The most compelling political performance artists in Germany do not like to be called “artists.” Nor do they prefer the label of “activists”—a term they reserve for gradualists, clicktivists, and the letter-writers of Amnesty International. Founded in 2009 by the philosopher Philipp Ruch, the Center for Political Beauty makes its base of “operations” (Aktionen in German) in Berlin, with changing groups of volunteers and partners throughout Europe. Its members, who wear suits and charcoal war paint, are organized into “assault teams” aiming to establish “moral beauty, political poetry and human greatness [Großgesinntheit].” They call themselves “aggressive humanists.”
The Center initially made a name for itself when it launched a campaign in the style of “Wanted” posters promising a reward of twenty-five thousand Euros for information leading to the arrest of the von Braunbehrens and Bode families, who share ownership of the arms corporation Krauss-Maffei Wegmann. Controversially, the company had proposed exporting several hundred Leopard 2 tanks to Saudi Arabia. One member of the board stepped down from his post after the exposure, and eventually the deal was abandoned on account of public pressure.
The Center has risen to new national prominence during the recent refugee crisis. In May 2014 the German Ministry for Family Affairs, headed by center-left secretary Manuela Schwesig, announced on a new website that it would offer asylum to fifty-five thousand Syrian children—1 percent of the five million who would need it according to UNICEF. This was in the build-up to the peak of the refugee crisis in 2015, months before Merkel’s exhortation “We can do it.”
The website, which offered online forms for Germans to register as host families, went viral on social media. A video showed happy, grateful children in Aleppo thanking Secretary Schwesig for her initiative. Large crowds spontaneously assembled in front of the offices of the Ministry for Family Affairs in Berlin, celebrating and leaving an ocean of flowers and teddy bears. Such is the political beauty that the Center imagines. It was they who had created the website, as well as a complete Federal Emergency Program, including IT infrastructure, a ready-to-implement legislative framework, extensive PR materials, active hotlines with actors answering questions about the program, and contacts with schools and other organizations inside Syria—a hyper-real theater performance. The Ministry could have played along but chose not to. Embarrassedly and awkwardly, they declared a day later that, no, they would not save the children.
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The Center’s English translation of their operation as “Federal Emergency Program” obscures a key point. In German it was called “Kindertransporthilfe des Bundes,” referencing the famous Kindertransport which allowed more than ten thousand children to emigrate from Nazi Germany to Great Britain in 1938-39, which meant that in many cases these children were the only survivors in their families. The term carries a tremendous, positive emotional charge in German and powerfully resonates in the collective memory. Mobilizing such memories has become a signature move of the Center’s work. The worlds they seek to create are utopian—but these utopias are tethered to known historical precedents. In this case the historical reference, while emphasizing an exemplary case of moral beauty and humanity, also draws our attention to the fact that the Kindertransport were an exception. Not entirely unlike today, most countries in the Thirties had reacted to the increased inflow of refugees by tightening their border controls and imposing stricter immigration laws. The Center quotes Chaim Weizmann on their homepage: “The world seemed to be divided into two parts—those places where the Jews could not live, and those where they could not enter.”
As is often the case in the Center’s work, the shining example comes with a warning: to underscore the beauty and nobility of some acts, they contrast them with the cynicism and brutality of others. As part of the Kindertransporthilfe, the Center set up an installation at Berlin’s central Friedrichstrasse Station, close to Frank Meisler’s bronze sculpture “Trains to Life—Trains to Death.“ Meisler’s work commemorates both the ten thousand children who were saved from the camps, and the 1.6 million who were killed in them. The Center set up two blue containers in front of the station with pictures of wounded and mutilated Syrian children. Each picture came with a phone number, which passersby could dial to vote on who should receive asylum and who should not: one in a hundred would be saved, the slogan went—and 99 would not. Nearby was a “medical tent” where Syrian doctors who had fled to Germany would take care of Germans for whom the pictures were too disturbing. While they treated them they told stories of the children they’d had to abandon in the ruins of Aleppo’s bombed hospitals.