Saturday, June 19, 2010

Witness to History at Concordia Irvine

Witness to History

Twenty years ago this October, a momentous development in Europe stirred the world. Germany and the entire Continent were peacefully reunified after four decades of bitter division. The League of Faithful Masks (LFM) and Concordia University Irvine (CUI) will commemorate this anniversary with three inter-related presentations on CUI’s campus, bearing witness to history, culture and current affairs:

1. German Day at Concordia – A Celebration of Freedom on October 6. The public will experience a fascinating array of historical witnesses. They will discuss political, economic, military, artistic, religious, journalistic and personal aspects of Germany’s reunification. A brand-new documentary film will be shown; there will be superb music and a forum discussion between the presenters and the audience. Our partners in this venture include the German Consulate-General in Los Angeles, and the Wende Museum of Culver City, which specializes in the art and artifacts of the Cold War.

2. Images of Oppression and Liberation: a German Film Week on October 2, 3, 4, 5 and 7, offered by the Goethe-Institut Los Angeles. Five feature films relating to the Christian resistance against the Nazi regime, to life in East Germany and reunification will be shown.

3. Traces of Division -- Signs of Unity, a rich exhibition of East German and Reunification memorabilia from October 2-31 presented by the Wende Museum on the CUI campus.

For further information, please check lFM’s website or the blogsite in regular intervals.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Of Foreboding and Forgiveness


This column reaches you from France. It is written with a sense of foreboding. Just before leaving California, I called a friend in New York. He is a native Berliner of Jewish descent. In the early Nazi years he fled to Paris while still a teenager, and then fought in the French Resistance. “Make the best of your stay in Europe,” he counseled me. “By the time of your return we might be living in a totally different world.”

This sounded plausible. You would have to be blind and deaf not to realize that a new era is upon us, and that this era is unlikely to be agreeable. We discern the bitter fruit of human hubris all around us – in the Gulf of Mexico, in economics, finance, in the shaky condition of governments on both sides of the Atlantic; in the deplorable failure of most media outlets to inform their audiences responsibly about world affairs; and in the state of the Church many of whose branches have either slid into rank heresy kowtowing to sexual deviance, or are offering feel-good fluff as a tonic to soothe the apprehension millions share with my New York friend.

This morning I telephoned a former German government minister about the future of dollar, the euro and other currencies. He is a statesman with a reputation of financial wisdom. He said, “I frankly cannot predict where we are heading. I have just bought Norwegian bonds because the Norwegian money appears to be relatively healthy, but who knows? Tomorrow I could be proven wrong.”

It cannot be the purpose of this column to list the plethora of indicators leading a neighbor of mine in France to compare the current time in history with the situation that prevailed in Europe just before World War I. “An insignificant event in an insignificant placed triggered that calamity,” she said, referring to the assassination of Archduke Franz-Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo in 1914.

As the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod approaches its convention in Houston in July, it must consider the present perils in national and world affairs. Confessional Lutherans know of course that theirs is not to offer amateurish advice in worldly matters. Bicker though they might among each other, the various parties within the LCMS have generally resisted the temptation to emulate other denominations in poaching in alien territory, meaning the secular realm.

In fact, the opposite extreme is true and equally deplorable – an ostrich-like inclination not to concern itself at all with the likelihood of impending catastrophe. You don’t hear much from Lutherans about the Church’s role if and when disaster strikes. Four years ago, I taught a doctoral-level seminar at Concordia Seminary St. Louis on precisely this issue and received some brilliant papers from my students but could not find anybody prepared to publish them; they did not appeal to prevalent Lutheran tastes in America.

But then how is the Church to react in the event of terrorist attacks with nuclear or biological devices; how will it function when the supplies of food and energy are disrupted, and when communications have broken down? How will it respond to severe persecution perhaps even in America and Western Europe? How will it minister to its faithful when they are cut off from their sanctuaries, and when pastors have lost contact to their scattered flocks?

Are these unthinkable scenarios? It would be foolish to assume that they were – even in the United States. Take the word of a septuagenarian for this, a man who has spent his childhood in a country that used to be the most civilized in the world and was reduced to an antechamber of hell almost overnight.

The time might soon come when there will be no mega churches with thousands of happy-clappy congregants; whoever among Lutherans believes that in periods of woe bestselling guidelines to a purpose-driven life can be put into action will be egregiously disappointed. What sustained me in air raid shelters and during months of starvation were not expressions of religious enthusiasm but the words and tunes of the Scripture-based liturgy I had memorized since Sunday school, and the unshakeable message that, whatever happened, I was a forgiven sinner and would therefore live eternally by virtue of Christ’s vicarious suffering, death and resurrection.

This basic Christian truth is most clearly formulated in the Lutheran Confessions. However, they are a treasure sometimes too well kept by the LCMS; it makes no sense to hold these treasures jealously in reserve when millions of troubled Christians realize that they are staring at the abyss. I know of Lutherans outside the Missouri Synod praying that the LCMS will emerge from Houston “as a robust church ready to allow the treasures of its own tradition to bear fruit.” The man who said this was Thomas Schlichting, a canon lawyer and high-ranking official in the state-related “Evangelical Lutheran Church of Saxony.”

Rev. Albrecht-Immanuel Herzog, a pastor in the regional Lutheran Church in Bavaria, told me about sizable groups of Lutherans in Germany who are not in communion with the LCMS but are yearning for confessional clarity. “Missouri could provide this clarity if only it surfaced and opened its treasure chest,” he said adding that particularly younger pastors and theologians felt that way.

It is comforting to know that none of the major factions in the LCMS is inclined to follow the mainline Protestant trend toward apostasy. Yet even among Missourians the liberating Lutheran message is diluted by corporate numbers games, and drowned out by sets of drums that have replaced altars in many of our sanctuaries. And this message is: “You are forgiven. Now go and roll up your sleeves and engage this dangerous world.” This is what the Lutheran Church must proclaim more urgently than ever in times of foreboding, and this is why I have endorsed Rev. Matthew Harrison’s candidacy for the office of LCMS President. In my estimation he is the most likely man to open the Lutheran treasure chest for all to see. The moment to do this for the benefit of the whole Church of Christ is now.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Masks Asking Vicarious Questions


From The Mask (

My meeting with the executive editor of a regional newspaper did not go well at all. He very kindly gave me much of his time but then took strong exception to something I had written in the syllabus of my journalism course at Concordia University Irvine. I had pilloried the reason given by most contemporary journalism students for wanting to make a career in the media. They wish to “make this a better world.”

Our disagreement on this point was generational and hence evidently insuperable. I am 73, and he was about two decades younger. If I were American, I would be considered a pre-baby boomer. He on the other hand was a post-boomer. Having been exposed to the calamitous consequences of ideological thinking, the axiom that the road to hell is paved with good intentions still resonates with me strongly. His view of good intentions, however, was evidently less jaded -- to the extent that he ended our collegial relationship there and then. I never heard from him again.

Well, what Rudyard Kipling observed about East and West seems to apply even more forcefully to the rapport between “pre” and “post”-boom media people: ‘Ne’er the twain shall meet.” When I was a cub reporter half a century ago, my seniors told me that my opinions on any given matter were immaterial. My job as a reporter was to research and write as fairly and factually as humanly possible. In other words, as a journalist, I was to ask questions vicariously in the original sense of this word, which is rooted in the Latin vocable, vicarius, meaning: “in the place of…” A reporter is inquisitive in the place of his readers. Therefore, a reporter must not arrogate upon himself the role of “making this a better world,” as little as a baker would bake bread to “make this a better world.” He bakes to nourish. Period.

Like bakers or plumbers or physicians or lawyers, journalists have the calling to serve their neighbors, and journalists do this by being relentlessly and – here we have that word again – vicariously curious. Tragically, this vicarious sense of wonderment that has lured me to journalism in the first place, and has remained with me ever since, has gone out of fashion in much of today’s journalism. Most reporters, though thank God not all, have had this sense of wonderment lobotomized from their souls by liberal arts professors, I expect. It is of course easier to “hit the beat” as a 22-year-old trying to tell his readers and listeners what to think, than to keep wondering on their behalf. I pity self-important media people of that ilk. They have no concept of what a tremendous vocation journalism can really be.

Then again, perhaps by remaining relentlessly inquisitive, journalists could actually help protect this world from getting worse. In an email, I politely offered this notion to the editor as a compromise of sorts. He did not reply.

*Dr. Uwe Siemon-Netto, an international journalist, is the executive director of The League of Faithful Masks.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

East Germany by the Pacific

Twenty years after the Berlin Wall perished, a museum in California evokes the land that lay behind it


(From the June 2010 issue of The Atlantic Times)

Twenty years ago, Germany was reunified, and soon the remnants of the Berlin Wall disappeared. So did many of Communist East Germany’s weird features, it’s uniforms, banners, slogans and snooping gadgets. But there is one curious place where they have been amply preserved: the Wende Museum building close to the film studios of southern California.

As I entered “Suite E” of the bleak office building on 5741 Buckingham Parkway in Culver City I was perplexed. There on a platform I spotted three rows of wooden jump seats reminding me of rural movie houses in decades past. It turned out that these chairs once accommodated the rears of East Germany’s leaders as they pondered political matters. They were part of the furniture of the now-defunct country’s “Staats­ratsgebäude,” or building of the Council of State, according to Cristina Cuevas-Wolf, the Wende Museum’s program director.

“Wende” is the German word for turning point. The turning point this museum’s name evokes was the collapse of the East German Communist regime in November 1989, and then the creation of a unified Federal Republic of Germany on October 3, 1990.

Wandering through this museum triggered diverse sensations in me; I remembered my childhood escape from Soviet-occupied Leipzig, my coverage of the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 as an Associated Press reporter, my banishment from entering East Germany for many years, and then my return immediately after this hideous structure was breached.

I imagined smells that weren’t there. As I stared at some of the museum’s 120,000 Cold War artifacts, the inimitable odors of the “German Democratic Republic” (GDR) seemed to return to my nostrils, odors that once hit me even before I handed my passport to GDR border guards whose uniforms, badges and medals are now on exhibit in Culver City. It was a peculiar cocktail of emissions from cars with two-stroke engines, of industrial disinfectants, of chickens broiled in stale oil, and lignite-fired stoves.

Of course all of this was only in my mind, for even a young genius like Justinian Jampol, 32, the Wende Museum’s founder, would not have been able to ship the stench in containers across the North Sea, the Atlantic, Caribbean, the Panama Canal and up the Coast to Los Angeles. But the sight of a poster bearing the image of a helmeted East German soldier and the inscription, “Der Befehl ist Gesetz” (The Command is the Law) was sufficient to give me a dose of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

I know what that slogan meant. I remember standing on the Western side of Bernauer Strasse, a Berlin street sealed off by men following a “command” elevated to “law.” I watched people jump out of windows just a few feet away, desperately trying to evade men executing this “law.” Some jumped to their deaths. I watched East German workers’ militiamen shoot over the heads of a family of nine escapees until a French military jeep with a mounted machine gun raced right up to the border and fired over the militiamen’s heads until they quit executing the “law.”

Jampol, a Californian completing his doctorate in history at Oxford University, told me that a former border guard at “Checkpoint Charlie,” the key crossing point for non-Germans, donated the construction and maintenance plans for the Berlin Wall. I remember the early days of this checkpoint well; for a while I had my reporter’s observation post in a bedroom above a sleazy beer bar in the last building on the West Berlin side before the official border post.

This wasn’t a pretty period in recent German history, but a memorable one it was nonetheless, and so it was a brilliant idea by Jumpol to preserve so many of its relics ranging from a 2.6-ton piece of the Wall to a “Minol” gasoline pump of the kind in front of which East German motorists sometimes lined up for hours to fill up their tiny “Trabant” cars whose bodies were made of plastic containing resin strengthened by wool or cotton.

The Wende Museum’s exhibit is breathtaking, ranging from rows and rows of busts of Communist luminaries to the straw hat and last private papers of Erich Honecker, East Germany’s penultimate Communist Party chief, and his secretary’s office furniture; from Stasi (secret police) listening devices and other snooping paraphernalia to an impressive collection of oil paintings in the style of “Socialist Realism;” from artfully embroidered flags and banners of party front organizations to films concerning personal hygiene, and a collection of “Das Magazin,” a state-owned popular soft-porn publication.

After the “Wende,” East Germans found out that Honecker himself preferred more salacious materials, as evidenced by his personal film collection. He also had grand architectural visions, namely the “Palace of the Republic” he had built in downtown East Berlin where the Kaiser’s castle once stood. East German wags called this glittering structure, which was razed two years ago, “Erichs Lampenladen” (Erich’s lamp store). It housed the country’s rubberstamp parliament, a cultural center and elaborate restaurants. Guess where their silverware and china marked with the letters “PR” (for Palast der Republik) in gold, and where their menus have ended up? Indeed: in Culver City.

As a German with memories of the Nazi regime and its Communist successor I got goose bumps, though, when Jumpol told me about one of his eeriest items, the black robe of a judge in the National Socialist “people’s court” system in World War II, not the regular judiciary. This robe had a swastika embroidered to it. What makes this item so intriguing is that its owner later became a “Volksrichter” (people’s judge) under Communism, as Jampol said.

How come a youngster from America’s surfers’ paradise developed such a consuming passion for artifacts, art and kitsch from the Cold War era particularly in the eastern part of Germany? Well, it’s hard to say. But when he was nine years old he already acquired an East Berlin policeman’s uniform of the 1950s. A young man with a love for history uncommon among most of his contemporaries, he briefly studied in West Berlin’s Free University and found it astonishing that almost nobody in Germany seemed to take much interest in collecting memorabilia of the vanished GDR culture. So he started collecting, at first randomly.

“Soon people were bringing me their stuff,” he recalled. Then he found “scavengers,” as he called people scouting eastern Germany on his behalf. One of these “scavengers” was a man with perhaps a murky background making a living on flea markets. Jumpol was now a graduate student at Oxford University where things East German filled his dorm room. One night, he received a particularly urgent call from his scout, who had found an extraordinary “treasure” in the basement of a house near Dresden.

This was in 2006 at the time of the huge Dresden flood when water from the Elbe River kept pouring into people’s basements threatening the “scavenger’s” find – ledgers containing the complete collection of the daily newspaper “Neues Deutschland,” the East German Communist Party’s central organ. “My scavenger could not rescue them from the water by himself,” Jampol told me. “So, as many times before, I took the first bus from Oxford to Heathrow, flew to Berlin and raced down to Saxony to rescue the ledgers before they were soaked.”

They are now, he said, among his favorite items in his museum, which is funded primarily by the London-based Arcadia Fund whose key mission is the protection of endangered culture and nature. Peter Baldwin, Jampol’s former history professor at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), and the earliest supporter of his collector’s passion, serves on the Donor Board of this international charity.

And which of his artifacts renders Jampol particularly contemplative? “Well,” he said, “a former East German prison guard gave me the tools of his former trade, his handcuffs and electrical shock equipment, for example.” And how, I wanted to know, does this man earn his living in reunified Germany? Said Jampol: “He is still a prison guard.”