The Führer’s gnomes

KJ >> TOC Lifestyle

Photos by Werner Scheuermann (with permission from Cornelia and Ottmar Hörl)

THE LIGHT falls upon the great square, upon the rows and rows of barely discernible silhouettes, immaculate in their tight formations. There they stand, stern, stiff and upright in their parched fabric, clothed entirely in the colour of night. So still they stand, as though stopping time along with them. Not an inch of the earth dares speaks and claims and illustrates; as though they were actual troops on full parade, and not some garden gnomes on mock display.

And garden gnomes they are indeed – all 1,250 of them – created by the German artist Ottmar Hörl. They were the main cast in his latest art installation ‘Dance with the Devil’. It was held in the southeastern German town of Straubing last week, from 15-19 Oct 2009, and publicly displayed in the town square Ludwigsplatz – once the site of Nazi rallies.

Hörl, who is also Professor at the Nuremberg Academy of Fine Arts, had been disturbed by the palpable resurgence of fascism in German society, and decided to raise awareness through art. Provocatively, he had all his ‘poisoned gnomes’ raising their arms in the Nazi salute.

Although a smaller-scale exhibition had previously been held in Belgium without much protest, it proved to be controversial in Germany, where displays of Nazi insignia as well as the cries of “Heil Hitler!” (including the salute) are illegal. Offenders can be jailed for up to three years. The vocal responses from the good Straubing townsfolk prompted the police to be on alert, and the gnomes were guarded round-the-clock.

In an interview with the Guardian newspaper, Hörl explained his reasons behind his artwork: “I want to show that there is far-right thought in the heads of all of us,” and garden gnomes are especially effective in conveying this message. He thought they were “lighter and unpatronising … [while] strong enough to provoke a reaction.”

And Hörl is not new to strong reactions. Earlier this July, he displayed a golden gnome in a similar pose at a Nuremberg art gallery, and for that he was hauled up for a week-long criminal investigation. Hörl then defended his gnome as a symbol of satire: if he had presented the ‘master race’ as garden gnomes in 1942, he would have been prosecuted by the Nazis themselves. The officials later dropped the case, acknowledging that Hörl’s gnome, clearly being a satirical piece of art, could be exempt from the law.

Hörl strongly believes that the Führer-principle and the fascist tendencies to manipulate and control the people are “as dangerous now as it has ever been.” In his view, a genuine public discussion – and denunciation – of so elusive and contentious a subject like fascism can only be realized with a public presentation.

It seems, even better if it is provocative, if it parodies and mocks. Laughter can be subversive; it can reveal a cleaner truth.

His illustrious compatriot, Walter Benjamin would have agreed. Reflecting on the film The Great Dictator (c. 1940) where Charlie Chaplin parodies Hitler, Benjamin wrote these luminous lines:

Hitler’s diminished masculinity –

To be compared with the feminine cast of the little tramp portrayed by Chaplin

So much lustre surrounding so much shabbiness

Hitler’s following

To be compared with Chaplin’s public

Chaplin – the plowshare that cuts through the masses; laughter loosens up the mass

The ground of the Third Reich is stamped down hard and firm, and no more grass grows there

— Walter Benjamin, Hitler’s Diminished Masculinity, Fragment written c. August 1934

To Benjamin, Chaplin was the greatest comic because he personified the deepest fears of the so-called great men – the fear of not being taken seriously. It is the dictator’s fear of laughter.

Such artworks stand alone as art objects, invaluable and beautiful in themselves. But they also remind us that art objects are more than that – they are objects of resistance. Art objects. Tarrying between those who approved of the gnomes and those who didn’t, was a healthy discussion that was only possible without arbitrary state censorship, without the imposing of one view – the state’s.

How else to judge whether Hörl is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, for better or for worse, but through the horse’s mouth and with our own eyes, debated upon and arriving at our individual truths? Through that debate, awareness of an important issue – fascism and its potential dangers – was raised. Might that contribute to an even more enlightened society.


If Hörl’s views on the resurgence of fascism are right and his methods effective, then one does wish that his works would travel to other parts of the world too and provoke some more debate. Parts of the world where fascism is not only on the rise, but has probably been naturalized; where public demonstrations are reviled, little Führers are revered, and fascist parades ritualized.

But perhaps, Hörl would have to first get past the various gates of modern-day Goebbels and their ministries of propaganda. And probably their propagandized citizenry too told a trove of fabulous tales, and earnestly believing in those spin. A paradox quite peculiar to the subject – and subjects – of fascism.

It has been observed that in those regimes, satirizing the dear leaders often invoked the wrath of the leaders themselves as much as their citizenry who had been fed a strict, daily diet of state-imposed opinions and Party glorification. And where would this Party be without its well-rewarded apologists and compliant press?

Where repression and thought control is more sophisticated, is subtler, control expressed through legitimate laws and propaganda disseminated through the good life and glossy colour, repression slips through like a Trojan horse. Why jail the opposition when you can bankrupt them instead? Why ban shows, when you’ve already made the public disinterested? Why shoot journalists, when they will self-censor?

Sometimes, it is not necessarily lies that are propagated. Just half-truths. Missing truths. Not lies. Just not the whole truth. Easier to slip past. Easier to live with, and easier to explain away. Why think, when one can eat, drink, and be merry? Why bother?

Isn’t that a repressed people still, repression of a higher order?

And it shouldn’t be surprising that in those regimes ostensibly concerned with the moral well-being of their citizenry, thought-provoking works are repeatedly censored and truth-bearers prosecuted. Occasionally, direct quotes are mis-directed or gone missing. There is something about critical thought and multiple-truths that those regimes fear. Just look at the monopoly they hold over the manufacturing of truths.

Just look at Hörl’s saluting gnomes; the Führer would have churned indeed.

And a timely reminder perhaps, that a leader should never be revered… too much.

Visit Ottmar Hörl’s website:

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