A Czech artist has urged people to drop off a controversial German bestseller at collection points. He plans an art installation of thousands of copies, to be 'recycled' afterwards. Critics are reminded of Nazi practice.
Thilo Sarrazin, a former central banker and politician, is currently writing a book on the European debt crisis. He will be hard pressed to come up with a work that will even come close to his controversial bestseller "Germany Is Doing Away with Itself."
The book suggests that immigrants of Turkish and Arab origin refuse to integrate, and constitute a threat to Germany's indigenous culture. It has sold 1.3 million copies in Germany alone and was the focus of heated debate when it was published in 2010.
Czech artist Martin Zet read Sarrazin's book in 2011, when it was released in Czech - and he agreed with the critics that "Germany Is Doing Away with Itself" promotes anti-migrant and anti-Turkish tendencies in Germany.
Personalizing the project
Using the website of the 7th Berlin Biennale as a platform, Zet has launched the campaign "Germany Does Away with It."
"I suggest using the book as an instrument enabling people to privately manifest their personal position,” Martin Zet wrote on the contemporary art show's website.
The original bone of contention
The plan is to collect as many books as possible - at least 60.000 - to show them in an installation at the Biennale from April 27 to July 1 and then recycle them for a good cause.
"Please deliver your copy in one of the participating delivery points or send it to us via regular mail and let it become part of the installation," Zet wrote.
With his plan to 'collect' and 'recycle,' the Czech artist's choice of words has set in motion a chain reaction.
Website users posted responses drawing a parallel to the Nazi campaign in 1933 of burning books that did not fit their ideology.
Martin Zet never said he wanted to destroy or even burn controversial books. But he did tell Die Welt newspaper that the book burnings came to mind.
"But I also thought Germany has moved on," he said, adding that he wasn't aware the country was still so traumatized. "I expected a fierce reaction - but concerning the present and the future."
The historical link
Across Germany on May 10, 1933, members of the Nazis' student association publicly burned thousands of books deemed "un-German." The authors included Bertolt Brecht, Albert Einstein, Kurt Tucholsky and Heinrich Heine. Ahead of the burning, organizers had urged citizens to drop off the books at certain collection points. They called the literary purge a "book collection campaign," just has Martin Zet has labeled his appeal.
Werner Tress of the Potsdam-based Moses Mendelssohn Center (MMZ) was shocked by the planned art project he discovered via a Facebook link. He protested immediately "because the term 'recycle' suggests that large amounts of books are to be destroyed."
The campaign, he added, comes quite close to what the Nazis did in 1933.
"Un-German" books are burned by the thousands in 1933
Whether or not Germans have overcome a trauma isn't the issue here, according to Tress: "The issue is whether we have gotten over such a practice. I thought we would never again lower ourselves to a level where books are destroyed."
Every book is of cultural value and should not be publicly destroyed, he said, not even in the name of artistic freedom or if it serves to prompt a constructive debate. "I believe that art that claims a moral standard and points out social evils may not put itself above this moral norm," Tress commented.
Users on the Berlin Biennale website argue the age-old question of how far art can go. But they also wonder whether the immediate comparison with Nazi practices is appropriate or just a typical German reflex: politically correct and necessary.
"In the historical context, destruction is too brutal and, anyway, it's an act of suppression rather than debate. It's good to see there still seem to be enough people around who are aware of that and think the project is wrong - like I do," user "Katja" wrote.
Talking at cross purposes?
Another user commented the project has too much to do with the destruction of ideas.
But user "Melanie" applauded the initiative "because it's a big difference if a state systematically burns books, thus suppressing political opinions, or if books are collected for an art project that wants to make a political statement."
Martin Zet said he understands his critics for the most part, but that he never planned to destroy books. He confessed he has no idea what to do with the books once the Berlin exhibition closes in July, but that the installation itself is a form of recycling.
It is unfortunate, Zet said, that what gave him the idea for the art project doesn't appear to be on anybody's agenda at all: the debate about how we treat immigrants who do not contribute to their new country's economic prosperity.
Despite the controversy, Zet said he plans to put together his installation. The question is whether he will have the 60,000 books he hopes for.
"I would like to lie and say I've already received 15,000," Zet said. "But I'll be honest: So far, I only have three."
Author: Marlis Schaum / db
Editor: Kate Bowen