Genocide, landscape, beauty, taboo: Reading Anselm Kiefer's Der Morgenthau-Plan with Walther von der Vogelweide's Lindenlied

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Abstract

Anselm Kiefer’s 2012 exhibition, Der Morgenthau-Plan, courted controversy with its seeming willingness to equate Allied planning for post-Second World War Germany with the Nazi genocide. Taking as its cue German nationalist interpretations of the (unrealised) proposal in 1944 by the US Treasury Secretary, Henry Morgenthau Jr., to deindustrialise and pastoralise Germany, the exhibition intervenes in debates about German victimhood by creating a counterfactual historical narrative in which a German landscape devoid of human life is returned to an exuberant state of nature. The exhibition appears to be playing riskily with Holocaust revisionism and the aestheticisation of genocide, but to what end?

This paper proposes a way of looking at these images that bypasses critical approaches that concentrate on trauma, memory and debates about victimhood, which in this case seem to lead us to a dead end. Instead, it sets Kiefer’s Morgenthau paintings in the context of some remarkably similar works inspired by the medieval lyric under der linden an der heide by Walther von der Vogelweide. I take a detour via a reading of Walther’s complex and self-reflexive text as a meditation on how conventions of representation both bear witness to and efface their object, and on how play with taboos on representation can be a source of erotic pleasure for those in the know.

When read alongside Walther’s text and Kiefer’s response to it, I suggest, the Morgenthau paintings reflect in a troubled way on longings for beauty and release from guilt, and on the codes and conventions of Holocaust representation. Most provocatively, Kiefer shows how an understanding of and engagement with the taboos of Holocaust representation – a viewer’s status as theoretically informed discourse insider – can itself be a source of a pleasure that potentially effaces historical reality while claiming to bear witness to it.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-15
JournalModern Languages Open
Volume2017
Issue number3
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 21 Apr 2017

Keywords

  • Anselm Kiefer
  • Morgenthau Plan
  • Walther von der Vogelweide

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