Lights Out! Or: How German Institutions Take A Stance

Just before Christmas I saw a picture of the Semperoper (Opera House) in Dresden taking a stance against the Anti-Islam ‘Pegida’ movement [1]. Now, the Semperoper pretty much carries the same cultural clout in Germany as the British Museum does in the UK (different sector, but same clout). So imagine this: in response to Pegida assembling in front of their building for one of their demonstrations the Semperoper switched off its outside lights. But not only that: they also had projections onto their façade, which read (in English) ‘Refugees Welcome’. There were also various banners hung both from the building itself and on flagpoles outside, with slogans such as (in German) ‘Open your eyes’, ‘Open your hearts’. But my favourite was this one: ‘Die Würde des Menschen ist unantastbar’ (‘Human Dignity is inviolable’) – the very first line of the German Grundgesetz, or Constitution.

Since then, and apparently inspired by the Semperoper (and a Facebook Group called Licht aus für Rassisten, or Lights out for racists) other institutions have followed suit in switching off their lights for Pegida demonstrations: The Bayrische Staatsoper and the Residenztheater, both in Munich, the Kölner Dom in Cologne (along with bridges in the city and the old town), and the Rheinturm in Duesseldorf (this one is upcoming, and there may be others) [2]. I’m not sure how many museums have taken part to date or are planning to do so in the future [3], but a German colleague was able to point me to at least one museum that participated, the Museum Ludwig in Cologne [4]. In addition to switching off their lights, the Residenztheater hung a banner and the Bayrische Staatsoper tweeted a picture of its façade splashed with colour – with a reference to and play on the Nazi brown.

Some people on Twitter have criticized the lights out initiative as being reductionist and tokenistic. I think it’s great. It doesn’t just make a highly visible statement by turning the lights off on buildings that are an integral aspect of the cityscape and social/civic environment. Banners, projections and Social Media communications make it very clear where these institutions stand, and that they will have no part in this movement and what it perpetuates. It is reassuring, and I think does more for making immigrants feel that these institutions are for them and stand by them than any targeted programme.

What also struck me is the balanced tone: they don’t preach, but rather encourage people to ‘open their eyes’ and (as the Domprobst of Cologne said) ‘think who you are supporting’. The projected quote from the constitution is a masterstroke – a historical and contemporary reminder of and reference to one of the key achievements and founding building blocks of modern Germany. This is a mirror: reminding people of where we come from, who we want to be, and why – most Germans will irrevocably link the Grundgesetz to Germany’s response to the Nazi horrors.

I don’t know whether any of these places also actively open their doors to host community debates or facilitate whatever else might be needed – if something is needed. What they do show is their solidarity with the thousands of Anti-Pegida protestors [5], and even the politicians who have spoken out to caution against it [6]. The uncompromising clarity with which these institutions take a stance is astonishing – I must admit that I would not have dared to envisage any publicly funded organisation to be thus frank. But then, there appears to be a wide-spread consensus that spans the majority of civic society and most political parties – undoubtedly this helps.

I no longer live in Germany, and it would be easy to view the lights out initiative and its associated actions by institutions as just what is needed, the perfect response. It may not be. However, from where I’m standing, having kept an eye on developments in the US in response to Ferguson, and from my own experience as an immigrant in the UK these days, it looks very impressive, and very promising indeed. If the British Museum were to splash its façade with projections saying ‘Refugees Welcome’ the next time UKIP suggests that help should be given to British people first and that immigration should be stopped, I would definitely feel much more welcome here.

Und meinen deutschen Kollegen und Landsleuten möchte ich danken für Euer Engagement und die Inspiration, die Ihr in meinen Augen der ganzen Welt bereitet. Im Geiste bin ich an Eurer Seite, bis dieses Pegida-Scheusal wieder gebannt ist. Weiter so!

[1] You can read more about this movement here.
[2] You can get more info and pictures under #lichtaus.
[3] Colleagues in the US have lamented that museums seem to lag behind in their response to Ferguson, Missouri. You might want to look up #museumsrespondtoferguson, or the joint statement published by US museum bloggers, published for example on the blog of the inspiring lady that initiated it: Gretchen Jennings.
[4] My thanks go to Anke von Heyl, as well as Tanja Praske.
[5] Reading this article in Sunday’s Guardian you would be forgiven for thinking that there are no counter-demonstrations at all. The reality looks like this: Berlin – 300 Pegida supporters vs 5000 Anti-Pegidas. Cologne – 250 Pegida supporters vs 8000 anti. In the following cities Anti-Pegida demonstrators assembled, but I could not find the numbers (if any) for the Pegida supporters: Münster – 10,000. Stuttgart – 8,000. Hamburg – 4,000. Rostock – 8,000. Even in Dresden, were an insane 18,000 Pegida supporters gathered yesterday, there were 3,000 Anti-Pegida protesters. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that the Pegida movement isn’t something to be worried about and to engage with critically. But let’s acknowledge that this is already happening, and at a very large scale. The tone of the Guardian article, and frankly many other British coverage that I’ve seen, is heavy with foreboding, and completely silent on the frighteningly uncanny similarities between the Pegida slogans and the publicly sanctioned and uncritically reported statements by UKIP.
[6] Both the German Bundespräsident and Angela Merkel have referred – indirectly and directly – to Pegida in their Christmas/New Year’s speeches, and cautioned people to question the basis of Pegida’s exclusive discourse. The Justice Secretary even participated in an Anti-Pegida demonstration yesterday. I’m pretty impressed by that, and that’s despite me being unlikely to vote for the CDU :-).

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