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Interview: Dr Norman P. Franke

Early Impressions of Berlin

Flash Frontier: Let’s begin with your relationship to Berlin, both personally and professionally. When did you first encounter the city – and what kinds of first impressions did you have?

Norman Franke: My first visit to Berlin would have been on a school excursion in 1977. I grew up in Hamburg (West Germany) and took a Religious Studies paper at high school. We went to the 1977 Kirchentag in West Berlin. West Berlin was like an island; protected by the Western Allies (USA, UK, France), it was the last outpost of the West in the Soviet-dominated Communist East Germany. Organised by the Protestant churches, the Kirchentag is a big bi-annual ecumenical gathering of lay-people, clergy and theologians – and also politicians. It is a kind of stock-taking and idea-generating event at the intersection of spirituality and politics in Central Europe. It also has an international dimension. Guest speakers have included Ernesto Cardenal from Nicaragua and Desmond Tutu from South Africa. At the 2019 Kirchentag, Barack Obama was a guest-speaker, as well as German chancellor Angela Merkel; with students from Chicago and Mannheim they discussed forms of contemporary political activism in an age of authoritarianism.

Walter Benjamin, drawing by NP Franke

1977 was the height of the ‘Cold War’ in Europe. Stationed by the Soviets and Americans, East and West Germany had the highest density of nuclear weapons in the world. The ‘alarm time’ – the time an accident or attack could be processed by the military and politicians before it was deemed serious and ‘required a nuclear response’ – was down to ten minutes. My generation grew up with this Sword of Damocles permanently dangling over our heads. Later, at university, I had a friend who was eventually admitted to a mental institution. She was very sensitive; whenever there was a thunderstorm she broke down in tears because she thought it was the beginning of the nuclear overkill. The 1977 Kirchentag was, among other things, a forum for the German and West European peace movement. The peace rallies were supported by democratic Socialists and the fledgling Green movement. Some of the rallies led close to the Berlin Wall and the vast wastelands left in the centre of the city after the Battle of Berlin, which could not be rebuilt upon because they were part of the East German border fortifications. Berlin was full of reminders of that crazy history of derailed modernity and of totalitarianism in 20th century Central Europe. In the 1970s, a lot of historical buildings in the East were still riddled with bullet holes. In the West, the German parliament building, the Reichstag – which now sports Norman Foster’s magnificent glass dome – was a flat roofed makeshift history museum.

The rallies and discussion forums in West Berlin were also meant to signal to the Eastern European opposition movements that they were not forgotten. The East German Communist regime maintained the Wall and the border across Europe not only to stop people fleeing but to make it easier for them to aggressively crack down on civil rights activists and the Eastern peace movement. Later, in the 1980s, there were some concerts in West Berlin (David Bowie and The Eurythmics in 1987) and the sound systems were set up so that fans behind the Wall in East Berlin could also listen to the music. In order to appease the youth opposition in the East, the GDR (East Germany) allowed a one-off Bruce Springsteen concert in 1988. Springsteen’s cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Chimes of Freedom’ in front of 300,000 East Berliners greatly helped challenge the GDR regime and rock the Wall.

So my early visits to divided Berlin, with its vast cultural contrasts and political tensions, left an enormous impression on me as a high school student. Intensified perhaps by the fact that I was in love with a fellow student, and that all our engagement with politics, philosophy, theology and culture had a profound personal dimension: it was about our future; it was about our survival.

On politics and Cold War

FF:One cannot speak of Berlin without moving almost immediately to politics. And we see that you were involved in the early 1980s first hand with supporting East German and Polish dissidents in Eastern and Central Europe.

NF: Yes, Berlin is an immensely political space. Both physically and atmospherically, it is a much rougher place than, e.g., London, Paris or Rome. The brashness and frankness of Berliners is legendary – so is their ability to think on their feet and their situational humour. It’s a kind of survival skill.

One must not forget that within the last roughly hundred years, Berlin has seen six very different political regimes, most of them totalitarian (Berlin was the capital of Prussia/The Second German Empire, during the 1918 Revolution; the Weimar Republic; Nazi Germany; East Germany and, since 1990, (re-) united Germany). There is a joke about an overseas journalist asking an old Berliner about her life. She tells the journalist she has lived in six very different political systems. ‘You must have travelled a lot in your life’, the journalist says. ‘No, not at all’, the Berliner replies. ‘I have never left this city.’

My interest in and support of Eastern European dissident movements had to do with my family situation. My dad left East Germany in 1953 for Hamburg in the West. But my grandmother and some aunties and uncles were still living in Thuringia and Saxony. My dad left the East because of the Stalinist oppression but also because he loved geography and some teachers had urged him to join the ‘Wismut AG’. The whole education system and the job market was controlled by the Stalinists. The ‘Wismut AG’ was a euphemism for a huge military-industrial complex overseen by the Soviet Union. It was engaged in mining and refining uranium ore, of which there are vast deposits in Thuringia and Saxony. East German uranium was the back-bone of the Soviet nuclear weapons programme and the nuclear powerplants. East German workers and engineers had to extract the uranium with minimal protection, so the cancer rate among workers in those uranium mines and plants was extremely high. They had special hospitals and sanatoriums and some workers could jump the waiting list (usually 10yrs) for buying the little East German car, the Trabant, when they were terminally ill.

Most of my dad’s family and friends stayed behind in the East when my dad left as a young man. When I was a child we frequently went back to visit them. Westerners could travel East but not vice-versa. But Westerners travelling into the Eastern Block were subjected to pretty horrendous border checks, as the late Stalinist regime was afraid of Western literature and journalism being smuggled into the East. I remember the strange smells at the border, the sulphurous soft coal that was the main energy source in East Central Europe. An inverted Proustian memory. I remember the long-shafted boots of the border guards and their sound on the floor of the railway carriages. And their massive German Shepherd dogs with their muzzles, which made them look somehow fiercer than without. In the late 1980s when I worked as a travel guide for international students at the University of Hamburg, we conducted study trips that included some iconic cultural places in the East such as Weimar and Dresden but also East Berlin. On crossing the border into East Germany and seeing the barbed wire, the mine strips and watchtowers, a Midwestern American student said spontaneously and in all innocence: ‘This looks just like the Nazi camps in the movies.’ And although the East German Communist and Nazi regimes were in many respects very different – including the number of their victims – the student had a point: There were parallels in Stalinist and Fascist totalitarianism, such as the oppression of freedom of speech, the total surveillance of the population, the militarisation of society, the intimidation and persecution of (perceived) political and religious opponents; even some of the artistic doctrines (‘Realism’, ‘art as propaganda’) and the architecture were similar. It is often forgotten that, in 1939, Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia had entered into a pact and divided Poland between them – before they were at each other’s throats.

The legacy of 20th century totalitarianism and the ‘Bloodlands’ (Timothy Snyder) was still tangible when I was young. At school we had a math teacher who spent 2/3 of the time teaching infinitesimal equations and the rest telling us stories about his time as a soldier on the Eastern Front and then as a POW in Russia. When I visited the memorial of a former Nazi Concentration camp near Hamburg with some international students, one of our guides was a former prisoner, a communist, who had lost an eye as a result of a brutal beating. The history of European totalitarianism is complex: One of the chief organisers of the Berlin Wall, Erich Honecker (the later leader of the GDR), had spent 12 years of his life in Nazi prison as a young communist. He overcompensated for his trauma by declaring the Wall, which imprisoned the entire East German population, an ‘anti-fascist protection wall’ (‘antifaschisticher Schutzwall’) and rationalised this prolonged Stockholm Syndrome by arguing that Western democracies were really fascist regimes in disguise.

As a young language instructor in the German Department at Southern Illinois University, I got involved in the Mid America Peace Project. I was impressed by the December candle vigils against nuclear armament. On a bitterly cold day in January 1984, people who lived thousands of miles from Europe protested against the deployment of a new generation of Pershing and Cruise Missiles. Back in Europe, I tried to help East German and Polish friends protest against the deployment of Russian SS20 missiles and against post-Stalinist totalitarianism. My main personal involvement in supporting Eastern dissidents consisted of smuggling literature and also camera equipment (for the documentation of environmental damage), liaising with groups in the West and organising dialogue between international students from the West and young Eastern protesters under the radar of the Stasi.

One of my friends in East Berlin was Hans Simon, a Lutheran pastor at the Zionskirche (Zion church). The young Dietrich Bonhoeffer had been an assistant pastor at the Zionskirche and the spirit of the ‘Confessing Church’ was very much present with many of the East German Protestant clergy. In fact, the East German Lutheran bishop, Albrecht Schönherr, had been one of Bonhoeffer’s students during the time when Bonhoeffer’s Finkenwalde Theological Seminary went underground because of Nazi persecution. At the Zionskirche, Hans had a library of literature about environmental topics, which the East German secret police tried to shut down as, ‘officially’, environmental problems did not exist in the GDR. In actual fact, East Germany was one of the most polluted countries in the world. Hans was arrested by the notorious Stasi (the East German secret police) but was later released after international protests.

George, Wolfskehl and Schuler at the Carnival, drawing by N P Franke

Another friend, Roland Geipel, a distant relative of the composer Robert Schumann, organised peace vigils and protest rallies against the East German regime in Gera. Gera was one of the centres of the East German uranium industry. Roland supported non-violent protests by young artists against the nuclear arms race, including protests against the military build-up in Warsaw Pact countries like East Germany, where the militarisation of society had reached even schools in the form of military drills (‘Wehrkunde’). Roland disseminated posters and patches with the slogan ‘beat swords into ploughshares’. These were based on a stylised image of a statue by Yevgeny Viktorovich Vuchetich that the Soviet Union had gifted to the United Nations in 1957, and which was erected in front of the UN building in New York City. Nonetheless, the East German government considered the display of the peace symbol a provocation against state authorities and the Warsaw Pact; bearers of the peace symbol were arrested and harassed by the Stasi.

In the autumn of 1989, Roland’s peace vigils became focal points of the civil rights protests in Gera and East Thuringia. Accompanied by candles of hope, songs, and readings of biblical and poetic texts, the rallies turned into a mass movement with thousands of non-religious participants also joining in. Peace and protest rallies like those in Gera, Leipzig and East Berlin ushered in the peaceful Revolution of 1989 in the GDR and contributed to the overthrowing of the totalitarian regime, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the end of the Cold War in Europe.

As a member of the Gera round table (‘Geraer Bürgerkomitee’) in the winter of 1989 and in 1990, Roland was actively involved in the restructuring of Gera and Thuringia into a democratic society. He showed great personal courage in the disbanding of the Thuringian branch of Stasi, including its headquarters in Gera. Intimidated by the demonstrators and armed to the teeth, the Gera Stasi was on the brink of executing a ‘Chinese Solution’ – a violent crack-down on the protesters like that the Chinese regime had used to stop the protests at the Tiananmen Square in Bejing in June 1989. Risking his own life, Roland prevented the storming of the Gera Stasi headquarters by drunken, angry protesters and later negotiated the Stasi’s non-violent retreat and disarmament. He saved the life of the very henchmen who, for many years, had subjected him to surveillance and ‘Zersetzungsmaßnahmen’ (‘activities of destruction’). Along with other peaceful civil rights activists such as Michael Beleites, Roland managed to confiscate extensive files from the Stasi office before they could be destroyed by Stasi officers. The civil rights activists also confiscated a huge number of weapons and ammunition from 22 (!) Gera armouries.

With hindsight it seems amazing that the 1989 regime change and the fall of the Wall happened without bloodshed. Along with the Velvet Revolution in Prague, the fall of the Berlin Wall was one of the very few revolutions in world history that was peaceful. I am still trying to work out and document a few things about Cold War European history; the vast geographical and cultural distance in Aotearoa often helps with that. Sometimes you see things clearer from a distance. I have been working on a Cold War novel for about 15 years now…

FF: You also had first-hand experience with supporting Polish dissidents during the Cold War. Can you tell us more about this?

NF: Yes, parts of the Western European peace movement also supported dissident movements in Poland and Czecheslovakia by, e.g., smuggling in forbidden books and collecting money for the courageous Polish workers of the Lenin Shipyard in Gdánsk who went on strike and formed the Solidarnosc (‘Solidarity’), the first independent trade union in the Eastern Block. The idea was to work towards a peaceful democratic Europe that would comprise of Eastern Europe as well.

In this context I would also like to mention my Polish friend Wojtek W. whom I met when I was a member of a Hamburg University student writers’ group. Wojtek left Poland because an amour fou had turned pear-shaped, and because of his disillusionment with the Polish government’s response to the Solidarnosc protests. As Wojtek said jokingly: ‘I still don’t know what is worse, my private or my political situation.’ He is a superbly gifted poet. Before the Wall came down he had travelled back to Wrocław in order to collect his poetry manuscripts (he wrote in Polish) so that he could translate them into German. I had also offered to translate them into English for him. His itinerary back to the West included a side trip through Czechoslovakia to Vienna where he wanted to celebrate New Year’s Eve with his new Hamburg girlfriend. At the Polish-Czech border all his typewritten poetry manuscripts were confiscated by Czech border guards. Wojtek had no copies of his poems (those were the days before personal computers and photocopying machines in the East). He never got them back. It is still terrible to think that several hundred pages of Wojtek’s poignantly beautiful poetry is lost forever. Today he works as a bartender in Hamburg. Since he lost the manuscripts, Wojtek has never written any poems again.

On squatters, anarchists and summer parties

FF: And now – have your early impressions from Berlin changed over the years? How often do you go back – and what draws you there?

NF: Since I came to New Zealand in the early 1990s I have been back several times. Within the last twenty years things have changed a lot in Berlin. Whole parts of the former East Berlin that, after German unification, became the home of artists and start-ups from all over Europe and beyond, are now gentrified. Quite a few old and new Berliners of the post-unification period were effectively squatters, as the legal ownership of many buildings was in dispute – often for over a decade. There is still a creative and anarchic vibe in Berlin that is unique among big cities in Europe, but with the new capital status came lots of lobbyists and members of the establishment, too. In some ways it is a normalisation. Interestingly, Wellington is an older national capital than Berlin, as Berlin did not become the German capital until after the Franco-Prussian war in 1871. Since the late 19th century Berlin has attracted a lot of migrants from Central and Eastern Europe and recently the Near East. The city has seen big boom and bust periods and has always been a melting pot. In those respects, Berlin is closer to New York City than, say, Prague or Madrid.

The last time I went to Berlin, I attended the birthday party of my doctoral supervisor. I did my PhD with Berlin’s Humboldt Universität – partly for sentimental reasons, as it is the university of the Humboldt brothers, Felix Mendelsohn, Hegel, Marx, Schleiermacher, Ernst Cassirer, George Kennan. The party took place in an old linden tree sheltered square on one of those gorgeous summer nights when a continental high stretches from the Atlantic to Siberia, its centre hovering over Berlin. The square was a communal dining room and dance hall under the stars. There is this wonderful side of Berlin, too.

Life in New Zealand – from politics to nature poetry

FF: What brought you to live in New Zealand? And how did your view of Germany change with time and distance?
St George’s Horse facing the Dragon’ (Berlin Fountain), drawing by NP Franke

NF: After a stint as a DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) lecturer at the University of Reading, I saw a job opportunity as a lecturer in the German Department at the University of Waikato advertised in the ‘DIE ZEIT’, a major German Newspaper. I thought it would be interesting to see European politics from a bit of a distance for a few years and to learn new things in a (from a European perspective) remote part of the world. In German folklore, New Zealand has a reputation of being one of the last political and ecological paradises, a kind of real-existing ‘Utopia’.

What I expected to be an idyllic and relaxing time soon turned into a kind of nightmare when a Neo-Nazi scandal (the ‘Kupka-Scandal”) started at the University of Waikato. I was one of the whistle-blowers. As I was engaged in research about exiles from Nazi Germany I thought I needed to take a stance. I would not have thought that a Neo-Nazi scandal of such proportions was possible in New Zealand.

I worked closely with Jewish colleagues to convince the University of Waikato’s administration of the ethical problem of letting a (German-born) student – who international academic experts had identified as a racist and a Holocaust denier – to send questionnaires to victims of the Nazis and their relatives. There is a report by the former New Zealand Director General of Education, William Renwick, about the scandal.

What greatly concerns me with regards to contemporary political debates in Europe is the rise of nationalism and extreme right/fascist organisations. What many Brexiteers (including post-colonial Brexiteers in New Zealand) seem to overlook is the fact that the whole well-balanced political architecture of the European Union has not only guaranteed prosperity for most but also a long-lasting period of peace. That’s why the EU received the Peace Nobel Prize in 2012. A return to the traditional nation state would be a step back into the 19th century. And therefore a step closer to yet another replay of August 1914. In Hungary, Poland and Russia there are already some extremely dangerous autocratic regimes in power. And in Germany we see the rise of the extreme rightwing AfD party. Some of their ideologues’ ideas are very close to those of the Nazis. I believe we need more collaboration between all Europeans who uphold the values of Human Rights and social and ecological justice. We need a new form of humanitarian internationalism, and not a return to old style nationalism and imperialism.

FF: Can you tell us more about how your interest in eco-poetics evolved, and how your awareness of eco-politics has been shaped by your own history?

NF: My interest in eco-poetics goes back to the time when I supported the Eastern European political activists in their struggle against environmental destruction and the state’s cover-up of this destruction, but also my involvement in Western protest against nuclear powerplants and Western consumerism. It was greatly stimulated by my fascination with German and English-speaking Romantic writers (Novalis, Eichendorff, Mörike; William Blake, Shelly and Wordsworth). In addition I’m a big fan of Sarah Kirsch, who was arguably one of the greatest German-speaking nature poets of the 20th century. I once interviewed Sarah Kirsch for an Australian Literature journal on a cold winter morning in the 18th century village school building in Schleswig-Holstein, which she had made her home. We got snowed in and spent the whole day talking about 20th century history. When I had transcribed the recorded interview and sent it back to her. I received the reply: it is all to too close to my home still, I am so sorry, but the interview must not be published. Just tell the readers to read my nature poems. And in compensation for my efforts she sent me some wonderful watercolours she had painted. Sarah Kirsch, too, had been an exile from the East; in 1976 she was kicked out of East Germany when she spoke up for the poet Wolf Biermann whose (Jewish Communist) father was killed in Auschwitz. Wolf Biermann was one of the staunchest critics of East German totalitarianism. Himself a wonderful poet and singer songwriter, Wolf Biermann – arguably more than any other intellectual and artist – contributed to the downfall of the GDR regime. When the Stasi stopped his public performances, Biermann recorded his songs in a makeshift private studio in East Berlin. In the background of his early records, you can hear the screeching of the Berlin tramways from time to time. Set on the shores of a beautiful Brandenburg lake near Berlin, his poem ‘Als wir ans Ufer kamen’ (‘Night at the lake shore’) is a love poem, a political poem and a nature poem, all at once. Wolf Biermann is now an honorary citizen of the united Berlin.

But my very first encounter with nature poetry happened in primary school in the form of a haiku by the great Japanese haiku master Matsuo Bashō. I must have been 7 years old; and I remember even today my sense of wonder at how a poet could conjure up the beauty – and even the humour – of nature in their poetry. How did this poet – hundreds of years ago and thousands of kilometres away – manage to describe the essence of what I saw outside my suburban German window? It was sheer magic.

Later in Aotearoa, my encounter with Māori-Kultur has also had a strong impact on my ideas regarding the philosophy of nature and language. Through it, I became more aware of the reifying tendencies of European cultures and languages vis-a-vis nature. Having always been interested in comparative grammar, I was beginning to understand that, e.g., dominant word order and case (casus) patterns and the use of possessive pronouns in Indo-European languages contribute greatly to our exploitative referring to and interacting with nature. Polynesian languages lend themselves to a more holistic world view. Collaborating with some Māori colleagues, in 2011 I was a co-organiser of an international symposium entitled In die Natur, Ki te Wheiao, Into Nature, at the Waikato-Tainui College for Research and Development, Hopuhopu. We explored some commonalities between Mātauranga Māori and European Romantic discourses of nature. It resulted in a German publication In die Natur – Naturphilosophie und Naturpoetik in interkultureller Perspektive (Into Nature: Intercultural perspectives on Philosophy of Nature and Ecopoetics), Wellington and München 2011. The book was intended to play the Hopuhopu inter-cultural dialogue back into German-speaking Europe.

On poets in exile

FF: Let’s talk about your academic work. You have published widely about 18th century literature as well as German-speaking exile literature (Albert Einstein, Else Lasker-Schüler, Karl Wolfskehl). How did the topic of exile literature become a focus for you?
A Seer in an Auckland Boarding House (Karl Wolfskehl), drawing by NP Franke

NF: I wrote my doctoral thesis about the poet, translator and cultural philospher Karl Wolfskehl (1869–1948) who spent the last ten years of his life as an exile in Auckland. Historical biographical research is a fascinating thing. During the research, the dead poets sometimes seem more alive than some contemporaries… Unlike some better-known Jewish exiles from Nazi Germany such as Sigmund Freud or Albert Einstein, Wolfskehl was a conservative and anti-modernist. Wolfskehl and a sizeable group of writers and students who gathered around the poet-guru Stefan George hated modern industrialisation and mass society. Wolfkskehl was George’s oldest friend and a co-founder of a powerful German-speaking anti-modernist movement (‘George Kreis’, lit. ‘George’s Circle’) in the first half of the 20th century. Thomas Nipperdey called them a ‘geistige Großmacht’ – an intellectual superpower of their time. They looked back to the Ancient Greek polis, the European Middle Ages and the Romantic Era for poetic and political inspiration. Some of the younger members of George’s group were the brothers v. Stauffenberg who tried to assassinate Hitler in July 1944. During his Auckland exile, in 1947 Wolfskehl corresponded with Alexander v. Stauffenberg, the only survivor of the three brothers. Claus v. Stauffenberg’s last words before he was executed by the Nazi firing squad were a salute to the ‘Secret Germany’ (‘Geheimes Deutschland’), a term that Wolfskehl had coined.

Following on from my doctoral research, I published essays about Wolfskehl’s late exile correspondence, and also about Ernst H. Kantorowicz, the author of The King’s Two Bodies, who was a member of the George group and later, in exile and at the invitation of J Robert Oppenheimer, took up a position at The Princeton Institute for Advanced Study as a professor of history.

When the Nazis came to power and the Jewish members of the George group were forced into exile, some went to the US, others to Erez Israel, South America and Australia. Although a conservative revolutionary until his death in Auckland, Wolfskehl always kept an open mind with regards to modern art. As a young man he had visited Stefane Mallarmé’s famous Les Mardistes (Tuesday salon). Wolfskehl was also a friend of, inter al., Franz Marc, Wassily Kandinsky and Else Lasker-Schüler. Else Lasker-Schüler was one of Wolskehl’s many lovers. In 1986 I published an essay on Else Lasker-Schüler’s poetic novel Der Malik. I admire her poetry as much as her paintings and drawings.

When I was a student in Germany, another former exile from Nazi-Germany, Peter Kahn, rekindled my own interest in drawing and visual arts. Peter was the programme director of Cornell University’s study abroad programme. During his time in Hamburg, Peter – who always carried a sketch book instead of a camera – taught an art history paper and encouraged the students to take up drawing. In the late ‘80s I visited Peter and his wife Ruth in Ithaca, NY. I took the bus from Port Authority through nocturnal suburban highways, valleys, hills, and a blizzard and arrived in Trumansburg to a winter-wonderland. Warm, witty and always the first to arrive at and the last to leave the meetings, Ruth Stiles Gannet was an active member of the Peace and Feminist movements. Together with a group of international students we travelled to Berlin to show the students the very hot spot of the Cold War.

In the US, Ruth is well known as the author of children’s novels, including My Father’s Dragon, which was ranked among the top 50 all-time best children’s novels by School Library Journal. Peter illustrated many of her books. Among other things, Peter Kahn was famous for his garden parties (which were attended by many of his students who later became famous, including Thomas Pynchon, Richard Fariña and C. Michael Curtis). On my visit, Peter took me to a meeting of the Trumansburg volunteer fire brigade – of which he was an active member – where we prepared a fund-raising dinner. Sitting together in the fire brigade’s common room was a group of mainly elderly gentlemen. Peeling potatoes, they talked about the latest novel of their friend Philip Roth, Quantum physics and the survival chances of the Eastern Catbird. Everyone took a friendly interest in the situation in Europe and Berlin. Years later, I googled a few of their names: all famous Cornell alumni. I was a kind of latter-day academic Parzival.

Through Wolfskehl’s correspondence with Erich Kahler – who was a professor at Princeton University – I became aware of the correspondence of the German-speaking exiles at Princeton. Often only living a few blocks apart, many of the exiles did the old-fashioned European thing and exchanged letters (those were the days before email and texting, of course). Kahler’s wife, Alice, and Albert Einstein also included some poetry in their correspondence. I had a closer look at some of Einstein’s poems and noticed that they had not been analysed or contextualised by Einstein scholars. Frequently written on the margins of his scientific work, most of Einstein’s poetry is in the tradition of the ‘Knittelreim’ (‘dodgerel’): funny, self-deprecating, without great aesthetic aspiration. There are, however, a few of his poems that deal with profound philosophical and epistemological questions – most notably a short poem about Isaac Newton. At the Firestone Library in Princeton I also had a look at some, back then newly released documents by Einstein’s last secretary and lover, Helen Dukas, whom the physicist had first met during his days at Prague’s Karls-Universität (Univerzita Karlova, Charles University).

Eduard Einstein in a Zürich café, drawing by NP Franke

In addition to a paper about Albert Einstein’s poetry, I published another essay about the poetry of Albert’s youngest son, Eduard. Eduard, who suffered from a mental illness, could not obtain an entry visa for the United States and had to stay behind in Switzerland when his father and his oldest brother fled the Nazi terror in Europe. Eduard died at the Burghölzli psychiatric hospital in Zürich in 1965. Unfortunately, many of his later writings are embargoed along with his medical files. Most of Eduard’s accessible manuscripts are now at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and I was very lucky to have had the support of my Jerusalem colleague Barbara Wolff, who is the leading expert on Albert and Eduard Einstein’s life and work. One of Eduard’s schoolmates in Zürich was the novelist Elias Canetti who, in English-speaking countries, is also well known because of his complicated relationship with Iris Murdoch; and his brother Jacques who was a champion of American Jazz in Europe, as well as many modern French chansonniers such as Edith Piaf and Serge Gainsborough. Elias Canetti’s autobiographical trilogy Die Gerettete Zunge (The Tongue Set Free); Die Fackel im Ohr (The Torch in My Ear), and Das Augenspiel (The Play of the Eyes) won him the 1981 Nobel Literature Prize. Many of Eduard Einstein’s published high school poems are portraits of the same teachers that Canetti describes in his trilogy. Writing a comparative essay on Eduard Einstein and Elias Canetti transported me back to my own high school days. And yes, the two come to very similar conclusions about the socio-psychological set-up of their school and the characters and quirks of their old teachers…

FF: You also seem interested in exploring the line(s) between identities. One of your research papers is titled, for example, ‘The last European and the first New Zealander: Karl Wolfskehl meets Frank Sargeson’. We are curious about your usage of the idea of ‘last’ and ‘first’ here – and the way the title hints at traversing the line between two cultures. Can you share more about how these two writers came to interest you? And what of your own experience across the line between NZ and Germany?

NF: ‘The first’ and ‘the last’ may have been exaggerated to generate a wacky title. But Wolfskehl referred to himself as a ‘Spätestromatiker’ (the last of the last Romantics). Sargeson was arguably the first post-colonial New Zealand writer. Recalling his first encounter with the physical and intellectual giant Wolfskehl in an Auckland cinema, Sargeson said:

was astonished by the slow entry of a giant figure who, accompanied by a small and slight woman, made his way to the front row of seats … Karl Wolfskehl could immediately be recognised as a figure from a previous century: dark clothes, cravat or great bow, a crop of hair, artist’s wide-brimmed hat, immense: poet scholar patrician-bred Jew.

Nelson Wattie called Wolfskehl ‘arguably the greatest New Zealand scholar’. Financially precarious and almost totally blind, after 3 years in exile in Switzerland and in Italy, Wolfskehl arrived in Aotearoa with his young secretary Margot Ruben in 1938. Margot Ruben, who contributed to and typed Wolfskehl’s last poetic cycles, worked as a Latin teacher at Auckland grammar schools. She also enabled Wolfskehl’s extensive correspondence with exiles around the world. The ‘Exul’ exchanged letters with his friends Thomas Mann and Albert Schweitzer, with Martin Buber, Hannah Arendt, Siegfried Guggenheim, Erich Kahler, to name but a few. On occasion of the English translation of Wolfskehl’s selected exile letters, I wrote a review for Landfall that analyses the historical backdrop of some of these epistolary dialogues:

The relationship between Wolfskehl and Sargeson was weird and wonderful – like so many other encounters between New Zealand and Central European artists and intellectuals. It was full of creative dialogue and creative misunderstandings – e.g. Sargeson’s belief that Wolfskehl admired Kafka. It was full of tragi-comedy – e.g. when the blind Wolfskehl tried to negotiate his way through Auckland to get to Sargeson’s North Shore bach because he urgently needed to discuss Ovid, and had to be rescued from the Hauraki Gulf. The relationship also ended on that note. Sargeson eventually stopped his contact with Wolfskehl because he felt ‘overpowered’ by the erudite renaissance man who tried to win him over to traditional European writing and anti-modernism.

My own impression is that things have changed considerably since then. After having developed their own artistic voices and traditions, very often based on and in dialogue with Māori-discourses, New Zealand artists today are much more self-assured than 70 years ago. Kiwi artists successfully punch above their weight internationally. And they are very well received in English-speaking cultures such as German-speaking Central Europe. Keri Hulme, Janet Frame, Whiti Ihimera, Peter Jackson and Taika Waititi, to name but a few, have a huge fan-base in Germany.

On the other hand, there is sometimes still an element of miscommunication. Which partly has to do with reciprocity. In these post-modern identity-driven times, I think you see quite a few managers in tertiary education who love to talk about globalisation but have little or no first-hand experience of other cultures. As Alexander v. Humboldt, one of the co-founders of the old Berlin university, said: ‘The most dangerous world view is the world view of those who have not viewed the world’. And these managers are oblivious to the complex and dangerous history of European identity politics that have affected New Zealand more than most other countries in the world. Harvard sociologist Karl Deutsch (who, as an exile from Czechoslovakia, was interested in the causes of the world wars) found that, prior to the outbreak of major military conflicts, reciprocal international communication falls into decline. There is less correspondence between citizens and institutions (including churches, trade unions, sports federations), less diplomatic, cultural and academic exchange, and less foreign language teaching. In this context it may be worth remembering that international capital finds it much easier to afford multilingual lobbyists than, for example, trade unions or authors’ groups. Against the background of this problem, the recent cuts and closures of Humanities departments at New Zealand universities (at the University of Waikato, inter alia, the axing of German, as well as Religious Studies as an autonomous subject) appear particularly worrying. Because these subjects are not only actively involved in ‘knowledge production’ but also in intercultural dialogue, conflict resolution and peacekeeping.

Toward peacekeeping via poetic imagination

FF: Your intellectual curiosity has led you into the realm of the spiritual as well. You wrote: ‘If the divine manifests itself in an ongoing process of creation and liberation, artists are special collaborators in this process. They are potential co-creators.’ Can you say more about this? Why is this connection between creation and liberation so important?
Alexander v. Humboldt in Old Age, drawing by NP Franke

NF: I love Walter Benjamin’s notion that there is ‘a weak Messianic force’ at work in the world. I do hope he is ultimately right. Like many of the amazing people I have had the privilege to encounter on my own (artistic) journey, I have never been able to think of history other than in terms of (secular) eschatology. When people who realise the value of justice and beauty meet, amazing things can happen.

Today’s dominant theories of history, including natural history, are Neo-Liberal, Social Darwinist, sometimes Esoteric or Fundamentalist in a quietist and reactionary way. They conceive of the world as a stock exchange, a battlefield, a meaningless illusion or a valley of tears. Their anthropological and socio-political outlook often becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Having grown up in a European Protestant tradition, I have met many people with very different religious and philosophical backgrounds. I have concluded that ortho-practice (doing the right thing) is more important than ortho-doxy (proclaiming or writing the right thing). With regards to, e.g., the Climate Crisis, and the new proliferation of nuclear weapons and authoritarian patriarchal regimes, we no longer have the luxury of debating the fine prints of our ideologies and beliefs. We need to come together and act.

In order to do that, we need to revisit our hopes and fears and produce a common vision for society and nature and ourselves as individuals – a vision of where we want to go. Poetic imagination can help us with that. Managers, generals and accountants won’t help us with that. One of the great tragedies of modern industrialist societies is that they have banned creativity from our everyday lives. Creativity gets confined to niches: childhood play, ‘hobbies’ or artistic sub-cultures. In many spiritual traditions, the divine is regarded as a creative force. In, e.g., the Judeo-Christian tradition, God speaks the world into being (Genesis St. John’s Logos Hymnos). They are the ultimate poet. And they release a complex and interactive story in which, as images of the divine, humans become potential co-creators. It is a story of liberation. Similarly, within indigenous (and progressive Neo-Aristotelean) perspectives we may find ourselves in a process of ontological co-evolution.

Having seen peaceful political and ideological changes on an enormous scale in Berlin and Europe, I remain optimistic, that we may overcome the Climate Crisis and the new autocrats as well.

A sample of Norman Franke’s poetry

FF: You are also a writer of short fiction and poetry. You were a 2017/18 finalist in the Aesthetica (UK) and Feldkircher (Austria) literature contests, and in 2019 you were long-listed in the National Flash Fiction Day competition as well as the takahē short story competition. When you write fiction or poetry, do you find yourself exploring similar themes related to history and cultural identity, or do you branch into new terrain?

NF: In answer to that question, I would like two poems speak for themselves:


The Smell of the Universe

Behind the alder scrubs memories stand as snow clouds on the railway embankment. The spring sowing is already sprouting under melted snow, smashed greenhouses. On your father’s bookshelf you can find the entire history of the 20th century, which no antiquarian will buy. There is a new book about death and eternity next to old family bibles. According to a newspaper headline the universe smells of burnt flesh. It smells of kale and detergent in retirement homes, of wingless windmills, of Brahms' 4th Symphony on headphones while it snows outside. You sit on an express train to the airport on your way to the antipodes. Provincial stations fly by, too fast to take in their names. The universe smells of half-frozen gravel ponds, pruned orchards, hazy mountains, diarrhoea, factories for abrasives, trench fractures, dementia, and of the sleet that hurries across the window, unstoppable, into the past.

the moon sails through the cabbage tree

for t.b. the moon sails through the cabbage tree the cat dreams of philosophy the kettle sings a lullaby – to thee the night air spells tranquillity and freedom craves the morning sea like black holes light and gravity and poets serendipity and fires narrativity and lovers love love poetry and angels puns sweet charity the human form eternally the moon sails through the cabbage tree
FF: Many thanks, Dr. Norman Franke!
Norman P. Franke is a Hamilton based scholar (MA, Hamburg University; Ph.D. Humboldt University, Berlin), poet and film-maker. He is a Research Fellow at the University of Newcastle, New South Wales. He has published widely about 18th century literature, German-speaking exile literature (Albert Einstein, Else Lasker-Schüler, Karl Wolfskehl) eco-poetics and at the intersection of religion and poetry. Norman’s poetry has been broadcasted on radio and published in anthologies in Austria, Germany, New Zealand, Switzerland, the UK and the USA.

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