Seeing German

In the autumn of 1930 Edvard Munch executed a series of very unusual drawings and watercolors. All have one thing in common: a stain. In some cases, it is a ring of brightly colored concentric circles or a treelike fleck, but in many instances it takes the form of a large dark bird. It seems to be commanding a space that doesn’t belong to it. A threatening interloper with the power to change things: “[I see] the bird move before me,” Munch wrote. “It gives off illuminating rays of blue, which turn into green and then into a brilliant golden ring, and as it changes position, anything it touches with its colors begins to move—thick snakes in the most extraordinary colors begin to slither about on the chaise longue and coil up together.”

In one work, the bird appears in the midst of a green globe, in another it has occupied the torso of a seated nude. In yet another it has spread out its wings below a self-portrait of the artist. It is everywhere to be seen. Yet it is, in fact, nowhere. This threatening eagle-like creature is only the artist’s depiction of an optical illusion, and indeed, one whose source came from within the eye itself. In the summer of 1930 Munch suffered a haemorrhage which damaged blood vessels in his right eye. This series of paintings and drawings was Munch’s attempt to document the effect of the damage to his eye and his recovery (in the later works in the series the flecks become increasingly fainter).

Those who have had a thorough eye exam and experience their field of vision suddenly overlaid with a Martian surface of blood-red canals—the images of the blood vessels in their own eye—will have experienced a similar kind of “seeing”. Unlike ordinary optical illusions such as duck-or-rabbit figures, Penrose stairs or spinning barberpoles, illusions that can be shared with others because, they, too, can see them, the entoptic phenomena of Munch’s bird or our own blood vessels cannot be viewed by anyone else. They are truly of our own making. The bird was never there but we kept seeing it nonetheless.

I’ve been thinking about Munch’s birds, even though some of them look more like crows than the broad-winged eagle on the German coat-of-arms, because of the conspiratorial discourse I’ve been encountering in both the media and among friends and acquaintances about a putative German strategy to pillage the country. Journalists, commentators, politicians, even colleagues at work—they all keep seeing Germans, and the Germans they see are very scary. One blogger writes of the “take-no- prisoners attitude of the Frankfurt-Berlin axis with respect to Greece” that is at core of a German-led “policy of humiliation of the Greeks”. Another writes that “recession is a deliberate strategic choice that Germany has made to impose its hegemony throughout Europe… what we have here isn’t a “German mistake” but a conscious decision of the gravest significance.”

Stathis Stavropoulos, a staff cartoonist for the now defunct daily Eleftherotypia, depicted the Greek Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos giving the Hitlergrüß to a soldier. He said his cartoons illustrate the German onslaught: “… what Germany did not manage with weapons during WWII, it is now trying to do through economic means.”

One particularly graphic example of this anti-German sentiment was the viral “news” item that circulated in Greek blogs in early February regarding the putative arrival at a military airport outside Athens of a contingent of German policemen; their mission: to help control the upcoming demonstrations in Athens against the government’s austerity program.

There are countless other examples. These may not be the most widely read or commented, but they’re representative of the sentiment of a significant portion of the population, if I judge from the comments I hear on the street and at work, and from what I read in the papers and discern in the results of recent polls of Greek public opinion.

Most of these conspiracy theories defy rudimentary common sense. Say you’re a powerful export-driven economy with a state-of-the-art infrastructure, highly skilled and disciplined labor force and an exceptionally efficient public sector that invests heavily in education and technology. You produce high-quality goods that markets all over the world want. Why would you want to leverage your economic and political might to deliberately ruin an economy in a peripheral market and depress consumption so that nobody there can buy the products that thousands of companies in your country manufacture, even if you can buy up—at rock-bottom prices—a slew of that country’s assets, all of which, however, are saddled with low productivity and antiquated infrastructure and encumbered by an impenetrably complex and growth-defeating bureaucracy?

But in a sense it doesn’t matter whether the conspiracy makes sense. We desperately need to explain what is happening to us, the tragedy that has befallen the country, the relentless recession and growing poverty that threatens an increasingly greater part of the population (though not all—those who have always managed to evade their taxes continue to do so). It is easier to conjure up a Teutonic ogre than to recognize our own responsibility for the crisis that is upon us. But like the sinister watermark of Munch’s birds, what we see on the surface of our everyday life, this spectre of German hegemony, is in fact a projection of our own pathology.

That is not to say that the ultimatums to Greece that in large part have been dictated by Germany (yes, I do recognize the central role that Berlin has in the shaping of European Union and European Central Bank policy) have not created more problems than they were intended to solve. On the contrary, they have focussed too much on austerity measures and provided little in the way of development initiatives. But though misguided, even wrong, even if often guided by internal electoral concerns, these measures are not part of a satanic plan to colonize Greece. We rightly bemoan the short-sighted across-the-board wage and pension cuts for the lowest earners, but are often quiet on the other demands of our European paymasters: the structural reforms intended to free up the economy, help us become more competitive internationally and generate development. Like the President of Greece, many Greeks were incensed at German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble’s “insulting remarks” about Greece. But what the man actually said was “who can be sure that Greece will make good on what we have now agreed on” („Wer stellt denn sicher, dass Griechenland zu dem steht, was wir jetzt mit Griechenland vereinbaren“). For the Finance Minister of another state to make this comment was perhaps a breach of protocol but it was certainly something very much on the minds of millions of Greeks themselves. Two and a half years have gone by since the issue of the “closed professions” in Greece was raised—and most of these more than one hundred professions are still “closed”. And there is no indication that the myriads of lawyers, physicians, glaziers, architects, plumbers, contractors, musicians, club owners, roofers, locksmiths and engineers are now paying their fair share of taxes. The monstrously wasteful Greek public sector is still as bloated as it was two and a half years ago.

This German conspiracy theory is dangerous. Not because of the impact it has in exacerbating relations between the peoples of the two countries. Not because anti-German sentiment in Greece prompted the Greek Minister of Culture to voice concerns about the effect it has had in reduced bookings of German tourists to the country.

Baselitz, Adler, 1977

Georg Baselitz, Adler, 1977

No, it’s dangerous because this discourse deflects from our own collective responsibility for the crisis that is upon us but even more from our responsibility to set it right. Every minister, every MP, every political commentator is an advocate of “development”—as if just wishing it to happen will make it come true. The word has become an incantation, an “open Sesame” that promises to lead us as if by magic to a promised land of debt-free prosperity. But the very politicians clamoring for development are the ones whose parties (and often they themselves) have served the vested interests that have throttled initiatives for reform in this country for the last God knows how many years.

George Baselitz also painted birds. He began painting his in the early 1970s, and specifically eagles. The naïve observer, however, would not immediately identify the figure in the powerful gestural paintings of this period (in contrast to the ones that figure in the artist’s recent works). There are no identifying features to the dark core of paint that dominates the pale gray or blue background, no beak or talons. Particularly in the Adler of 1977, the observer might think it is an abstract painting, an explosion of an inky mass that has sent fragments of black or indigo hurling across space. Only very slowly do the shards begin to resemble feathers, and then one realizes that the painting is inverted, and as one cocks one’s head the eagle finally assumes its definitive shape.

Like our own role in the crisis–or at least our consent as the crime was being committed–the bird was always there. Even if we couldn’t see it.


Featured image: Edvard Munch, The Artist and his sick eye, with bird, 1930


2 responses to ‘Seeing German

  1. cool… very good S/! love the bird imagery… though believe, like the birds, there’s more at play on both sides re the unconscious shapes, & shaping shadows, blocking or playing “tricks of light” on our vision — German & Greek, given that such is not always rational. Your posts are always so eloquent and intelligent….


    • Thanks for the comment and the kind words. And you’re right, of course, our way of seeing is influenced by so many things, some that spring from within,the things we value or desire or fear, the wounds we have suffered and the losses we have borne, and still others that come from without, the “tricks of light” as you say that are played on our field of vision. None of which is rational, of course. But in a way that’s what I wanted to say in the post: what we think we are now “seeing”, this apparition of the Occupying Forces, isn’t rational. I didn’t much go into the external factors at work in shaping these images… and there are such forces, of course — having such an external “enemy” is very convenient for the leadership of the political parties, trade unions and other privileged interest groups. But maybe it’s an idea for a future post.


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