Dead man from the future

execution_1919A friend posted this to Facebook the other day and I thought it deserved a place of its own on this blog which is turning into a cardboard box stuffed full of dusty clippings, junk and random snippets…

The photo above was (apparently) taken moments before the execution of a communist in Munich, 1919 after the defeat of the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic. I say apparently because some claim that the photo is actually fake, a staged re-creation from the time. But what’s important for me isn’t the authenticity of the photo, but the effect it has. It seems clear (to me at least) that we’re meant to take the side of the communist in this (this version of it seems to be a postcard commemorating the Spartacist uprising). So what is it about the image that makes it so arresting?

Stjepan-Filipovic-egcekucja-22-maja-1942My first thought is that the figure on the left seems to embody a certain defiance: in many ways the very essence of commitment, of being full-on. But the more I look at it, the less clear it is. “Defiance” isn’t really the right word. I mean, defiance in the face of imminent execution for your political actions would probably look more like Stjepan Filipovic, seen here standing under the gallows minutes before being hanged in May 1942. Or it would sound like Eugene Leviné. One of the leaders of the Munich Soviet, Leviné was captured and put on trial. Sentenced to death, he famously told the court, “Wir Kommunisten sind alle Tote auf Urlaub” (“We communists are all corpses on holiday”). Seen like this, life as a radical is always lived under the shadow of imminent death: it’s only a matter of time before the forces of repression come knocking. This vision of glorious and honourable defeat crops up again and again in the history of radical movements. It’s powerful stuff, admittedly, the sort of thing which makes myths (as well as martyrs). But while it’s heroic, defiance also tells a story of failure, of loss, of trauma.

But on the streets of Munich the clenched fists are replaced by crossed arms and a casual stance. Insouciant rather than defiant. In fact he looks like he couldn’t give a shit – so much meh… And I’m not sure he even registers what’s about to happen, that he’s going to die. He’s only a few yards away from his executioners but he might as well be a thousand miles. Or a thousand years. If the whole photo was staged as propaganda, it’s brilliantly effective. Two utterly different worlds in one tableau. On one side a bunch of Freikorps goons defending a social order that’s had its day. And on the other someone who looks like he’s just stepped out of the future (an Echo & the Bunnymen gig by the look of it).

What’s that, Vlad? Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country? No way. Communism is the ineffable coolness of this guy plus time travel. Communism fuck yeah

Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.