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,”…