The photographer’s new monograph is a collection of images taken between Germany and Poland, creating an atmosphere of uncertainty that characterises the future of this troubled nation.
In German, the phrase ’Vergangenheitsbewältigung’ describes the process of coming to terms with, and analysing the nation’s troubled past, specifically the Holocaust and other World War Two crimes. Among natives, the term is well known. However, as time goes by, and the scars left behind by the trauma of the Nazis threaten to pass into memory, the meaning of it becomes hollow and inconsequential. “It doesn’t mean anything if you don’t deal with it in the present,” says German photographer Jörg Colberg, who explores this notion in his latest book, Vaterland, published by Kerber Verlag. “I wanted to make a book about what it actually means. If all we do is feel sad on certain days, then it’s just a ritual, and an empty one.”
Today, Germany is a global political and economic leader. Angela Merkel, the first female chancellor, will have served four terms, totalling 16 years, in 2021, and has been instrumental to the country’s progressive and liberal reputation. For instance, much of the world looked on during the 2015 migrant crisis while Germany welcomed over one million refugees; a controversial move that arguably spurred increased nationalist sentiment among its people, particularly in the east.
Since then, new players have gained traction on the political stage, exploiting anti-immigrant fervour. In 2017, the populist radical right-wing party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), founded in 2013, won an unprecedented 94 seats in the Bundestag, becoming the third strongest party. AfD is openly Eurosceptic and anti-immigration and provides a platform for antisemitic and Islamophobic rhetoric. In the last five years, a host of neo-Nazi organisations, such as Wolfsbrigade 44, founded in 2016, and Combat 18, which originated in the UK in the 1990s, have also helped spread radical ideology. The government banned both groups in 2020; in part as a response to the shooting of politician Walter Lübcke in June 2019 by a member of Combat 18 for his pro-refugee work, and an attempt by another far-right figure to carry out a mass shooting at a synagogue in Halle, killing two individuals, in October 2019. In February last year, a far-right extremist also murdered nine people at two shisha bars in Hanau, targeting those with an immigrant background. These are just a few examples of the rise of far-right extremism across the country.
“I had this increasing feeling that something wasn’t quite right. Knowing about what was going on, but was not being talked about.”
In Vaterland, the first of at least two books Colberg has planned reflecting on today’s Germany, the photographer ruminates on this hostile atmosphere, which he believes is not being taken seriously enough. Travelling back to his native Germany from his home in Northampton, Massachusetts every year for the past decade, he has witnessed the change first-hand. “I had this increasing feeling that something wasn’t quite right,” he says. “Knowing about what was going on, but it was not being talked about.” Reports of violent incidents continue, anti-immigrant racism and xenophobia creep into everyday speech, synagogues have been attacked, and yet no sustainable solutions are offered. “This is dangerous,” Colberg says. “This discourse is becoming normalised, which connects it back to the Nazi past.”
Colberg took the images that comprise Vaterland in Berlin, Hamburg and Warsaw. He initially planned to explore the complicated relationship between Germany and Poland because of the monumental violence and suffering the bordering country experienced at the hands of the Nazis during the war. As the project evolved, Colberg decided to focus on the German experience, but in order to represent that faithfully, Warsaw still had an important part to play. “There was so much history wherever you went,” he says. “A shared history, which is Germany destroying everything and killing so many people. But that’s what drew me in.”
Vaterland creates an atmosphere of uneasiness. The air is still, and the light invariable throughout, like a cold winter day when the sky remains the same, dull-white colour from dawn until dark. There is little contrast between black and white. Instead the images sink into a blend of grey tones. Each picture frames a lingering uncertainty; something out of place. It might be subtle, such as an irregularity of different bricks in a wall, or an anxious, sideways glance; or more obscure, like an unexplained yet carefully manicured patch of grass growing beneath a steel fence. The images work together to create a mood of angst. “I wanted to make people aware that something is amiss,” says Colberg. “I didn’t want it to be didactic. I’m not a politician, I’m an artist. I don’t think it’s the role of an artist to provide solutions or to claim to have answers.”
There are also a handful of portraits, distinctly of young adults living in Germany. “I thought the people in the book should be the ones that will have to live with this for a lot longer than I do,” Colberg says. “They’re the ones that will find the solutions because the older generations are incapable.” Colberg ends the monograph with a series of statistics translated into German, English and Polish. On the left-hand page, he lists the World War Two death toll by European country, the highest in Poland with 5.62 to 5.82 million deaths; Holocaust deaths; and the wartime destruction of Warsaw. On the right-hand, the number of attacks on asylum centres in Germany between 2011 and 2017 and the increase in vote share won by AfD in state and federal elections. “I wanted to end by comparing the past to the present,” Colberg says. “The present cannot be understood without the past, but you have to deal with it at the same time. ’Destroy’ is a strong word, but I wanted to tear down the idea of these rituals of only thinking about the past on certain days and that’s it. I really want people to think about what’s going on every day. It’s little things that build up to bigger things.”
If we are to learn from history and truly practise the meaning of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, these unravelling events should serve as a warning. The formality of monuments and laying wreaths has thrown us into a state of complacency. “I see the book as a reminder of personal responsibility,” says Colberg. “I’m not telling people what to do and how to do it, but if anything, to become aware of their responsibility of what it means to be German living in Germany. Today, that’s very important.”
Starting out as an intern back in 2016, Izabela Radwanska Zhang is now the Editorial Director of British Journal of Photography in print and online. Her words have appeared in Disegno and Press Association. Prior to this, she completed a MA in Magazine Journalism at City University, London, and most recently, a Postgrad Certificate in Graphic Design at London College of Communication.