How long is now ? asks an anonymous, enormous face, a graffiti designed on the white rectangle of a building that, only some years ago, was a refuge for underground culture, and, now, waits for its demolition. It is in the Oranienburgerstrasse, Berlin. The crumbled border of the wall, similar to a stale biscuit, has a disquieting, but not hostile tone. When the palace will be knocked down, it will leave place to a new present, that will endures for some time, engaged in its rich illusion of eternity. This approximate wall talks about its extinction, that in German sounds Austerben: to die off or to die completely. A touch of inexorability goes together with the Aus prefix and remembers to anyone pronouncing it that, of course, extinction is forever. It’s January in Berlin and under a snowy sky this question seems to gather all the Angst of a present time called Anthropocene. Berlin is the European town where entire extermination plans emerged during the Third Reich not only in the criminal minds of political groups, bur, throghout their murders, in the consciousness of humankind. If a place exists where to go down in the darkness of extinction, well, it’s Berlin.
Since extermination was planned in the offices and ministeries of the Nazi regime, Berlin knew extinction, but it also suffered from it. At the end of April 1945 Hitler’s nihilistic adventure unfolded its intrinsic truth: Germany is destroyed. This is the end of an entire climax of European civilization, and of its greed for greatness, that, for better or for worse, had been lasting since 1870. Prussia’s continental egemony, colonial bourgeoisie in Nambia and Cameroon, urban lifestyle as the supreme expression of human genius. Searching for space, everywhere, and in many ways. After 1945, Berlin will not be no longer Berlin. Theodor Adorno thought that mass society would gobble culture considering it a waste product derived from something cheaper, the entertainment. Berlin absorbed its own extinction so much to make a touristic attraction of it: groups of tourists hungry for live details about Nazismus enjoyed on line booked dates in specific spots of the city: they’re ready to walk 4 hours to visit the so-called “places of memory” of the Third Reich, and its steady police state. What do they really look for?
Down Oranienburgerstrasse, the metallic bulb of television looses glamour as the green, Moorish chapel of the Neue Synagoge appears on the left. Spared to distruction in the Kristallnacht, today the synagogue is deconsecrated, but it has been rebuilt in its substantial architectury. Sun is going down, temperatures are freezing, and the pavement round dowells gleam of a mahogany-brown humidity, old dated, a little bit Thirties; they look like the floors made by creaky wood in the luxury flats in Tucholskystrasse, their severe halls, cream plaster, marble floors and stony stairs. Some people stopped before the main entrance of the synagogue, reading the commemorative plaque and remembering the crimes implicit in the survival of the temple. Everyone, persons and synagogue, seems to be petrified in a sort of pre-language aphasia, where nobody knows well what to say, or, even, whether it’s remained something to say. The residues of the past, its fossils and ruins, one day are accomodated again into the lived life. It occurs everywhere there’re human beings, and it happened here. Gusts of wind are caught under the parka hood, and you realize that it occurs because life does not pass, life wears out, and it’s in the continous comsuming of the organic life, season after season, birth after birth, that all puts straight. The atrocious indifference of the after that. The rightful vigour of the news.
A few hours before, on the plane, I was observing two dead arthropods. Their bodies were yellow and dried. Probably, they were trapped in the cavity of the window. Long time before, they encountered the wrong place, among plastic materials that had nothing to do with their genic code, and that made of them antiquated creatures. That morning, the FAZ published a news as overwhelming as the terror attacks that fisted Europe and Turkey in the last day of the year: human population reached 7 billions and half of individuals. The review of human demography matches the catastrophic numbers from WWF Planet Index 2016 of the last autumn, telling in a not so brutal way how it is for the not-humans on Earth. In our young past (between 1970 and 2012) vertebrates species diminished of 58%. Defaunation moves forward, due to a widespread and radical habitat loss, required to leave space to the increasing numbers of human beings, and their way of producing food, energy, clothes. While we travelled through the Cold War, the fall of Berlin Wall and, then, the Nineties of Bill Clinton and the Kyoto Protocol (1970-2012), terrestrial species declined of 38%, fresh water species of 81% and marine species of 36%.
If on the Planet space is not infinite, our expansion plans are. They’re substantially borderless. Last century, Germany coined a word for the hunger of virgin land to feed its enormous lust for new territories: Lebensraum, vital space. The conquest, manu militari, of the East even inside the Russian steppes of the Soviet Union, to leave room to the Central-European settlers of German origin. And also to the shocked generation of young men and women, and their violet and grey faces resembling an expressionist painting became the mass-nightmare of an entire country, described in the fiction Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter (ZDF, 2013). Hitler’s Vernichtungskrieg managed the geography between Europe and Asia as a matter of survival of the only people worth affirming itself on Earth. Today, Lebensraum is a filthy word, but it does not exist any better to depict the collapse of natural habitats and wild species that must retreat before the unstoppable arrival of human beings. The future of wildlife regards the vital space, and no other. An observation that is rooted in the pages of The Origin of the Species by Charles Darwin and that, unfortunately, puts us in the most disappointing position. Maybe, should we step back?
The yellow arthropode tells our story by telling its. Extinction is a human condition, so interrelated with the way our species took possession of every continent. Maybe, the arthropode didn’t ever know, yet we loved to produce plastics that suffocated it. And, maybe, this is the reason why we invented the collections of natural specimens, the gigantic archives of animal and plant species that enshrine the history of the Planet from the point of view of Homo sapiens. The 30 millions of records in the Museum fuer Naturkunde Berlin, in the Invalidenstrasse, conserve the extinct past, but claim for extinction the place of honor in the human enterprise that here, in Germany, revealed our most aberrant traits. We are it. Therefore, I think, Kaiser Wilhelm the Second smiled to the lens in the black and white picture tube bookshops sell to tourists. He did. He knew.
The Schwarzer Weg is desert, and the Invalidenpark too. It’s not yet 9 a.m., the sky is beaten by the gusts of an Artic wind. The hallucinated perception that here in Berlin only an endless and solid winter is possible swirls around. On the synthetic rubber coating of the playground stayed the exploded cartridges of New Year Eve’s fireworks. The luxury apartments closed to the Energy Ministery are silent. A typical Prussian house hides behind red berry bushes. Near, a smokey chimney emerges. The fossil power, that we derived from coal and oil deposits in the last 150 years, has been the ultimate piece in the seizure of the Planet. Natural collections were born in Europe just when the Industrial revolution blasted. An intimate and dissolute relationship joined together the expansion ability of Homo sapiens and the scientific wit required to collect specimens of species by millions. Soon, they will have their Lebensraum only in the museums.
In the North, human discomfort often turns into philosophy. For Hegel, unpleasant things too have a sense, even if swift and dissimulated. This awareness of bad luck and violence, southern peoples always detect it in the big northern thinkers, is at the contrary a dialogue with themselves and the status of the things. It is, really, the ubiquitous frost that always meets the human events when we discover our power. Any supremacy has the same side effect: it compresses the space left to the others: enemies, defeated, dissidents. From Linneus, taxonomy imposed to the natural sciences not only the obligation to list living creatures, but also a new notion of the space among species. Species distribution in groups and families anticipated the order by evolutionary derivation by which Darwin organized the tree of life according to real criteria, but, for the first time, designed by the human being. This means that, from a certain point forward, species do not have only their habitat, but they also had an evolutionary position decided by the scientific thought. A new category of space that it never existed before man deduced it from the way things are, emerged. In the natural collections it works particularly clear. The main feature of any natural history museum is that species are forced to be all together. Space between them is not allowed but that artificial of display cabinets. While outside animals appear – as in Steven Gnam’s photos – in the collections animals are accumulated in an inflicted coexistence. These places tell us how we learnt to manage Nature: umzuhandeln, Heidegger said, to have animals, plants and ecosystems at our fingertips. But above all it means that from now we’re us to decide how much space to leave to them. It’s extinct the age outside time when Uroghompus eximius and Stenophlebia amphitrite flied in a world pure from any sort of consciousness able to think the Planet.
Marine species cabinet conserved in an alcoholic solution is in a semidarkness; it’s closed in a huge room where access is permitted only through an automatic door. Temperature is under 20 degree Celsius. It’s once more cold. Tens of fishes, moray eels, sharks lie in the amber liquid that protect them from time as an amnios of the third millennium. The shape of the jars force them to stay vertically. To be honest, you expect something from these creatures. They’re not stuffed with polyammide or straw or cotton wool. They’re complete, tissues are still intact and the entrails are where they have to be. Only the eyes reveal death, and the surgical act of the removal from oceans and seas. A small hammerhead shark floats in its death with a sort of agility. It looks at me astonishngly, iced in a far away dimension it had never supposed to exist on Earth. Just like everything else in the natural collections, it ended to speak a totally estrange language, diluted in the feeling of injustice taking your throat before stuffed animals. They should be there to testify the beautiful biodiversity of the Planet. These species had to die to become a knowledge available to human beings. Scientific thought grew on records, fossils, and capture in the wild. Zebras, tigers, jaguars, lions play in a strong and detailed plot they didn’t want to be in. Because no one species knows to have a story.
Cats are one of the families that suffer most the consequences of the human ecological footprint. An ocelot with only an eye, stuffed in 1819 stares into space in the same glass cabinet where a relative of it turns the head toward a Smyrne alcyon (Alcedo smyrnensis) gathered around 1800 at Pondicherry, India, by George Cuvier, the father of the concept of extinction. Early before Christmas, it had been published on PNAS an assessment of cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus); the study reveals what anyone already suspected, that the remnant 7100 cheetah on the Planet are inexorably walking along the path of extinction. Cheetah is a “protection-reliant species”: without human help it cannot cope with the other predators, poaching and habitat erosion. Many cats started dramatically declining when their fur became fashion goods. Spotted fur trade was extremely successful in triggering defaunation on the behalf of its intrisic capacity to amplify its effects. As Kent Redford argued in his remarkable work “The empty forest” (1992), trade engages many wild species, but it’s also able to shift from one other if market demands it or supply chain encounters fluctuations on the base of intense offtake. The jaguar (Panthera onca) started to transform into coat at the end of Nineties, but in the Sixties of the last century too few jaguars remained and hunters moved to smaller cats: Leopardus wiedii (margay), Leopardus tigrinus (tiger cat) and Leopardus pardalis (ocelot). The survival of top predators, such as big cats are, depends on a negotiable principle, and that is space. But in the meantime he discusses how much room to give to animals, Homo sapiens displays also another one of his amazing skills he had been proving to have before Nature over time. It is the capacity for imposing silence, for making silence, for converting biological life into a majestic aphony. Superbly taxidermised, one Bubo nipalensis (Nepal’s owl) and one Harpia harpyia (the greatest hawk of the American continent) listen to the sweet chatter of some kids. They visit the museum with the grandparents for Christmas holidays. This silence stems from the same matrix of the shock the civil population in Germany experienced at the end of May in 1945. Suddenly waken up to himself, man has no concepts or representations to face what he did. Made unable to speak due to the destruction, in the mid of the Berlin’s waste dust, this human being cannot identify himself. But it’s his shadow to stun it, not a lack of awareness. Almost always, Homo sapiens knows well what he’s doing. But he continues to do it.
At half past nine a.m. the Wannsee railstation is semi-desert. Train stopped in time, after sliding along kilometers of dry and bare woods. Elias Canetti wrote that German people has his natural root in the Northern forests, since pines and firs line up as soldats in an army unit. The strong attitude to obedience was one of the elements – the easest to be judged by winners in the aftermath of the war – that, slowly, brought Germany to a moral catastrophe and finally to Wannsee. Here, in an elegant lakeside villa, on the 20th of January 1942, some high officials and admistrators of the Reich and SS were called by Reinhardt Heydrich to plan the killing of all the European jews. Bus 114 runs along the lake; the driver is not sure of the stop . This “villa of the conference” seems not to have a certain place in the route he runs every day. He never payed attention to it, probably. But a sophisticated middle age woman who looks like Lauren Bacall told me to be comfortable, since I have to get off at the end of the line.
The constant show provided by social media detached us from the real dimensions of political and social apocalypse, that never occurs in an epiphanic event, but rather follows a syntomatic course for years. It’s hard to imagine a more ordinary spot than Wannsee to realize how genocide grew gradually in any interstices of the German civil life until the day Heydrich’s boots pace resounded on this driveway. It starts snowing now and the wind misshape the plastic posters hanged on the villa’s gate. They tell the past of Wannsee, when in the Thirties it was a holiday resort for Berliner wealthy families, even jew: Oppenheim, Langenscheidt, Springer, Fassbender, Lieberman, Baumgarten. Then, Wanssee was a nice place to rest, read good books, look at children playing in the garden. Much of the informations are available also in Hebrew; on the copybook where visitors record their impressions, many notes are in Ivrit. They are written in a rhytme of anxiety and determination. We’re still alive, these voices from the far Israel repeat, pretending rights their father were defrauded of. But also their contemporary voice weakens more and more, up to disappear, in the labyrinth of rooms in the museum the villa is today. And the voice changes its body, and it turns into a matt glass, foggy, edged with fixtures made of a white, dirty wood. Beyond it, young faces of women, boys, teenagers wait that an Einsatzgruppe organizes their shooting.
A long, dark table captures the sight and leads it to outside, to the park trees. The windows allows you to breath, it is a cheap escape from the absolute violence marked by an heartbreaking simplicity that stops any effort to take notes. The perfect organization capacity of a modern burocracy, this is what Heydrich called around the lost table where proportions were made, quantitative factors were discussed, measures were taken. Reinhardt Heydrich was the devil of this simplicity. Out there, red brick houses in teutonic style seem standstill to the Thirties. A Kindergarten jumps out. The palisade of the building is bucolic and unpainful, the wood eroded by winter weather. An abandoned compound, closed to the Kindergarten, is lost in the woods, displaced, like the surprised sight of the bus driver who doesn’t know who’s Reinhardt Heydrich, who was the son of two musicians and yes, once upon a time ought to be a kid. Actually, kids create the space surrounding these spots of memories; they dig a trench between the past and us, a furrow in the land that isolate even more our ancestors from us. Kids keep our fathers separeted from any kind of “and then”, but so doing they make it closer. Kids donate to the present time the not-possibile-to-fill emptiness where we can aknowldege the ancestors, and the victims. Kids permit us to give a name to those who no longer exist.
The same thing happens to species threatened of extinction, Joshua Schuster says. Only when they are lost, they get a name. And if “love is love of a name, as Lacan believed, and if 100 hundred thousands years ago we humans were the species “that have not yet a name, but it has the capacity to name things”, as Elizabeth Kolbert assumed in her exploration of extinction, then the names of the victims, of the disappeared, of the lost forever, of the alone for the eternity to come (because they could not ask for anyone’s help who took their hand and told, i will never let they deport you) are our only seal, even so weak, on what has already gone. We can keep it only this way, by names. Since they’re extinct, we know and conserve and protect their names in the museums and in our neurons. The use of extinction, Guido Chelazzi understood, is since a lot of time a tool to perfom the possession of land, peoples and faunas encoded in our “primeval footprint”. That we were able to use it on an industrial scale between 1939 and 1945 should not surprise, but because the enormity of evil as a process fitting with the human historical enterprise that became evident in the Third Reich’s occurencies. Yes, it exists. Yes, it happens. Yes, at the beginning no one dares to give it its true name.
In a precise moment in the European history, despite the huge acceleration of the industrial production, space was a colletive experience. Eduard Gaertner grasped what space meant to his age. He didn’t know that it was about to vanish, but he depicted it in two paintings now at National Galerie, in front of the Bode Museum. Die neue Wache in Berlin (1833) and even better Unter den Linden (1852) show that space is needed to comprehend the presence of a landscape. On a golden background, architectural elements appeared lonely, while young couples, unaware of their own epoch, walk enjoying a privilege that now is gone. We cannot neither imagine how it is to have so much space all around. But the two paintings communicate also an unsuspicious anguish because of the tranquillity the people rest in. Hunger for space, at that time, produced the room where these people roam: architects designed wide, long avenues, the unconditioned symbols of the Prussian power, and of Europe. As these young couple hoped to have enough room to cultivate a dream of happiness (according to Saint Just’s political revolution), the world (forests, faunas, not European peoples) were fading away. Prussian omnivory for new territories pretended more Lebensraum, and took it. By force. In Africa.
A snow storm hit the Museum der deutschen Geschichte, the museum of German history on the Unter den Linden. Many berliners seek a shelter in the café. Vienese chocolate chakes, apple pies, hot coffee mitigate the reckless frost in the early afternoon. An exhibition on the German colonialism in Africa is under way; it considers sistematically a page of the Wilhelm’s time that it’s used to be dismissed. Instead, it’s fundamental to understand how an overexploitation pattern – to death – of the not European populations ( the Herero in Namibia, for instance) had been fermenting for decades before to take the power at the collapse of the Weimar Republic. At the end of the Nineties, in Africa Germany occupied Togo, Cameroon, Namibia, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi. When the Great War was over, in the first number of the magazine “Die Arbeiter – Illustrierte Zeitung aller Laender” (1927) the journalist Willi Muenzberg called general Von Throtta’s acts in the Namibian desert “a war of exetermination”. In 1918 Britain tool over the control of the region and denounced the atrocities committed by Germans in a reverbative investigation, The Blue Book.
What really the German settlers and soldiers did to the civil population is shown by tens of photos: emaciated bodies starving to death (pursued by Germans to near extinction, says a t-shirt, a sort of contemporary artwork about the Namibian genocide). Between the two centuries the line marking whites and blacks was not only a racial policy, but also a mindset that helped putting order in the masters’ intentions: “Colonialism demanded clarity. Scientists classified humans according to races and tribes. By endeavouring to set and implement a clear line between rulers and the ruled, the colonizers continually reasserted their own identity”. To dominate, and make space, you must know who you are. And then, go straight ahead.
Colonialism not only destroyed the social and economic tissue of the African nations it invaded and haressed. Colonialism left beyond a halo of defeat, loss and irrecoverability that the German photographer Andréas Lang has been able to track catching the ghosts of an ancient past still effective in Cameroon, Congo and Central African Republic. It’s not easy to say about which kind of extinction his photos talk, yet they tell – in the absences at the centre of the picture – the definitive end of something, and someone. People, animals, villages, civilizations. The special exhibition of the extraordinary Andréas’ artwork – Kamerun und Kongo. Eine Spurensuche und Phantom Geographie – is in the new section of the Museum and completes a path of sickening and guilty the curators dedicated to German colonialism. The black and white stretch of a foggy river, a nude road heading to an hospital eyes cannot reach, some abandoned buildings in Akanolinga take visitor’s hand. Whispering, these photos bring him in the psychic underground that sustained the colonial barbarism. Neither human face, Andréas’ imagines say, can stay undamaged contemplating what we are able to do. So, a motionless astonishment, or a desperate inertia, are stuck on the faces of his portraits: a guardian in Cameroon, a student with a stripe-t-shirt and a pan to sift river sable, standing in a landscape empty of any kind of book or school buildings or classmates. And, first of all, the absolute loneliness of a gendarm in Nola, Central African Republic. There’s animals here as well in the hell of memories where you can no longer distinguish the name of who keeps you as an hostage or who took away everything and then vashined himself. In any of the country where Andréas travelled lion is functionally extinct. Yet, one woody lion controlls a chafferie entrance, in Cameroon. And a mountain of bones from big herbivores – Slaughterhouse – breaks the vegetation uniformity. Cameroon and the other nations in the Congo Basin are the African countries where survival hunting (the so called bushmeat crisis) is the main driver of defaunation among tropical species. In this emptiness we finally find ourselves.
But, is the story really this way? If extinction is forever, do only the posterity’s words and the ancestors’ tracks remain? Do we have no other choice but to single out fossils or specimens? At the entrance hall of Wannsee villa, leaflets historically accurate about Hitler’s war of extermination are at public disposal. For the regime, Ian Kershaw wrote, Poland was a “racial damp”, and then Russia came, where the Einsatzgruppen shot dead hundreds of thousands of individuals. And the Russian steppes and their peoples damned to starve. Inside one of this little books I find a very blurred photo with a woman.
It is the 19 th of March 1944: Marija Makarowa Rytschankowa took the hands of her three children, Ivan, 6 years old, Fenja, 2 and Anja 4. They have been just freed from the Lager of Osaritischi, in the White Russia. The children are wrapped in blankets, Marija held the little Fenja, Ivan smiled. Even Marija’s existence, at a certain point, started running along one of those anonimous roads delving into the forest – Andréas Lang tracked them – toward almost-impossibile-to understand darknesses.
( More photos are available in the Italian version)