians and nobody else. The area where we tried to teach the public every day from noon until dawn in September and in October 1981 is probably known even over here. It was the area where the headquarters of the SS were installed.
Today, these buildings no longer exist. There were ruins, where the operation centre for the SS and the SA had their headquarters, and in those days we had the Berlin Wall. Thus, this place was a kind of topography of a very special aspect of German history, and we tried to teach the public to read it or to understand it in the way Warburg explained, square meter by square meter every day from 12 to dusk.
However, in the general consciousness of the public this place existed as a no-mans-land where the principle post-war logic of destruction and destruction as the path to reconstruction could be demonstrated. When the mayor of Berlin and other interested people started to figure out that this area was a centre of a Topography of Terror, they started to wipe out all the signs of this readable soil, destroying everything, which really had meaning, everything, which could be read as memorial and not just remembrance. Removable as cleansing, meaning for the Germans, then as well as today. to leave the future meaninglessly behind. In other words, where ruins do not exist, there is no need to think about the future.
Looking back at the Roman Forum, our social memory of Roman Antiquity, this area in Berlin thus becomes a Germanic Forum. Like the Romans who tried to legitimize themselves in history as the descendants of the Trojan King Aeneas and the German Kaiser who also saw himself as the appointed representative of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, in our historical imaginations this place leads us directly back to Troy. Here we become the Trojans.
It starts with something as simple as the Ascanian Square. Not even the Berliners know what this means. However, Ascanius was the younger son of Aeneas. It was the Prussians themselves who in naming- this place, were installing a mythology for remembrance. They transformed this historical remembrance into memorial by calling their ancestors the great-grandsons of Aeneas. They did this by designing a memorial pathway dedicated to their forefathers, linking their family roots and traditions to the war in Troy.
Therefore we started this Warburg experience by calling this area the Troy of our Lives, that meant that the Germans living there have compared it to and linked it to the old Greek and Roman Empires. We continued this comparison in the way, which Warburg had demonstrated to us, showing others that it was really a German Forum with the exact details, the same format and the same iconography as the Forum in Rome itself.
Not just at this square, but in the famous museum of Ethnology in Berlin, the tradition continues. Here Mr. Heinrich Schliemann deposited his Priam treasure. For his generous gift, he received an honorary citizenship from the city. A professorship or even an honorary doctor grade at the university in Berlin was denied this crazy researcher of antiquity. But the recovery of this gold treasure was proof, for German Prussia, of the Trojan Horse. This was because Mr. Heinrich Schliemann, with his method of reading this epic from Homer like a tourist reads his guide book, had dug in a place that he considered to be Troy, due to his interpretation of these ancient myths, and found his treasure. He took these abstract terms literally. It was a method, which for the Germans proved to be extremely effective, and its radical application took place later in history, as we know. It is a tendency which still exist in the German nature - that of taking things literally. Nevertheless, in the ruins of the museum, Schliemann's treasure disappeared again into the darkness of the historical underworld.
In the historical process, ruins are not just seen as something, which has been destroyed, but also as something, which needs to be rebuilt. The so-called rebuilding of Germany after the Second World War is a general witness of this fact. And our 'new' Troy was our efforts to 'rebuild' a monument in our historical understanding. But no one can compete with history.

Even the most creative of an artist or the best builder is not in the position to develop a metaphor for the historical transformation, which took place here, in this Troy of our imaginations. This concerns what took place with the recycling of the ruins and the leftover rubble in post-war Germany. Thus, one of the greatest re-dedications to recycling is that every visitor to Berlin, who arrives by plane, is landing on the ruins and rubble of the former Headquarters of the SS, as well as those of the Prince Albrecht Palace and the rooms of the Art Academy.
There was the desire, quite understandably so, to get radically rid of the remembrance of the National Socialist idea of a Prussian inheritance. And as the symbolical lining for the Tegel Airport the ruins have more meaning in our historical imagination than in their original place.
Historical imagination and the Trojan way of looking at things can be added to our sense of memory concerning this area. These, the cellars of the famous school for applied arts and cultural history, which were once used as studios for artists, especially for sculptors, who worked passionately on their material with hammer and chisel, were later used by another: Hitler saw himself as an artist, realized his political dreams and desires by sculpting on human matter. After 1933, when the building became the headquarters of the Gestapo, these studios then were used to shape individuals, who disagreed with the Nazis, in the same violent manner as the sculptors had previously worked on their stones. In this same building complex, there was also a well-developed archive system, which housed one of the largest collections of cultural information about costumes and habits of the western culture. These art historians had developed a perfect archive system before the computer times. It was so perfect that when the SS took over this building, they established their system under the same principle which had existed; a system which had been the heart of the reconstruction of remembrance of the whole cultural history since Greek times. Yet, instead of having information about costumes and paintings of the western culture, they fit in the names of people that they considered enemies of the state. It is this work principle, which the SS can thank for their success.
Using Aby Warburg’s method of transforming mere facts of remembrance into a memorial was what has been done within the old gardens of the Prince-Albrecht-Palace, which Lenné had refashioned in the English manner in 1820.
After the Second World War, the way through these gardens became unofficial streets for "Fahren ohne Führerschein”, which translates into: “Driving without a driver's license". As Führerschein means driver's license but literally translates into leader certificate. This word play meant that in Berlin after World War II the people were symbolically and literally driving in this area without the Führer's, or Hitler's, permission. However, there exist no doubt, that as of 1938 the Führer and those under him, or his Unterführer, had at their disposal a leader’s certificate, or Führerschein, present to them by the German people. Thus, the ride into the catastrophe, which happened, was not the result of a lack of a driver, individuals knew their destination and the traffic rules had been dictated by them in a form, which the German people all recognized. Later, we discovered that bumps and dips in this garden resulted from when the Russian army tried to take over in Berlin. Within eight hours they had about 50.000 dead men, thus they took over a part of Berlin as they were all buried in Lenné's park. And afterwards in 1949, when a private entrepreneur started to give the public the opportunity to drive without a license, everyone drove his car over what used to be the graves of Russian soldiers.
This kind of historical imagination may at times seem a bit over the top, a bit too pointed; but in reality the effects of the imagination is to bring the historical facts to a point. It allows historical remembrance to become memory. Of course, everybody knows from his or her childhood how a child is able to work out memorial. This happens on the fairy tale level or even with epics, as internally, something that happens when a child transforms his ambiguity, his feelings, his fears and excitement into a story of his own telling. This is the transformation of a mere terror of remembrance into a major historical aspect of memorial.
Working at this level, we can look at our German Forum in another light. For instance, as you all know from press-photos or from your own experience, there existed the Berlin wall and everyone said "how cruel", "how unbelievable", "how could the socialists in the East ever start to divide this nation". Most people, however, forget that during Berlin's history, starting as the capital of Prussia, only 95 years have been without a wall: The only exception was during the time-period from the late 1866 until 1961. The old wall along Stresemann street fulfilled a purpose similar to the one built in 1961: to prevent people from fleeing from military and political powers. Even hundreds of years ago this wall was considered an eyesore, as shown in the old police records of the time. The inner city path, which until 1989 was called the Todesstreifen or death lane, had previously been called Potsdamer Communication. So what would it have meant to have transformed the remembrance that since 1732 there has always been a wall in Berlin? What kind of memorial aspect does it provide you with when you see this wall, which is now torn down? The people have the remembrance, but no memorial. What does it teach us considering what Warburg told us about reading the soil of history?
In 1866, when the first wall fell, the Prussians had just devastatingly crushed the Austrians at Königgrätz. Thus, the new wall free street took on the name of this place of triumph. Later, as German Prussia entered into the promise of absolute loyalty with Austria, previously mentioned and leading to World War I, the street name was changed to Budapester Straße and then Stresemann Straße and so on reflecting the changes in history. By installing the inscriptions of this one street, with its historical aspects, we tried to find out, what kind of changes these facts could tell us. We wanted to share the knowledge that history provided using Aby Warburg's methods.
Prussian practicality, historical careers of buildings, streets and areas, like I have described, are told at every point of this German Forum. The constancy of this change is equally calming and moving. It is not, as the historians gladly tell us, that the sleeping practicality hides the monstrosities; rather it is the monstrosities of practicality, which the historical imagination is confronted with.
This same practicality was responsible for the pumping plant, which removed the shit and other such waste products out of the city centre by a way of a canalization system. The Greek demigod Hercules, who cleaned Augeas' shit swimming stables by flushing them with water, in other words by installing a drainage system, his name was considered right for the heart of this operation. This sewage pump, named after him, allowed waste products to be processed and thrown over the fields of Berlin. Thus, the acres where food was growing, meant it was growing on our own shit. We saw ourselves as very practical, very realistic.
We Germans were able to see the dynamics of evolution and nature as parallel to the dynamics of the evolution of culture. Therefore, during the Hitler period, the people did exactly what had been done since 1870. They saw the dynamics and directions of evolution and nature as similar to the cultural ones, meaning there must be higher developed beings and creatures and those who are not human beings, just animals, just shit. So this Roman heart, this sewage pump was where the thinking about circulation in nature, dynamics and evolution and those in culture were combined. It is also, where creative destruction was considered. Because Hercules, having done such a deed, having destroyed a place by cleaning it or in other words the creative destruction, he had a special feeling, a feeling better than an orgasm. If I had been Hercules, I would have called this 'better' feeling augeasm, in honor of the stable owner. This kind of augeasm was the feeling that we as children, and I, when I was only eight years old, had when we were doing deeds. For instance, we were forced to jump down in dark nights from a point without knowing what was below us. Just trust and do. This training of creative destruction or destruction as creativity or salvation as killing, all these kinds of memorial aspects are expressed in the pump station. After the Second World War the people did not have a memorial aspect but just the facts of what they had done.
Starting with Warburg, every square meter of this earth opens up. It becomes the very place in which you yourself empowered with your own ability can work out memorial or a kind of incorporation of collective, cultural developments of memorials. In 1981, whoever used his or her historical imagination in this German Forum found something. As we encouraged the Berliners, who walked with us every day, back then, from 12:00 until dusk to dig in this area, as they would have done during their childhood, they then were able to start reading what they had dug out, for instance a spoon, or two teeth of a baby, or scissors, or half of a shoe or something like that. We asked them to tell us about this. What is it? What kind of epic history can you start to talk about when you see this? Or, when you meet in an area which used to be the basement of the famous school for applied arts, where the sculptors worked on stone and, as you now all know, where the SS sculptured their victims. This was not just by chance, not just to keep them away in the deepest cellars where their cries could not be heard, but the SS knew about this history. They also knew about the Jewish history, their desire for salvation, or as we say in German: Erlösung. The Nazis then used this fact to develop their own word for the extinction of the Jews, or as they called it, in a clever play on words, an Endlösung - an end salvation, the final salvation. Everybody believed in being creative in dynamic and with the evolution of culture, creating parallels with nature by working on living materials. Therefore, because Hitler said art is sublime and a mission, which forces you to fanaticism, they started to do what he told them. They worked on their victims like sculptures.
But nowadays these memorials are gone, everything is destroyed. The station was bombed but still functioning until 1959, and where the Berlin wall had been, there was a kind of desert, a no-man's-land which grew after 1945. In 1959, the mayor of Berlin decided to spoil the historical remembrance by not allowing these things to be transformed into memorial, to transform these areas. Thus a small part remained but the rest was blown up, it was in the German tradition of taking things literary to blow up the whole area until some of the citizens demanded to stop. They wanted to keep up remembrance, not memorial. These ruins, these fragments would have been memorial. Reminders that everybody with the ability to read the soil could have understood, reminders about the fate of Troy, its destruction and our own*. We could not accept that the pumping plant did just that. The desire was, and is, to rid ourselves of everything with this iconography, everything, which could have built up memorial about the remembrance of this area of Berlin, this comparison of Berlin being Troy and having the fate of Troy, making us aware of what happened to Troy. As long as we do not allow ourselves to enter into this realm of historical imagination, then many of our projects for the new century, memorial such as the Holocaust will only be met with a degree of success. Their success depends on their demands on themselves to promote the imaginable of what is the alleged unimaginable. For what we often remember are our imaginations of the historical experiences and not the experiences themselves. And understanding that this is our task, a task well learnt in the German Forum: to not repeat the lesson of the highly educated gentlemen, who Warburg knew, remembering the facts yet having no memorial.

*Thus, if you would like more information about these transformations, about reading the soil of a very special part of Berlin in this Warburg fashion, you will find it in the catalog Im Gehen Preußen verstehen, published by the International Design Center in Berlin in 1981. Here you can find the historical reconstructions. These are some of photos, which we used to convey our message back in '81. We built a so-called Archaeo-mobile, or a truck-like frame. On the sides of this Archaeo-mobile we had large historical photos of the old, once existent Anhalter Train Station, of famous hotels in the area and so on. We drove with this Archaeo-mobile through the area, always changing the material. We gave the people the opportunity to sit on chairs while we explained what we were transporting with this Archaeo-mobile.