On October 3, Germany celebrated its 25th anniversary of reunification after 45 years of division.
During the Cold War, the divided Germany was central to the conflict between the capitalist United States and the communist Soviet Union. Today, Germany is free, the border between the east and the west has disappeared, and the united country is considered the economic and political powerhouse of the European Union. Forbes recently called German premier Angela Merkel the most powerful woman in the world for the fifth consecutive year.
It’s fair to say that the last 25 years have been a success story for the German people.
But before that, Germany experienced several dark chapters in its history: from Nazism, fascism, and the Holocaust in the 1930s and 1940s to totalitarianism and communism in Germany’s east until reunification in 1990. While Germany celebrates its unity and the freedom the entire country now enjoys, it’s important to remember those who were fighting for these values during the dark chapters in the country’s history.
Numerous resistance fighters risked and lost their lives throughout the decades of totalitarianism in both east and west. Some of those resistance fighters were recognized for their sacrifice — like Claus von Stauffenberg, a German Army officer who attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler, or the White Rose movement, a non-violent student resistance group in Munich featuring Sophie and Hans Scholl, whom the Nazis executed. Others have not received much recognition at all.
German-American artist Stefan Roloff, who lives in New York, focused some of his recent work on the subject of totalitarianism and its long-lasting consequences on a society’s culture. As a visual artist, he pioneered what he calls “Moving Paintings,” and he’s done installations that explore the experiences of the victims of the East German Stasi. Roloff’s father, Helmut Roloff, was part of a resistance organization that Nazi Germany’s secret police, the Gestapo, called the Red Orchestra (to suggest a connection to the Soviet Union).
I interviewed Stefan Roloff and spoke with him about his artwork, his views on totalitarianism, and the impact it has on society.
Haus: Like me, you are originally from Germany and immigrated to the United States. Germany officially unified in 1990, but the Berlin Wall fell the year before. Where were you when the wall came down in November 1989? How did it impact you? Did you see it coming?
Roloff: I was on my way to my studio, crossing Astor Place, when I saw the headline of the New York Times. I thought I was dreaming. For a moment I considered returning home, going back to bed, getting up once more and walking out “for real.” But I continued walking to my studio, where my answering machine was blinking with messages from Berlin.
At first it didn’t impact me personally. Despite the incredible aspect of the situation, the media mostly showed people, strangers, hugging each other in the streets. I felt I was witnessing a great moment of Kitsch, which was sure to give way. It did. In the years to come, however, it had a great impact on me because I was lucky to meet some of the few who had dared to oppose that system, and I got to do projects with them. I would have never met them had the Wall stayed up.
Haus: I want to talk a bit more about Stefan Roloff the person and your German-American identity. You currently live in New York, but I understand you spend a significant amount of time in Berlin. Do you still feel much attached to your home country?
Roloff: I feel that currently Germany is in a dangerous moment. As refugees stream into this country, a wave of xenophobia is spreading. It’s not overly powerful yet, but it’s dangerous. Though Germany is economically a strong nation, perfectly capable of feeding these people, the state of emergency is used to spread fear of terrorists. (Of course, some terrorists could enter a country hidden in a wave of refugees. But they could just as well enter while there’s no wave of refugees.) So how attached could I feel to a place where clearly a large part of the population has learned nothing from its Nazi history and is willing to repeat mistakes of the past? I think that question answers itself.
Haus: Do you tie this reaction into the recent anti-EU wave that in the past few years brought an unprecedented number of right-wing parties into the European Parliament? Do you think it it’s just a current problem, or do you see a reason to be concerned about European culture?
Roloff: I don’t consider it current. I’ve observed it for decades and feel it’s always there. When unexpectedly confronted with foreigners, people will more openly voice their fear of those who “came here to take our jobs and women.” They forget that, at some point, they also came to whichever land they inhabit. … There’s a similar problem in the United States, with Muslims being typecast as terrorists and Mexicans as criminals.
Haus: You immigrated to the United States in the 1970s because you always considered New York home. Can you tell us a how that connection came to be?
Roloff: Yes, from the first moment I set foot in the city, I felt that New York was my home. It was a strange feeling as I had never been there before. Yet the city was so familiar.
About 30 years later, during a research project, I found a correspondence between my father and Annemarie Kuttner, a Jewish Holocaust survivor he’d helped during the Nazi era. In those letters, written in the years before her death in New York in 1964 (the time of the Eichmann and Auschwitz trials), she asked him why he was still living in Germany, why he didn’t move to New York. She said she would help to set him up. He had established a life in Berlin and also believed in contributing to the new German society to prevent things from happening again, but I’m sure he must have asked himself whether emigration wasn’t an option as well. I can’t help but believe that somehow there’s a connection.
Haus: Let’s get back to the topic of totalitarianism and political imprisonment. You focused a lot of your work on these topics. How did you become interested in that? Was it your father’s story that got you started?
Roloff: I had been interested in the subject of wrongful imprisonment (not to be confused with political imprisonment) for a long time. It was through that that I actually found my father’s story.
Haus: Your father was active with the “Red Orchestra,” which was falsely accused of being a spy ring for the Soviet Union. Can you tell us about that?
Roloff: When my father was about to die, I began conducting interviews with him about his past as a prisoner of the Gestapo. Initially, that was my personal, private attempt to get to know him after I had spent decades living in other countries and continents. However, I soon realized that this was more than a private conversation. My portrait of my father turned into a documentary film, which continues to be shown on a regular basis.
This year, the Holocaust Memorial in Washington DC has incorporated the “Red Orchestra” into its permanent exhibition, finally giving the group its long-deserved recognition.
Haus: When was the Red Orchestra’s name finally cleared? And why do you think it took so long for the group to receive the recognition it so clearly deserves?
Roloff: I’m not sure when exactly the group was officially recognized, but I know it was done in a speech by Angela Merkel. She mentioned the Red Orchestra as a resistance group in a speech in July 2014, but I believe the official recognition took place a few years earlier. In the States, the first official recognition was the group’s incorporation into the permanent exhibition at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC.
Why did it take so long? The Cold War has been over for over 25 years, but its shadows still linger. The so-called “Red Orchestra” was one of them. In the minds of many it still is, even today.
Haus: Do you blame governments for oppression? Do you blame the bureaucrats participating, or not resisting? Or do you blame both?
Roloff: I feel bureaucrats often carry the heaviest blame and are the least prosecuted for it. The ultimate extermination of the Jews wasn’t developed by Hitler and his inner circle but by eager bureaucrats trying to create some sick form of efficiency for their system.
Haus: You’ve told stories about former oppressors from Communist East Germany landing decent jobs in a unified Germany, which doesn’t sit well with you.
Roloff: The problem is they never came out and admitted what they did. Cowardice was what made them submit to begin with, and it stays the same in their new world. That’s why people who do well in one system tend to do well in the next.
Haus: You’ve interviewed various former prisoners of conscience. What were some of the most fascinating lessons you learned? Did you observe any trends, any commonalities in thinking?
Roloff: Yes — a person shouldn’t give up hope. Political prisoners often live by that. They seem to try to keep their minds active, against all odds. My father learned English when he was in a Nazi prison, facing the prospect of his execution. Why? Because he had hope, despite his desperate situation. A former resister to the Communist system once put it in these great words when I interviewed him: “We aren’t victims; we never were. We’re the perpetrators.”
Haus: What does that mean, “we’re the perpetrators”?
Roloff: The term “perpetrator” was used ironically. A perpetrator is someone who commits a crime. What he was trying to say was that he didn’t feel victimized, a term that evokes passiveness. To his past he wanted to apply a term that evokes action. Since in his country his fight for freedom was considered a criminal act, he was, in their eyes, a perpetrator. He felt a sense of pride in the fact that the system, despite its repression, hadn’t managed to make him a victim.
Haus: One of the arguments you frequently make is that dictatorship and totalitarianism have a great effect on the next generation, even after these suppressive systems disappear. Can you tell us about your school of thought here?
Roloff: I’ve interviewed many children of people who were in the resistance, both during Nazi times and in Communist East Germany. It’s evident that their parents’ experiences have a profound influence on some of these “kids,” some of whom may today be well into their 80s.
In my case, it fermented within my work over the course of years. I wasn’t aware of it until it materialized.
Haus: Let’s talk a bit about your latest exhibition, “Die Kinder,” which is currently on display in Berlin and touches on these themes. The exhibition consists of silhouettes of former Stasi prisoners telling their story. I understand you based the narratives on many interviews you conducted with former Stasi prisoners. Can you tell us a bit more about this and how it relates to this theory?
Roloff: Children of resistance fighters can carry the trauma and the dreams that their parents experienced. It almost resembles a genetic imprint because of its inevitability and causes them to have a special role in their subconscious reception of the subsequent society. Looking back, I experienced that myself — even in school, even as a little child. It’s profound.
Haus: Will we ever get to see the exhibition here in the U.S.?
Roloff: I hope so, as it represents a timeless phenomenon that everybody, somehow, can relate to.
Haus: Given all we discussed so far, is it fair to say that oppressive regimes have a lasting effect on a country’s culture?
Roloff: Yes, and that’s why we should remain aware of their consequences, especially in times when people think it has become part of the past. They suppress the fact that the past, given the turning of the wheel of time, may again become the future.
Haus: Where do you see this effect taking place? Since all of Germany has a rather recent history with totalitarianism, and Eastern Germany has an even more recent experience with communism, do you see it there?
Roloff: I see it in the nature of people, even animals. There’s always a pecking order, and it depends on the leader to create their tribe’s quality of life. There may have been, in some rare cases, benevolent kings during the course of history. Most of them, however, weren’t benevolent at all.
Germans tend to do things thoroughly and that, along with the grueling evidence at Auschwitz and other camps, makes them stand out. However, singling them out as the only ones who committed atrocities could distract from the basic phenomenon. I’ll always support the fact that the Holocaust, as a closed, well-documented historic chapter, should continue to stand through the ages as a central symbol of atrocities. But I think it’s unfair to nail “Germans” alone with it. Too many other nations were involved in it or looked the other way when it happened.
And, as we know, atrocities are happening all over the world even now. Today, “we,” whoever we may be, become part of that process by looking the other way. The extraordinary efforts that refugees make to reach Europe or the Western world speaks volumes in this context. And the reception that Europe gives them is atrocious in many ways. Germany, up until now, has tried to receive them, but the population is starting to complain about it.
Haus: Whereas in the United States it is quite common and considered a good thing to be proud of your country, it’s more complex in Germany because of the country’s troubled past. But I still think that the German people are a very proud people. Do you think there lies a danger in a cultural suppression of national pride, or do you think we Americans are excessive in showing our pride?
Roloff: Showing pride in something you haven’t achieved yourself is a naive concept. It’s hard to fathom how a society that hasn’t overcome violence, segregation, and hatred can pride itself on having found the ultimate way.
On the other hand, the spirit of freedom is, to me, more rooted in American society than in any other that I’ve come to know, despite these human shortcomings. These failings aren’t just American, but can be seen in any society I’ve come to know — with the exception of an Indian tribe I once visited, which had lived untouched by civilization for a few hundred years. The aforementioned problems are therefore not just American. They’re the result of civilization.
Haus: Let’s change topic. When did you pick up painting?
Roloff: As a child, and I never stopped.
Haus: You are known for your layered painting approach, which you frequently videotape, layer by layer. When and how did you come up with that strategy?
Roloff: Two of Antony Van Dyck’s portraits titled “Genovese Couple” hang next to each other in Berlin’s “Gemäldegalerie” (portray gallery). When you step in front of them, they look straight at you. They have a soul, as though two real people were in the room. For a long time, I wondered how Van Dyck and a few other painters managed to achieve such an effect. They took their time, painting for weeks or months. Sometimes the model came in a happy mood, sometimes somber, talkative, or silent. And inevitably, the painters added their own moods.
Viewing the final painting, we automatically perceive the life of the layers beneath. I wanted to implement this concept through a video. Paintings are built spatially, videos through time. A painting’s layers lie on top of each other, a video’s frames next to each other. In 1984, at the New York Institute of Technology, I filmed 900 successive layers of an imaginary portrait on a single canvas. Later, they were edited into a three-minute sequence that loops backwards, resulting in the six-minute piece “Face,” my first Moving Painting.
Haus: You have a history of working with the musician Peter Gabriel. In fact, I remember watching Gabriel’s music video “Sledgehammer” on MTV after school in the late 1980s or early 90s, and I thought to myself what a strange and yet fascinating video. You were the artist behind the effects, and your video portrait “Face” inspired it. Can you give us some details on how you met Peter Gabriel and how your effects came to inspire his videos?
Roloff: In 1983-84, Gabriel became one of the backers of Art Palace, a gallery on Broadway and Houston, which showed my work. He had, around that time, produced his video “Shock the Monkey” and was looking for new ways to expand the nature of music videos. Parallel to that, I had been witnessing the beginnings of MTV and thought that it could become a great forum for music and arts — that it could produce a new art form in which music and visuals communicated with each other.
It was a given that Gabriel and I became interested in each other’s plans. In 1984, together with the New York Institute for Technology, he produced the “Face” into which, while building the layered approach, I also incorporated a rhythmic structure. Rhythm and tones are parallel phenomena that exist in both music and visuals. Painting, like music, is created over the course of time. In my audiovisual project with the musician Martin Rev, this concept has been developed over the course of 30 years.
Haus: Your production company is called “When 6 is 9.” Were you inspired by the Jimmy Hendrix song? Are you trying to portray the dichotomy of society here? How did you come up with that name?
Roloff: Yes, Hendrix’ song was titled “If Six Was Nine.” In it, he hinted at a moment when times would change and people would alter their thinking and appearances to fit with the new reality. Released at the tail end of the 1960s, this song seems prophetic to me. It wasn’t so obvious back then how much people would betray their idealistic philosophies, make compromises, and submit to the powers that be.
If you take a six and turn it around, it’s the same figure — like a person who stays the same in appearance, but has taken on a new meaning. Like a Nazi who turns into the member of a democratic society or vice versa. Since I am interested in that which lies beyond the apparent that meets the eye, the layers beyond the surface, this song’s title seemed to relate to the nature of my work. Paying homage to Hendrix’ quote, when I founded my company 14 years after the release of his song, I incorporated into its name the difference that the six had actually turned into a nine.
Haus: Misperception seems to be a big theme in your analysis of things. I think you once mentioned that we tend to generalize about a people by the stories we see in the media. In your opinion, is our understanding of different cultures, peoples, and countries shaped by misperception?
Roloff: Misperception isn’t the word I would use. However, yes, people don’t realize that you could go to any country without being a foreigner. After all, you only find others there who, like youself, shit, shower, and shave before they go to the grave.
Haus: In one of your previous interviews with John Feffer, you mentioned that you frequently noticed West Germans looking down on East Germans, thinking they would know East Germany better than the East Germans themselves. Can you describe how that became a standard? Is that an example of such a generalization caused by the media?
Roloff: I see it as a variation on the theme of racism. People don’t even need the media for that. They’re always happy to find or create a group that’s less privileged than they are. It probably heightens their low self-esteem.
The display “Resistance in Germany: The ‘Red Orchestra'” can be viewed at the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, where it’s become part of the permanent exhibition.