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'A Disneyland of the Cold War'

Interview: Sarah Judith HofmannMarch 2, 2016

The Cold War left us bunkers, shooting ranges and military cemeteries on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Dutch photographer Martin Roemers tells DW why he created a visual memorial to the war that wasn't waged.

Photo of the Altengrabow Soviet training grounds, 2004, Copyright: Martin Roemers
Image: Martin Roemers

DW: "Relics of the Cold War" is the name of your photography series that is now being shown in Berlin. You took the photographs between 1998 and 2009. What comes to your mind when you see these pictures today, in 2016?

Martin Roemers: When you look at these photos now, they serve as a reminder of how things used to be in the Cold War. But you can also imagine how things could be again in the political climate of today. That's the important thing about showing them now.

At the Munich Security Conference in February, Russian Prime Minister Dimitri Medvedev said the world had "slid into a new period of Cold War." Are your pictures being becoming more current?

Yes they are more current because they show how it could become again. The political situation of today is worrying. It might be a little bit of Cold War, but to compare it to the Cold War of 30 years ago is exaggerated. We are still far away from an immediate threat of a full- scale war like there was in the 80s.

Why were you interested in this particular era?

I grew up in the Cold War. It was all over the newspapers and TV; there were discussions at school and big demonstrations in the Netherlands at the time. It was part of our daily life that the Russians were a threat. But already at that time, though I was very young, I thought, who are these people really? I always had this interest in the other side of the Iron Curtain.

And then later, as a photographer, I did several projects about the consequences of war and conflicts. What I first asked was what happened to people who were in a war? But then I got interested in the consequences for landscapes and for architecture. By the time I started the project, the Russians had left Germany. I wanted to see what they left behind. Since I knew that they had many troops around Berlin in Brandenburg during the Cold War, I started there. I visited all kinds of objects which were left. Army barracks, air force bases, storages for nuclear weapons, army graveyards. Brandenburg was for me at that time a kind of Disneyland of the Cold War.

Martin Roemers, Copyright: Koos Breukel
Martin RoemersImage: Koos Breukel

And still, time had already passed…

The interesting thing is that if you wait a few years, the things they leave behind kind of take on a new face. The process of decay starts; nature takes over. This symbolizes the end of an era.

You took the pictures in 10 European countries. Besides Germany, you also went to Russia, Poland, Latvia, and your home country, the Netherlands. Did you find that the relics in each country had specific features?

Actually, you could say the reverse. I visited so many army bases on both sides of the Iron Curtain and they have more in common than differences. They built the same defense structures out of the same fears.

It took you more than 10 years to finish the story.

Finding these locations was the hardest part. There are many famous examples of buildings of the Cold War, like the Berlin Wall. But most of the things I photographed were all kind of kept secret in the past. So I talked to people who played a role in the Cold War, for example to retired army generals and to people in the peace movement.

In Germany, the party "Die Grünen" gave me a map which they had made during the Cold War with all locations where nuclear missiles were stored, both in East and West Germany. When I had enough locations, I drove off for a few weeks. It was not always easy to get access to these locations.

I spent a lot of time finding an authentic piece of Wall in Germany. But in Berlin it has changed over the years, it has been repainted and rearranged. There are several other places in Germany, but when you get there it's like a museum. There is new barbed wire and they've given it a fresh coat of paint. Each time I saw a portion of it, I stopped immediately. In the end, I found an authentic piece of Wall in a deserted place between Bavaria and Thuringia.

Do you have a favorite picture or place?

For example, the photo of an old rusty tank in Altengrabow in Saxony. You can see a small bunker, which looks like a human face. The shooting range and this bunker were constructed during the time of the German emperor. When the emperor left, the Nazis came. The Wehrmacht did their exercises there. Then the Nazis left and the Russians came. They left a Soviet tank that they used for target practice. Now the Russians have left and you can see a red sign post in the back that is used by the Bundeswehr [German military] of today. So you can see several layers of history in this one photograph.

For the Second World War, we have many memorials, but is there a memorial to the Cold War?

After a real war, a commemoration culture develops. The veterans and victims have their ceremonies and monuments are built. But the Cold War never became a real war, at least not in Europe, so there are not many physical reminders, let alone a commemoration culture.

By documenting its landscape, I make have created a visual memorial to this war that was never waged. This landscape and its infrastructure can have a kind of beauty, but if you think about the purpose of this infrastructure you'll sense patriotism, paranoia and aggression - an uneasy balance.

You won the World Press Photo Award twice (second prize for the "Never Ending War" portraits in 2006, then first prize for "Metropolis" in 2011). What impact do you think photographs can have on people and on politics?

It's always hard to say. Of course there are examples of a few iconic pictures which really made a difference. For example, the Napalm girl in Vietnam [by photographer Nick Ut who won the World Press Photo Award for this picture in 1972 and one year later the Pulitzer Prize].

Talking about conflicts, I think that showing what's happening, if you write it or film it or take photos of it - of course that makes a difference because it influences public opinion. It can change things.

I'm not a peace activist. My primary goal is not to stop wars or conflicts. As an artist, by means of reflection, I show how a conflict affects society.

The exhibition "Relics of the Cold War" runs from March 4 through August 14, 2016, in the German Historical Museum in Berlin.