The above phrase - cited in latin - is repeated in the introduction (Josef Rick) like a kind of mantra for Claasen's Gesang im Feuerofen (1947).
Köln was effectively no longer a city and while this work ultimately claims to be a work of hope, for me it also functions as the polar opposite to the escapism evident in Herbert List's later Licht von Hellas's (1953)*. What is at the core of this crater-landscape is the bewildering question: what happened? ('was ist geschehen?). Laboured throughout the extensive introduction and Claasen's photographs is that this is the new face of Germany: a reality without pretense or embellishment. There is no desire or attempt to cloud the reality. Rather, Claasen's images are to aggravate the nation's open wound ('Dies Buch ist illusionlos [und] legt es den Finger in die Wunde unserer gefahrvollsten Verletzbarheit') and is to also be more than just a document.
I did, however, wonder whether or not the introduction and (to a lesser extent) the images ran the risk of being overly intellectual and whether this work was ultimately aimed at the German people as a whole or instead at the learned (who had tolerated and excused Hitler's Reich). My concern also is whether the millions of hungry Germans in roofless houses ever had time for these images or even wanted to have to connect visually with what they were fully living. Despite claims to the contrary this book seems to have been more for those whose hands were still smooth and for those looking in from the outside. Nonetheless, Claasen's work does passionately cry out for recognition as 'a call [...] in a year of hunger and despair' ('Dies Buch its ein Anruf [...] in einem Jahr des Hungers und der Verzweiflung').
I did, however, find it odd that in the lengthy introduction the word 'Krieg' (war) is only mentioned once. Perhaps that was only too obvious at the time and that the surviving German mind was too shocked to fathom the answer to the question, 'what happened?'. However, this omission could also be seen as the start of Germany's post-war national amnesia.
Looking again and again at these haunting images I thought of Gabriele Basilico's work (esp. Beirut). But where Basilico presents the cold, sterile, orderly and alien city, Claasen is in a place once called home. Claasen's eye journey's through an empty moonscape where once a beloved city stood. Strangely, and despite itself, a beauty does emerge from this apocalypse. Pointedly too, a previously abandoned God is also rediscovered amongst the ruins in damaged crucified Christ statues. Here, I believe, lay hope for Claasen and the wider intended audience for his work.
For me these images of this empty smashed and once recognizable world is a permanent and potent reminder of what befell Germany. It is that 'finger in the wound'. Despite some unintended weaknesses or flaws I think that this book ultimately works. This is a horrifying and beautiful visual definition of Stunde Null, of what it meant to wake up into a nightmare after the seduction of a promised, warped dream.