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ECHOES OF THE BROTHER COUNTRIES

What is the Price of Memory and What is the Cost of Amnesia? Or: Visions and Illusions of Anti-Imperialist Solidarities.

To look at Germany’s historical and contemporary global relations only through the prism of the FRG (Federal Republic of Germany), i.e. the West, is to navigate a discourse with one eye shut, inevitably leading to an exclusionary and one-sided history. An all too often ignored part of post-war and post-unification Germany, or what has been critically reframed as ‘Beitritt der DDR zur BRD’ (Accession of the GDR to the FRG), is the history and legacy of migration and transnational political, economic, educational, and artistic links and exchanges that were facilitated by the German Democratic Republic’s (GDR) alliances and agreements with other socialist and socialist friendly nations deemed their so-called Bruderländer (‘brother countries’).

Taken in a more expanded sense, the term Bruderländer can be understood as referring to the congregate of ideological, political, and legal frameworks that facilitated cultural and educational exchange, economic aid, and political support between the GDR and its allies, as well as established contractual labor—and it is the frame through which thousands migrated to the GDR between 1949 and 1990.

Among these were around 500,000 workers and trainees[1] from countries such as Vietnam, Mozambique, Angola, and Algeria, up to 70,000 students[2] from Vietnam, Tanzania, Syria, Guinea-Bissau, Ghana, and Nigeria, among others, and thousands of political émigrés not only from socialist countries such as Chile but also from contexts like Turkey, where communists were heavily persecuted. By 1989, the GDR was host to 190,000 foreign nationals.[3]

However, in the shadow of the iconographic depictions of solidarity such as a ‘united class struggle’, or ‘socialist internationalism’ were other realities. Despite the GDR’s emphasis on fair labor conditions and professional development, workers experienced labor exploitation, cramped living quarters, surveillance, curtailment of certain freedoms such as getting pregnant or being in a relationship, racist and xenophobic attacks, withheld wages by their governments, and broken promises from both the GDR government and their own.

And while the plight of workers, students, and political émigrés differed in that workers were often in a worse situation, students and political émigrés were nonetheless not spared. There were, for instance, students who arrived in the GDR to study or train but ended up working in slaughterhouses. And workers, students, and political émigrés alike were surveilled by the Stasi, especially those who organized strikes or criticized the GDR government.[4] Some were repatriated back to their home countries, with the agreement of both the GDR and their home government.

Exhibition view Echoes of the brother countries. What is the price of memory and what are the costs of amnesia? Or: Visions and Illusions of Anti-Imperialist Solidarity, Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW), 2024. Photo: Hannes Wiedemann/HKW
Christoph Wetzel, The Last Judgement (1987), oil on hardboard, 165 x 250 cm © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2024 Courtesy Museum Utopie und Alltag (Kunstarchiv Beeskow). Photo: Hannes Wiedemann/HKW

Conditions worsened after unification. With the dissolution of the GDR, so also came the revocation of the contracts of the workers and the scholarships of the students. Many had to return to their home countries against their will.

And those who stayed experienced legal and economic insecurities, in addition to heightened racist and xenophobic attacks. In those early years of post-unification, neo-Nazis from East and West Germany committed pogroms, attacking Mozambicans and Vietnamese, as well as asylum seekers in Hoyerswerda in 1991 and Vietnamese workers and Roma refugees in Rostock-Lichtenhagen in 1992, among others. Around 3,000 Rostock residents applauded as the migrants were attacked. But how much of this was known to the average GDR citizen, and how much of this is known to the citizens of united Germany?

Of course, racism and xenophobia were not invented in the GDR, but were also prevalent in the FRG, and preceded the existence of the GDR. But to understand rise in extreme right-wing tendencies and racism in the former GDR territories, and structural racism in today’s Germany at large, one would have to embark on a radical unpacking of the histories of the GDR and their implications for present-day Germany.

At the same time, the story is more complex than blanket assumptions of oppressive conditions in the former East Germany. For alongside unjust working conditions, unequal economic relations, racism, and unfulfilled promises were vibrant horizons and practices of socialist solidarity across individual, local, national, and global scales, including GDR support for anti-colonial, anti-imperialist, and liberation struggles in other parts of the world.

How were these relations made possible? And how much of this history and its legacies remain visible today? 

Exhibition view Echoes of the brother countries. What is the price of memory and what are the costs of amnesia? Or: Visions and Illusions of Anti-Imperialist Solidarity, Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW), 2024. Photo: Hannes Wiedemann/HKW
Exhibition view Echoes of the brother countries. What is the price of memory and what are the costs of amnesia? Or: Visions and Illusions of Anti-Imperialist Solidarity, Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW), 2024. Photo: Hannes Wiedemann/HKW

Echoes of the Brother Countries is a multidisciplinary project that critically maps the GDR’s history and relations with its brother countries, a term that is critically taken up for its gendered problematics and illusions of and allusions to equality. Amid erasures, gaps, and absences in broader public educational discourses, the project attempts to understand the reverberations of those histories in Germany as well as in the former brother countries to situate these relations as part of a global history of cultural movement and exchange.

Post-unification, these histories remain largely untold, not only in terms of the grand historical narrative of the GDR, the internationalist socialist movement, and the mainstream FRG-centered historiography that erases GDR voices, but more importantly, in relation to individuals who were part of it.

To understand the entanglements of migration, memory culture, and racism in contemporary Germany, it is necessary to trace its (dis)continuities with various strands of German history and the implications of structural forgetting and erasure. At the same time, it is important to look into the implications of these encounters and relationships beyond Germany, to explore transnational links and connected histories, solidarities, and contradictions, at micro and macro levels, and across various temporalities.

Echoes of the Brother Countries sheds light on these minor and major connected histories through artistic research manifesting in an exhibition, performances, workshops, an educational program, a podcast, sonic practices, and digital and print publications, to deliberate on and make visible pre- and post-1989 sociopolitical relations, psychological traumas, and socialist experiences.

A series of workshops taking place in Berlin traces the continuities and gaps in today’s Germany, centering voices from migrant communities of the GDR across generations. Meanwhile, various workshops and research projects led by partner institutions in Ghana, Algeria, Angola, Cuba, and Vietnam foster transnational and localized research and dialogue on site. In addition, a research collaboration in Chile further brings to the fore perspectives that are often excluded in Germany centric reckonings with the GDR’s legacies.

The project elaborates on the ways in which the Bruderländer history and the amnesia surrounding it continue to shape Germany and its brother countries’ demography, culture, economy, and politics and, more particularly, the lives of those who migrated under the conditions of the Eastern alliances.

Situating the exhibition within these complex histories and at the intersections of memory and amnesia, HKW aims to create a common space for remembering, listening, and recontextualizing histories of oppression, discrimination, joy, solidarity, love, or sorrow, while engaging vividly and in subtle ways with intergenerational and transnational narratives, practices, and aesthetic languages.

The exhibition is accompanied by a public and educational program for audiences of all ages in collaboration with various schools and institutions. A film program expands the topics in the exhibition and public program by bringing together films that were made by different generations of filmmakers who have lived, studied, and worked in the GDR or have family connections to this country that no longer exists. Filmic positions that have emerged since German unification illuminate the topic from a post-migrant perspective by encouraging new transnational alliances and synergies beyond the borders of Germany.

Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung

César Olhagaray, Solidarity (1986/2024), wall painting, mixed media on canvas, reproduction 3.1 x 9.4 m © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2024. Courtesy César Olhagaray. Co-produced by César Olhagaray and Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW), 2023-24. Photo: Hannes Wiedemann/HKW
César Olhagaray, Solidarity (1986/2024), wall painting, mixed media on canvas, reproduction 3.1 x 9.4 m © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2024. Courtesy César Olhagaray. Co-produced by César Olhagaray and Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW), 2023-24. Photo: Hannes Wiedemann/HKW

As an expression of solidarity, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) received around 2,000 political refugees from Chile following the military coup of 11 September 1973. Among them was muralist César Olhagaray, a member of Chile’s legendary Ramona Parra Brigade from 1970–73, a collective of muralists founded in 1968 that gained popularity transforming the streets of Chile with colorful, popular aesthetics that supported the program of socialist president Salvador Allende (1970–73).

Olhagaray arrived in Dresden in 1974, where he undertook his studies at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste Dresden (Academy of Fine Arts Dresden). The artist has since created more than eighty murals, including one in Maputo, Mozambique, as part of cultural exchanges with the GDR’s Bruderländer (brother countries) in 1983. Commemorating Mozambique’s independence from Portugal in 1975, the mural Ohne Titel (Allegorie der Unabhängigkeit von Moçambique) was created for the National Festival of Mozambican Youth, founded in 1977 as a cultural format of postcolonial encounter and a celebration of art’s presence in public spaces. The mural features motifs of feminized guitar-bodies united in community, as mothers embracing the new nation emerging from independence.

Another of Olhagaray’s murals, Solidarität (1986), which was originally painted in a youth club in East Berlin, recalls the anti-fascist, anti-apartheid, and anti-war struggles of the international solidarity movement in the GDR. Neither work has survived to the present day and so drawing from reference images as well as his memories of them, Olhagaray recreates both murals at HKW, reactivating their pictorial narratives to not only spark joy but also resonate with contemporary political struggles.

Santos Chávez, Tierra del Sur (1985); Astro creador de mi pueblo (1968); Homenaje a S. Nattino/Niña con flores (1985); Mi amada viene del mar (1994); Pastor dormido (1984), reproductions of woodcuts, dimensions variable. Courtesy Fundación Santos Chávez. Photo: Hannes Wiedemann/HKW
Santos Chávez, Tierra del Sur (1985); Astro creador de mi pueblo (1968); Homenaje a S. Nattino/Niña con flores (1985); Mi amada viene del mar (1994); Pastor dormido (1984), reproductions of woodcuts, dimensions variable. Courtesy Fundación Santos Chávez. Photo: Hannes Wiedemann/HKW
Santos Chávez, Mi amada viene del mar (1994), reproduction of a woodcut print, 90 × 69 cm. Courtesy of Fundación Santos Chávez.
Santos Chávez, Mi amada viene del mar (1994), reproduction of a woodcut print, 90 × 69 cm. Courtesy of Fundación Santos Chávez.

Graphic artist Santos Chávez left Chile in 1977, self-exiled from the Chilean dictatorship, and after four years spent between Venezuela, Spain, Sweden, and East and West Germany, he settled in East Berlin in 1981, where he lived until 1994. During his life in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), Chávez was a member of the Verband Bildender Künstler der DDR [Association of visual artists of the GDR] and participated in the local art and literary scene as both an artist and book illustrator.

Chávez grew up in Chile’s Mapuche territory, and his experience of herding sheep and cultivating the land marked his poetics of engraving as an assertion of Mapuche culture and aspirations. Chávez began studying art in 1958 in evening courses at the Sociedad de Bellas Artes in Concepción, where he was particularly influenced by the aesthetics of Mexican muralism. The 60s in Chile saw engraving come to the fore and in 1960, Chávez continued to study at the Taller 99 engraving workshop in Santiago, where he consolidated his skills in wood engraving, choosing the material on account of its connection to the land and forest in Mapuche culture.

In 1972, he extended his practice to the public sphere, a prime example being his large wood-carved mural for the UNCTAD III building in Santiago, an emblematic construction during the socialist government of Salvador Allende and where public spaces integrated art as means of cultural democratization.

Chávez’s works are deeply characterized by the Mapuche cosmovision, where human beings, the elements, and the cosmos form one entity—within this, the landscape, the weather, as well as human and non-human life are all regarded as having equal agency. In the GDR, the artist continued to practice this aesthetic language, painting, for example, a fourteen-meter mural with motifs of Mapuche life for a kindergarten in Salzwedel or participating in the Intergrafik Triennale in the RDA, incorporating elements of the surrounding landscape and everyday life in several of his works.

Dito Tembe, Madgermanes (2023), series of 8 reproductions of original oil paintings on canvas (detail). Courtesy Dito Tembe. House of World Cultures (HKW), 2024. Photo: Hannes Wiedemann/HKW

[1] Virtuelles Migrationsmuseum, ‘Glossary: Contract worker’, https://virtuellesmigrationsmuseum.org/en/Glossar/contract-worker/.

[2] Isabel Eizenbach, Julia Oelkers, and Loren Balhorn, ‘Crossing Borders Behind the Iron Curtain’ (19 Oct. 2021), https://www.rosalux.de/en/news/id/45200/crossing-borders-behind-theiron-curtain.

[3] DOMID, ‘Motif series “Migration history in images”: “Contract worker”’ in the GDR’, https://domid.org/en/news/contractwork-in-the-gdr/.

[4] Bruderland—‘Minds of their own: Migrants in the GDR’, ‘Prologue’, https://bruderland.de/en/.


ECHOES OF THE BROTHER COUNTRIES. What is the Price of Memory and What is the Cost of Amnesia? Or: Visions and Illusions of Anti-Imperialist Solidarities.

Haus der Kulturen der Welt, John-Foster-Dulles-Allee 10, Berlin, Germany

29.2 – 19.5, 2024

With contributions by: Abed Abdi, Khaled Abdulwahed, Donald Acquaye, Maimuna Adam, Kais al-Zubaidi, Santos Chávez, Ivan Cibulka, Sarah Ama Duah, Nguyễn Lương Đức, Ângela Ferreira, Carla Filipe, Lea Grundig, Sami Hakki, Kiluanji Kia Henda, Intergenerational Solidarities: Graphic Novel Workshop, Isaac-Newton-Schule, Emile Itolo, Januário Jano, Hiwa K, Euridice Zaituna Kala, Martha Ketsela, Songhak Ky, Verena Kyselka, Heinz-Karl Kummer, Hernando León, Humberto López, MORUS-Oberschule, Nástio Mosquito, Olu Oguibe, César Olhagaray, Zohra Opoku, Charles Owusu, Minh Duc Pham, Gertraude Pohl, Elske Rosenfeld, Riad Ali Saad, Farkhondeh Shahroudi, Sophie-Brahe-Gemeinschaftsschule, Dito Tembe, Sung Tieu, Christoph Wetzel, Horst Weber, among others.

HKW thanks the Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende and the Guillermo Deisler Archive of the Centro de Documentación de las Artes Visuales at the Centro Nacional de Arte Contemporáneo (CEDOC-CNAC) (Chile) as well as the Ministerio de las Culturas, las Artes y el Patrimonio | Gobierno de Chile.

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