Apack of 60 wolves is set to descend on Washingtonplatz, the concrete square opposite Berlin’s central station. The bronze and iron statues, some more than two metres tall, loom over passengers spilling out of the city’s Hauptbahnhof station, their snouts warped into vicious snarls, their paws moulded into Nazi salutes.
Though real wild wolves have been spotted again in Germany in recent years, these creatures warn against another creeping threat: racism. “I want to start a discussion,” says Rainer Opolka, the artist behind The Wolves Are Back. “What can we do so that people don’t need to hate anymore? In Germany, it looks like racism has now become standard. I don’t want people to get used to that.”
Opolka’s wolves appear in the aftermath of a week that left Germany reeling: an axe attack on a train near Würzburg; a mass shooting in Munich; a woman killed by a machete in Reutlingen; and a bomb detonated in Ansbach. Two of the attacks – carried out by asylum seekers and since linked to Islamic State – have sparked fears that events could be exploited by right-wing groups. Since Angela Merkel welcomed hundreds of thousands of refugees into Germany, attitudes towards minorities have come under the spotlight.
“Many people see terrorism on TV and that makes them afraid,” says Opolka. “They don’t see the difference between the terrorists and the people who have escaped terrorism.”
Since 2015, the Federal Criminal Police Office – orBundeskriminalamt – has registered 1,031 “crimes against asylum accommodation” across Germany – from offensive graffiti to 94 acts of arson. It was the arson attacks that spurred Opolka to create his wolves. “Since Thomas Hobbes, the wolf has been a symbol for the inner social conflicts of men,” says the artist. “I remain in that tradition. I want to show those conflicts and use the wolf as metaphor.”
Racism in Germany extends beyond asylum seekers, something the Brandenburg-based artist has witnessed first hand. Opolka remembers watching drunk Germans attack a Turkish man in Hamburg. “Just because he was Turkish,” he says. “That shocked me.”
The wolves have already been on display in Dresden – home to anti-Islam group Pegida – and Potsdam – a city bordering the German capital. In Berlin, the wolves will hold the glass dome of the Reichstag, home to Germany’s parliament, directly in their eyeline. With September’s federal elections creeping closer, Opolka says: “I want them to warn people to think carefully about their decision in the election.” Five percent of the vote would be enough for Alternative for Germany, the anti-immigration party, to take its first seats in parliament.
There are eight different designs among the pack of wolves. One represents the mob – “a blind follower” in Opolka’s words. Another, clutching a gun, represents the xenophobic murders committed by the neo-Nazi group National Socialist Underground during the early 2000s. Currently the subject of a new Netflix series, the NSU were responsible for the racially motivated killings of 10 people – eight of Turkish descent, one of Greek descent and one German police officer.
Opolka’s installation is just one example of how Berlin’s artists are trying to guide public debate in uneasy times by encouraging the country to confront and challenge racism. Christa Joo Hyun D’Angelo says it’s important to understand Germany’s history to untangle current attitudes to race and identity. Her 2015 film, Past Present Tense is a series of interviews about people’s personal experiences of racism in the city, both today and during the early days of reunification.
Berlin in the early 90s “is very heavily romanticised”, says activist Anetta Kahane to camera. “It was a very hedonistic scene that didn’t react at all … to this incredible increase of far right extremists and neo-Nazis.”
Originally from the US, D’Angelo sees echoes of this in today’s Berlin. “There is a particular apathy that accompanies the nightlife scene,” she says. “It is comprised of mostly white middle-class Europeans and Americans who seem very unaware and uninterested in the geopolitical situation going on in Germany.” The idea for the film grew out of a conversation with a friend who has since died: “[We] were talking about the racial tension in Berlin, since many of our friends have experienced racial aggression, including getting racial slurs screamed at them on the street.”
Growing up in Dusseldorf, DJ Dreea Pavel remembers how ashamed she used to be of being Romany. Encouraging Berliners to have this conversation can be difficult, she says. “With Germans you never get to speak about racism,” she says. “They get so defensive.” Instead, she challenges stereotypes by being open; by telling people she’s now proud of her roots. “People think Roma like me don’t exist. I DJ. And I’m female. And I’m Roma. Traditionally Roma women don’t do that.”
“Wir schaffen das,” Angela Merkel repeated last week, in defence of her open-door refugee policy – “we can manage it.” As parts of Germany claw for change in the wake of July’s attacks, those people arriving into Hauptbahnhof station will be reminded to watch out for the wolves.
- The Wolves Are Back is in Washingtonplatz, Berlin from 6-16 August.