Reporting from Nördlingen, Germany, in the “Free State of Bavaria” (Feistaat Bayern). With Maria Henzler, additional research and translations. This article is part one of a series that was originally published in the summer of 1998 on the Televisionary Oracle website. Here is an interview with Eric from that era — just before the creation of Planet Waves. Part two will be posted Thursday night.
AFTER ABOUT FIVE MINUTES in this city, I had the distinct feeling of being inside of something. The word that popped into my head as I walked along the sidewalk was “insular,” as in insulated.
True, we had driven under an arch to get into town, but you’re always driving under arches in Europe, and eating lunch in the castles of gallant knights and stopping for café in the first-known tower built by Chester the Magnificent. Some of these things officially date back 681 or 878 or 1,223 years, with polite little signs stuck to them explaining they’re actually older, but nobody knows by how much. Europe exudes the history of queens and kings like America exudes Dairy Queens and Burger Kings, and unfortunately there’s not always a tour guide around to tell you what you just leaned on to tie your shoe.
Insular. Actual fact: During World War II, MacArthur, or whoever’s job it was, forgot to bomb this place back to the Paleolithic, so it’s all here, or at least the buildings are. It turns out that the little arch we drove under is an entrance in a city wall, of a city that recently (till 1803) was an independent country (a freireichstadt, or “city-state”), and the entire wall is perfectly intact and there are just seven entrances, which are exactly wide enough for one car at a time; cars coming from the “in” direction wait in a line while other cars leave. Nördlingen is a national treasure, said to be the only existing ancient city, with its entire wall, left in all of Germany. Good old King Ludwig II started the wall back in 1327, and I’m sure he’d flip his crown if he heard that city employees still diligently maintain it in 1998.
Climb the stairs to the top and walk for one hour and you’ll end up back where you started, walking, as the huge cathedral in the center of the city slowly rotates and chimes, past the towers and bastions and hundreds of old gun turrets, little recessed areas with a slot that you would point your musket or your flaming arrows out of and shoot the invaders, and these gun turrets, one by one, are being filled with sculptures and collages and paintings. Progress.
We came here, into the city, looking for a library and a Xerox machine, investigating the case of Ewald Schadt, the local photographer who in 1993 snapped some photos of a semi-nude woman in a tiny Roman Catholic church in a country village a few miles away.
One day last year, Schadt was spontaneously visited upon by the Holy Inquisition, in its current manifestation as German Polizei, who proceeded, with great urgency, to raid and search his entire premises and claim ownership of anything in his home or studio they could find associated with the church photo session, under authority of a warrant issued by the local investigation judge, a guy named Beyschlag. That was last June, about one year ago. The cops had some difficulty doing this because so much of Ewald’s work portrays mixed religious and sexual themes–things like nuns servicing one another at the altar and so forth, most of them quite realistic, but staged in theaters.
These particular pictures were created in an actual Catholic church, and when that got out of the jar, it was big news. The feeding-frenzy spread across Germany in the newspapers, over wire services, and on television and radio, all of which suddenly took tremendous interest in photos that Ewald said nobody seemed to care much about up till that point. It started with one writer in Munich falsely reporting that the naughty photos were about to be shown at a “Super Sexy Life Show,” [the writer meant ‘live’ show] when in fact, Ewald had been hired to photograph the show. Similar distortions and bullshit and utterly synthetic facts rippled out through all the media, with few reporters bothering to talk to the artist about his work and even fewer bothering to quote him if they did.
It would be minimalist to suggest this press orgy stirred the pot of traditional Bavarian sausage soup–the wide-scale publication of such images, for example, as an extraordinarily physically expressive female standing in the church’s main aisle, back and bum to the camera, facing the altar in a pose so bold, so striking, that it suggests a certain, well, a distinctly unquestionable equality with The Lord, and worse, raises the shocking prospect that He might have an erection.
This photographic event occurred one hot afternoon half-a-decade ago in a town called Hoppingen, which has no stores, no gas station, no 7-Eleven, no street lights, barely any street signs, nothing except a few houses and a farmer selling eggs. You park on the sidewalk. It’s one of those places that could put “Welcome to Hoppingen” and “Thank you for visiting Hoppingen” on the same sign, if it had one, and at its center is a little church, 50 feet from Ewald’s house, The Church of the Maternity of Mary, where she–Gabrielle, the photo model, that is–exposed herself to all the saints and angels as Ewald snapped away 72 frames in about one hour. Though he published his pictures in a little catalog booklet and at art exhibitions, it wasn’t till the images hit the Munich papers that anyone freaked.
And ‘freak’ is the word. It’s impossible to actually explain to you what this means here, because I can barely grasp it myself, but I will try. Germany is a very religious place. When that devotional impulse rises up within your soul, you don’t dial an 800-number at 3 a.m. and make a donation on your Discover card to The Congregation of the Sweet Apocalypse in Wilson, Texas. Here, one is always inspired. The federal government directly deducts “church taxes” from everyone’s pay checks, just like FICA. And the Crucifix must, that is to say, must by law, hang in every classroom. If you were to implement “separation of church and state,” you would need to hire several thousand accountants and build several industrial parks to handle the new bureaucracy.
Here in Bavaria, the southern-German state, Jesus dangles from his crosses next to corn fields and cow pastures and on street corners next to supermarket parking lots, with little sheds over his heads, and you even find these little shrines attached to rocks and trees when you’re hiking in the woods collecting pine cones. The inescapable sound of church bells vibrates through your mind every fifteen minutes, ringing in from three directions at once anywhere except maybe, possibly, in an old bomb cellar. I am certain these church bells are networked by satellite to an atomic clock, because no matter where I’m typing, they ring within seconds of the little beep on my Macintosh laptop. It’s Germany, so God is always on time.
It was here, into this psychospiritual ecosystem, that Ewald Schadt introduced his images of The Exalted Feminine, with Her beautiful head tipped back and her eyes closed and the lips of Her face blossoming like the Flaming Rose of Passion Herself, upon Her knees in a pew, clutching Her bra like a rosary, praying passionately in all Her breasts. Some people, shall I say, those less modern citizens of the Republic, blew out nerve ganglions and burst blood vessels when confronted with these unimaginable, unconscionable, unspeakable, positively impossible images spread in their very newspapers, under headlines like “Oh, Gott!”
True, lots of people thought it was funny, this all-but-totally-exposed human female prancing around the tiny church in heels and garters, proclaiming the existence of so much, reaching so close to Heaven, laying in repose upon the altar, and so forth, but Judge Beyschlag was not among the laughing. Shortly after the ransacking of Ewald’s house based on His Honor’s rather belated signature, Ewald was dragged into court and fined $10,000 for having taken these pictures four years earlier in a town with more crucifixes than people, in a church so quiet that you could squat with a family of seven for two weeks, not counting Sundays, before anyone would even notice. His wife Steffi was impounded as accomplice to the crime, as was the model, with Herr Beyschlag pronouncing all of them guilty until proven guiltier, just like in Alice in Wonderland, where the judge orders the execution before the trial. In Germany there are no juries, except maybe for getting your pottery into craft shows. Juries do not exist and the legal profession is proud of this because it means that “emotions” cannot sway a judicial decision–just the bare facts, and perhaps a little good old grandstanding by judges who, perhaps, moonlight as politicians.
During my few last days in Freiburg, an up-beat city near the French and Swiss borders where I lived for a couple of months, I stumbled upon the existence of one Dr. Prof. Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde, a retired federal Supreme Court justice considered to be one of the nation’s top constitutional scholars on church-state relations. I was able to squeeze 20 minutes from his schedule, and upon walking into his office, I presented him the photographs and waited for his reaction.
Böckenförde told me, speaking through the royal blue jelly of his earnest German accent, with the words thoughtfully issuing forth from his protruding, ruminating lower jaw, that the photos were prosecutable as “blasphemy” because they could be considered “offensive to the religious convictions of other people.”
I asked him about the provision in the German constitution against censorship, and he said that “censorship” meant the government stopping things before they were published, but once the books or whatever were printed, they were fair game, and could be banned or confiscated and that wasn’t really censorship, it was just the law.
I sat there holding the bottom of my chair so I wouldn’t fall off.
* * * * *
In my never-ending quest to find out Why, in addition to interviewing scores of people in Dolby stereo and searching libraries and law offices and government basements and asking passers-by for clues, I always cast a few astrology charts just to reality-check. It’s an old habit, I think. I like to see how the planets lined up when shit happened, including the asteroids–those tiny little planetoids that say so very much when they show up.
So, before coming here, naturally, I did Ewald’s astrology, and looked at the charts for the church photo session and the police raid. Indeed there was some intense Goddess Religion stuff going on, such as a stunning string of Virgo planets in Ewald’s natal chart, Virgo being the astrological sign of the Goddess, including a close conjunction between Venus (which was retrograde), Pluto, the Sun and Mercury, all lingering around a place that says “Check Your Calendar–past-life time-warp in progress.”
Huge surprise. Meanwhile, I came to no conclusions. With astrology you never really can, but you can certainly use the stuff to ask questions.
With the charts and a bunch of other case documents stashed in my bag, we headed to the Nördlingen city library to dig up the laws which Ewald and his little band of heretics had been convicted of allegedly breaking. For two days prior, Maria and I had been working diligently in my ad-hoc office located in Ewald’s pub, named Merlin’s Tavern and Magic Theater, where customers no longer come since the newspapers have turned him into the national taboo. Our first job was translating various search warrants and court papers and the “freedom of speech” clause in the constitution from High German Coptalk into Plain American Newsjive, and based on this we’d made a list of the laws in question and I was quite determined to get to the bottom of it all.
The library is so small they don’t have a copier. Instead, they let me walk across the street with un-checked-out library books–reference books, even–to the stationary store and make the copies there, and one of the things I was going to copy was the German free speech clause, which was ratified in 1948, about three years after Auschwitz was liberated and, coincidentally, the same year George Orwell coined the term “doublespeak.”
Here is what it says:
Article Five – Freedom of Opinion and Press, Freedom of Art and Science
(1) Everyone has the right to express and distribute freely their opinion in word, print and picture, and to be informed from generally accessible sources unhindered. The freedom of press and the freedom of reporting, through radio and film, are guaranteed. Censorship shall not take place.
(2) These rights find their limits in the priorities of the general ordinances for the protection of youth, and in the right for personal honor.
(3) Art, science, research and teaching are free. The freedom of teaching does not release one from obeying the constitution. [End of section.]
Did you catch that subtle turn of phrase? Here in the new, improved Germany, you are guaranteed absolute total freedom to say and think and write and make pictures of and publish, and to teach and scientifically study, anything at all in the whole wide universe–except for what the government says, way down in the fine print, that you can’t. Section (2) renders the German concept of a “Fundamental Right,” as it’s called, pure window dressing to make the bold new post-Holocaust Constitution, written with the inspired help of American legal scholars, look really liberal and free, when in fact it provides no protection whatsoever for anyone except the government.
The first provision of the whole thing, under “Article 1 – Fundamental Rights,” is insightful. This section talks about the basis of all reality being “personal honor,” which must be “worshipped” and from which all other concepts in the constitution flow. The German Constitution is, in its own language, essentially a religious document, exalting as savior the “personal honor” of the individual ego. And then the rest of it is written in terms of what people can and cannot do with their lives, ladling out their “rights” like gruel in Oliver Twist.
For comparison, the U.S. Constitution’s free speech First Amendment provision, begins with the words, “Congress shall make no law” limiting free speech or the practice of religion, period. It does not grant permission for people to do things; it denies the government permission to restrict things. The difference is far from subtle, because one method presumes the government gives out the rights, and the other presumes that freedom was there in the first place, and that it’s the government’s job to mind its own business. This absolute guarantee of non-interference by Congress has slowly been eroded over two centuries of Supreme Court rulings and technological developments like television, which is regulated by federal law, and on which you cannot say the words “piss” and “tits”–but it’s certainly far better than a government granting itself the Platinum Card to pass any law in the entire world any time it wants with the flimsy excuse of protecting “personal honor.”
These two words, shooting through my mind like a laser beam caught in the Hall of Mirrors, provided my biggest clue as to why, so far, nobody I had spoken to in Germany had been especially shocked that the cops had raided Ewald’s home over some pictures, or much concerned that it had happened. After all, honor was at stake, and people who have no rights can’t possibly understand the concept.
Continuing our work in the library, a few minutes later we came to some of the actual fine print referred to in section (2) of the free speech section. This was located in the back of an eight-inch-thick red law book, in a place called “85StGb167”–under the law titled, “Disturbance of practicing religion,” and there it says, and I quote, “One who commits insulting nonsense in a place which is dedicated to service of one of the religious unions will be punished with imprisonment of up to three years, or with a fine.”
Insulting nonsense! Three years! And this, 85StGb167, is what the court said Ewald had “confessed” to by admitting that he took those pictures, which he could not deny because they had been published under his name for the past four years, and about which nobody cared until they had appeared in the Munich Evening News. There was no individual person who came forth and testified that their honor or right to worship it had been violated; there was no damaged party, as we would say in American law; the church-government acted sua sponte, which is Latin for “with free-spirited legal spontaneity,” i.e., totally on its own, and charged him with committing nonsense.
In his moment of defense, Ewald explained to the judge, in that intense and relentless way that visual artists often get when someone forces them to be excessively verbal, and with the added pressure of being in court, that his images were part of a time-honored European tradition of depicting nudes in churches, dating back to the Middle Ages, and that furthermore, your Honor, they were intended as a comment on the church’s blatantly hypocritical position on sex, which for example bans birth control and abortion when world population is a little problem, and church law which allegedly bans priests from having sex, yet everyone reads in the newspapers again and again that choir boys keep getting molested on holy property and so on and on.
It happened that a high school class was being exposed to the wonders of the judiciary that same morning, and at one point Beyschlag threatened to throw them all out of the courtroom if they didn’t stop laughing.
Ewald, who was defending himself because he could not afford a lawyer, did not stop there. No, he was on a roll. Next, he offered to present widely-published evidence that while the church “prohibits” out-of-wedlock sex, Der Vatican finances the rearing and education of up to three illegitimate children of some priests, actual Roman Catholic priests, who secretly live as “man and wife” with their maids–another tradition with quite a long history in Europe, and all of this he tells Judge Beyschlag, with the high school class as his mock-jury, demonstrating that, at the very least, as political, religious and artistic statements, these images must surely make at minimum a vague shred of sense. But no, Beyschlag nails him for Beschimpfender Unfug, 85StGb167, Nonsense in the House of God, and fines him 15,000 Deutch Marks, about $10,000–more than people are fined for vehicular homicide–and that’s that. Get out of my court, and if you say any more, I’ll increase your punishment.
Because his financial situation was so serious, the judge–at the pleading of the prosecution–knocked the fine down to 5,000 Deutch Marks, which Ewald has not yet paid.
So there we sat in the City of Nördlingen public library, at the center of this little city that, as though it had disappeared into another dimension like an Elf kingdom in Lord of the Rings, mysteriously survived World Wars I and II perfectly intact, decoding the mysteries of the Cosmic Physical Plane, enwombed within the 20-foot high city walls with their seven entrances wide enough for just one car to drive through, and Maria, sitting with a book open in her lap, says, “Look at this.”
I looked down. The book was open to an illustration of the local topographic layout, a map of the surrounding mountains, and it was a picture of . . . an enormous crater, 17 miles across. In German, they call it the “Moon Crater,” and what this map suddenly revealed is that we were all, all of us, Maria and I and Beyschlag in his court and the library and Ewald and his wife and the little church and 50 others like it and their 50 towns, and this whole city and its Great Wall and seven towers the huge cathedral gonging away at its center, all of us and all of it, were sitting at the bottom of the 17-mile-wide impact crater of an asteroid that hit this very spot 15 million years ago. Who could have guessed.
My face must have looked very funny at that moment, because my mouth was hanging open after I had just said, and while my mind was reverberating, in a choral phase-decay symphony of stunned revelation: the single word, “W H A T ?”
And I looked again and indeed, it was true.
There was an exact–to be sure, a very exact–conjunction, right here–involving an asteroid made of stone and iron that had, well, shown up, plunging half-a-mile into the Earth and vaporizing at the bottom of its vast crater beneath a 15-mile-high mushroom cloud. So, we are indeed inside of something. And I am still here, figuring out just what it is that I am inside of, and how exactly it is that I got here, and wondering where exactly these pictures of this semi-nude woman in the little Roman Catholic church are going to lead next.