FOUR HUNDRED AND FIFTEEN

A nice piece on Germany’s Center for Political Beauty and “Aggressive Humanism, by David Kretz.

The Center has risen to new national prominence during the recent refugee crisis. In May 2014 the German Ministry for Family Affairs, headed by center-left secretary Manuela Schwesig, announced on a new website that it would offer asylum to fifty-five thousand Syrian children—1 percent of the five million who would need it according to UNICEF. This was in the build-up to the peak of the refugee crisis in 2015, months before Merkel’s exhortation “We can do it.”

The website, which offered online forms for Germans to register as host families, went viral on social media. A video showed happy, grateful children in Aleppo thanking Secretary Schwesig for her initiative. Large crowds spontaneously assembled in front of the offices of the Ministry for Family Affairs in Berlin, celebrating and leaving an ocean of flowers and teddy bears. Such is the political beauty that the Center imagines. It was they who had created the website, as well as a complete Federal Emergency Program, including IT infrastructure, a ready-to-implement legislative framework, extensive PR materials, active hotlines with actors answering questions about the program, and contacts with schools and other organizations inside Syria—a hyper-real theater performance. The Ministry could have played along but chose not to. Embarrassedly and awkwardly, they declared a day later that, no, they would not save the children.

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As is often the case in the Center’s work, the shining example comes with a warning: to underscore the beauty and nobility of some acts, they contrast them with the cynicism and brutality of others. As part of the Kindertransporthilfe, the Center set up an installation at Berlin’s central Friedrichstrasse Station, close to Frank Meisler’s bronze sculpture “Trains to Life—Trains to Death.“ Meisler’s work commemorates both the ten thousand children who were saved from the camps, and the 1.6 million who were killed in them. The Center set up two blue containers in front of the station with pictures of wounded and mutilated Syrian children. Each picture came with a phone number, which passersby could dial to vote on who should receive asylum and who should not: one in a hundred would be saved, the slogan went—and 99 would not. Nearby was a “medical tent” where Syrian doctors who had fled to Germany would take care of Germans for whom the pictures were too disturbing. While they treated them they told stories of the children they’d had to abandon in the ruins of Aleppo’s bombed hospitals.