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German’s ‘art’ Has Political Motive: Stopping Honor for Waffen Ss Dead

For years, German artist and activist Wolfram Kastner has been destroying private property. Someone has to do it, he says. It’s not just any property Kastner is after. Virtually every Nov. 1 since 1993, he has gone to a cemetery in Salzburg, Austria, and snipped ribbons from wreaths laid at the graves of veterans of the Waffen SS, a military division that took part in war crimes.

The Munich native has been fined several times in Austria for damaging public property. Because Kastner declined to answer the last summons from Austria, his case now is being heard in a Munich district court, on the request of Austrian courts.

The state prosecutor in charge, Martin Hofmann, said patience with Kastner is running out.

“I could discontinue the case because of the low level of guilt,” he told JTA in a telephone interview. “But Mr. Kastner does it again every year. He knows he does something illegal but does it again and again, out of his political convictions,” as well as a desire for publicity.

Still, Hofmann said he’s unlikely to request a heavy sentence: Kastner could get up to 2 years on probation or an unspecified fine if convicted.

Juergen Arnold, Kastner’s attorney, called state prosecutors “dumb.”

“The court sees simply ‘damage to property,’ but they don’t care that it is damage to the property of a criminal association,” he said.

“It’s typical German authoritarian thinking, not to the left or right but straight ahead, as in ‘We have our laws and have to apply them,’ ” Arnold said. “This is how they thought 60 years ago, and this is how they will think in 100 years.”

For years, Kastner, who is married to a psychologist, has been calling attention to aspects of the Nazi past that some would rather forget. In German, his work is called “Aktionskunst,” or art as a means of political protest.

“Art cannot be punished in Germany,” Arnold said.

Kastner received official permission last fall to place a temporary installation of 17 suitcases outside a building in Munich from which Jews had been deported. The names of the deportees are written on the suitcases, which are painted white.

Kastner says he won’t remove the installation until the building, which is used as a library, places a plaque in remembrance of the Jews who lived there.

In January 2005, Kastner was one of five Germans to receive the annual Obermayer German Jewish History Award for his dedication to remembering the past.

He began his annual Austrian protest action in 1993, snipping the ribbons from wreaths that comrades and relatives of Waffen SS left at Salzburg’s cemetery on Nov. 1, a general holiday for remembrance of the dead.

Some of the comrades have been forced in the past to remove badges and medals bearing swastika symbols, but the wreaths dedicated to the Waffen SS are perfectly legal.

But “I can’t ignore it,” said Kastner, who placed the cut ribbons in a Salzburg gallery for all to see.

Kastner has urged others to join him, and the actions are reported regularly in the Austrian press. One article reported that the SS wreaths had been “beschnitten,” which means both “cut” and “circumcised.”

“The Nazis were especially upset about that headline,” Kastner said.

Kastner seems to enjoy rattling the wreath layers. In 2001, he succeeded in getting permission for a klezmer group to play a song in the cemetery at the same time as those honoring the Waffen SS members were accompanied by a marching band.

“I would really like to stop my actions,” Kastner told JTA. “But I have to go on as long as it is necessary, and as long as I can.”

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