Letter from Munich – 008
Letter from Munich – the Joseph Affair – 8
EINE DEUTSCHE FASSUNG STEHT WEITER UNTEN.
2 March 2001
Dear Mr. Graf, dear friends,
Erich was beaming. It had been a good week for him. A parliamentary investigation in the German state of Saxony had absolved Erich’s hero, Saxony’s Prime Minister Kurt Biedenkopf, of all blame in a questionable land deal. The opposition had accused Biedenkopf of squandering millions of German marks in taxpayers’ money. As far as Erich was concerned the findings of the investigating committee had also, at least by implication, refuted charges that Biedenkopf had influenced the Dresden district attorney in his conclusions regarding the death of the six-year-old Joseph Kantelberg-Abdulla. According to the district attorney, the boy had not, as eyewitnesses had claimed, been murdered by a group of neo-Nazis.
“Anyway, my dear, why do you even care?” Erich said, speaking to our mutual friend Annette. “Which is more important: to find out the truth about the death of a six-year-old boy, or to preserve the reputation of the State of Saxony and its prime minister, not to mention the reputation of the mayor and the other leading citizens of the town where the boy died.” He looked at us all with a faintly triumphant smile on his face and repeated, “Why do you even care?”
“For one thing,” Annette replied, “it’s not only what happened to the boy that concerns me, I also care about the larger question of what has been happening to Germany, and I think the Joseph Affair is closely linked to that question.”
She leaned back in the richly upholstered leather chair she was sitting in. “You will, I know, think that this is ridiculous, but Joseph for me was not just a little boy. He was, and still is, a symbol of German democracy as well. And the fact that real questions still surround his fate is for me symbolic of much of what is wrong in Germany today.”
She smoothed the jacket of her pale-blue tailored suit, in a leisurely manner, as if she were challenging Erich to comment. He merely gave her a contemptuous look, the way he might regard the village idiot. Annette went on, “When Joseph died, however he died, something in German democracy died as well, because German democracy has been incapable of resolving all of the issues surrounding his death. Not only that, but the great men of this democracy appear to have done all they could to suppress those issues, to hide them, and to expunge them from the public memory.”
There was a faint look of contempt in her expression too now, as she said, “Germany is still a country where the powerful, certainly the powerful people in politics, can get away with murder, certainly in a figurative sense. Of course there are a few people who will half-heartedly challenge them, but the respect for authority is still so great in Germany that no one really expects a leading politician ever to suffer the consequences of his wrongdoing. Indeed, no one expects the full of extent of that wrongdoing ever really to be revealed.”
She was winding the strands of an understatedly elegant pearl necklace so tightly around her index finger that I was afraid the strands would break and scatter the pearls all over the polished hardwood floor of her sitting room. “Of course there have always been investigating committees in the Bundestag and in the state legislatures. There have always been district attorneys who carry out their investigations. But in the end, certainly in the larger scandals and very often in the smaller ones, all these investigations always come to nothing. They always come to the conclusion that no one is really to blame. Take the politicians most deeply implicated in the recent slush fund scandals. They are almost all still holding the positions they held before the scandals; Roland Koch and Helmut Kohl come to mind in this context. A few pawns of course are always sacrificed, but the kings escape punishment. Even the fine imposed on Helmut Kohl’s party was lifted by the justices of a friendly court. Although the Bundestag president is appealing that absurd decision, he did say that in the meantime he thought the party had learned something from the affair and would do nothing that would lead to a similar scandal in the future. I think the opposite is true. They have learned they can do practically anything they want, and get away with it. And I’m afraid the appeal will only reinforce that lesson.”
She allowed the pearls to fall back intact against the finely woven woolen collar of her suit. “What happened to Joseph and to Joseph’s parents is what is happening to Germany. It is being strangled and pushed aside. Germany’s situation today is in many respects like Icarus falling in Breughel’s painting – there are so many more “important” things going on in the foreground.”
I’m not at all a well-educated man, and so I didn’t understand what she was trying to say. I know nothing about art. However, Erich seemed to understand. “You’re absolutely right, Annette,” he said. “The whole point of Breughel’s painting is that the fall of Icarus was an insignificant event. Just like the death of a little boy. Or the death, as you put it, of German democracy.”
He glanced at his fingernails. “German democracy will survive, because it is convenient for us. We have learned how very easy it is to manipulate people so that they will do what we want and think what we want. We’ve learned that the violent methods used sixty years ago were crude and quite stupid. It’s taken us some time to get things right, longer than we expected, but this time we’re succeeding – and the really funny thing is that we’re succeeding in such a way that no one will ever really notice it.”
Annette had a look almost of revulsion on her face.
“In fifty years”, Erich added, “in a hundred years, no one will remember the death of a little boy, or even be aware that German democracy itself died quite some time ago.”
I’m just an average person, and for people like me, it’s not easy to know where the truth lies. Are people like Annette exaggerating the dangers? Are Erich and his kind all megalomaniacs, or worse? It’s difficult to know. However, the government’s repeated overreaction to events in this affair, together with the government’s apparently endless need to justify what it has done do make people like me wonder what really has been going on in Sebnitz since even before Joseph died.
Robert John Bennett
======================================================== ” title=”mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org ======================================================== “>rjbennett at post.harvard.edu ===…
“>rjbennett at post.harvard.edu