In September 2017, the leader of the Thuringian AfD, Björn Höcke, awoke to find that 22 concrete blocks resembling Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe had been erected in view of his house. This “Höcke Mahnmal”, as the press have since dubbed it, was installed by a group of Berlin artists, operating under the name of “Zentrum für Politische Schönheit” (ZPS). The group, distinguishable by their trade-mark dirt-smeared faces, claimed to have rented the plot of land opposite Höcke’s family home in the small village of Bornhagen ten months previously, and to have been spying on him and his family ever since. Unless he fell to his knees before the “memorial” the group would go public with intimate details about his private life.
This bizarre set of circumstances was a delayed protest against Höcke’s Dresden speech, delivered to the youth faction of the AfD, Junge Alternative, in January 2017. Höcke, who has made enemies even within his own party with his hard-right stance, provoked international outrage with the speech in which he blasted “moronic Bewältigungspolitik”, referring to the focus in German politics and society towards “working through the past”, and called for a U-turn of Erinnerungskultur (culture of memory). At the climax of the speech, Höcke decried Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial as a “monument of shame in the middle of the capital”. Reactions were instantaneous: the Ettersburg foundation swiftly banned Höcke from taking part in the memorial service for Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Buchenwald Concentration Camp. Even from within his own party there were loud calls for Höcke’s expulsion due to the speech.
Enter Das Zentrum für Politische Schönheit
Since 2009 the group has been crowd-funding politically and morally provocative art installations. On the homepage of their slick website, the group describes itself as “storm troopers for the construction of moral beauty” and claim to “represent aggressive humanism”. In his book Wenn nicht wir, wer dann? (If Not Us, Then Who?) and in various interviews, the group’s leader Phillip Ruch insists that the general population is fundamentally political, but uninspiring political leaders have cultivated a climate of political apathy. Their aim, therefore, is to provoke a response to contemporary moral injustices and to galvanize political engagement through shocking art. In 2014 the group gained the attention of the world by removing the white crosses commemorating victims of the Berlin Wall and replacing them with a small sign declaring “there is no thinking going on here”. The crosses resurfaced some days later on Europe’s external border, intending to highlight the hypocrisy of celebrating the 2014 Mauerfall anniversary whilst the borders of “fortress Europe” were being increasingly fortified and migrant deaths in the Mediterranean were steadily rising. In 2015 they made headlines again by hosting a funeral for one of these drowned refugees.
The ZPS, like the subversive groups of the 60s and 70s are responding the political climate around them and attempting to make light of injustices through subversive art, which by Ruch’s admission, is intended to cause pain. In a society where protest is becoming less and less effective; where the political elite appear out of touch with their citizens; where human rights crises rage abundant, the group’s frustration and their adoption of subversive methods is understandable and commendable. Yet with their latest action, the group appear to have transcended a boundary. Their stated aim with the campaign was to destroy Höcke’s self-designated refuge. Given Höcke’s fanatical criticism of Germany’s response to the so-called refugee crisis, the group’s choice of location is not without irony. But by spying on Höcke and threatening to publicly air his dirty laundry, the group have erred into the territory of tangible violence as opposed to just symbolic violence, and have violated his right to privacy and that of his family. This has the potential to harm not just the culprit, but also his wife and four children. Commentators have responded to this tension by highlighting the irony of “using Stasi-tactics” with the aim of creating a more humane and liberal society. But Ruch remains stubborn: “we only use Nazi methods against Nazis.” As satisfying as it would be to see Höcke kneeling in the mud before a makeshift memorial, when the group’s actions are dragging innocent children into the mix, then a boundary has been overstepped which risks compromising their public image. If they wish to trigger a collective soul searching, there needs to exist a level of public sympathy towards their cause. The hypocrisy of using somewhat authoritarian methods against Höcke will ultimately only impact how seriously their protest is taken.
The group’s use of dark humour recalls another time in German history when humour was applied to sharp political commentary: the Spaßguerilla of the West German Student Movement. The Spaßguerilla were a subsection of the Außerpolitische Opposition (extra parliamentary opposition, APO), a loose collection of student and left-wing groups which formed in the late 60s in response to what they perceived to be a lack of genuine opposition in the German parliament. The Spaßguerilla used humour and symbolic violence as a method of protest to highlight injustices in German society. The most famous example was the attempted “Pudding Assassination” of American Vice-President Hubert Humphries in 1967, when an attempt to symbolically “assassinate” the visiting Vice President by mobbing him with vats of pudding was foiled. Eleven people were arrested in connection with this incident, highlighting the German Government’s over-zealous suppression of student protests. Ulrike Meinhof captured the hypocrisy perfectly in an article for Konkret, “Pudding and Napalm”, in which she contrasted the state oppression of student protesters with the German Government’s indifference to the liberal use of napalm by the Americans against Vietnamese civilians.
The resemblance that the ZPS bears to the Spaßguerilla of the 1960s is attributable to the parallel political contexts both movements were located in. The members of the student movement perceived Germany of the 1960s to be a continuation of the totalitarian regime of the National Socialists, evidenced in the state’s heavy-handed response to protests and dissidence, support for US-led engagement in a “genocidal” war in Vietnam, and in the failure to complete the denazification process which saw former Nazis retain prominent roles after the war. Fast forward to 2018, and Germany is still quaking from the unprecedented success of the AfD in the latest elections, gaining an average of 13% of votes and becoming the third biggest party in parliament. In the wake of the rise of right-wing political parties across Europe and Trump’s ascension in the States, it seems once again that the lessons of the previous century have not been learned. In this context, Höcke’s questioning of Erinnerungskultur becomes all the more sinister. Parallel to this shift towards political extremes, the parties of the centre are suffering a loss of credibility and support. While yet another Grand Coalition is being formed, a split is threatening the SPD who are accused of having lost touch with their political support base. The SPD youth faction, the Jusos, rallied against the renewed coalition and calling for a Corbynesque renewal of the party. Similarly, the formation of the APO was triggered as they perceived the formation of a Grand Coalition between the SPD and CDU to signal the end of a real opposition in German politics.
One of the main similarities between the two groups is the lack of confidence in traditional methods of instigating change in society. The APO and the student movement felt that the government were no longer receptive to their voters and therefore they broke away from parliamentary politics and took to the streets to make their message heard. In One Dimensional Man (1964), Herbert Marcuse argued that traditional protest did not affect change because it was “tolerated” by the system. By allowing a certain amount of protest, the system could absorb any dissenting energy without it representing a real threat to the regime. True protest therefore must be subversive to be effective. In 2017 a Pepsi advert which showed Kendall Jenner handing out cans of drink to her fellow demonstrators at a protest march shows just how far this Marcusian “repressive tolerance” has come. Protest is no longer just tolerated by the State, but has been appropriated by corporations as a marketing strategy. Activism has become a commodity. The aims of the Spaßguerilla and the ZPS meet here: to protest in a way that is not just absorbed the state, but shakes society awake from its political stupor.
The political contexts of the turbulent 60s and modern Germany appear more similar than would be first assumed. From history, we know that the protests of the APO, including those of Spaßguerilla had lasting effects on political culture in Germany that is felt to this day. But we also know from history that the success of such movements is largely dependent on their public reception. In the 70s, when some former members of the student movement radicalized and took to real violence, the support of the public quickly waned, and the impact was to unfairly cast a shadow on the memory of the protest movement. ZPS should bear this in mind when planning their future campaigns.