How leftist intellectuals once approached bifurcated Berlin

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In 1982, the leftist intellectual journal Semiotext(e) published the German Issue, more than 300 pages dedicated to the then-split nation. Now, on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the journal is reissuing it with two new introductory pieces: a preface by founding editor Sylvère Lotringer and a conversation between Lotringer and German filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff.

The 300-page, 50-plus-contributor German Issue, which followed the journal’s Italy Issue, was two years in the making. It is fascinating not just for its content -- it includes pieces by Michel Foucault, Martin Heidegger, Heiner Müller, Cristo, Jean Baudrillard and William Burroughs -- but also for its nature as an artifact. It is suffused with the leftist idea of political revolution, envisioning a Marxist/socialist idyll over exploitative capitalism, which seems now to have dominated intellectual discussions during the Cold War. Even as contributors wrote about the troubling issues of surveillance and control, there is a sense that a communist state was to be desired. ‘In the late seventies and early eighties, a number of innovative political experiments were being carried out, especially in Italy and Germany,’ Lotringer writes in his new preface. ‘Both [the Italy and Germany issues] were meant to investigate the future of politics in late capitalism (‘post-political politics’).’

The underlying assumptions are exposed in the conversation between Lotringer and Schlöndorff, which took place in June this year. ‘The German Left in general,’ Schlöndorff says, ‘always suspected that what was on the other side of the wall, in East Germany or in all the socialist countries for that matter, was not really socialism.... ‘If you are not happy here, why don’t you go to the other side?’ the conservative and bourgeois press kept asking them. And I must say, in retrospect, that it was a very valid argument.... But the Left would not accept the argument. There was a complete blindness, especially in West Berlin, on the true nature of the system in the East.’ After the wall fell, Schlöndorff went to East Germany to lead UFA, a once-famous film studio that had languished for decades. ‘I came to realize that this socialism that we had dreamt of not only had destroyed the economy, the habitat and the environment -- it had really destroyed the people; it had broken their back, their sense of initiative, of individual responsibility.’

Many people are using the anniversary of the fall of the wall to look back at Germany in the Cold War era. In today’s paper, Carlin Romano looks at four books that reevaluate that history, all of which point out things that have been missed, glossed over or misinterpreted. This is what makes history worth reading -- and what makes looking at Semiotext(e)'s German Issue interesting. Our 20-year vantage reveals what burdened the arguments of some of the world’s most interesting thinkers, and shines a light on their blind spots.


-- Carolyn Kellogg