BERLIN — In November 2017, a group of German artists and activists built a “Holocaust replica memorial” outside the home of Björn Höcke, a German politician who days before had called the infamous Holocaust memorial in Berlin “a monument of shame.”
Höcke, a member of Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, decried German memorials that commemorate the horrors of World War II and Nazi crimes as besmirching the country’s identity, qualifying it as “speech against his own people.”
In the days that followed, a German political art collective called the Center for Political Beauty (ZPS), set up a replica of the Berlin memorial near the home of the AfD politician in the politician’s home town, Bornhagen.
After launching a crowd-funding campaign to “build a Holocaust memorial directly outside Höcke’s house,” the group rented a neighboring property and constructed a memorial resembling the one in Berlin, consisting of 27 rectangular grey concrete pillars of varying heights, directly outside Höcke’s home in an adjacent property.
In response, Höcke’s regional branch of the AfD in Thuringia accused the group of conducting “an outrageous intrusion on the privacy of the Höcke family,” with one party spokesman going so far as to accuse the group of “stalking” Höcke’s wife and children. In order to protect the monument, ZPS claimed to have set up their own “civil” intelligence service to monitor “Germany’s biggest agitator.”
Höcke sued the artist, unsuccessfully trying to have him evicted. This, in turn, led to a 16-month investigation into artist Philipp Ruch and other members of ZPS.
After the investigation by German police proved inconclusive, and less than a week after it had become public, the investigation by German police into the artists who built the partial replica of Germany’s national Holocaust memorial has been closed. Though the investigation had largely been kept under wraps, news that members of ZPS had been under investigation surfaced last week, prompting calls from leading voices in Germany’s cultural sector that the investigation was motivated by the investigator’s ties to the far-right AfD.
Last Thursday, a letter circulated by Maxim Gorki Theater’s artistic director Shermin Langhoff, signed by more than 100 prominent German cultural figures, academics, and politicians, expressed “disbelief” at the investigation.
The letter accuses police of using the same tactics during their 16-month investigation into ZPS that it uses to monitor violent gangs, extremist groups, and terrorist cells, slamming the investigation as a politically motivated attack that “threatens freedom of expression and art.”
The letter goes on to demand an explanation from an attorney for the state of Thuringia, Martin Zschächner, who was in charge of the investigation. Zschächner was accused earlier this year by a rival left-wing politician of being soft on offenders with far-right sympathies.
In an article published last week by the German newspaper Die Zeit, Zschächner was found to have donated €30 ($34 USD) to the AfD in Thuringia’s State Assembly, which is represented by Björn Höcke, the target of ZPS’s political art action.
According to the New York Times, Zschächner said the investigation into ZPS was not political “but had been prompted by the collective’s own statements about another part of the work: a fake spy room, open to the public, in which Mr. Ruch and his colleagues pretended to monitor Mr. Höcke’s home with old electronic equipment.”
“On their internet page they said they wanted to spy on him, so the question is whether that happened or was planned,” Zschächner responded.
Since the 2017 German federal election, the AfD, chaired by Jörg Meuthen, has become the largest opposition party in Germany’s federal parliament. However, a number of critics point to elements within the party that openly purport racist, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic and xenophobic tendencies. The party is also frequently linked to far-right movements such as neo-Nazism and identitarianism. Currently, Höcke is one of only seven AfD representatives in Thuringia’s 91-seat state legislature.
ZPS was founded in 2009 as an association of about 70 action artists and creative people under the direction of Philipp Ruch. Members consider their work part of a “think tank” designed to “connect human rights with action art.” ZPS is “an idea, emotion and action for people who are busy. It’s about how they can connect and do something beautiful and great,” Ruch says.
The group’s first action, “The Reformation of History,” began on May 8, 2009 with a “theses attack on the German Bundestag,” an event intended to draw awareness to politicians about the value of art in civil society.
At the 3rd Berlin Autumn Salon of the Maxim Gorki Theater in 2018, ZPS’s Holocaust replica memorial action was presented under the title “Your Stele.” The Berlin Autumn Salon is an annual interdisciplinary festival that brings together artists and activists who examine identity and belonging as well as gender issues, religion and nationalism.
The Holocaust Memorial action in Bornhagen seems to have struck a nerve at a time when the AfD is gaining strength and political clout. Following death threats against several members of ZPS, and the subsequent police investigation into the group, signatories to the letter voiced solidarity with the group and called the police investigation unwarranted and politically motivated.
“This is something we otherwise only see in countries like Turkey or Russia — autocratic countries where art is criminalized, where artists, journalists and scientists who do not conform to the government are branded as terrorists and traitors,” said Langhoff, the letter’s principal.
“Our concern is really the intimidation of art and we think as artists and culture makers we have to say something,” Langhoff was quoted as saying in an interview last week with the New York Times. “That’s why I took the initiative.”