Joseph Beuys New Letter Debunks More Wartime Myths
Part 2: A Self-Made Hero
On the one hand, Beuys depicts Laurinck as a larger-than-life figure and super-pilot. "Life was no problem for Hanne," he writes. "He stood in the middle of it all, a laughing victor." On the other hand, Beuys paints the pilot as the more impetuous one, as being almost frivolous. "Hanne had a lot of bad luck in his time on the front, a lot of failures, a lot of trouble, things that might have made another man bitter," Beuys writes. "But after a bad experience of that sort, Hanne would be singing his favorite songs -- just as beautifully, just as wonderfully -- firm in his beliefs (in his own flying abilities, as well)."
It was an abbreviated life, one tailored to the requirements of war. Like Beuys, Laurinck was a boy from the countryside. Beuys was from Kleve, a town in western Germany near the Dutch border; Laurinck was from Vreden, a town about 60 kilometers (37 miles) northeast of Kleve. Both men grew up under the Nazi dictatorship, and both joined the Luftwaffe soon after finishing high school. At the time, many saw the German air force as a good place to become a hero.
Did Laurinck sense, however, that there could be another kind of life? As can be seen in a letter he wrote to his sister, he wanted to get engaged and seemed tired of being a pilot.
And Beuys? By the end of the war, he would experience hand-to-hand combat in what must have been terrible carnage. He never talked about these experiences later, only speaking generally of the "shit" that soldiers found themselves in and saying that participating in the fighting had been the morally correct thing to do.
A recently aired German TV series called "Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter" ("Our Mothers, Our Fathers") tells the story of the war generation that Beuys belonged to. These are stories of young people, many of whom were lured in and then wrung dry by their regime. And, after the war, they were no longer capable of connecting to themselves or their guilt.
Beuys' 1944 letter gives the impression of a person much like those featured in the TV series -- someone who wanted to be a hero, but ended up being lured into something terrible instead. Beuys did achieve his dream of becoming a hero, but that would only come later, when he became a superstar of the modern art scene rather than as a soldier.
And he achieved that in part because of the way he mythologized his past in the war and especially in Crimea: elevating himself from radio operator to dive-bomber pilot; making himself the victim of enemy artillery fire, although it was actually poor weather that brought his plane down from the sky; and transforming the people who pulled him from the plane's wreckage into Tatar shamans, although his 1944 letter says they were Russian workers.
And while Beuys became part of an important new movement in West Germany, a recently published biography of the artist by author Hans Peter Riegel suggests that Beuys still remained an anachronistic figure, never quite able to break free from his earlier enthusiasm for nationalist ideology. Beuys attended gatherings of old comrades and sought out contact with former Nazis, Riegel shows. In 1980, Beuys admitted he had initially signed up for Hitler's army out of a "feeling of belonging and solidarity with others my age."
As an artist and professor, Beuys was no longer the periphery figure that he was in that wartime photograph from Crimea. Instead, he was the focal point of a new avant-garde. He saw himself as someone singled out and special -- and eventually others saw him that way, too. Yet this early letter shows a Joseph Beuys who was smaller, more assimilated and more average than he later wanted to see himself.
Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein
- Part 1: New Letter Debunks More Wartime Myths
- Part 2: A Self-Made Hero