Conversation between Batuz, General von Kirchbach and Colonel Prof. Dr. Rogg

The director of the Bundeswehr Military History Museum, Colonel Prof. Dr. Matthias Rogg, in conversation with Batuz and General Hans-Peter von Kirchbach, former Inspector General of the Bundeswehr.

Rogg: Recently more and more artists turn to the Bundeswehr with a plea for help. But it was different when you first introduced “Helmets for Peace” in 2002. What importance does the Bundeswehr have for your art project?

Batuz: My cooperation with the Bundeswehr was not about the project of a single artist.

I founded the Société Imaginaire as early as 1984 – with, at the time, the utopian, goal of bringing people together of all ages, occupations, ethnicities and religions from around the world by means of private meetings and creative work and thereby gather experience for the peaceful coexistence of a future global society.

When I first made contact with the Bundeswehr in 2002, the Société Imaginaire had already realized 107 projects with various partners. Therefore my interest in the participation of Bundeswehr soldiers in the great art project at the German-Polish border has to be considered a part of this long term project. Back then around 30 global artists met in my “working centre” in the old monastery “Altzella” near Nossen.

What I did not foresee was the significant role of the Bundeswehr soldiers – few in number but with a major impact! The project becoming such a unique event is largely due to their enthusiasm.

Rogg: Batuz, originally the art project at the German-Polish border was not called “Helmets for Peace” but it went by the name of “no más fronteras” (“Borders no more!“). How did the helmets come in?

Batuz: All these people, who had come together in Altzella, had individually created yellow and blue colored “shields” from dyed paper and straw according to an artistic technique developed by myself. With these “shields” on their heads the participants were supposed to wade through the Neisse-river at a shallow ford and group to form an image that appears abstract if seen from above, almost like the planes are arranged now at the installation in the Bundeswehr Military History Museum. But how were we supposed to attach the “shields”? The idea of using military helmets was brought up by one of the Bundeswehr soldiers participating in the project. Then, of course, the sufficient number of discarded helmets had to be acquired with the help of the Bundeswehr…

Rogg: The exchange between the artist Batuz and Bundeswehr General Hans-Peter von Kirchbach plays an important role in the further development of the art project “Helmets for Peace”. How did you get to know each other?

Kirchbach: Batuz was in contact with an officer of the Academy of Information and Communication, who drew my attention to an interesting man and internationally known artist with an exciting idea. This hint seemed important enough for me to invite Batuz to a personal meeting. We met in my apartment, and I witnessed an artist and cosmopolitan with a great vision. The vision was not the art, which in itself was already spectacular, Batuz saw art as a way that leads towards a cosmopolitan world, a world without borders.

Batuz: Our first meeting in Potsdam was already a success, because we shared many commonalities from the beginning. Hans-Peter von Kirchbach showed the same enthusiasm as he did before with the Oder project.

He promised to speak to the commanders of the troops close to the Polish border. Then art loving soldiers were invited to register voluntarily for the German-Polish border project. We stayed in regular contact and Hans-Peter von Kirchbach visited me in Altzella more than once.

Rogg: General, Batuz dropped a clue. Your name is closely connected to the Bundeswehr operation during the Oder flood in 1997. What role does the controversy about borders play for you?

Kirchbach: I have experienced separation by borders, but also that they can be overcome. Mutual help across borders was already seen during the Oder flood, today we have taken many steps further. Once Polish and German soldiers were members of different alliances, today they serve together in the NATO and I have been fortunate to witness and influence the first steps. Of course the greatest miracle for me was the overcoming of the Berlin Wall from the East in 1989 and the following German Unity. Borders are surmountable and people themselves can do something to make that happen.

Rogg: At the moment we experience protests of the Pegida (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the Occident) here in Dresden every Monday evening. Thousands take to the streets to protest for stringent immigration restrictions against refugees and people from other cultures in Germany. There is a risk that the Cold War, which we thought had long been overcome, could be revived in the Ukraine-conflict. Are we not further away today from the peaceful togetherness we all dreamed of in 1989/90?

Kirchbach: Sealing Germany off cannot be an answer to our problems. In reality we experience a relapse into irrationality at the moment, on an intergovernmental level but also within our country. But this cannot prevent us from opposing such developments with a response of democrats. Existing problems have to be solved objectively and pragmatically. A close-off against other people and other cultures is therefore not a reasonable concept. The vision of a peaceful togetherness must be kept alive and represented by as many people as possible, and it has to be lived to the extent possible today. Only then it can eventually become reality.

Rogg: “Helmets for Peace” is a very multifaceted international art project. It started 2002 in Saxony. Batuz, what exactly happened that summer at and in the Neisse-river?

Batuz: At the end of 2001 I received a request by Janusz Reiter, the first Polish ambassador in Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall. He said to me: “Poland will join the European Union in 2004, but the people at the Polish-German border sit there back to back! Could you and your Société Imaginaire conduct a project that refers to this issue? A project that addresses people on both sides of the border and that is easy to informally participate in?”I looked into this request of ambassador Janusz Reiter intensively and, like you rightly explained before, Professor Rogg, I assembled a diverse selection from the arsenal of ideas of the Société Imaginaire for this special occasion. In the end three different corresponding actions were put into practice.

In Rothenburg/Upper Lusatia a four by eight meters large carpet with a map of the border area between there and Piensk in Poland was rolled out on the marketplace.

School kids and other local citizens took to the brush and so got the chance to individually design this border. On the same day it came to an encounter in the middle of the Neisse-river, from which “Helmets for Peace” developed. In addition to these activities in public spaces the Batuz-Miłosz portfolio “no más fronteras” was created in 2002.

Rogg: What does this portfolio mean to you?

Batuz: For me the Polish writer Czesław Miłosz has always been the hero of the periphery with his pointed portrayal of the frontier of Lithuania, Belarus and Poland. The artists Michael Morgner from Saxony and Zygmunt Magner from Poland have also contributed to this portfolio. I mention this because in the understanding of the Société Imaginaire all these actions have a mutual relationship, although they take on different shapes and seem independent at first glance.

But they all serve the same purpose: “Communication through Art” brings people together from all over the world. The encounter itself is a win already, but I wanted more. This is why I invite people to participate in my art projects and collectively create an art work. Since 1991 the Société Imaginaire brings together visual artists, writers and philosophers from different countries and culture groups by inspiring them to collectively create portfolios that contain texts and works on paper.

The motif should always be “the border”. Borders have to be sensed in order to really see them. Often this is painful. But the overcoming of borders cannot be successful without self-initiated action and individual effort.

Rogg: How did the installation “Helmets for Peace” evolve from the Neisse-project?

Kirchbach: The idea formed when I visited Batuz in Chemnitz one day. I asked myself what had become of the helmets. They were stored in a warehouse, not seen by anybody, but still every single helmet impressed me.

Then I asked the artist if it would be possible to turn them into something permanent as a memorial to this meaningful event, when civilians and soldiers from both sides of the border met in the middle of the Neisse-river, embraced each other and thereby removed the border visibly. Batuz actually set to work and in less than two months this huge artwork came into existence that he called “Helmets for Peace”, an installation that for me in its symbolism goes beyond the memory of the Neisse-project. The work stands for soldiers who themselves, in compliance with their duty for others and their coexistence in multinational missions, set an example for a borderless world.”Helmets for Peace” is a reminder to the soldiers, who did not go to other countries to conquer them, but to help building a peaceful together on behalf of the United Nations. The artwork symbolizes respect for these soldiers.

Rogg: It took quite some time before a smaller version of “Helmets for Peace” found its way into the Bundeswehr Military History Museum.

Kirchbach: “Helmets for Peace” was first stored in an old industrial building in Chemnitz, where it was very rarely accessible to the public.

But the artwork can only serve its purpose if people see it, if it can become the basis for discussions and arguments and at the same time contribute to a lively connection between soldiers and civilians. This could not be realized in Chemnitz.

So we were all very thankful that, through intermediation of the former parliamentary undersecretary of the Federal Ministry of Defence, Mr Christian Schmidt, and after intensive conversation with you Professor Rogg, this venue could be found for the exhibition. The Bundeswehr Military History Museum, the architectural and conceptual design of which is in many ways inviting for an engagement with history, is especially suitable for this work and its purpose. Behind the artwork with the helmets, which is very impressive on its own, is a great idea that reaches far beyond the work itself. The artwork is a molding, a visualization of this idea, of a world of cosmopolitans, who do not get confused by existing borders.

Batuz: The exhibition of “Helmets for Peace” in the Bundeswehr Military History Museum in Dresden in 2015 marks the culmination of the cooperation with the Bundeswehr. Many events preceded the exhibition. The association Helmets for peace e.V. was founded in 2008 to direct the attention of the global population to the soldiers engaged in peace missions by artistic and cultural means. The meeting in Altzella and at the Neisse-river did not remain the only art project with service members of the Bundeswehr participating. One project was even realized in Afghanistan. In preparation for this soldiers in Frankenberg built a border line in 2009, like the one I used to depict in my paintings, while citizens grouped to form the lettering “no más fronteras”. Afterwards everybody ate and celebrated together. I performed a similar human chain with Bundeswehr members, soldiers of other nations and civil Afghan employees in Mazar-e Sharif in 2010 to bridge the gap between locals and international peace forces.

Rogg: General, you are a founding member of the association “Helmets for Peace e.V.”. When and how did an art project become an association with internationally active representatives from politics, military and culture? What are the goals of the association?

Kirchbach: Over a number of years a circle developed that merged to become an association, the goal of which is to draw public attention to the devoted achievements of the soldiers in peace missions, to support them and to encourage direct and personal contact. Under supervision of Professor Nazir Peroz the Technical University of Berlin developed a wide-area network that is supposed to enable global communication of the supporting family, ergo the association, its members and everybody who identifies with our ideas.

Soldiers who have been involved in peace missions should be given a forum in which they can interchange and share their experiences with other people. The work “Helmets for Peace” is the visible center of the whole idea with its many forms. Thereby the idea “Helmets for Peace” can and will get a new impetus through the exhibition, and the association wants to help with this.

Rogg: The Bundeswehr Military History Museum already exhibited many contemporary artworks that have a critical approach towards military, weapons and war.

Frank Bölter for example recreated a life-size Leopard II in Origami technique with the help of Bundeswehr soldiers and the art group Louisen-Kombinaht knitted a cover for a tank. In 2014 Kingsley Baird piled up cookies that resembled soldiers to form a memorial. The visitors had to decide if they wanted to eat of them or not and so were compelled to think about the “consumption” of human lives in war and their own responsibility in this. These art projects have fascinated many people, but they also caused severe protests. “Helmets for Peace” will provoke too. For some people “Helmets for Peace” are a contradiction in itself. Others also think of failed UN-missions, of war crimes that could not be prevented. Can you find it to understand these people? What do you want to tell them?

Kirchbach: A work by the name of “Helmets for Peace” will and shall provoke a debate. I don’t think the title is contradictory. Of course soldiers who try to contribute to a peaceful togetherness of people in their operational areas stand for peace. They also do this if they have to fight for it and also if a mission fails. In reality most of them exemplarily live the concept of everyday life within an international community. The deployment of German soldiers happens within the framework of our constitutional values anyway. Soldiers alone cannot solve problems, but there are problems that cannot be solved without soldiers. A good interaction of everybody involved and the people to whom the efforts are directed is crucial.

Batuz: The installation”Helmets for Peace” is a call to everybody on this planet to show more support and gratitude to the soldiers in United Nations peace missions. The association Helmets for Peace e.V. and the network established by the TU Berlin want to contribute to this.