Klęczący Hitler

The Elusive Centre (of Europe)

Kneeling Hitler

Publication: 14 October 2021

NO. 10 2013



Maurizio Cattelan, AMEN
The Centre for Contemporary Art, Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw
15 November 2012 – 24 February 2013

The taxi driver who is taking us to Próżna Street says he will go with us as he wants to see Hitler, too. Próżna Street, some two hundred steps long, is the last extant part of the Warsaw Ghetto. When I was here three years ago, both sides of the street were authentic – grim, grey facades with blind windows, in which some artist had installed large-scale photographs of people who had lived and died in the Ghetto, but in these three years the left-hand side of the street had been renovated, yellow plaster started shining, the ground floor in one of the townhouses was occupied by a bank, so the Ghetto had shrunk to a few buildings on the right-hand side. At the entrance to one of them, on a white wooden door with flakes of white paint pealing off, a hexagonal hole has been cut out at eye level, two hands high and one hand wide. And that is all, no trace of a poster, a sign or a caretaker; only occasionally a middle-aged man appears in these freezing cold days, in a sheepskin coat, usually grasping a bottle of beer, at first sight a local drunk or homeless, who, when you ask him where Hitler is, will point to the six-angled opening and take the opportunity to introduce himself as a guard, but no one will believe him.

The  small figure of Hitler seen from behind, at the end of the hallway before a courtyard lit by the light from the cloudy winter sky, does not look like an exhibit. We do not see his face, but his figure down in the hallway is so clear that he seems alive. What we do not see, we remember from photographs published in newspapers, political magazines and scandal‑loving periodicals, but also from exhibition posters in front of the gallery where other works are displayed. Adolf Hitler is kneeling, with his hands clasped in prayer, his eyes heavenward, a contrite Catholic praying to God. He is wearing the unfashionable grey clothes in which we know him, mostly in unofficial situations, the mountain picnics in Berchtesgaden, or when he is speaking to Eva and friends in a relaxed mood.

Cattelan did not make a caricature of him. Many people do. Caricaturing Hitler allows us to avoid disgust in confrontation with him, in fiction or in moral reflection. The only thing Cattelan did was to adapt the face to the act of prayer. His is not grim, he is not furious as we know him, but as such he also is not quite unfamiliar to us. We know it is him, we have seen him, although never in a church. He was not a practising Christian but he made sure a concordat with the Vatican was signed, which, among other things, guaranteed a tacit acceptance of the popes Pius XI and Pius XII for all aspects of his policies, and condoning them. As far as traditions were concerned, he was a Catholic from an Austrian backwater. It was not difficult for him to fall down to his knees.

I look at him kneeling and something snaps inside me. The scene is moving, for we need it and for a moment we believe in it although it is impossible. Although Hitler has been dead for almost 68 years, although we know that he never ever expressed contrition in front of witnesses, although he never fell to his knees, for some reason we need this scene of repentance. We are well aware that it would not change anything if in the last moment of his life Hitler did what Cattelan’s sculpture is showing. But the thought of expressing remorse is liberating, shakes us and forces us to believe in it. Perhaps it is imprinted in our cultural code – common for us and those who, not being Christians, are shareholders of the Euro-Asiatic civilisation – perhaps it is just our Catholic sentiment, which never leaves us, even if we are atheists, or perhaps it is just an ordinary human need for consolation and hope, even when it is not reasonable and when consolation is no longer possible.

Cattelan has presented his Hitler in various ways, depending on the occasion and the exhibition in question. Hitler has already kneeled on a gallery floor, hung from a ceiling, appeared on a photograph and on a poster. But the work shown in the relic of the Warsaw Ghetto acquires many connotations – as soon as we formulate one, at least two new ones emerge from it – and a gravity transcending the artistic gesture itself and the genre. In such situations, the first people to comment on it are those who believe that such a thing should be shut down as soon as possible. As could have been expected, this time the censoring mantle was donned by Efraim Zuroff, who had not understood anything at all, as is usual for guardians of places of memory and activists when they pass from assessing human evil and political intolerance to assessing works of art.

In Warsaw, on Próżna Street, Hitler found himself outside the gallery space, without concrete, glass and limelight, he found himself outside this artificial context which protects the viewer from any feelings of distaste other than aesthetic ones. Without posters, curators, guards – but with an accidental drunk playing the latter role – only with the indirect information that Hitler might be somewhere around, and he appears like a ghost. Or like an ordinary man, who really came to the Ghetto to kneel down and pray. In some probable imaginary sequence of events, we can easily imagine that it is really him, Adolf Hitler, who came here from somewhere and is now kneeling in front of a Jewish courtyard, in front of this invisible – from our perspective – monument to what is part of our common knowledge. The viewer has to tremble, has to experience an inner trauma when looking at the Nazi leader through a hole in a door.

Can this scene offend the silent memory of the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto or of all murdered European Jews, as Zuroff believes? No, for there is no logical train of thought which would lead to that. There is no offence, there cannot be, regardless of what anyone thinks or feels. But at the same time the scene is powerful, unbearable in its emotional intensity, ominous, for the eye breaks into pieces in contact with it as if it were made of porcelain. Although we deeply desire to see this contrition, it repels and abhors us, we would like to escape from it, it would be easier for us if we did not see it: Hitler in the Warsaw Ghetto, kneeling and praying to God…

Here is a more recent connotation of Cattelan’s work. On December 7th 1970, during a visit to Poland to lay a wreath under the monument to the Heroes of the Ghetto, German Chancellor Willy Brandt did something unexpected: he kneeled down and clasped his hands, not in prayer but in humility. He was an atheist and did not have anything to pray to, but he was also an anti‑fascist, who had never, even passively, served the Nazis. Brandt, a socialist, anti‑fascist conspirator, an emigrant in Norway, had less to do with Nazi crimes than most Europeans, who aided and abetted the Nazis through their passivity. But in his own mind he bore responsibility for all the Nazi crimes just because he was German. This Kniefall von Warschau perhaps the most adequately defined the concept of collective responsibility. And not just the German one. It attracted a furious anger of unclear consciences but also of misunderstanding, human stupidity, imperviousness of spirit of the commissars, also evinced by Zuroff, although he is not judging Brandt but Hitler.

Here is the connotation: before arriving in Warsaw, Cattelan’s work could hardly evoke associations with Brandt, but now, when we look at it through a hole in a door, it seems to us that it was created with the chancellor in mind. But even such a suspicion would be a mistake, Cattelan is not an empty-headed scandal-monger to use such indecent, improper comparisons. The comparison only arose when Hitler came to Warsaw. As the author wished it, the sculpture behaves as a living man rather than an artefact or an ideological and moral sign.

But if it so happened that looking at Hitler we are thinking about Willy Brandt, we might just as well say what the second kneeling down changed in our perception of the first one. What the German Chancellor did in 1970 was of great significance for Germans and their memory of the Second World War, for the former Wehrmacht officers, socialised SS‑men, members of the Nazi Party and the party youth, in that period still in their prime of life. The year 1970 was only slightly more removed from the Second World War than 2013 from our 1991. Brandt made some happier and more at peace with themselves, but he offended and probably also angered others more than anyone else in the entire history of Germany. Willy Brandt ensured a peaceful future for Germany.

Europe did not seem much interested in his act. It was still a matter for Germany only; Germany still deserved only punishment – and contempt – of entire anti‑fascist Europe. In later decades, many heads of states and governments were busy apologising for historical crimes but it was all lame and often misunderstood. The problem is not that the Kniefall von Warschau cannot be repeated or that any successive act like that would only be a poor imitation of the great original, but that no one will ever mean what Brandt so clearly and unambiguously meant. In his gesture there was no coma followed by the word “but”.

How did the Holocaust survivors take it? As a German apology or as a testimony that Brandt was one of them, that he was theirs despite not being a Jew? The latter seems more likely. For Willy Brandt did not apologise, but felt responsible, and this is greater and more important than any apology. By the way, the story of Polish‑German apologies did not start with him: a  few years earlier Polish bishops sent a letter to German bishops containing the famous “We  forgive and ask for forgiveness”. In terms of moral force and risk this gesture is unequalled: they apologised for everything Poles had done to Germans after the Second World War.

Cattelan’s Hitler in Warsaw speaks about something Brandt could not do; about the futility of trying to remove from humanity, from Europe or perhaps from Poland and Germany the burden of responsibility for what has been done on our behalf or – as the Croat fools propose – casting the Second World War and Nazi crimes into the dustbin of the past and oblivion, so that only historians would be bothered with them while nations and citizens would simply live on, slightly more free from thoughts about the Holocaust and collective responsibility. This is what the scene with kneeling Hitler is about. This, in fact, impossible image shows what should happen so that we can live on free from our responsibility. And our being moved and shocked – unfortunately not everybody can experience that for there are dummies among us too – shows how much we desire it and how tragically human this desire is.

Cattelan’s exhibition entitled Amen is held in a beautiful castle, now housing the Contemporary Art Centre, a few kilometres from Próżna Street, where Hitler is displayed. Cattelan’s works occupy half of the gallery, the other half is taken over by the exhibition of Artur Żmijewski, a visual artist, photographer and film director, besides the fascinating Katarzyna Kozyra, perhaps the most important contemporary Polish artist. It is worth noting that these two exhibitions quite unexpectedly, and unintended by the curators, correspond with each other.

Most of the  works shown by Cattelan are already known. In the entrance there are two stuffed dogs with a  stuffed chicken between them. And once the animal lover experiences a feeling of disgust caused by ethical doubts concerning the use of taxidermy for artistic purposes, in the entrance to the central room his eye goes upwards towards a strange image of a woman spread on a cross in a large box hanging on a wall. With freshly depilated, swollen legs – from standing or a kidney disease – she is partly attached to the box – like a precious product, to avoid damaging it during transport – and partly nailed down with thick wedges going through her palms. She is facing the wall – in contrast to Christ facing people – she is wearing a nightdress and her hair is pulled together with an elastic band.

If two stuffed dogs and a chicken look realistically, for every stuffed creature is realistic, from a fox and a bear through Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Cattelan’s female Christ (title: Untitled) looks just like that: as if stuffed. As if she was nailed down alive, in the posture of crucified Jesus, facing the wall, with her head inclined as on the majority of the iconographic representations, and then hollowed out, cleansed of all traces of blood and impurities, and stuffed. Perfectly aseptic and pure, with no name or title, free of preordained connotations, it shakes the viewer just like the kneeling Hitler. And again, just like in the case of Hitler, it is a very subtle treatise on Christian self-reflection.

A few steps from the female Christ, the story will be told once again but directly and very brutally: lying on the gallery floor is a beautiful horse, a chestnut, shot through with a ring to which a plaque with the inscription “INRI” was attached. The only photograph featuring in the exhibition hangs on the opposite wall: a black-and-white picture of a fresh grave, from which hands clasped in prayer are sticking out.

Cattelan made it to the front pages of European tabloids, to television news programmes in the more primitive provinces of the Christian world, and to the scandalised sermons of faithful Catholics with his famous work – which has probably entered the imagination and breviaries of exorcists, the texts and anti-debauchery magic of Zvjezdan Linić[1] – presenting Pope John Paul II with a pastoral in his hand and crushed by a meteorite. This work is not here – the exhibition Amen is too serious for that and Wojtyła died long ago – but it would be interesting to see it here, in Warsaw. For Polish people are still enchanted by their pope, just like Croats are by Gotovina[2] and are longingly waiting for the promised canonisation, which, God willing, Joseph Ratzinger should finalise in the autumn, but it would not occur to them to censor an artist. Christ is closer to them than the pope and yet they did not even touch the woman spread on the cross facing the wall. Newspapers are full of photographs of this work, and Cattelan is spoken and written about with respect. You can sense it in Warsaw: a greater respect for suffering and art than we are used to in the southern provinces.

It is a mistake to present Catellan as a scandal‑monger, exhibitionist and a godless person. He is preoccupied with God as few other artists in our times are, and he is sensitive to suffering and repentance. And this is what a Christian should do: respecting the suffering of others and his or her own repentance, and not the other way round. Cattelan is not an exhibitionist but he puts people, animals and objects in situations and contexts in which they rarely or never find themselves. His works are preceded by texts, with new texts starting from a finished work. In front of the gallery, on one of the three flagpoles (the middle one) a boy is suspended, perhaps twelve years old, respectable, clean and humble. Pigeons are trembling from cold on the windowsills of the second floor, in an atrium visible from the gallery rooms. If you do not take a close look, if you do not notice that the pigeons are not moving, you might think they are real. Or even overlook them. But also inside, in the gallery, there are dozens of such pigeons on the cornice, under the freshly whitened ceilings. They are standing there and not shitting. This is one of the few works which have a title: Others. This is how Cattelan’s pigeons are called.

It is not easy for me to leave; this is my last day in Warsaw. In the adjoining room, opening onto the atrium on the other side, Żmijewski exhibited dozens of pages doodled over with pastels, with figures of animals glimpsing from under poorly controlled pencil strokes. Drawings perhaps of a child, perhaps of a grown-up. He gave paper and crayons to blind people and asked them to draw a horse, a fly, a cat, a dragonfly… People who do not see drew things as they would look like if they were not blind. A bit further on drawings with unusual signs, bombs, burning houses, crescents… The artist was in Israel and in the Gaza Strip, and asked ordinary people to tell him who is to blame for the last war between the Israelis and Palestinians. Once somebody started speaking, Żmijewski gave him paper and pencil and asked him to draw the answer… In a room with about 20 screens, where the end of our world is constantly going on, with all screens simultaneously hissing, screaming, shooting, sermonising, on one of the screens we see Żmijewski, who started marching through Warsaw with a group of friends dressed in the stripes of Auschwitz inmates. Young nationalists, football fans and right-wingers arrived from the other side. They carried Polish flags, they shouted threats and chanted. They would have ripped them into pieces if the police had not separated the two groups. The fear on the faces of people wearing concentration camp stripes was identical to the fear of Auschwitz prisoners. At last I felt like at home, in Zagreb.

February 2013


[1] Zvjezdan Linić (b. 1941) – a Franciscan, organiser of spiritual renewal, healer and exorcist, extreme right-winger, formerly in a Franciscan monastery in Zagreb, now in the countryside.

[2]*Ante Gotovina (b. 1955) – Croat general, accused of crimes against humanity and war crimes by the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in the Hague (1995, commanding Operation Storm, in which about 200,000 Serbs were expelled from the Croat Krajina, and at least 150 were killed), in 2011 sentenced to 24 years in prison, a year later pardoned because of insufficient evidence; in Croatia he is regarded as a hero.

About authors

Miljenko Jergović

A Croatian writer and essayist, born in Sarajevo, where he studied photography and sociology. In 1992 he started writing for the Croat weekly Nedjeljna Dalmacija, and since 1993 he has been living in Zagreb, working for the daily Jutarnji list. His first published work was a volume of poetry called Opservatorija Varšava (1988). He has written collections of short stories, including Sarajevski Marlboro (1994), Mama Leone (1996), Inšallah Madona inšallah (2004), Mačka čovjek pas (2012), and longer pieces, novellas about people and cars: Buick Rivera (2002, Polish edition 2003), Freelander (2007, Polish edition 2010), Volga, Volga (2009, Polish edition 2013), and novels: Dvori od oraha (2003), Gloria in excelsis (2005), Ruta Tannenbaum (2006, Polish edition 2008), Srda pjeva, u sumrak, na Duhove (2007, Polish edition 2011), Psi na jezeru (2010), and a biographical novel Otac (2010, Polish edition 2012). Jergović has received various awards in Bosnia and Croatia including the E.M. Remarque Prize and Premio Napoli. For Ruta Tannenbaum he was awarded the Meša Selimović Prize (2007) for the best novel on Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Croatia and Montenegro; its Polish translation, by Magdalena Petryńska, made it to the final of the Central Europe Literary Prize Angelus 2009, and in 2012 Jergović received this prize for the novel Srda śpiewa o zmierzchu w Zielone Świątki (Srda pjeva, u sumrak, na Duhove).


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