Small acts of resistance

28 September 2014

buckenwald-main-gate-jedem-das-seine

One of Neil MacGregor’s 10 objects that define modern Germany, in the Guardian this weekend, is the inscription on the gates of Buchenwald concentration camp, Jedem das Seine. Of course, the Nazis liked their improving slogans, and those on the gates of the concentration camps are particularly dark. Jedem das Seine is a German translation of a Latin phrase that means, “To each what they are due.”

But the reason it is in Neil MacGregor’s collection is that the sign was made by Franz Ehrlich, a Communist imprisoned in Buchenwald. Ehrlich had trained at the Bauhaus, hated by the Nazis for its internationalism and modernism. The typeface he chose for the sign was a Bauhaus font; the camp authorities either didn’t know or didn’t care.

MacGregor reads this as a kind of quiet act of resistance – associating the words with another German history, since they are also the title of a Bach cantata composed nearby – although a more unforgiving interpretation positions Ehrlich as a collaborator who betrayed the ideals of the Bauhaus. I don’t think that this is correct: Ehrlich, who survived the war, was initially conscripted to work for the SS as a designer, but then spent two years in a Wehrmacht Penal Division (yes, the clue is in the name). After the war he moved to the GDR, where he worked on the reconstruction of Dresden.

And the slogan seems to have been a curse for the camp’s commanders. The first one, Karl-Otto Koch, was arrested by the Nazis and executed for an assortment of crimes, including incitement to murder, embezzlement, corruption, among other things. The second, Hermann Pister, was sentenced to death for war crimes, but died of a heart condition first.

The image is from Jewish Currents, and is used with thanks. Germany: Memories of a Nation opens at the British Museum on 16 October.

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