On 26 April 2002, in the German city of Erfurt, 19-year-old Robert Steinhäuser entered his former high school with two semi-automatic weapons. He killed the secretary, twelve teachers, two students, and a policeman before a staff member locked him in an empty classroom and he turned his gun on himself (Lemonick). Ten years later, I visited the city with the intention of writing a play about it.
This was to be my fifth play based on primary research of an actual event. In previous projects, I had written about personal catastrophes of failed relationships, and reversals of fortune within private community groups. As my experience progressed, I was drawn to events of increasing complexity and seriousness. Now I was dealing with the social catastrophe of violent, deliberate loss of life that had affected the community on a national scale.
I had developed a practice of making contact with potential participants, gaining their trust, and conducting interviews. I was interested in truth and authenticity and the ethics of writing about real experiences. My process was informed by the work of theorists Donna Haraway, Zygmunt Bauman and Roy Bhaskar. While embracing postmodern reflexivity, these thinkers nevertheless maintain the existence of a reality that operates independently of social construction (Davies 19). This involves a rejection of a postmodern relativism, in which “unadulterated individualism” (Bauman 2) leaves us free to construct our own worlds with impunity. Instead, we are invited to acknowledge that “we are not in charge of the world” (Haraway 39), and that we are answerable for our relationships within it. I intended to challenge postmodern notions of truth with work that was real rather than relative, authentic rather than constructed. I believed that a personal relationship between me and those who inspired my work was crucial. This relationship would be the ethical foundation from which I could monitor the value of my work and the risk of harm to those involved in the stories I chose to tell. I launched into the Erfurt project intending to follow my established process.
But that didn’t happen.
I went to Erfurt on the tenth anniversary of the event. I attended an official memorial ceremony at the school, and another service at the church which had been heavily involved in counselling the bereaved. In the evening I saw a theatre production at the Erfurt Theatre entitled Die Würde der deutschen Waffenschränke ist unantastbar (The Dignity of German Weapons Cupboards is Inviolable). The piece, by writer and journalist Roman Grafe, is based on interviews and contemporary reports about this and similar incidents around Germany.
My intention had been to make initial contact with people and lay the ground-work for subsequent communication and interviews for my project. However, the whole time I was in Erfurt, I spoke to no one, apart from waiters, shopkeepers and a lonely sight-seeing chimneysweep who cornered me for a conversation in the cathedral. It’s highly likely I couldn’t have done the interviews the way I had planned them anyway. But the point is that, in Erfurt, I decided I wasn’t going to try.
The work I had done in the past was always about uncovering an untold story. My drive to investigate and illuminate a story was directly related to how hidden, surprising, and unreachable it was. This was a big part of how I judged the value of what I was doing, despite the inherent inequitable power of the colonizing voice (hooks 343). My previous experience had been that the people I found wanted to speak to me because no one had ever asked them for their story before. I also believed in the value of unearthing a story for an audience who either didn't know about it, or wanted to know more. Neither of these applied in Erfurt.
This event attracted enormous media attention. There are dedicated books, documentaries, YouTube shorts, essays, Masters theses, parliamentary reports, inquiries, debates, magazine articles, and newspaper reports. Many people, including survivors, the bereaved, professionals, and Robert Steinhäuser’s parents and friends, had already spoken. Inquiries for more information keep coming. The principal of the school has ring binders full of them and, even after ten years, they continue to stream onto her desk every week (Müller 165).
When I was at the official memorial service at the school, I saw reporters and photographers hovering in the crowd, sneaking around to catch moments of grief. I was ashamed to feel that I was one of them. For all my noble aspirations, academic justification and approval by an ethics committee, the sheer volume of interest in this event combined with the ongoing pain of those involved made what I was doing seem grubby.
The closest I came to a personal interaction was a pencilled note in the margins of a copy of Für heute reichts (Geipel), a hybrid narrative-style investigation of the event which I borrowed from the library. The copy had been underlined throughout. On page 230, the investigator of the story is warned away by a bereaved lawyer:
Ich kann Ihnen im Moment niemanden von den Angehörigen sagen, der bereit wäre, mit Ihnen zu sprechen.
(I can’t tell you any of the next of kin at the moment who would be prepared to speak with you.)
Written underneath in pencil:
Ich hab’s nie ausgesprochen und doch denke ich, ich redete ununterbrochen davon.
(I’ve never said it aloud and yet I think I’ve talked about it continuously.)
I took this as a warning: those who wanted to speak already had; those who didn’t, wouldn’t. And more importantly, it was painful either way. To comb over this well-mined ground yet again, causing even more pain in the process, seemed unethical to me. The risk of further harm was obvious.
The stories that people had told were horrifying. At the centre of each of them: raw, hopeless pain. The testimonials all spiralled into a tunnel of loss, silence, death, and blame. They bristled with the need for community, to have been there, the indignity and pain of not being with their loved ones when they needed them. The painful, horrible, awful truth: there is nothing they could have done. As I sat in the memorial church service in Erfurt, I felt the depth of my own losses yawning inside me and I was almost engulfed with sadness. The vulnerability of my loved ones and my own mortality loomed so large that I had to consciously control myself and pull myself back from the brink. It’s that silent place of grief that Cixous identifies as both aesthetically compelling and ethically fraught (McEvoy 214). It’s the silence where death exists. This is where the people around me had been for ten years.
I’ve been taken to that place so many times in the course of researching this event, and it was in the theatre that it was most intense. I sat in the theatre and experienced a verbatim monologue from a bereaved mother, performed by an actress sitting on the edge of the stage, reading aloud from printed sheets of paper. A fifteen minute monologue of how she found out about the shooting, the wait for more news, how her daughter's mobile phone didn't answer, how she found out her daughter had been killed when someone called her to offer condolences, what the days, weeks and months afterwards were like, the celebration of her birthday beside her grave. It was authentic, in that it came directly from the person who had experienced it. The ethical values of the theatre maker were evident in the unedited rawness of the piece and the respect it was given within the production. This theatre piece did exactly what I had thought I wanted do: it opened a real window into what happened. But it wasn’t satisfying to experience. It was just plain awful. What I have come to believe, as an artist wanting to interpret this event with integrity, is that opening this window into grief is not enough.
The tunnelling spiral of pain, loss and blame goes nowhere but down. It’s harder to bear because the victims were young, and they were killed in an explosion of violence, at the imposition of a stranger’s will, in a place that was supposed to be safe. But when you strip away the circumstances, the essence of loss is the same, whether your loved one dies of cancer, in a car accident, or a natural disaster. It’s terrible, and it’s real, but it’s not unique to this event. If I was going to be part of a crowd picking over the corpses, then I felt I had to be very clear within myself why I had chosen these ones. I was staying in a monastery where two hundred and sixty-seven people were killed by a bomb while sheltering in the library during World War II. Stories of violent death and loss are everywhere. Feeling the intensity of that loss as though it’s your own isn’t necessarily productive.
A few weeks before, I had passed the scene of an accident on the way to school with my daughter. A girl had been hit by a car and seriously injured. The ambulance officers were already there and they had put a cushion under the girl's head, and they were at the ambulance preparing the stretcher. The girl was lying in the middle of the road, alone and crying. As we passed and walked towards the school, girls were running from the front gates to join the expanding fan of onlookers standing there, looking, shaking their heads, agreeing with each other how terrible it was. I wanted to tell them to go away. It highlighted for me the deeply held response to trauma that my parents instilled in me: if there’s nothing you can do to help, then you have no business being there.
Standing around watching turned the girl’s pain turned her into a spectacle. It created a bright line between the spectators and the girl, while simultaneously making the spectators feel as though they were part of her story and that they were special for witnessing it. They could go back to class and say: I was there, it was terrible. The comfort seems to be in processing sympathy into a feeling of self-importance at having felt pain that isn’t yours.
I have felt the pain of the bereaved. I have cried for those who were killed. But my tears have not brought me closer to understanding what happened here. I had the same feeling of wrongness when I left the theatre as when I was escaping the crowd staring at the girl from the side of the road. Sharing the feeling of loss gave an illusion of understanding, solidarity, community and helpfulness that the spectators could then just walk away from and take superficial comfort from, without ever dealing with what I think is the actual reality of the event. In my opinion, the essence of this event does not lie in the nature of the violence and its attendant loss.
What happened in Erfurt wasn’t an accident. These were targeted murders. The heart of this event is not the loss: it’s the desire to kill. This is what distinguishes this particular kind of event from any other catastrophe in which lives are lost. At its centre: someone did this on purpose. Robert Steinhäuser was expelled from school without any qualifications, so he was unemployable and ineligible for further education. He didn’t tell his family or his friends about the expulsion, so for months afterwards he lived a charade of attending school. When he attacked, he specifically targeted teachers and actively tried to avoid hurting students. (The two students who died that day were killed as he shot through a locked door.) According to the state government commission into the incident, Robert Steinhäuser’s transgression was an attempt to achieve recognition and public importance (Müller 193). It appears that he was at a point where he decided that the best thing or the only thing he could do was enact a theatrical mass murder of the people he thought were responsible for his misery.
For me, focusing on the repercussions and the victims and the loss actually reinforces the structures that led Robert to make this decision: Robert is isolated, singular, and everyone else is against him. For many, this is seen as the appropriate way to deal with him. Angela Merkel, the conservative party leader at the time, said:
Wer das Unverständliche verstehbar und das Unerklärbare erklärbar machen möchte, der muss aufpassen, das er sich nicht – zumindest unterschwellig – auf die Seite des Täters stellt und versucht, das Unentschuldbar mit irgendwelchen Umständen zu erklären. (Slotosch 1)
(Whoever wants to make something that’s beyond understanding understandable and the inexplicable explicable has to be careful that he doesn’t—even unconsciously—stand on the side of the perpetrator and try to explain the inexcusable with circumstances of some kind.)
According to Merkel, even to attempt to understand Robert is to betray his victims, and places you on the wrong side of the line that defines our humanity. Many of those who were directly affected by the event believe this as well. A recurring issue for many of the survivors and bereaved is the need to suppress the memory of Robert Steinhäuser. The school principal, Christiane Alt, said:
Ich kann es nicht ertragen, dass er so postmortalen Ruhm auf sich zieht – das passiert immer wieder, nicht nur im Internet – und dass die Namen der Opfer ins Vergessen sinken. (Müller 160)
(I can’t bear that he attracts such posthumous celebrity—it keeps happening, not just on the internet—and that the names of the victims sink into obscurity.)
There is ongoing debate about the appropriateness of a seventeenth tribute: seventeen people died that day, only sixteen are officially mourned. There were sixteen names on the plaque at the school, sixteen candles on the memorial on the steps, and sixteen people were honoured and remembered in speeches. The voices of the perpetrators were unheard in the theatre piece. They were given no words and no story. It was only in the church that there was a seventeenth candle, on its own, to the side, in the dark.
I have circled around this story for over a year and I keep coming back to Robert, however unwillingly. I am a dramatic writer. I write characters who take action. The German word for “perpetrator” is Täter. From the verb tun, to do. It means “do-er.” Someone who does something. It’s closer to our word “actor”, which for me reinforces the theatricality of the event as a whole. Robert staged this event. He wanted witnesses, as the impact of what he did depends on it. He even performed in costume. I am concerned that looking at Robert may actively reinforce the dramaturgical structure that he orchestrated, and thereby empower him and those like him. He wanted people to see him and know his story, and this is the only way he felt he could take control over it and face its indignity. I don’t want him to be right.
All of this has left me in a very strange position. My own ethical process has actually collapsed beneath my feet. I had relied on giving a voice to those who wanted to speak—those people have already spoken. I saw value in uncovering a story that was previously unknown. This one has been examined many times over. I relied on personal, situated relationships between myself and those involved in the event. I have no such relationship. And if I did, what I see as an ethical response to this event—that is to try to understand Robert’s story—would actually be contrary to what many of those involved in the event want.
I would run the risk of hurting those I most want to champion.
It’s a risk I’ve had to run before. My last play was about a fifteen-year-old girl who had a sexual relationship with a teacher. I interviewed her and her friends, family, court officials, and also spoke to the teacher himself. The girl is highly intelligent and she had suffered terribly, but she could also be conceited and manipulative, and for me that truth was a crucial part of her story. I believed I got it right, but I also knew I ran the risk of hurting her, which of course I didn’t want to do. The girl came to see the play on opening night and I was absolutely terrified. We couldn’t speak, because she has to remain anonymous, but she thanked me via e-mail afterwards and told me that she felt privileged. She said that the play gave her experience a level of dignity that she would never have found otherwise. I was relieved, humbled, honoured, and vindicated. This is what I hoped for: a creative work about real events that was truthful and authentic, without being exploitative or hurtful. I had thought that the process relied on this ethical and responsible relationship. But the girl told me what she appreciated most was the energy and integrity with which I had dedicated myself to her story.
This response has helped me to continue with my project. I am no longer sure of how to achieve an ethical, authentic artistic outcome, or even what that may be. But I still believe in my own capacity to ask questions with energy and integrity, and I hope that this will be enough.
Because it’s all I have left.
Bauman, Zygmunt. Postmodern Ethics. Blackwell: Oxford, 1993.
Davies, Charlotte Aull. Reflexive Ethnography: A Guide to Researching Selves and Others. Routledge: London, 2008.
Die Würde der deutschen Waffenschränke ist unantastbar (The Dignity of German Weapons Cupboards Is Inviolable). Dir. Roman Grafe. Erfurt Theatre, 2012.
Geipel, Ines. Für heute reichts (Amok in Erfurt). Berlin: Rohwohlt, 2004.
Haraway, Donna. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Turning Points in Qualitative Research: Tying Knots in a Handkerchief. Eds. Norman K. Denzin, and Yvonna S. Lincoln. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira P, 2003. 21–46.
hooks, b. “Marginality as a Site of Resistance.” Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures. Eds. Russell Ferguson et al. Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 1990. 341–343.
Lemonick, Michael. D. “Germany’s Columbine.” Time 159.18 (6 May 2002): 36.
Mcevoy, W. “Finding the Balance: Writing and Performing Ethics in Théâtre du Soleil’s Le Dernier Caravansérail.” New Theatre Quarterly 22.3 (2003): 211–26.
Müller, Hanno, and Paul-Josef Raue. Der Amoklauf: 10 Jahre danach—Erinnern und Gedenken. Essen: Klartext-Verlag, 2012.
Slotosch, Sven. “Das alte Lied, das alte Leid.” Telepolis 30 Nov. 2006. 7 Jun. 2012 < http://www.heise.de/tp/artikel/24/24101/1.html >.