Irmela Mensah-Schramm is 67 and looks more like a white-haired grandmother than a German social/political activist, yet she has nonetheless been assaulted by neo-Nazis, threatened with pesky punitive fines and shunned by fellow Germans, and she continues her mission. Single-handedly, she documents and destroys racist and antisemitic stickers on mailboxes, street signs and lampposts throughout North Berlin. She is a lone wolf anti-defamation league. A documentary, “The Hate Destroyer,” shows her determination to exterminate racial and ethnic hatred that returned to Germany long before the refugee crisis began.
“The first time I removed a sticker, I felt so good that I had done something,” Mensah-Schramm told the website QUARTZ. The problem, however, is that eradicating street postings is a seemingly endless task, for which she suffers as much as she’s praised for her efforts.
Photo: Norbert Siegl
She is also the source of the exhibit at the exceptional Deutsches Historisches Museum titled Sticky Messages: Antisemitic and Racist Stickers From 1880 to the Present (on view until July 31).
“They are familiar to everyone and can be found sticking everywhere: on street signs, letter boxes, in underground stations, in children’s rooms, in love letters,” notes the introduction to the exhibition. But this kind of communication is not new. During the 1930s, stickers proclaiming “The Jews are our misery” were affixed on personal letters (see below).
Stickers and adhesive labels, like poster stamps, have been widely used since the late 19th century as a means to get messages out cheaply and quickly. They were also avidly collected. “Stickers with anti-Jewish pictures and slogans have always been extremely popular with antisemites,” continues the Museum’s introduction. “But Jewish organizations soon learned to fight back against these slanderous attacks and publicly combated the antisemitic propaganda. Even today stickers are used for political agitation. Stickers like ‘Refugees welcome’ or ‘Nein zum Heim’—short for saying ‘we don’t want any refugees living here’—serve to signal acceptance, to polarize or to intimidate people.” Sticky Messages tells of a social practice rooted in prejudices and recounts at the same time the history of fighting against these stereotypes.
Over the years, Mensah-Schramm has acquired the most extensive collection of radical-right stickers and graffiti in Germany. She rips them off, photographs and archives examples of each and spray paints or scrapes off the rest. “She’s got more than any state archive,” says Isabel Enzenbach, who curated the exhibit at the museum featuring Mensah-Schramm’s 80-plus binders of adhesive notes, trading cards, pictures, letter sealers and stickers from the German Empire, the Weimar Republic, National Socialism and on into the present.
Photo: © Swen Pförtner/DPA
The forthcoming documentary is still looking for funds, and as so much of Europe, Great Britain and the United States already knows, racist extremism is on the rise. (Go here to help support the film). The producers note: “Nowadays it’s her only reason for living, to the detriment of friends and loved ones. Alone, with her feeling of being improper, Irmela needs ‘to clean the world.'”
The experts who write for PRINT magazine cover the why of design—why the world of design looks the way it does, how it has evolved, and why the way it looks matters. Subscribe to PRINT today, and get in on the conversation of what the brightest minds in the field are talking about right now—essential insight that every designer should know to get ahead.
Treat yourself and your team to a year of PRINT for $40—which includes the massive Regional Design Annual ($29.99 on newsstands).