“I was 10, when the Wall came down,” Tobias Kruse tells me, “11, when Germany was reunited.” He was born in Schwerin, a city in northeastern Germany. Having steadily grown since the late 19th Century (the oldest data I was able to find), Schwerin topped 130,000 inhabitants at the end of the ill-fated German Democratic Republic (GDR; in the following, the area is referred to as East Germany). In reunited Germany, it became the capital of the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, which, however, did not prevent it from losing 34,000 inhabitants until 2005, as people left to look for work elsewhere (many in what previously had been the Federal Republic of Germany—West Germany in the following).
The rupture in someone’s biography and life as the political system they had been born in evaporated more or less overnight is hard to imagine. From the outside—this here also includes West Germans like me who watched a country implode and then become a part of a reunited Germany that essentially was merely an expanded West Germany. In fact, the gulf between East Germans and West Germans has remained wide ever since. But let’s not leapfrog over exactly those aspects of German history that Kruse has now made the topic of Deponie; a body of work dealing with his adolescence, being East German in united Germany, and the country’s Nazi past and present.
Kruse’s parents had been aligned with East Germany’s opposition that had brought about the fall of Communism. “My father liquidated the Stasi in the Schwerin district,” Kruse remembers. “That’s not just our own experience. But for us, the fall of the Wall was the absolute experience of a lifetime.” Helmut Kohl, Germany’s Chancellor at the time, had promised “flourishing landscapes” in the East. But the reality at first—and in many areas to this date—was very different. “Now we were released into freedom but we had no money. We were unable to make use of that. That really sucked,” Kruse explains. Severe financial restrictions aside, there was another problem. “In the beginning of the 1990s, the East was filled with Nazis.” He remembers having to think about which way to go to avoid running into them.
In a documentary from 2020, East German journalist Christian Bangel called the 1990s “baseball-bat years,” years of ubiquitous far-right violence. “We spent a lot of time at the House of the Youth,” Kruse says “That was a somewhat left-wing youth club in Schwerin where I grew up. That was also attacked by them.” Nazis and other far-right extremists would stage violent attacks on asylum centers and foreigners. The Hoyerswerda riots lasted almost a week, and the word ausländerfrei (free of foreigners), a word with echoes of the Nazi era’s judenfrei (free of Jewish people), threw a very, very dark shadow over the newly reunited Germany. The following year, hundreds of hooligans attacked an apartment block with asylum seekers in Rostock-Lichtenhagen, a place close to Schwerin. Thousands of East Germans stood by and applauded.
A little over 20 years later, after Germany had offered refuge to over a million of migrants, and what had remained dormant for a while re-erupted, albeit on a larger, political scale. Having just been awarded an Olympus Recommended stipend, Kruse decided that this was now the right time to focus on the larger topic that he had had in mind for roughly a decade. “I know the feeling very well,” he says, alluding to what had built up in him with time. “It’s a feeling of anxiety, something unpleasant combined with the term Heimat. It really has a lot to do with my upbringing in the East.” Heimat is a German word for which there is no good English translation. It means home, but home in a larger cultural and traditional sense. For many Germans, Heimat contains almost mystical components.
“It became clear pretty quickly,” Kruse remembers, “that there was a component of identity that I was dealing with. In the 1990s, we were second-class citizens. We were looked down on. We were belittled. It was crap to be an Ossi.” Ossi became a standard derogatory term for East Germans. “That only ended in the early 2000s.” As a starting point for his project, Kruse took a landfill that is located close to Schwerin. Deponie, the title of the project, is the German word for landfill. At the end of the 1970s, the East German government had built a massive landfill for toxic waste near the border with West Germany. It had been desperate to get foreign currency—even if that meant accepting toxic waste. There are unconfirmed rumours that barrels from the infamous Seveso disaster made it to the site. It never was and still isn’t clear whether the landfill is safe. Neighbouring cities are worried about contamination of the groundwater.
“I thought this was a pretty good metaphor for the still unresolved German question,” Kruse notes. “There’s this toxic waste lying around, and nobody knows what to do with it.” He quickly realized that the landfill itself—essentially a large hill with green grass on top—didn’t make for good photographs. He thus set out to drive all over East Germany to look for pictures. Locations included Hoyerswerda or Rostock-Lichtenhagen as much as places that had biographical relevance. He also compiled a list with ideas.
Violence was one of the themes on his mind. “Where do you get an image of brutalization? I don’t necessarily mean a fist fight.” Kruse ended up going to a football match between FC Sankt Pauli and Dynamo Dresden, the latter known for its large far-right fan base. “I accredited as a photographer and stood next to the playing field. I had my back turned to it and faced a wall of 5,000 hooligans from Dresden. Whenever the La Ola wave would arrive, they’d all show the Hitler salute. There’s a picture of it. I would never have imagined that they would show this so openly,” he says. Ordinarily working in color, for Deponie he adopted black and white, to link the present with the past. This is what makes the Hitler salute picture so jarring: we are familiar with photographs like these from Nazi Germany. But to see them in contemporary Germany brings the formerly unthinkable out into the open again: there are large numbers of people who align with the country’s ugly past and who openly celebrate it.
Much like Bangel’s documentary of My Baseball-Bat Years, Tobias Kruse’s Deponie shines a light on an aspect of recent German history that still is widely ignored and misunderstood. At around the time when Francis Fukuyama was announcing an “end of history,” actual history was having none of it in East Germany (and beyond): authoritarian far-right structures that had remained dormant under the Communist dictatorship re-erupted. Combined with West German greed—the vast bulk of property in East Germany is now owned by West Germans—and ignorance, the basis was laid for the emergence of a rabid nationalist and racist movement, the main party of which (AfD) now routinely gains around a quarter of the votes in East German states. As a result, far-right ideas are now becoming more and more mainstream. There is indeed, as Kruse says, “this toxic waste lying around, and nobody knows what to do with it.”