The life and outlook of Sigmund Jähn, Germany’s first man in space

On 26 August, 1978, East Germans woke up to the headline banded across a special edition of Neues Deutschland: “Der erste Deutscher im All” — the first German in space. Travelling alongside Russian Valery Bykovsky as part of the Soviet Union’s Interkosmos programme, Sigmund Jähn the cosmonaut spent almost eight days orbiting the Earth. He took photographs of all countries of the world on an East German Karl Zeiss MKF-6M multispectral camera, pioneering the photographic technique.

Transformed into a celebrity overnight, Jähn became a heroic figure for the people of East Germany, for decades overshadowed by the West. The East German government showcased his achievement as evidence of the communist state’s superiority over capitalist West Germany. Upon his return, he was awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union. One man came to embody the transformation of a small communist state, totemic of Brezhnevite totalitarianism, into a torchbearer of human advance.

Jähn’s passing away last weekend seemed to register only moderately in the international press, far from what one would expect for thinks the first countryman into space. One of Yuri Gagarin or Neil Armstrong, and the press the death of those pioneering astronauts would generate — clearly Jähn does not possess this kind of celebrity status.

Indeed, for a country which possesses such a healthy Erinnerungskultur (‘culture of remembrance’), Jähn’s lack of position in Germany’s imagination of itself is conspicuous by its near total absence.

In the 2003 film Good Bye Lenin! there is a scene where Christiane Kerner, a committed communist ailing from a recently sustained heart attack, makes her way out of her flat in central Berlin into the street, unsupervised by her children who have been shielding her from the reality of the post-Mauerfall world. There, she sees a helicopter dragging an immense status of Vladimir Lenin through the air as it is taken off somewhere, presumably to the scrapheap of history. The scene brilliantly illuminates the bewildering disorientation experienced by those former East Germans whose national heroes were discarded and forgotten forever.

That’s apparently what it feels like for Sigmund Jähn as well. “When countries cease to exist,” Jana Hensel wrote in an interview with Jähn for Die Zeit newspaper last year, “it is often their heroes that disappear first. The good ones and the bad ones.”

This seems to have affected Jähn in some way, as Hensel observes. There was little yearning for celebrity today. It seems that Jähn came to realise all too well the politics of memory, the ideological contingency of monumentalisation.

But this did not deter the former cosmonaut from teaching and nurturing the next generation of German space explorers. Far from retreating from public service after reunification in 1990, Jähn continued to work as a freelance consultant for the German Aerospace Centre and from 1993 also for the European Space Agency (ESA) to prepare for the Euromir missions. He remained a mentor of Alexander Gerst, one of Germany’s most prominent astronauts and geophysicists, for the remainder of his life.

Jähn’s ideological openness stemmed from his time in space back in 1978. Originally instructed to take photos of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), Jähn took photos of other countries. There are no countries in space; one’s curiosity and appreciation can peruse beyond borders. Jähn’s position as an intermediary between the former East and West, the bridge-builder, seemed to be borne out of his philosophical dispositions gained from cosmonaut exploration.

This outlook is hinted at by Wolfgang Becker in Good Bye Lenin!. Towards the end of the film, Alex Kerner, Christiane’s son, attempts to dupe his ailing mother that Jähn is now head of the GDR and has opened the borders to the West as a way to help his mother come to the terms with the fact that no border exists between the two Germanies. A Jähn-lookalike announces the Wall has fallen. “Socialism does not mean walling oneself in,” he reasons. “Socialism means reaching out to others, to live with others. Not only of dreaming of a better world, but making it true.”

The scene is poignant because it materialises as Alex’s ideological idealisation of the GDR, a country he believed could have been ultimately good in its aims but practically unjust. Perhaps this explains why Jähn failed to retain his status as a national hero of Germany. But it is perhaps ironic for a man who first envisioned that very country’s holistic reunification.

Writing about climate breakdown, culture, employment, history, politics | words for The Independent | Red Pepper | Tribune | Research Fortnight | The Meteor

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