Germans aren’t so eager to go to war any longer. Here’s the irony: The very same countries that after World War 2 set out to exorcise German militarism are now complaining about the country’s unwillingness to fight wars. There are German soldiers (“troops”) in various locations, though. German warships are fighting pirates off the coast of Somalia, and there are German soldiers in Afghanistan. (more)
To get crucial votes in the German parliament (the constitution requires parliamentary consent to all military actions on a regular basis - the German chancellor can’t just start a war) politicians came up with all kinds of justifications. When German soldiers for the very first time since World War 2 participated in a war again - NATO’s campaign against Serbia - the foreign minister invoked Auschwitz and the specter of death camps. To get a majority for Afghanistan the defense secretary said that civilization was being defended at the Hindu Kush (I am not making this up). Politics can be so similar to the art world: When you don’t have any real argument, ludicrous hyperbole will do.
Politics aside, there are other repercussions of the post World War 2 exorcism. Germany has become a thoroughly demilitarized country. For example, it would be unthinkable for a German chancellor to use soldiers and/or tanks or other military equipment as a backdrop for a major speech. As a matter of fact, the visual culture around the German military is very different from the visual culture around the US military. Germans know their history very well, so everybody is careful to avoid creating something that looks like it was out of the past. This is part of the reason why Der Tod kommt später, vielleicht (“Death will come later, maybe”) by Jörg Gläscher is such an interesting book.
Most of the photographs in the book were taken in Germany, some in actual deployment zones. For the most part, the landscape provides clues where the photographs were taken, but that’s a bit besides the point. What I find really interesting here is the way German soldiers are portrayed going about their business. There is none of the heroism that makes so much of what I see usually coming from places like Afghanistan. Gläscher does not seem interested in portraying war (or war games) as something that might be heroic.
There is a portrait of a grubby looking soldier, who is resting against shot-up car, balancing something like a sniper rifle on his boot. It is a very matter-of-factly photograph. Even though the soldier appears to be somewhat in charge of things (he’s aiming for a bit of a tough-guy look in his face) it is the rifle that seems to be bearing down on the man. Who really is in charge here? And what does that mean? What does this tell us about war?
Crucially, wouldn’t getting a somewhat more critical and less overtly heroic depiction of US soldiers in the media open up all kinds of possibilities? Possibilities that would allow understanding both the nature of war and of what it does to people?
Der Tod kommt später, vielleicht is a book that demonstrates that photography can play a very interesting role investigating war. Editorial photographs of the military do not have to look like they are straight out of the military’s PR material. Given we are now constantly at war (with some wars, such as the drone war in Yemen not even being openly declared any longer) we need to be talking about war and what it does to people.
For a while now, Germans were said to be the people who got out of their military obligations by providing money (for example, Germany did not participate in the first Gulf war). But is that so different from what we all are doing? The extent of our involvement in all the various wars is to pay our taxes and to call soldiers “heroes” (unless those very soldiers are brothers or sisters or sons or daughters). For a while, we used to stick ribbons to our cars. We don’t seem to be doing that much any longer - what do you know, those ribbons are magnetic, so they come right off. How convenient! We shop, while they fight our wars.
Der Tod kommt später, vielleicht; photographs by Jörg Gläscher; essays by Holger Witzel, Ingo Schulze, Jochen Missfeldt, Kathrin Schmidt, Peter Bialobrzeski, Tanja Dückers, Wolfgang Prosinger; 136 pages; Kehrer; 2011 - unfortunately, there appears to be only a German-language edition of this book