Memories of a brainwashed childhood

Growing up in “Stasiland”,Kathrin Longhurst was forced to play the game. East Germany - the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR) - was the part of Hitler’s Reich invaded by Stalin’s Soviet troops:a separate country throughout the Cold War.

“It’s easy to romanticise your childhood. But as primary school kids we became Young Pioneers taught to defend the DDR,” says Longhurst,born Kathrin Türke and now living in Sydney’s Northern Beaches.

Kathrin Longhurst with some of the work from her upcoming show that recalls her childhood in East Germany.

Kathrin Longhurst with some of the work from her upcoming show that recalls her childhood in East Germany.Kate Geraghty

“At school we attendedFahnenappell -the flag assembly - when the DDR flag was marched in so we could swear allegiance to it.”

Even maths books were tainted by propaganda:“We learned to count with soldiers and tanks.”

After marrying an Australian - and with a substantial figurative and portrait career behind her after two decades living in Sydney (including being an Archibald and Doug Moran finalist) - Longhurst concentrates on her East German childhood in her new exhibition,Indoctrinated.

Why now?

“I’m seeing ideological radicalism,the glorification of guns and militarism,emerge again - not just in Europe,but the constant conspiracy theories floating on social media,” she says. “It doesn’t matter that they now tend to be from the Far Right. Any kind of extremism is dangerous.”

Arguably,the key painting isLoyal Defender,which depicts a freckled blonde teenager in the uniform of the Free German Youth (FDJ) firing a rifle.

Is it a self-portrait? “No! I refused to shoot guns in civil defence courses.”

Yet in a bedroom cupboard,Longhurst keeps her FDJ shirt similar to the one worn by the girl in her painting (“It still fits,” she laughs),plus other relics from the DDR she took when she,her mother and her brother left East Germany by an unusual route.

Longhurst was 15 when her family moved to Sweden with a Swedish construction worker. It was 1987,two years before the Berlin Wall was torn down.

Her parents divorced when she was six and after that her mother went out of her way to make friends with westerners.

“She realised the only way of escape was to find a foreigner willing to marry her and take us out,” says Longhurst.

The Stasi secret police were aware,tipped off by the one in 10 East Germans who were paid informers.

“The Stasi came to our apartment when we were on holiday,” Longhurst recalls. “They never disguised they’d been there. Our apartment was bugged because mum was liasing with Westerners.”

Longhurst only discovered her mother had been interrogated by the Stasi many years later.

“I was brainwashed when we left the DDR,” she says. “East Berlin was all I knew. I only realised how bland,drab and grey the DDR was once we’d left. I had to relearn history,geography… I had no idea Stalin had killed millions of his own countrymen. My grandparents took us to the Soviet war memorial as a Sunday outing.”

Longhurst’s 18 works inIndoctrinatedare based on childhood photographs,historical photographs and re-enactments of important moments in her early life.

Some emulate the figurative propaganda beloved by dictatorships of both the left and right.

Others echo Longhurst’s holiday snapshots,spent at holiday camps available only to members of the Free German Trade Union.

Loyal Defenderseemed almost photographically perfect when the SMH first saw it. But Longhurst explained that she still had many hours of work left. To complete it - and other works - she would need to partially destroy them. The effect is that of a photograph fading over time.

Like memory. Or the historical record.

Indoctrinated,May 13-22,Nanda\Hobbs gallery,Meagher Street,Chippendale

Steve Meacham is a freelance writer.

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