Roemers Relics

Same defenses, same fears

By Martin Roemers, 2009

Summer 1983.  I’m on holiday with a friend in Germany.  We are walking through a wood in an easterly direction.  It must be there.  Through the trees we see something greyish.  We can’t go any further.  A concrete wall stands before us.  There is nothing else to see.  Except for the singing birds it is quiet.  We walk along the wall until we reach a watch tower.  A soldier is sitting inside and he looks at us.  I take a picture of the lonely man in the tower.  He takes a picture of us.

Fall 1989.  The wall has fallen.  I am a photography student at the art academy.  I drive through East Germany in my old car. On the way I pass countless Russian barracks.  It looks like a completely different world from the outside.  I wonder what they look like inside.  I walk to the front gate and ask for permission to take a few pictures. “Njet” they say.

Winter 1998. I am in contact with Ulrike.  She works for an organisation in Brandenburg that manages the former Russian army territories.  Ulrike gives me a pile of official documents with many signatures, seals and stamps.  I may go everywhere.  I walk around in astonishment.  The local population plundered the buildings immediately after the departure of the Russians.  What remains is the beauty of decay: buildings that are about to collapse, old vehicles, car tyres, an aircraft and a peeling mural of the glory of the Soviet Union.  This is the Disneyland of the Cold War.

Autumn 2002. Kaliningrad. I drive through a sleepy provincial town and see a small, old and collapsed military building.  I grab a camera and tripod and take a few pictures.  I walk around the building and see two Russian soldiers lying on the ground drinking beer. I decide to return to my car, but it is too late.  Two guards seize me and take me to a barrack.  I am held the whole day because I must wait for an official from the FSB (formerly KGB) who must come from the capital.  Late in the afternoon, the stout FSB officer appears with tea and biscuits.  He subjects me to a long and protracted interrogation.  I tell him about my photo series of the landscapes of the Cold War.  He accepts my explanation and makes a report of the interrogation.  The final sentence reads: ”Mr Roemers has behaved in an impeccable and courteous manner during the whole day”.  I must sign and can leave.  I have lost my films.

Spring 2009.  I have taken the last picture of this project in Moscow.  The question I asked of myself during this series was: “what are the consequences of this war that was never waged on the landscape.”  I have looked for these places for eleven years between all my other work. Initially I focussed on the Soviet legacy in the old DDR, but gradually the project became bigger.  Although the Cold War affected more continents, I have limited myself to East and West Europe.  I have been surprised by the enormous quantities of shelters, bunkers, airfields, shooting ranges, barracks, missile bases, border barricades and radar stations.  They look identical on both sides of the iron curtain: the same defense mechanisms built out of the same fears.