Flames In Their Heads

Igor Stokfiszewski

On January 12 as part of the 7th Berlin Biennale, Czech artist Martin Zet launched the project "Deutschland schafft es ab" (Germany gets rid of it) in Berlin. The work is directed against the message presented in a widely discussed book by Thilo Sarrazin entitled Deutschland schafft sich ab (Germany gets rid of itself), which can also be translated as Germany Abolishes Itself. In 2010 Sarrazin—now a 67-year-old financier, SPD politician, and former Bundesbank board member—published an extensive manifesto fiercely criticizing the project of German multiculturalism, the politics of the German welfare state, and its immigration policy, which does not seek to integrate incoming residents into the local culture.


Zet declared that he is willing to collect Sarrazin’s book from those readers who would like to do away with it. In the course of 7th Berlin Biennale, the artist will use the collected copies to develop an installation in the KW Institute for Contemporary Art exhibition spaces. The form of the work will depend on the number of books collected; Zet will decide their future fate along with the public. The Biennale has developed a poster encouraging people to hand copies of the book over to the artist, and has also established contact with a number of cultural institutions in Berlin that have agreed to participate in the project by making available containers where the books can be collected in their spaces. Finally, the project has been made public and officially launched. And… this is when it all began:


First Internet forums, then newspapers, were filled with comments which made thinly-veiled allusions to the fact that both the Czech artist, as well as the Biennale curators and employees of KW Institute for Contemporary Art (the organizing institution), were crypto-Nazis whose actions referred to the Nazi book burning ceremonies of the 1930s. There were numerous phone calls demanding an explanation of the issue. In response, the organizers of the Biennale issued a statement in which they presented a concise description of Zet’s project, highlighting the right to mount artistic resistance to Sarrazin’s anti-immigration and socially polarizing manifesto in collaboration with the public, including its role in deciding about the future of the books that make up the work.


It seems to me that, amidst the confusion, three fundamental aspects have been lost in this shuffle: 1. the intentions of the artist and the Biennale curators, which constitute the essence of the project; 2. the democratic mobilization of autonomous subjects as the driving force behind and the condition of its realization; 3. the work itself, which is leveled against xenophobic and racist messages that are at the heart of the artist’s polemics.


Discussion about Zet’s proposal must not be colonized by the fantasies of others—by flames in their heads which immediately subject every reading of the artwork to the argumentum ad Hitlerum, while the initiators and those involved are blackmailed by the immanent world of one’s own paranoia. The discussion should take place within a framework that is most easily described as truth, and which consists of: the artist’s true intentions; the actual intentions of the curators; and, plainly speaking, the subject matter of the project Deutschland schafft es ab.


Zet opposes the xenophobic and racist message presented in Sarrazin’s book. Therefore, he has suggested an action that would make it possible to actually reduce the existing number of copies in circulation. This idea corresponds to the general theme of the Biennale, according to which artistic actions should be focused on effecting a real impact on reality and offer ways of transforming it permanently.


Moreover, the project by the Czech artist draws upon a collective mobilization and its range is the condition of the work’s failure or success. In other words, it is up to German society to decide how many copies of Sarrazin’s book Zet should receive, and how many will be left on the market or on the shelves of private libraries. The intention behind the artist’s actions is to refer to a direct democratic procedure and civic decisions made by fully-fledged autonomous subjects. This intention once again corresponds to the themes of the Biennale, which seeks to contribute to a democratic revival and to a growth of direct participation of citizens in developing collective opinions and making decisions that shape the life of a community. Just as buying Sarrazin’s book can be seen as an individual gesture, possibly in support of the theses it presents (many commentators saw the fact that the book sold well over a million and a half copies as a sign of social support for its author’s approach), giving it away will be a gesture of resistance to the same theses, which I understand as a step towards self-empowerment. The success of the project depends not on the artist’s will, but on autonomous decisions made by free individuals. It is my firm belief that the attack on Zet, the curators of Berlin Biennale, and KW, is in fact an attack on art that seeks to transform collective reality drawing on the phenomenon of a living democracy and the individual engagement of free people in the shaping of a collective space of existence.


Finally, it seems that amidst the confusion we have also forgotten the fact that Sarrazin’s position is one that calls for firm and unfailing resistance. Mesmerizing the audience with the “flames in their own heads” does not change the fact that a philosophy which claims that intelligence is genetically determined, and which justifies not only the exclusion of “unproductive” immigrants from welfare structures, but also the dismantling of welfare state mechanisms as such widens social divisions and reinforces the atomizing tendencies that are the Achilles’ heel of liberal democracies. This leads to the destruction of human relations (vulnerable as they are), both on the micro- as well as macro-social levels, and, as a consequence, contributes to the development of individuals characterized by such features as suspiciousness, distrust, orientation toward conflict, and aggressive attitudes. It would be wise to acknowledge the simple truth that each and every position that seeks to reinforce free-market capitalism and gives rise to racially and culturally aggravated conflicts within society leads us relentlessly toward a precipice, toward the destruction of all lasting collective bonds and relations and thus into loneliness, hatred, and humiliation.


In his book Deutschland schafft sich ab Sarrazin writes that from a cultural and civilizational perspective, the social patterns represented by Islamic immigrants represent regress. In conclusion, perhaps it would be worthwhile to remind ourselves of the ethical foundations of a lasting and sustained civilizational development that testify strongly against Sarrazin’s theses. These foundations can be brought down to a fundamental conclusion: that all people, regardless of who they are and whey they come from—stupid or wise, idlers or workaholics, representing this or that “social pattern”—must have the possibility to satisfy their basic human needs and desires: the need for food, shelter, the possibility to pursue their dreams and ambitions, of loving and being loved, and, last but not least, they need to be free from physical and mental pain, and free to live according to the values they hold. In its broadest perspective, Zet’s project, contrary to Sarrazin’s approach, refers to this very code of the ethics of life. This is why it deserves our wholehearted support, and why we should defend it against flames in our heads and contribute a copy of the book Deutschland schafft sich ab. It is really worth doing away with it.

10th Berlin Biennale