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Wrapping the Reichstag

Wrapping the Reichstag
Re-visioning German history
Esther Leslie

Whoever emerges victorious participates, to this day,
in the triumphal procession in which the present rulers
step over those who are lying prostrate. As is always
the case, the spoils are carried along in the procession.

They are called cultural treasures. The historical
materialist views them with cautious detachment. For
without exception the cultural treasures he surveys
have an origin which he cannot contemplate without

Walter Benjamin,
Thesis VII, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’

Public events in Germany are meticulously scrutinized
by intellectuals at home and abroad. The burden of the
Nazi past and the reverberations attending the fall of the
Wall equip events, in Berlin especially, with supercharged political and historical significance. This is not a
recent phenomenon. Berlin has long been a privileged
site for divining historical change. In his Prison
Notebooks Gramsci, echoing Pirandello, labels Berlin the
capital of a futurist Europe because the city’s fabric and
customs offer no resistance to Americanism. I Berlin, in
the interwar writings of Kracauer, Bloch and Hessel, is
the vanguard city of modernity, existing in empty,
ahistorical time. 2 Speer and Hitler did not succeed in
flattening ‘leftist-Jewish’ Berlin in order to rebirth it
anew as Germania, but they, together with the allies,
made some contributions to obliterative cityscaping.

Postwar, Berlin switches to become the pre-eminent city
of historical reminders: traces of discomforting political
histories mark themselves on the architecture, in its
forms, in bullet holes and bolt holes; traces are deposited
in the memories of inhabitants, in their secret
knowledges, as well as in miles of secret police files.

Susan Buck-Morss and Gordon Finlayson are recent
contributors to the tradition of political-historical
divination in Berlin, which seeks to interpret its
architecture and street furniture. Buck-Morss, invoking


Radical Philosophy 77 (May/June1996)

a structuralist-Marxist model of supersessive historical
periods, reads off old propaganda placards the structural
implosion of the GDR, effect of a discontinuity between
economic base and ideological superstructure. 3 In
contrast, Finlayson’s probe into street-naming in Berlin
mobilizes a revised ‘Hegelian notion of history’ in order
to defend history as a continuous though multi-stranded
unfolding, which is rationally, subjectively motivated or it is not at all. The Berlin authorities’ refusal of
multiple, continuous histories leads to history’s sad
return to us as myth, a West-authored grand narrative,
which enforces a univocal interpretation of the events of
twentieth-century history – presently legible on East
Berlin’s brand new street signs. 4
My flaneurish augury in contemporary Berlin alleges
that the process at work in the new German capital
involves an occlusion, less of the historical gaze than of
the political glare. I witness not just history’s cancellation
by myth, but rather the attempt to re-vision history,
through public stunts and projects which are manifestly
entwined with political authority. History and
historiography are both rent by conflict. Such an assertion
is not designed to fall in with the fashionable orthodoxy
which points out that there are mUltiple versions of
history, but rather to insist that there is a history which is
officially endorsed, and it is, of course, the version which
best suits the political visions of those in power. The
tradition of the oppressed is overwritten. The ruling
power – consciously and openly – flexes its musculature,
mobilizing spectacular and boastful resources to impose
a certain reading on history. This visioning of proud selfpromotional power has been busily undertaken in
contemporary Berlin.

Memory, history and the East
Once the Berlin Wall had almost all been sold off in
fragments and its scar was disappearing under
technological and organic growth, a fac;ade was hung in
front of the Palast der Republik, the requisite Eastern bloc

People’s Palace, located in the centre of East Berlin. The
Palast der Republik was an asbestoid block, built on the
site of a Prussian royal palace. The Hohenzollern palace,
damaged in the Second World War, was torn down in the
1950s on the orders of the GDR ruling party. A fa9ade
which appeared in 1992 obliterated the features of the
Palast der Republik, and faked, using mirrors, the reappearance of the Hohenzollern edifice, causing a
delusion-illusion which even straightened a crooked
road. The fa9ade was temporary, but outlasted its
intended life span by a year and acted as an advertisement
for those lobbying to rebuild the Prussian palace. At the
old-new palace, the past reappeared as thrill, a semiserious attempt to revise Berlin’s architectural history,
or the history of the German capital. Such an architectural
folly accompanied a wider historical revision which was
becoming increasingly prevalent in the new-old capital
Berlin. In this period the ex-GDR history museums put
signs up: ‘Closed for historical revision’. The very
suddenness of the emergence of the fa9ade and all its
aggressive assertions of return, restitution and erasure
were indicative of the strange self-obliterating course of
the virtually bloodless East German revolution.

In Romania, where martyrs had been made in the
street-fighting of 17-22 December 1989, years later
wooden crosses and candlelit plaques still punctuated the
cities, and street names had been altered to accommodate
new calender days of significance, relating to the days of
upheaval. In (West) Berlin the boulevard which had been
named Street of 17th June, commemorating a previous
East German uprising in 1953, was altered temporarily
and unofficially to the Street of 9th November, in
reference to the day of the wall-breaching. It reverted
swiftly to its former name. Perhaps because that date is
overburdened with German historical significance:

simultaneous anniversary of the cessation of the
monarchy, of Hitler’s Munich Putsch, of Kristallnacht.

Evocation of 9 November forces acknowledgement of
German historical crimes which are better buried, and is
thus an unsuitable date for forging tradition. But its
avoidance in official memorials may also be related to
the fact that 9 November 1989 was an unpredictable day
of demands and change from below, a day of precisely
those disruptive traces which the process of establishing
Greater German equilibrium set about effacing.

The day which entered the German calendar as
commemorative bank holiday is 3 October, the day in
1990 when parliament affirmed unification. Historical
annotation of that sort emerges from above. The
opportunity to acknowledge the Wende (political turning
point) was not taken up in the street-renamings in the
East of the city. The renamings lurched back into the

past. Eradicated were names tainted with Communist
Party adherence, though not membership of the SED:

Lenin became Landsberger Allee, Clara Zetkin turned
into royal Dorothea, Liebknecht was overlaid by
Schinkel. Karl Marx Allee became, at its plush city end,
Hegelallee. A whole contracted history of significances. 5
The East German revolution deposited few memorial
traces. There was scant recognition of the event in itself,
or the events of the autumn of 1989 in toto; in part
because the ruling class of the new unified Germany
manoeuvred to use the Wende as an opportunity first to
celebrate and then to erase the acknowledgement of
‘people-power’. In subsequent years it has become
apparent that the revolution ended in an attempted
restitution, a return to a ‘before’, amalgamated out of
Weimar social democracy and Prussian militarism.

Erasure of November 1989 has a part to play in the
‘normalization’ of the German relationship to Germany’s
past. Germany is reconstituted, its interrupted and torn
history forced back into continuity and unity. Germany
reconstituted presents a version of German history which
hopes to compound the democracy of Weimar with the
potency ofPrussia. Expunged and defined as un-German
are two dictatorships made equivalent: forty years of
Communist rule, twelve years of Nazi rule. The parading
of historical continuity overwrites the Nazi past, and the
GDR past, as well as the revolutionary events of 191823. If it acknowledges these deviations, these – as CDU/
CSU politician Schauble phrased it – ‘disruptions’ and
‘wounds’ in German history, it ostracizes them as
illegitimate. 6
After the end of the Second World War, various
destroyed sites in the two German states were left
unreconstructed and uncleared. Ruins remained, such as
the broken-spired church in the centre of West Berlin, or,
in the East, the damaged churches of Dresden or the street
gaps made by bombs. While there may have been
economic contexts for the preservation or non-clearing
of the ruins, undoubtedly they also functioned
ideologically. The ruins emanated loss and guilt,
symbolic and tangible tokens of the broken and
destructive nature of German history and the broken,
destroyed lives of people in Germany, the ruination of
European Jewry and much more. These ruins were
incomplete but eloquent memorials. Five years after
(re )unification, the wreckage began to be repaired. In
Dresden, the Frauenkirche, destroyed in the British
firebombing raids in 1945, lay weed-tangled for fifty
years, its destruction caused by the allies, the victors; but
its symbolic meaning unloaded the responsibility for its
destruction onto the barbarous Nazi regime. Restoration
of the church began in the autumn of 1994; once it is


made whole again, the possibility exists of erasing the
past, or guilt about the past. The rhetoric surrounding the
rebuilding of the church – as conveyed by the moneyappeal advertisements – echoed the rhetoric surrounding
the (re)unification of Germany: making the country
whole, and rebuilding, reforging the past as a continuous
whole, unbroken by war and the Nazis, or by that other
manifestation of totalitarianism, the GDR.

Memory, history and the West
The process of historical re-visioning has not been
confined to the new Federal Liinder of the East. Old West
German intellectuals of the New Left, such as Botho
StrauB or Rolf Hochhuth, infected by what Diedrich
Diederichsen terms the ‘amnesia coinciding with
unification’, have recently begun their own revision of
the relationship to the German past. 7 In so doing they
pursue lines of argument not far removed from those laid
down by Ernst Nolte and others in the infamous
historians’ controversy of 1986. The controversy was
reanimated in Germany in 1994, stimulated by legal
machinations around the Auschwitz Lie. Questions
resurfaced about the intellectual emancipation from what
is perceived as a specifically German burden of history the heavy weights of the Holocaust. The past that will
not pass away, as revisionist historian Ernst Nolte had
labelled it, seemed about to be legalistically negotiable. 8
To make the past pass away is bound up with the dual
process of re-visioning of German history and a reforging
of a phantasmatic German identity. The inquiry into
German national identity coincides with new functions
for Germany in the world scene: its military participation
in a new world order and its key role in a single European
Union, buffering one vulnerable edge of a foreignerunfriendly fortress Europe. If the project ofthe European
super-state fails, Germany’s demanding future role may
involve asserting economic domination eastwards.

The normalization process seeks to efface
unwholesome traces of a past that will not pass away. An
irony hard to overlook is that it is a remnant of an
ideologically bankrupt and financially bankrolled avantgarde, which carried out some of the groundwork of
normalization through the provision of a stunt that
provided a marker for the new history. The stunt
paradoxically denoted a new beginning and a resumed
continuity with the pre- ‘totalitarian’ past. On the old
borderline between West and East, at the Reichstag future powerhouse of a unified Germany – a spectacle
participated in the historical re-visioning. In 1995, a year
dubbed the ‘year of memorials’, the Bulgarian artist
Christo got the go-ahead to carry out a project first dreamt
up twenty years ago: wrapping the Reichstag. 9 As the


year of memorials played out, a peculiar process of
forgetting was set in motion, and Christo’s Reichstagpackage became the receptacle for a new series of
national fictions.

Christo Javacheff began producing installations at the
end of the 1950s, often in the form of wrapped packages.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, he assembled
installations, including Iron Curtain – Wall of Oil Drums
(Paris, 1962), Wrapped Tree (Eindhoven, 1966),
Wrapped Fountain (Spoleto, 1968), Wrapped Museum
for Contemporary Art (Chicago, 1969), Valley Fence
(Colorado, 1970-72), Running Fence (California, 197276). Since the 1980s his projects have become more and
more grandiose. Most notorious were the pink plastic
Surrounded Islands around Florida in 1983, Wrapped
Pont Neuf in Paris, and the 3,100 Umbrellas (Japan,
USA), completed in 1991.

Christo began his art practice as a devotee of an avantgarde Paris art grouping, Nouveau Realisme, founded in
1960, and supported by Yves Klein, Arman, Daniel
Spoerri and Nicki de Saint-Phalle. The neo-Dadaist
group’s aim was to overcome the ‘gap between art and
life’ by reflecting on the world of modern consumption
and the mass media. They produced ‘action-spectacles’

and embraced decollage by subverting and defacing
advertising posters. Christo emerged as an artist
committed to iconoclastic art which, in its avant-gardist
sublation of the split between art and life, critiqued the
gallery space and its reinforcement of social hierarchy.

The neo-Dada avant-garde subverted the pomposity of
buildings, or, like Claes Oldenburg with his series of
‘Proposed Colossal Monuments’, acted to undermine the
reverential function of the public monument.

Comparing Christo with Oldenburg is instructive.

Claes Oldenburg, from the late 1960s onwards,
magnified objects – a button, a cigarette, a plug.

Claes Oldenburg. Lipsticks in Piccadilly Circus, London. 1966

Enlargement underlined its and our reification, and
amplified utopian investments in banal commodities,
encouraging audiences to see anew through this blasting
out of endless circulation. Many of his ‘Proposed
Colossal Monuments’ were unrealizable, such as the
giant Lipsticks in Piccadilly Circus (1966) or Proposal
for a Monument to the Survival of the University of El
Salvador: Blasted Pencil (Which Still Writes) (1983).10
Christo’s projects, in contrast, have tended over the years
to achieve realization, if after some delay. Project
documentations show countless photographs of Christo
with high-ranking politicians, seeking support and
permission for his art-events. The projects have aroused
minimal political controversy – despite their
monumentalism – for their aestheticist aspirations
dispense a blank surface, onto which the ambitions of
the ruling political power, whose assent is often required,
can be projected.

According to the 1993 press release, Christo’ s
Wrapped Reichstag project was to look something like

For a period of two weeks, the richness of
thousands of square meters of silvery fabric,
together with the ropes securing it, will create a
sumptuous flow of vertical folds highlighting the
features and proportions of the imposing structure,
revealing the essence of the building’s
architecture. II
On 25 February 1994 Christo’s art-act was discussed in
the Bundestag for an hour and a half; 295 members of

parliament voted in favour of the wrapping, 226 against.

The supporters’ arguments had claimed that the project
would discharge a radiant, beautiful signal mobilizing
courage, hope and self-confidence, and would indicate a
‘new beginning in Berlin without spending one penny of
taxpayers’ money’.12 Conradi’s closing sentence in his
statement to parliament was designed to sway the
wavering with an untrumpable logic. He summarized the
role that Christo’ s art act could fulfil: ‘It is good for the
building, for the German parliament and German
democracy, at home and abroad.’!3 The statement
intimated the process of healing.14 Such beneficent
effects could, of course, be located on various levels.

Decisive in the winning of the debate, as the
parliamentary protocol documents, was the promise of
tourist hordes descending with jingling pockets on the
new capital, as well as the promise of a global media
blitz of images of peace to erase the media-memories of
Rostock, M611n, Solingen, Hoyerswerda. 15 The healing
also referred to the ideological panacea, the heartwarming effects of art. All the better for the German
state, which gets an ideology-enhancing freebie in an art
which presupposes its own commodification by selffinancing through pre- and after-sales of project
memorabilia, managed by the Christo Business Limited.

Paid for by Christo, the outlay was recouped by the
selling of mementos and icons: photographs, scale
models, lithographs, and fragments of cloth. Like the
Berlin Wall before it, when whole pre-’89, and, as James
E. Young describes it, a Christo-esque intrusion into the
landscape, and once fragmented after its fall, the


Wrapped Reichstag’s clothing breaks up into minicommodities, souvenirs. 16 The Berlin Wall was material,
a gruesome border. Its dematerialization was a poignant
event. Unlike the Wall, a material substance which cut
through Berlin for twenty-eight years, the Wrapped
Reichstag project seems to negate materiality. Its
material-ness – literally, its existence as material – is
cancelled by its daytime effect of erasure and its nighttime effect of translucent immateriality. Christo’s 1993
press release states:

Fabric, like clothing or skin, is fragile. Christo’s
project will have the unique quality of
impermanence. The physical reality of the
Wrapped Reichstag will be a dramatic experience
of great visual beauty.

The shortness of the event – for two weeks only! – is
conflated with the frailty of the wrapping material which is, in actuality, not fragile but high-strength, fireretarding and, like its steel undergirding, made in
Germany. In achieving – through draping – the look of
immateriality and translucency, the Reichstag is
obscured in a strangely literal aestheticization of politics.

The immateriality is a fraud. Once commodified, this
project and all its saleable trimmings become distinctly
material. Indeed, it opened up a whole new season for
the commodity. All over Berlin shop windows mimicked
Christo’s grand art-commodity with their own particular


mini-versions. The packing theme was taken up by two
billboard advertisements: for West cigarettes (see cover)
and Berliner Kindle beer, ‘masterpiece of the Berlin art
of brewing’ (below).

The extraordinary event, so hoped its supporters in
parliament, would demonstrate to the world the values
of tolerance and detente which reside in this new greater
Germany, the initial emergence of which had caused
such hyped concern on the international scene. 17
Germany has continually to prove its commitment to
democracy.18 The seeming iconoclasm of the Wrapped
Reichstag stands as evidence of a tolerant disposition,
and as visual proof of Western freedom. Analogies could
be drawn with the CIA sponsorship of abstract
expressionism in the USA in the 1950s, as part of
America’s strategy during the Cold War with the Soviet
Union. The Wrapped Reichstag provides ocular,
unmissable proof that the constricting state dogmas of
artistic socialist realism, which affected GDR art, and
Nazi realism, West Germany’s inflicted artistic burden,
are inapplicable in contemporary unified Germany. Freeworld artists are allowed to play with political power,
alarming reactionaries who think that the dignity and
symbolic import of the political institution is being
mocked. 19 But, in the end, it would seem that the
reactionaries had little to fear. The art-act is drawn into
contemporary political discourses, and encircled by an
industry of revisionist history writing – in the media and

in the marquees which surrounded the
Wrapped Reichstag and were open until
midnight dispensing history lessons and
mementos. A monster street festival
controlled from above took place.

Christo’s Wrapped Reichstag can be
hitched tightly to the official language of
commemoration. The wrapping began that is, became the focus of (inter)national
media attention – on 17 June, a politically
loaded day in the (West) German
commemorative calendar. This was the
day, in 1953, when building workers
struck against their government in East
Berlin. The West German ruling class
claimed this event as a holiday for their
people. The event was affirmed as
confirmatory of the system in the West. A
major boulevard which flanked the Sedan
Day victory column was renamed Street
of the 17th June. All this despite the fact that West
German radio, during the first day of the uprising and the
subsequent day, broadcast anti-strike messages across
East Germany. That the Wrapped Reichstag project
began on this day counters Christo’s stated wishes in a
1986 interview:

It is very important that the building have its own
dimension, its own calling, its own times, not
related to any other event.

It is precisely this autonomy which becomes impossible,
through the already existing significances of previous
commemorations, abiding political traces. Art does not
occur in empty space, but in contexts. Christo’s context
was the fall of the Wall and unification. Artworks are
charged by the historical, cultural and political contexts
in which they come into being. Given this, the meaning
of an artwork is not dependent on an artist’s intentions.

However, a living artist has some awareness of the uses
to which any particular artwork is put. The tragic fate of
Christo – the avant-gardist, as the press kept labelling
him – is to become an alibi for restoration. The wrapping
of the Reichstag was not a subversive art-act, but a state
act, an act of state. Quite unlike the Weimar avantgardists, who had put it precisely arsy-versy. The
outrages of art were to be visionary preludes to the
revolutionizing of history and politics. In Christo’s
narrative it seems as if revolutionary history knocked
down the Berlin Wall, in order that the Reichstag might
be wrapped, in order that modern(ist) art might happen,
legitimately – without danger or critique. 20
Christo’s artwork is drawn into discourses of national

vaunting. A history of cultural spectacle and national
promotion can be traced through WaIter Benjamin’s
studies of the nineteenth century. In the 1935 expose of
the Passagen- Werk, Benjamin points out how the world
exhibitions, with their displays of machine technology
and art, military canons and fashion, offered up a
phantasmagoria of politics. 2 ! Each year the exhibitionspectacles outbid the previous year in special effects, as
ocular proof of capitalist progress. As part of the new
imperialism, national pavilions and national grandeur
were promoted. Patriotism became a marketable
commodity, or generated its own purchasable range.

Benjamin points out that the world exhibitions were
places where the commodity was moulded into
commemorative object. It becomes a saleable historical
event as souvenir, substituting for memory. Later, in
‘Central Park’, noting the lack of childhood memories in
Baudelaire’s work, Benjamin remarks more generally on
the impingements of commodity culture on
consciousness. Memory withdraws in favour of
mementos, markers of the self-alienation of people, who
inventorize their past as dead possessions and whose
experience has atrophied. 22 Experience which has died
off is resold as commodities. In the world exhibitions,
the commodity was put on stage in bizarre settings that
were literal versions of metaphors which Marx used to
pinpoint the commodity’s elusive status in bourgeois
ideology: the commodity is other-worldly, divine, ‘mistenveloped’ and ‘mystical’. Benjamin takes this to mean
that commodified culture is experienced by receivers as
if behind veils, shrouded in ambiguity, obscured behind
a fantastic wrap. Auratic art, in a Benjaminian sense,


offers up metaphorically – though in Christo’s case,
actually – the idealizing presentation of a veiled artwork,
enveloped in a shell or shroud. Benjamin’s insight into a
fetish-based experience of modernity anticipates a
critique of the auratic physicality of Christo’ s project and its pre-event and post-event generation of

Commodification, indeed the configuration of a
commodity aesthetics, acts to detach objects from
historical, social and political contexts, contributing to
the erosion of historical memory through ensnarement in

A mini-tour of the Reichstag
Christo surrounded his project with interviews and
commentary as part of the public-relations campaign
necessary to mobilize politicians’ and public support.

Christo’s interviews, touching on issues such as the
rejoining of Germany and the reanimation of the
parliament – create a myth of the Reichstag. His
simulated disappearance of the Reichstag could translate
into image the desire to wipe out the burden of German
history. But the disappearance of the site of German
power is only an illusion. The wrapping envisages that
the Reichstag’s temporary obliteration is prelude only to
its dramatic and forceful return, as the proper and
legitimate home of the Greater German parliament.

Christo’s 1993 press release for the project states:

Today, more than ever, the Reichstag demonstrates
the encounter between the East and the West, the
past and the future.

What lies behind the innocuous word ‘encounter’? What
lies at the seemingly seamless juncture of the encounter
of the past and the future, made geopolitical in the form
of the old parliament building? Christo’s press release

The Reichstag stands in an open, almost
metaphysical area, that brings to mind its turbulent
history since its inauguration in 1894. In 1933 it
was burned, in 1945 if was almost completely
destroyed, and in the 1960s it was restored. The
Reichstag has continually undergone changes and
perturbations, but has always remained a symbol
of democracy.

Christo’s denotation of the site of a symbol of democracy
as an open, strangely metaphysical area evokes the
language of fairy-tales and fantasies, rather than the
language of history and historical specificity. Though
summoning up the historical residues of the Reichstag as
site of resistance to anti -democracy, he shifts quickly into


assertion of a postwar to post-Wall interpretation of the
building, in order to justify his project. Asked in the
course of one interview how the Reichstag has changed
since 1989, he responded that in 1989 the Reichstag was
a sleeping beauty.23 The unification of Germany
reimbues the structure with life. The Reichstag becomes
a symbol of wholeness, of resurrection and reuniting. The
physical action of wrapping could be seen as an erasing
and bandaging. Both these activities have their part to
play in the new history. Erasure is a part of revisionism.

Bandaging or binding together suggests the restorative
act of unification. The ritual of wrapping reaffirms the
marriage vows between the torn halves of a broken land.

Jeanne-Claude Christo, the artist’s wife, manager and
treasurer, asserts, maintaining the coy theme, in an
interview in Stern, ‘The wedding dress must fit the bride
perfectly.’24 In the Passagen- Werk, Benjamin remarks
that the nineteenth-century interior dresses up space in
atmospheric costumes to intoxicating effect. 25 Christo
dresses up an exterior, and hints, in the 1993 press
release, at the sanctifying powers of the shroud.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, for example, in
weddings and other ritual celebrations, veiling has
a sacred or joyful message. The use of fabric on
the Reichstag follows this classical tradition.

In the Christo debate in parliament the contending sides
fought over the symbolic value of the Reichstag. Chri~to .

was clear that the Reichstag ‘has always remained a
symbol of democracy’. The asserted symbolic value of
the Reichstag was mobilized to justify the project and its
emergent politics. This claim to symbolize democracy
needs dissection.

The Reichstag, designed by Paul Wallot, had its
foundation stone laid in 1884. It was a grandiose space
for the staging of what Rosa Luxemburg described as
‘diplomatic gambling’ by the Prussian military
monarchy.26 One of its particularly world-historical
decisions was to vote for war credits in 1914, sponsoring
a modern mass-army carnage at the front, the popularity
of which, as the years went on, diminished such that
disaffection with the constitutional monarchy occasioned
revolutionary outbreaks in Kie1, Munich, Berlin and
elsewhere, as the war ended.

In November 1918, in the revolutionary days during
which the Weimar Republic was proclaimed, it is
arguable that the symbol – or perhaps something more
concrete, like the ‘site’ – of democracy was not at the
Reichstag, but elsewhere in Berlin, if not dispersed
across Germany. However, the official Reichstag
schoolroom propaganda, commenting on the overthrow
of the monarchy and the establishment of the republic,
puts it this way:

Was Germany to be turned into a socialist soviet
dictatorship, as the extreme Left was demanding?

Or was the country to become a parliamentary
democracy based on free elections? In those crucial
days of crisis, reaching their climax on the morning
of 9th November, the Reichstag building and its
forecourt formed the stage for an historic drama.

Scheidemann’s balcony appearance turned the
scales decisively in favour of a republic. A return
to the monarchy was now no longer possible. But
the conflict with the workers’ and the soldiers’

soviets and the extreme Left in general had by no
means been resolved. The political stage between
the palace and the Reichstag building – around the
Brandenburg Gate – was still fraught with
revolutionary unrest. Troops loyal to the republic
camped in the parliament building. Machine guns
were positioned on the corner towers. In this hour
of crisis Friedrich Ebert, the leader of the majority
Social Democrats, acted with exemplary
statesmanship. Unswervingly he stuck to his
advocacy of free elections to a constitutive
assembly. The extreme Left fell back on its last
resort – armed insurrection. As the election
campaign got underway bloody street battles broke
out, clashes so fierce that it took troops to quell
them. 27

In this glorifying history lesson, the moment of a splitting
of the meaning of democracy, the fact of contradictory
class demands occurring in different parts of the city, is
not acknowledged. What indeed happened in those days
of street fighting? The proclamation of the Weimar
Republic from a window of the Reichstag by Philipp
Scheidemann, who had been pulled away from his
sausages under duress, was an act purely reliant upon the
revolutionary wave that was sweeping Germany. The
proclamation of a republic from the Reichstag served as
an act of containment of democratic will. It was hurried
precisely because the revolutionary leader Karl
Liebknecht was on the point of proclaiming, from a
balcony of the Royal Palace, a soviet socialist republic to
the amassed crowds. It was frantic because Ebert, the
chancellor, social democrat but monarchist, refused to
condone it. It was as an act of continuing containment of
workers’ democracy from below that the repression
continued in the ensuing months, demanding as sacrifice
the lives of Luxemburg and Liebknecht in January 1919.

Michael S. Cullen (who sent Christo the inspirational
postcard of the building in 1971) relates that the
Reichstag fell into a ‘Sleeping Beauty sleep’ through the
Nazi years, though it was used for exhibitions such as
‘The Eternal Jew’ or ‘Bolshevism without its Mask’ .28
The strange sleep continued for some time. From 1971 still bereft of a directly political-legislative role – the


Reichstag housed an exhibition called ‘Questioning
German History’. This exhibition, tendering the official
line of a very West Germanized history, was a requisite
stop on every schoolchild’s requisite trip to Berlin.

Eric Hobsbawm has pointed out how traditions are
invented and imposed from the top down and reinforced
through national education systems. Invented tradition’s
most visible moments, he argues, include the unveiling
of vast stone monuments to national heroes and nationforgers. That invented tradition is selected, fictional and
strategic is pointed out by Hobsbawm, in his detailing of
the story behind the Siegesallee, which was built in
1896-1901 and commemorates the Berlin Sedan victory.

The monuments represent exclusively the Hohenzollern
princes. 29 Similarly, Christo fetishizes the moment of
unveiling of the Reichstag. At the moment of its
unveiling, proclaims Christo, the Reichstag will be born
anew. It will, as Christo himself insists, be re-perceived
(indeed re-visioned), regenerated and reanimated as the
site of German rule. Like a circulated rumour, the
afterwards of this artwork is part of it. Because of when
and how it occurs, it becomes part of the invented
tradition which embellishes the projects of nation-forgers
and erects monuments to victory – in this instance, the
victory of West Germany, perceived as the ideological
victory of capital and democracy. The paradoxical
exploit of beginning history anew and resuming
continuity finds strange articulation in the idea of
revision: re-visioning is the project of the formalist
avant-garde; revisionism is the province of reactionaries
or conservatives. Future and past are compacted. 3D
The afterwards of Christo’ s artwork is already written
into the design. After the wrapping, the rebuilding of the
parliament commences. The rebirth of the Reichstag is
analogically the rebirth of Germany. An architectural
competition, launched in 1992, to redesign the new
governmental quarter of unified. Berlin, including the
Reichstag, and eventually won by Norman Foster, had
stated in its brief that the designs should take account of
the transparent nature of German democracy. Foster’s
winning design crowns the Reichstag with glass. The
Reichstag was to be placed on an open podium beneath a
huge canopy, supported by twenty-five stainless steel
columns, each fifty metres high. Recession has deflated
the project. Now a smaller canopy appears, but wide
spaces and much use of glass fulfil the brief of
demonstrating metaphorically more open government.

The architectural brief was suffused with a subtext
insisting on the architectural translation of openness.

This insistence on openness within architectural briefs is
reiterated in many of the new state projects – and
generally interpreted as the need for glass. Critics


discussing the appearance of the new German Museum
of History in Bonn reiterate these themes, pointing to the
transparency of the building – the use of glass to reflect
the transparency and openness of German democracy.

Inside the museum an anodyne version of German
history parades – West-fixated and wunderwirtschafted.

In retrospect it may be seen that Christo’s wrapping
project prefigures the new Reichstag and its assertion of
openness, in its generation of an illusion of glassy

Fa«?ades and historical memory
Adolf Loos, the anti-ornamentalist architect and writer
of Ornament and Crime, and Karl Kraus, the satirist and
editor of Der Fackel, conducted campaigns against the
anachronistic cultural institutions of the Hapsburg
Empire. 3l Their aim was the demolition of fa<;ades metaphorical and actual. Loos had written a pamphlet in
1898 called Potemkin’ s City, in which he derided the
pretentious fa<;ades of Vienna's RingstraBe. The title
refers to the Russian general Gregory Potemkin, who,
instructed to organize New Russia, had constructed
whole villages out of cardboard and canvas, in order to
delude Catherine the Great into thinking that progress
was occurring in the Ukraine. 32 The fa<;ades of the
RingstraBe are equally spurious, making modern
apartment blocks look like the townhouses of aristocrats.

The Baroque stucco or Tuscan stone fa<;ades are nailed .

on to cement. It is all fake. In response to Loos’s
architectural critique, Kraus raised the premature futuromodernist battle cry, directed at intellectual pretensions:

‘I smash in the fa<;ades and make tabula rasa. '33 All traces
of the past, especially corrupt fake versions, are to be
eliminated. Kraus and Loos are desperate to wipe away
the traces of a hypocritical, imperialist past. For
Kracauer, writing in the space between the shellshocking attacks on the psyche of the First World War
and the run-up to Hitler's supremacy, a shift occurs in
the evaluation of historical memory as it is made concrete
on buildings. Berlin, mythological site of flux and
impermanence, is perceived by him in the 1920s and
1930s as a city with an unhistorical nature, permeated by
a formless disquiet. Kracauer’s fear was that, in the
commodity-led progression of the twentieth century,
traces of history and memory are eradicated from the
streets. StrafJe ohne Erinnerung (Street without Memory)
(1932) exposes the frenzied fetish of novelty which
permeates the atmosphere. The ever-prevailing actuality
is an unhistorical presentness. Amnesia in the city is
Kracauer’s permanent phobia. The stripping of ornament
from the fa<;ades signals for him a frightening loss of

The ornaments, which formed a bridge to the past,
have been stripped from many houses. Now the
plundered fa<;ades remain with nothing to fix them
in time. They constitute the symbol of the
unhistorical change which is occurring around
them. 34
Kracauer voices the fear that the mad, alienating pace of
modernity eradicates memory; that very eradication is a
marker of spiritual homelessness and a portent of danger.

Loos and Kraus regard the architectural ornamental
fa<;ades as fakes which provide an illusion of historicity.

The 340m x 30m metal girding and royal yellow canvas
mock-up of the Berlin castle at the Palast der Repuhlik
could be an extreme modern version of Potemkin’s city
and the Viennese town houses. But, though a vision of a
potential future, it indicates restitution. Kracauer sees the
modernist repression of ornament on fa<;ades as the
repression of history. Christo's fa<;ade, his swallowing
up of the exterior, obliterates historical traces, to replace
them with an empty canvas onto which can be projected
the new history, the new beginning which relies upon a
rewritten past. The actuality of history as it has been is
burnt out of memory by the wrapping.

Due to timing, Christo’ s artwork became a memorial
to unification; not so much a memorial to the act of wallbreaching, as the idea of a return to normality, a
resumption of history. It might better be called, then, an
anti-memorial, because of the erasure it facilitates. Of
course, the idea of the anti-memorial, the memorial as a
concretion of increasing oblivion, might be the very
essence of the memorial. A relationship between
materials and forgetting has been noted. Boltanski, in a
discussion of Holocaust memorials, remarks that a
monument to the Holocaust would have to be fragile. It
would need to be so frail that it must be changed every
week, so that it never becomes unseen. Each re-erection
necessitates a repetition of the prayer. The fragility of
the monument repeats the fragility of memory.

Boltanski’s vision is paralleled by Lenin’s secular Plan
of Monumental Propaganda, presented to Lunacharsky
in 1918. Lenin drew on Civitas SoUs by Tommaso
Campanella, a Renaissance utopian. In Campanella’s
ideal town, the walls were to be decorated with frescoes,
providing a visual education in natural science and
history. Lenin declared that short, expressive inscriptions
were to be placed in significant places, on suitable walls
or on special constructions. These inscriptions were to
contain the most basic Marxist principles and slogans
and tightly worked-out formulations evaluating historical
events. More important than these slogans, he asserted,
were ‘statues’, which would not be ‘of marble, granite

and gold incised lettering’ but ‘modest, and let
everything be temporary’ .35 Christo’s art-work – ever
echoing its avant-garde, revolutionary derivation appeared temporary, but was assured its place in the
history books: not only through its mass reproduction in
numerous mementos – aimed generally at the decorators
of doctors’ surgeries and banks – but also through its
becoming permanent in the mythic memory of a new
greater Germany, governed by a new parliament.

There is a certain sadness attached to art’s uselessness
– although that uselessness can also be claimed as the
basis for art’s marking of the site of utopia or its critique
of functionality, reason and business efficiency. But, in
this particular context, sadder still is the art which insists
on its autonomy and yet becomes the trappings of a
spectacular act of state power-mongering. The Reichstag
is a present ‘to the German people’, as states the lettering
above the portico, a slogan forced on an unwilling Kaiser
as a First World War public-relations exercise. The
Wrapped Reichstag is a present ‘to the German people’ ,
wrapped by Christo, and, in effect, a gift to the German

1. See Gramsci’s ‘Americanism and Fordism’, in Selections
from the Prison Notebooks, edited and translated by
Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith, Lawrence &
Wishart, London, 1982, p. 316.

2. See, for example, Kracauer’ s feuilleton essays in Straj3en
in Berlin und anderswo (Das Arsenal, Berlin, 1987);
Bloch’s Spuren (Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main,
1985) and Heritage of Our Times (Polity Press,
Cambridge, 1991); and Franz Hessel’s Ein Flaneur in
Berlin (Das Arsenal, Berlin, 1984).

3. See Susan Buck-Morss, ‘Fashion in Ruins: History after
the Cold War’, RP 68, Autumn 1994, pp. 10-17.

4. See Gordon Finlayson, ‘Naming, Myth and History: Berlin
after the Wall’, RP 74, NovlDec 1995, pp. 5-16.

5. Finlayson relates elements of this process in some detail.

His conclusions beg questions. He operates within the
logic of the ruling power he critiques, seeking out the great
and the good to honour with street names. The problem
for him is the issue of who counts as good, who deserves
to be preserved; and he hopes rational debate can sort that
out. He insists on Dimitroff’s validity as street-name
candidate, because of his ‘enormous significance to the
history of modern Germany’. But Hitler, too, was of
enormous significance. This raises the question: should a
street name honour great figures or should it act as a plaque
which hopes to prevent historical amnesia? Neither of
these functions can be discharged in a value-free manner;
each simply mirrors the volition of the politically
dominant or politically organized.

6. For Schauble’s comments, see his contribution to the
debate preceding the vote on whether or not Christo could
wrap the Reichstag. This, the 211 th Session of the
Bundestag, appears in M. S. Cullen and W. Velz, eds,
Christo, Jeanne-Claude: Der Reichstag den Deutschen
Volke, Bastei Ltibbe Verlag, Bergisch Gladbach, 1995.

7. See Dietrich Diederichsen, ‘Spiritual Reactionaries after
German Reunification: Syberberg, Foucault and Others’,
in October, no. 62, Fall 1992, p. 66. Hochhuth has been


energetic in his support for the founding of a museum
memorial for the anti-Semitic nationalist Ernst JOnger.

Playwright StrauB aroused controversy in 1994 with his
views on anti-Semitism and German taboos.

8. See Ernst Nolte, ‘Vergangenheit die nicht vergehen will’,
in Historikerstreit, Piper Verlag, Munich, 1987, pp. 1362.

9. lahr der Gedenkstatten was a label coined because 1995
presented numerous days of remembrance, many of which
were extensively covered by the media: fifty years since
the bombing of Dresden, the liberation of Auschwitz and
other camps, and the end of the war.

10. For a discussion of this piece and El Salvadorean state
repression, see Coosje van Bruggen’s ‘Blasted Pencil:

Repression and Resistance at the University of El
Salvador, 1968-83′, in Germano Celant, ed., A Bottle of
Notes and Some Voyages, Northern Centre for
Contemporary Art, Sunderland, 1988.

11. Excerpted from Christo’ s 1993 press release, reprinted in
Jacob Baal-Teshuva, Christo – The Reichstag and Urban
Projects, Prestel, Munich, 1993.

12. See the debate’s opening statement by Peter Conradi
(SPD) at the 211th Session of the Bundestag, in Cullen
and Volz, eds, Christo, leanne-Claude, p. 226.

13. Ibid., p. 228.

14. He used the German formulation gut tun.

15. See Cullen and Volz, eds, Christo, leanne-Claude, pp.


16. For James E. Young’s reference to the Berlin Wall and
Christo, see his The Texture of Memory: Holocaust,
Memorials and Meaning, Yale University Press, New
Haven CT and London, 1993, p. xii.

17. The idea of detente is suggested by Freimut Duve in his
supportive contribution to the parliamentary debate.

18. When asked in an interview what the Reichstag project
had taught him, Christo replied: ‘that Germany is a truly
democratic country. It was the first time in the world that
a parliament had debated art and voted’ (Der
Tagesspiegel, Special Supplement on Wrapped Reichstag,
June/July 1995).

19. See the 21lth Session of the Bundestag, in Cullen and
Volz, eds, Christo, leanne-Claude, pp. 226, 245-50.

20. This is a theme through Christo’s numerous interviewsoften in the form of an assertion that since 1989 the
Reichstag has gained an autonomy, neutrality or a new
lease of life. In Stern 46/94 he declares that before 1989
the wrapping would have been a ‘provocative’ act, but
now represents transition to the next phase.

21. See Gesammelte Schriften [GS], 6 vols, edited by Rolf
Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppenhauser, Suhrkamp

Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, Vol. V.1, pp. 50-52; Charles
Baudelaire, New Left Books, London, 1973, pp. 164-6.

22. See ‘Central Park’, translated by Lloyd Spencer, New
German Critique 34, Winter 1985, p. 49.

23. See Tip 1/95, p. 7. Benjamin, too, had associated the relics
of the nineteenth century with Sleeping Beauty. His
Passagen- Werk was to be a Marxian retelling of the fairytale in which Sleeping Beauty is awoken from the
nightmare-dream sleep of capitalism’s commodity
phantasmagoria. He writes: ‘Capitalism was a natural
phenomenon with which a new dream sleep fell over
Europe, bringing with it a reactivation of mythic forces.’

See Passagen-Werk in GS, Vol. V.1, p. 494.

24. See Stern 46/94, p. 50.

25. See Passagen- Werk in GS, Vol. V.1, p. 267.

26. See Rosa Luxemburg, The lunius Pamphlet, A Young
Socialist Publication, Sri Lanka, 1992.

27. See the handout The Reichstag in German History,
distributed at the Reichstag.

28. See Cullen and Volz, eds,Christo, leanne-Claude, p. 300.

29. See Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, The Invention
of Tradition, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge,
1984, p. 278.

30. Various architectural projects combine the new with
elements of the old. Plans exist for the reconstruction of
the Wertheim department store on Leipziger StraBe,
exactly as it was prior to bombing in the Second World
War. It would be a complete replication, which entails
using nineteenth-century building techniques. The plans
are taken straight from the city archives, but show a
proposal for a future building. Sony’s major new
development by the Potsdamer Platz incorporates the
restored fac;ade of the Esplanade Hotel into a new
structure. Commentary has also focused on the possible
return of the Prussian dome atop the new Reichstag. Due
to its historically symbolic significance, the dome’s’

reappearance has been a greatly contested issue which has
caused many problems for Norman Foster. (See the short
resume of various plans and arguments in Cullen and
Volz, eds, Christo, leanne-Claude, pp. 283-5, 307-12.

31. See Edward Timms, Karl Kraus: Apocalyptic Satirist,
Yale University Press, New Haven CT and London, 1986,
pp. 115-28.

32. Ibid., p. 118.

33. Ibid.

34. Siegfried Kracauer, ‘StraBe ohne Erinnerung’, in Straj3en
in Berlin und anderswo, p. 18.

35. See Catherine Cooke et aI., Street Art of the Revolution,
Thames & Hudson, London, 1990, p. 13.

a call for papers

Anglo-American Idealism 1865-1927
An international conference on all aspects of late nineteenth and early twentieth
century idealist philosophy will be held from 4-6 July 1997, at Manchester College
Oxford organised by the Bradley Society
Submission deadline: December 31 1996
Enquiries, Abstracts, and Papers to: Bill Mander, Manchester College, Oxford OX1 3TD
Tel: 01865 271028 e-mail: William.Mander@


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