The Knitted Tank
When Kristina Kroemer decided to combine her training as a political scientist with her work as a fashion designer, she did not realize that her idea would infuriate left and right-wing groups throughout Germany, that old suited men would grumble that she was being disrespectful. She also did not realize that she would, on the other hand, unite young and old not only in Germany, but also in Israel and Russia. And the garment? A brightly colored, patchwork-knitted pullover for an army tank.
Even more remarkable was that she and her colleague, Barbara Niklas, managed to convince the Bundeswehr (The Federal Defense Forces of Germany) to let them use one of their battle tanks. Kroemer likes to make a statement with her work. Behind her, on a mannequin, is a tutu made from a workman’s overalls, replete with paint and oil stains.
“I like to take a garment out of its usual context,” she says, smiling. “To create something new and to make people aware of where their clothes come from.”
Kroemer studied political science at Marburg University, but in 2008 moved to Dresden where she opened a fashion design shop. She talks passionately about her work and the role fashion plays to change how people see themselves and the world. She is unassuming, despite her bright red hair, eclectic collection of GDR up-cycled dresses (retro-communist chic), success in bridging communities, and her new notoriety. She doesn’t talk about herself so much as what happens around her, as if she were a spectator rather than an instigator.
“The fashion industry is pretty cut-throat,” she says. “Cooperation is rare, whereas conflict is not. So, I wanted to create an environment of solidarity within the fashion industry.” Her idea: open her shop as a meeting point for local elderly women to knit a pullover for a tank, and perhaps, to talk about their experiences during World War II. “They talked openly,” Kreomer says. “They talked about rape.”
Kroemer knows that especially on February 13th, the anniversary of the Dresden bombing, the emotional consequences are severe. In 1945, over one thousand British and American bomber aircrafts dropped 3900 tons of high explosive and incendiary devices on Dresden. After the bombing, there were 25,000 dead and the city previously known as “Florence on the Elbe” lay in fire and ruins. Debate still rages over whether the bombing was a war crime.
“The women in the group said that nobody had ever asked them about the war. It has always been that you just accepted that we should be thankful that the Soviet Army liberated us from Fascism. Nobody ever talks about the emotional consequences of war.”
I asked Traudel, one of the women who helped knit patches for the tank pullover, about her memories. Seven-year-old Traudel took shelter with her mother and three-week-old sister in the basement of their apartment in Altstadt. When they emerged, her sister was dead. “Some got out alive, others didn’t.” She waved her hand in front of her face and lowered her head so that I would not see her eyes.
And then, in 1945, when Germans learned the full extent of the atrocities committed by their country, they felt as if they could not talk, even amongst themselves, of their experiences.
“After the Russians came,” Traudel says, “I tried to talk about the war with my mother, but she would cry and so I did not ask her again. And then later, I could not talk about my experiences with my husband because the war had affected him so badly, physically and mentally.” This knitted tank project was the first time since Traudel emerged from her basement in Altstadt that she could talk about the day her sister died, and her home and city were destroyed.
“We experienced the war exactly as you [the Allies] did,” Kroemer says. “But we Germans were not allowed to talk about it. We have a term for this in German, Verdrängen, which means something like ‘a repression of memory’. In Germany, even today, there is an implicit agreement that we should not talk about the war, that we should not analyze it, that we should not look back, but that we should instead only look forward.” Kroemer pauses as a customer enters her shop. “But, when you don’t discuss people’s experiences of war, how they feel, the void is filled by extremist groups.”
Every year, Dresdeners formed a human chain around central Dresden to keep neo-Nazis out and to keep their memories unsullied. And so, from Neustadt, across the Elbe River and weaving around the rebuilt Frauenkirche and back across the Elbe, Dresdeners join hands to keep the extremists at bay. New laws in Germany have also made it more difficult for neo-Nazis to gather and protest.
“So, I wanted to combine my ideas about politics and war with my work as a designer. Knitting a woolen pullover for a tank…yes, it was a political statement, an anti-war statement. It made the tank look ridiculous. By covering the tank in a brightly coloured pullover it was as if we had destroyed it, rendered it harmless. But the most important idea was that this project would bring people together.” Kroemer paused to let another customer into the shop.
“But you see, war,” she continued, “is transferred from one generation to the next by remaining silent, by not talking. The tank knitting project was designed to end this.”
In almost any other country, the idea of covering a tank in knit work would never have been realised. But in Dresden, perhaps because of the suffering it experienced, perhaps even because of exasperation with Verdrängen, such an idea is possible.
You know there’s something different about Dresden’s Military History Museum when you catch sight of the building — thrust through its historic middle like some surfacing leviathan, a metal wedge the same shape as the destroyed area of Dresden points across the river Elbe to the place where Allied aircraft dropped flares to mark the approach route for the following bombers. The focus of this museum is on the victims of war. And this is all the more astounding because the museum is owned and run by the Bundeswehr.
“When Kristina and Barbara first approached the museum…I thought it was a great idea,” the Director of Exhibitions, Collections and Research, Dr. Gorch Pieken said. “We thought it was inspirational from a philosophical point of view. We are a museum of history with an eye on the present and the future. We invite alternative ideas. We want people to discuss history, to discuss war, even if we do not like their ideas. And, you know, even other European military museums do not like this. But the knitted tank was very controversial. Some of the older officers in the Bundeswehr did not like the idea.”
Kroemer’s preference was to use a Russian tank, a tank that had liberated Dresden from Fascism and which had also participated in putting down the 1968 Prague uprising. “But we had a lot of opposition from left-wing groups in Germany,” she says. “These groups thought that knitting a pullover for a Russian tank would be a type of revenge on the Russian army. I was called a neo-Nazi, which in Germany is the worst thing you can call someone.”
Using a Bundeswehr tank was also problematic. But it was, in the end, a Leopard II, Germany’s most successful tank export, which was the tank chosen for the knitted pullover. “Some of the older officers in the Bundeswehr were quite unhappy because for them the tank was a heroic object,” Dr. Pieken said.
Survivors of the bombing of Dresden, and their children and grandchildren knitted woolen patches, sewn together and fitted to the tank for an exhibition in 2013. “We received offers of help from all over Germany and knitted woolen gifts from Russia and Tel Aviv. And people had an opportunity to express how they felt,” Kroemer says.
The knitted tank was supposed to be on display at the Dresden Military History Museum for four weeks, but was exhibited for three months due to popular demand. It is now being treated so that it can form part of the museum’s permanent display when a new space is created.
“I hope the knitted tank goes on permanent display,” Kroemer says, “so that it can sit like an alien from outer space among the machines of war.”
Other countries can request the knitted tank on loan for their military museums. But I wonder which country, which city other than Dresden would be so brave as to cover an object of war with a knitted pullover, so that people may speak of their trauma and the costs of war.
“There is no good and bad,” she says. “In a war, there are only victims.”