From the outside, it looks like nothing so much an 80s-era sports arena that has been placed quixotically atop a small mountain in the Thuringian countryside. However, the Panorama Museum in Bad Frankenhausen is in fact one of the few manifestations of GDR cultural policy to have survived the transition to a unified Germany essentially intact. The museum houses one item, a massive panorama-style painting by East German painter Werner Tübke which bears the name Early Bourgeois Revolution in Germany (Frühbürgerliche Revolution in Deutschland). Measuring 123 m in length by 14 m high, this monumental work includes scenes from the German Peasants’ War, a series of uprisings that took place across German-speaking Central Europe between 1524 and 1526 and which leaders of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) were eager to present as an historical antecedent to their “Workers and Peasants’ State”. Indeed the clear ideological intent with which the Panorama Museum was created makes its continued existence all the more remarkable.
Thomas Müntzer as Proto-Socialist Revolutionary
The background against which a 1972 Plenary Session of the SED first proposed a monumental, panorama painting to honour the Peasants’ War is an interesting one. The decision to push forward a large-scale project commemorating this period of German history coincided with the ascension to power of Erich Honecker in 1971. Honecker and the SED leadership group were troubled by the low-standing the GDR enjoyed both at home and abroad. One way the Party wanted to increase the socialist state’s legitimacy was to reexamine German history to find individuals and movements which would buttress the argument that the GDR was the result of a long historical process, not simply an outcome of post-World War II geopolitics.
In this search for historical forefathers of state socialism, regime-loyal historians quickly identified a number of Reformation figures whose opposition to the ruling orders, both secular and religious, rendered them compatible with the SED’s understanding of German history. First and foremost here was Thomas Müntzer, a pastor and early supporter of Martin Luther, whose calls for a reform not just of the church but of society helped place him at the forefront of the violent conflict between peasants and local lords in south-central Germany.
Having identified an ideologically-appropriate hero in Thomas Müntzer, the SED quickly sought to make historical hay. In 1971, Müntzer’s likeness was placed on the GDR’s 5 Mark bill (replacing Alexander von Humboldt) and in the following year, the Party took concrete steps to creating a monument to Müntzer and the Peasants’ War at Bad Frankenhausen, the site of the battle which led to Müntzer’s execution and the uprising’s defeat in that part of the German-speaking world. The site at Bad Frankenhausen was to portray Müntzer and the peasants he supported as heroic, proto-socialists and part of the historical continuum that had led to the founding of the GDR. (Thomas Götz,“Das Bauernkriegspanorama ist Werner Tübkes größtes Werk”, Berliner Zeitung, May 10, 2004, accessed on July 21, 2016).
The Panorama Museum As Chosen Form
Once the monument had received the go-ahead by the Politbureau, however, Party bosses began a fight over the artistic concept for the project. While many functionaries spoke out in favour of large-scale work using a socialist realist approach, others called for a different visual language. These individuals made reference to Honecker’s statement to the Party’s Central Committee in December 1971 which asserted that, “there can be no taboos in art and literature, so long as these begin from a firm, socialist standpoint.” After several years of debate, GDR Minister of Culture Hans-Joachim Hoffmann intervened to bring things to a conclusion in time for an announcement during calendar 1975, the 450th anniversary of the battle at Bad Frankenhausen. Hoffmann’s decisions were as follow. First, he announced that the monument would take the form of a museum which would feature a large-scale panorama painting of the Peasant’s War. The second result of Hoffmann’s intervention was that the commission for the painting went to Werner Tübke, one of the GDR’s best known visual artists.
The choice of the panorama format was inspired in large part by a Soviet museum opened in Moscow in 1962 to house a large-scale painting commemorating the Battle of Borodino, Soviet historiography of the post-World War II period had come to understand this decisive battle between Russian and France during the Napoleon Wars in September 1812 as a proud victory of the Russian army (“Separating Facts From Fiction” in Russian Beyond The Headlines (rbth.com), accessed July 20, 2016), something the Moscow museum was built to underscore. With the choice of the panorama format, Hoffmann had linked the project to a Soviet predecessor, a move which rendered it largely immune to criticism from within the Party ranks, something that necessary, as Hoffmann’s choice of artist was more than a little controversial.
In Werner Tübke, Hoffmann had managed to win an artist of international renown for this prestige project, but Party hardliners were suspicious of Tübke’s “magical realist” style, an approach some distance from orthodox socialist realism. Tübke was clear from the outset that his work would not be a straightforward battle scene and insisted on full artistic license in regards to both his concept for the work and its execution. Remarkably, Hoffmann agreed to these terms and Tübke set to work on project which would occupy him for most of the succeeding 12 years.
The Work Early Bourgeois Revolution in Germany
True to his word, Tübke’s painting adhered to only one vision, his own. Using a visual language heavily influenced by Renaissance masters, Early Bourgeois Revolution in Germany depicts a number of Renaissance-era scenes to suggest a world view in which humanity repeats its mistakes time and time again. The panorama format, which lacks any clear beginning or end, presents human existence as cyclical, not progressive as the Party’s ideology contended. And then there is the figure of Müntzer himself, represented here as a lost figure in the middle of a horrific battle scene. Resigned to his group’s imminent defeat, Müntzer has let the peasants’ flag fall to the ground, high over his head, Icarus plummets to earth. Tübke even worked in a reference to the particularly sensitive topic of censorship, portraying a worker in Gutenberg’s printing house smearing the page to be printed so that it was completely black.
It was hardly what the Party had had in mind, but when Tübke presented a scale version to SED leaders, including Honecker, in 1982, there was no push back. Tübke’s work, with more than 2,500 individual figures and a plethora of quotes and references to the art and scholarship of the Rennaisance was simply too overwhelming, too learned in its content to invite reproach (Götz,“Das Bauernkriegspanorama . . .”) and so the project was allowed to continue.
Over the next five years, Tübke and a team of five assistants all carefully schooled in the master’s technique, carried out the project, painstakingly transferring the images on the scale version onto the specially woven canvas measuring 123 m by 14 m. It was a Herculean task and one which took a considerable toll on the artist. Work on the project finished on August 7, 1987 with Tübke adding his signature to the painting.
Inauguration and Reception
GDR authorities decided to wait a further two years to inaugurate the Panorama Museum, wanting to wait until September 14th, 1989, the 500th anniversary of Thomas Müntzer’s birth. Of course by the time this date had rolled around, the GDR had begun to disintegrate. While the project’s overseer, Minister Hoffmann was on hand, GDR leader Erich Honecker was too ill to attend, choosing to send his wife and the Party’s chief ideologue Kurt Hager as his representatives. In his speech, Hager underlined the ideological purpose authorities had foreseen for the museum, stating, “today in the 40th year of the German Democratic Republic, we can say with satisfaction that we have realized the vision for the future held by Thomas Müntzer.” (Götz,“Das Bauernkriegspanorama . . .”).
1989 had been declared “Thomas Müntzer Year” by the East German leadership and the state went to considerable lengths to raise the profile of the Reformation-era revolutionary whom the Party had declared to be an ideological soulmate. Part of this process included the issuing of a series of postage stamps featuring the cleric and excerpts from the panorama painting that included him. See the slideshow above for these stamps.
The resonance in the population for the Museum was not especially enthusiastic. The arena-like museum building quickly earned the nickname “elephant’s toilet” shortly after it was finished. The project’s costs were controversial at a time when East German towns and cities continued to decay from lack of investment. Indeed, reports from the regional Stasi office show that there was considerable unhappiness within the population regarding the use of resources for a project of this nature.
The Panorama Museum Today
I have been fortunate enough to visit the Panorama Museum on two occasions. While the museum is well off the beaten track (from Leipzig, I needed three trains and two transfers over three-and-a-half hours to travel the 126 kilometers), it was well worth the effort to get there. The first time I visited, I was deposited at the train station at the foot of the mountain upon which the Panorama Museum sits. I could find no signs directing me to the site, so asked a local which way it was to the museum. He happily obliged and directed me to the local history museum. Deciding to take matters into my own hands, I started climbing streets that headed up the hills, ending up in the backyard of several holiday homes before finding a forest path that led me to the top of the mountain. After a short climb, the path deposited me at the end of an asphalted path which led to the museum. It was a memorable approach, overshadowed I am pleased to say, by an even more memorable visit to the museum.
Indeed, Tübke’s work and the way it is presented at Bad Frankenhausen are simply overwhelming. The detail, colour and content of the Panorama reward a considered viewing and encourage interpretations from a variety of perspectives. It is truly remarkable artwork and it is fantastic that it has managed to carve out a niche for itself on the German arts landscape. It has been awarded the “European Seal of Cultural Heritage” and, despite its out of the way location, manages to attract over 120,000 visitors a year, more than all of Leipzig’s museums combined apparently (Götz,“Das Bauernkriegspanorama . . .”),
I would suggest that the reasons for the museum’s success have to do first and foremost with the quality of Tübke’s work which bears none of the usual hallmarks of “politically commissioned art”. The other important factor that has saved the Panorama from being written off as “propaganda” is the fact that the museum holding it was only inaugurated in September 1989 and therefore had relatively little time to become clearly associated with the state socialist regime. The Wende came just in time for this work, and allowed it to be considered apart from those who commissioned it; a blessing we should all be thankful for.