Travelling to Germany to give lectures this week, I go first to the pretty medieval town of Osnabrück. My kind hosts show me the sights, starting with the historic town hall of this so called City of Peace where in 1648 a treaty was signed ending the thirty years war. Ah, if only that had been that… The town hall, with its impressive oil portraits of the signatories and 12th century chandeliers, is a good place to sit and ponder. Osnabrück is also the city where, as recently as 2009, the British had a garrison, the biggest in Europe outside the UK. It is partly the reason for my being invited to give a talk as British army wives decades ago decided that a good way both to cement relations between victor and vanquished and one which would give themselves a reminder of British culture was to form a group called British Decorative and Fine Arts Societies, an offshoot of the better known National Decorative and Fine Arts Societies – or Nadfas.
Just across from the old town hall, in a cobbled square that no doubt comes alive with Christmas markets, I visit the Erich Maria Remarque house. I’d always wondered about that name and what else he had written. In fact he was born in Osnabrück in 1898 as Erich Remark but later took Maria in memory of his mother and changed the K to the more interesting ‘que’ when he became famous. He was extremely handsome and the museum tells the story of Remarque’s complicated private life as well as his work – his friendship with Marlene Dietrich and marriage to Paulette Goddard – and how he fell foul of the Nazis for his damning indictment of war. When they could not reach him they killed his sister instead. After World War 2, he lived in Switzerland, worked on screen plays and many other novels, some of them bestsellers but never quite repeating the success of his early work. All Quiet on the Western Front, which examined the experience of ordinary soldiers, was rejected by numerous publishers until Ullstein took it on. Seeing the much scribbled on hand written manuscript was a reminder of the many different perspectives have created this powerful country.
“Ah yes that happened in former times,” I kept hearing, or “Those were dark days.“ Many ordinary Germans lost homes, possessions, parents and loved ones and it is true that few of the older generation in Germany have not suffered.
But the strongest and most painful reminder of quite how dark those days were came from a visit to the Daniel Liebeskind museum dedicated to that other son of Osnabruck, Felix Nussbaum. Nussbaum, born in 1904 into a prosperous and cultured family, died at Auschwitz aged 39 in 1944. The Nussbaum Haus is dedicated to his memory and is extraordinary not least for the vast number of Nussbaum paintings that have survived and come back here, including many self- portraits. The building itself , the first Liebeskind building to be finished, shows how the architecture contributes to the experience as it is full of oblique angled walls, sloping windows and angular niches giving a strong sense of lost orientation and withering hope. The growing coldness of the materials – zinc and cement – add to the sense of impending doom for Nussbaum and yet his most powerfully assertive work was arguably created when, after hiding for months in Belgium, he knew he would not survive yet continued painting. Facing the certainty of death he created The Triumph of Death in which he tried to assert that, even when the world is in ruins, a dance of death goes on. He wanted it to be seen as an artistic response and act of liberation and self -assertion amid all the barbarity.
Image taken from Wikipedia – “The Felix Nussbaum Haus in Osnabrück, Germany. A museum, designed by architect Daniel Libeskind, which houses around 160 paintings by the German-Jewish painter, Felix Nussbaum, who was killed in the Holocaust.”