October 2012 The Bold Move of Utopia

October 2012

by Peter Roloff, filmmaker & member of the Traveling Summer Republic

When we first came to Missouri in 2009 we have been asked: What is your family relationship to Friedrich Münch, Paul Follenius and the other members of the Giessen Emigration Society? Our answer was: there is no genealogical relation. That was a surprise for the inquirer. Why should Germans come to Missouri, visit the original places of Münch and Follenius, meet descendants, read dusty files in the archives? Obviously it costs a lot of time and money. There must be a reason, but if isn’t family research – what could it be then?

It’s drama! It’s comedy! It’s tragedy! In one word: it’s a good story. A story that still can tell us something about our societies today: about social responsibility, about political resistance, about the German-American relationship. It’s strongly political and very private at the very same moment. A story with contradictions. A story… I make a full stop here.

Let me explain “The drama” and go back into recent history. In the 1970s Henry Schneider is a student in East Berlin, at that time the capitol of communist German Democratic Republic. He read in a book a few sentences about a group of emigrants who left Germany because of its political suppressive system. They were longing for a free and democratic Germany and they didn’t believe that the three dozen small German states would ever become democratic and a united nation. These emigrants had a utopian dream: they wanted to create an ideal German Republic on American soil, a new member state of the United States of America. This political and idealistic action is unique in the history of German emigration to America.

Their plan did not work out well. When they left Germany in 1834 half of them were stuck on an island in the Weser River. Their expected ship did not come. Their utopian dream seemed to have been ended even before they have arrived America.

Henry Schneider was excited by this story. One must understand when Henry read the text he was behind the Wall of the Cold War. No way out. At that time the German Democratic Republic – GDR – was looking for role models in history to construct a connection between political progressive Germans in the past to their own progressive socialist society (as they have seen it themselves). So Henry took this chance to offer to officials the Giessen Emigration Society as such a political progressive group. And he received a grant to do historical research and write a treatment for a movie. He worked on it and delivered a paper. The officials of the state owned film industry did not reject his piece but also did not encourage him. After a while the project was laid down. Is it a case of hidden censorship? One can assume, but we cannot prove, that the officials in the GDR film industry became aware that a movie about Germans longing for leaving their country in the 19th century wouldn’t have been very suitable for a country in the 1970th in which a lot of people fled from the socialist regime. You can see: the Giessen Emigration Society still had provocative potential after 150 years.

We make a time warp. 30 years later, in 2003 Henry invited me to a glass of wine on his balcony. We both live downtown Berlin, he lives just across the street. It was a sunny day in springtime. He asked me: Peter, you’re grown up in Bremen. Do you know the Harriersand Island on the Weser River, just a few miles north of Bremen? I had to confess: Never heard of it. Henry continued: Then you don’t know about the 250 emigrants on the island, the utopian state founders? He told me what he knew about it. And I was fascinated from the very first moment. He made me addicted to the story.

A few weeks later I made a first visit to the island. With photographer Folker Winkelmann and my father we made a typical Father’s Day trip. A bright and sunny day, rarely in the north of Germany. In an old Mercedes Benz from the early 1970s we drove slowly through the lowlands. We passed a huge and scaring World War II U-boat bunker along the Weser River and were happy to reach the peaceful island. Cows on the pastures, tourists on the beach, children were swimming in the river. The port of Brake at the other side of the Weser River with its coming and going of overseas ships and with its squeaking cranes created an interesting contrast to the weekend paradise. We enjoyed traditional coffee with butter Cake. At this first visit on the island everything was special and inspiring but we found no traces of the Giessen Emigration Society on the island.

Photographer Folker, a very good friend of me since childhood, was absorbed by the island, its unique atmosphere. He felt in love with it. It was his first day of his since then ongoing intense photographic occupation on the Giessen Emigration Society. During his long and constant work in the Traveling Summer Republic he developed a demanding artistic philosophy to visualize the historic places by its present-day inhabitants.

Back to Berlin. For about a year Henry and I were thinking to reanimate his former film project. Should it be a fiction film or a documentary? Our historical knowledge about Friedrich Münch, Paul Follenius and the Giessen Emigration Society was limited. And the story of the Giessen Emigration did not fit into a classic drama scheme. Who would give us money for a movie about unknown historic figures? Nobody! We were disappointed, but not hopeless.

And one day I woke up. Bingo! The solution was simple. Peter, I said to myself; forget about your profession as filmmaker. Forget about the moving images, think about the reality. Think about what could tell us the historic story today? And how can we find out about the old story and its value for today?

Now I had a dream, my own utopia: We go back to the river island of Harriersand and make a festival there, an “Island’s Congress – a Trip to Utopia“. Based on the original historical event on the island we will ask: What are our dreams today? What are our ideas and ideals of a “happy” society? In terms of the American Constitution: How can we fulfill the ‘pursuit of happiness’? A future lab, a Think tank. Four weeks of workshops, discussions, readings, art happenings, theatre, concerts and what else you can imagine.

That’s a big vision. Too huge for a single person, too big for me. I was looking for partners. I thought, there must be some interest in Giessen, where the Giessen Emigration Society came from. A few phone calls, a few recommendations. A name and advice. Call Oliver Behnecke. Oliver lived in Giessen, studied applied drama at the University of Giessen, and became a festival producer, director and arts manager. I called him. I told him in three sentences the historical story and my modern utopia of a festival on the island. He was in. Deal! He was attracted by the old story from the instance. And he was on the merge to move to Bremen, because his new girlfriend lived there. A modern migrant of l’amour. My phone call brought him his first project at his new place of residents.

But still it was a big vision. Too huge for the inhabitants of the island that is 6 miles in length, and a half mile in width. There is one narrow single path road, in summertime overcrowded by bicyclists, walkers, cars and truck drivers. 12 dairy farms, a passenger ferry lands on a long sandy beach., a colony of 100 weekend houses, an excursion restaurant. The islanders feared a second “Woodstock” festival. Oliver and I did lots of long meetings with them. Some of them would have liked to kick us from the island the sooner the better. But there was one thing that prevented us from being expelled: nobody knew the story of the 250 emigrants living on the island for five weeks with only one cowshed to cover them, nobody knew about their political dream. They liked it, they were – and still are – proud of it. In a final discussion with the islanders we came to an agreement: the “Island’s Congress” is to be limited to a weekend, no transports on the narrow road, and transport only by ships. And there were to be no more participants than the members of the Giessen Emigration Society on the island in 1834 – a max of 250.

During the period of discussions with the inhabitants of Harriersand, we formed a team also. Let me talk about an important team member. I phoned Rolf Schmidt on a Sunday evening, three minutes before the evening news on TV. These phone calls are a serious crime in Germany. We talked three hours. He was in. Rolf was doing school theatre plays in Bremen since 1969. That year was high tide of the Student’s Revolution in Germany and everywhere. He was nearly to be expelled from his school because of a provocative theatre play he was doing with his young school students. 12 years later I became a member of his theatre play group. Rolf wrote a play for the “Island’s Congress” and worked with two theatre groups of young people. In the following years he wrote the novel “Waiting for the Flood” about Friedrich Münch and his 250 emigrants on the Harriersand Island.

Let’s speak about financing. In 2004 and 2005 we were seeking for financing our “Island’s Congress”. During that time the City of Bremen was an applicant for the Cultural Capitol of Europe 2010. The European Union nominates every year a Cultural Capitol. It is a very tough and selective process. You may compare it with the applying cities for the Olympic Games. The nominee, the lucky winner, gets a lot of reputation. But the city must spend a lot of money for offering a huge cultural program for visitors from all over Europe for a whole year. We approached the Bremen Applying Office with our project. And we were selected a preliminary project, a best practice project within the application scheme. The Bremen Applying Office rated our project “Island’s Congress” as an innovative model for arts and culture projects for co-operations between a city and its surrounding rural areas. We got essential funding from this Bremen Admission office. We were able to realize our Island’s Congress. Within the application process we received important moral and financial support. Unfortunately, Bremen did not become the Cultural City of Europe 2010.

In August 2005 three historic ships took sail from Bremen to the Harriersand Island. The “Island’s Congress – a Trip to Utopia” was on the way. On board were 250 participants: scientists, artists, historians, children, neighbors, farmers, cooks… We were landed on the island driven by the historic story, driven by curiosity, driven by a discontent about current society, driven by the lust for adventure. The welcome was a thunderstorm the islanders have seldom experienced before. All men and luggage were soaked wet. The tents were nearly drowned. Good hot food of the local restaurant rescued the participants of the “Island’s Congress” – and the congress itself was rescued. The bad omen turned out to be the positive founding myth of the Reisende Sommer-Republik, the Traveling Summer Republic.

Often we were asked about the meaning of the title Traveling Summer Republic. Traveling were the members of the Giessen Emigration Society and traveling is also a symbol for transition and change. Summer is the season where you have the most freedom, flexibility, and lust to make an event. And Republicis what the Giessen Emigration Society has aimed for and still is a political utopia. Or do you know an existing perfect republic?

Since the foundation of the Traveling Summer Republic in 2005 we have organized numerous events. The Harriersand Island, the Capitol of the Traveling Summer Republic, has welcomed some traveler groups, for instance “The Great Giessen Escape” in 2006. Citizens of Giessen traveled to the Harriersand Island; they were guided by members of the Traveling Summer Republic. In 2009 the “Ship’s Congress” took place on the island. Scientists and artists were discussing ways of cooperation between the arts and sciences and how arts and culture can be a development tool for small and big communities.

Two event series are running constantly since 2005: The film series “Utopian Flicker” presents fiction movies and documentary films with “utopia” in its content. It takes place in Bremen and Berlin. The themes are ranging from the Anarchy movement in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s to future developments of biodiversity.

The second event series is the “Anniversary of the Utopian Viniculture” on the Harriersand Island every September. This meeting of the members and friends of the Traveling Summer Republic is a have ironically and half seriously tribute to Friedrich Münch and his viniculture in Missouri. The wine perennials grow well since its planting in 2006, the “Boskoops Glory” is derived from wild wine in the Rocky Mountains. This variety survives even in the strong cold winds on the island. Visitors wonder about the Plaque at the wine perennials telling in short the story of the Giessen Emigration Society. Is it true or a fake?

In 2009 we – the members of the Traveling Summer Republic – felt the need to visit the places of Friedrich Münch, Paul Follenius and other members of the Giessen Emigration Society in Missouri. We had no idea about Missouri, no idea about the places where Münch and his friends have settled. Through the very kind support of historian Don Heinrich Tolzmann in Cincinnati I made up a contact with historian and publicist Dorris Keeven-Franke in Washington, Missouri. Spontaneously she exclaimed: “I’ll help you!” We soon found out that on both sides of the pond people were fascinated by the protagonists of the Giessen Emigration Society and did a lot of research about them. A delegation of four traveled to Missouri: writer Rolf Schmidt, photographer Folker Winkelmann, filmmaker Peter Roloff and researcher Monika Kiesewetter

Dorris Keeven-Franke did a tremendous effort in showing us historic places, preparing meetings and receiving shooting permissions. Our short 4 days visit to Missouri was packed with surprises and new knowledge. It was the beginning of a wonderful and fruitful friendship and cooperation with Dorris and her professional colleagues and friends. To name only a few: Ralph Gregory, Carol Muench, Urban ‘Chick’ Ruether, and Penny Pitman.

In the following year we toured through the north of Germany with the results of this trip: Folker Winkelmann presented his pictures in four photos exhibits. My video shootings im Missouri became a documentary film. And Rolf Schmidt did several readings with original texts, diaries and other sources, he had found in Missouri. All these different media came together in the main event “Trip to a Forgotten Utopia – an evening walk through Missouri” in the city of Bremen. It was a guided tour in eight stations. We pretended to be on Missouri soil while we were walking through the streets of Bremen. We matched the maps of Missouri and Bremen and it worked fine. We were crossing the Missouri River while we were in reality crossing the Weser River with the participants. We presented with videos, photos and oral story telling what we have found in Missouri. The stations were: a cinema, a restaurant, a book shop, a former customs office, a passenger ferry, a weekend garden, a talking bear and finally an open air film screening on the beach of the Weser River.

Dorris Keeven-Franke was a special guest of the “Trip to a Forgotten Utopia” performance in Bremen. She was invited by the Traveling Summer Republic to make a tour to the historical places in Hesse, Bremen and on the Harriersand Island for a week. And she became inspired by the performance to create an even more refined performance at the original historic places in Missouri. The performance in Bremen matched time and space of past and present. In 2011 the “Utopia Revisited” tour compressed the historical story itself. The participants sailed on the ships “Medora” and “Olbers” in modern buses and became members of the Giessen Emigration Society. Sailing to their place of destination – America, they visited the historical settlements of Friedrich Münch, Paul Follenius, and Gottfried Duden at the same time. One could ask: Why are we doing such complicated settings? We answer: First, it makes fun, both for the makers and the audience. Second: It makes you feel that history isn’t far away but very close. Third, history isn’t a logical, clear, consistent thread. We’re not telling the absolute truth, we hoped to inspire the visitors to ask questions, to dig deeper and to create their own interpretation of history.

Interest in the Giessen Emigration Society has risen in the public in the past years. Research has been reinforced. We believe time has become ripe to go forth to the public. In October 2013 the exhibit and book “Utopia!” will open in Giessen. The Municipal Authorities of Giessen have just given financial support and exhibit space to this project. In 2014 the traveling exhibit then will tour to Bremen. “Utopia!” is invited to the German-American Heritage Museum in Washington D.C. already and will later continue to Illinois and then to Missouri and Illinois.

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