Leipzig

Sunday lunchtime, grey sky, almost no-one in the streets. a young nutter sat on the pavement, cheerfully declaiming. An entire Russian brass band busking, and all the other buskers within earshot playing along; later, a six-piece English rock band with full amplification, including the fiddle. Flat overgrown spaces opened by Bomber Harris a lifetime ago interspersed with the square construction that in some places filled them, and pre-1914 buildings kitted out in loving architectural detail:

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As you can probably tell from the last photo, in Germany it’s as if 2008 never happened. People sitting in pavement cafes ordering to their hearts’ content, jammed into sushi restaurants, carrying steins of beer about while the bands play in the streets…

I went to the art museum, which was full of pretty much the whole gamut of European art of the last half-millennium: Renaissance and post-Renaissance religious paintings, Dutch seascapes, 18th century portraits, a whole bunch of beautifully executed Italianate Romantic landscapes, a couple of Manets, weird colourful misshapen modernist pieces, some garish contemporary stuff, a basement gallery with mostly drab but also some surprisingly cheery products of 1980s DDR. But only a couple of things really to write home about:

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That’s the cool crisp clarity of Caspar David Friedrich – The Stages of Life. 1834. The other one is a lot older:

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That’s Cranach the Elder, early 15th century, painting the King of Denmark. What I especially like about it is the way you can see the stress of the job in his hands…

apart from that, the thing I liked best in the museum was in one of the massive darkened wooden stairwells, a simple white neon sign all on its own asking, in English: Will I be missed?

which segues nicely into the next stop: the Stasi museum, located in the old Stasi headquarters in Leipzig, invaded by the revolutionaries in December 1989 to prevent further shredding of documents. They left the decor exactly as it was, and set up a series of explanatory displays. So it’s grim, badly lit and tawdry – pretty much like what it commemorates. What a way to spend a life – secretively compiling incriminating information on the lives of perfectly ordinary people who just wanted to be able to speak their minds. Yet in saying that, I also demur: how easy it must have been to get sucked into that, to lose the sense of what, overall, was important, in a grim society where there must have seemed few alternatives if you had any ambition. How easy to slowly become a petty monster without even realizing fully what was happening to you. Back then, no-one knew 1989 was coming, of course. There must be quite a few people out there who are still living with that. Easy to say it was wrong (which it was) when you have lived all your life without those pressures…

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1 Response to Leipzig

  1. markrossiter says:

    I found some philosophical cover for my last point from Isaiah Berlin, as paraphrased by Adam Thirlwell in his introduction to Paul Wilson’s English translation of I Served the King of England by Bohumil Hrabal: “No moral judgment whatsoever [is] possible from conditions of safety…on the behaviour of human beings in conditions of danger”. This may seem like dangerous relativism, but on the other hand maybe it is just the humility to admit that I cannot be sure I would have done any better myself…

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