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That Awful Timelessness Of Picasso's Guernica

Sadly, the wall-sized master work says as much about the world's current horrors as it did about the first-ever air raid on civilians 80 years ago.

Visitors walking past Guernica
Visitors walking past Guernica
Aura Lucía Mera

MADRID — Mercy and Terror. That is the title of an exhibition in Madrid's Reina Sofía museum exhibit that depicts Pablo Picasso's artistic progression toward Guernica, his pitiless portrayal of the cruelty of war.

In stylistic terms, it is a journey that may have begun in 1925, 11 years before the start of the Spanish Civil War, which led to the bombing of Guernica, in the Basque Country, by German forces aligned with army rebels against the Spanish Republic.

Picasso's monumental painting, perhaps his most famous work, reuses and magnifies the pained expressions of earlier figures, already distorted within a phantasmagoric pictorial discourse. It was also a premonition of the horrors soon to overwhelm the European continent under Hitler.

When the artist was invited to take part in the Spanish Pavilion in Paris in 1937, he had never before broached overtly political subjects. But his blue period, which conveyed peace and serenity, had long ended, and he was moving beyond his cubist breakthrough. His sketches, paintings and drawings were beginning to speak of tragedies, pain and tears. For Picasso, women had become "suffering machines' and happiness "had never existed."

Picasso concentrated this pain into his merciless depiction of the bombing of a small town. He used shades of grey to depict human (and animal) slaughter, sobbing and the suffering of the innocent. This was the picture he displayed in Paris, perhaps without imagining it would later become a universal symbol of the cruel insanity of war.

Very little on this front has changed since Guernica's creation. The world is equally inhumane: missiles, hunger, terrorism. Blood and more blood. The nuclear threat that persists, child rape and human trafficking, closed borders and oceans turned into liquid graveyards. The shrieking that emanates from the master work still pierces our contemporary ears, in spite of our resolute deafness and indifference to "other people's' tragedies, and the overwhelming sway money, power and ambition hold over our lives.

Reading the news from anywhere now is a veritable trauma: a polluted planet, a heartless world, an insatiable and universal desire to destroy. An unfettered rage seems to have been let loose. It has unhinged the structure of our most elementary values and is leading people toward destruction. There are no winners in sight without a restoration of a sense of pity, forgiveness and love in ourselves.


The new show on display provides renewed impact. It not only reminds us of the past but also reflects our present. And unless we recover a measure of compassion, it may also presage an even more terrible future. Guernica is the inimitable representation of moral duty staring us in the face.

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Society

What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel

-Essay-

BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.


Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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