Fighting the Right Fighting right-wing slogans with pen and scraper

Irmela Mensah-Schramm never tires in her battle against xenophobic slogans.
Irmela Mensah-Schramm never tires in her battle against xenophobic slogans. | Photo (detail): © private

Berlin is a colourful city, but not everything painted on house walls and underpasses there testifies to peaceful cohabitation. Irmela Mensah-Schramm removes xenophobic posters and racist graffiti, day in day out, arduously, and by hand.

She likes to call herself a “Politputze”, a political cleaner. Irmela Mensah-Schramm has, after all, made it her business to rid the streets of right-wing hate slogans. In a small jute bag that she always carries with her are the tools needed for this purpose: a bottle of nail-polish remover to clean such slogans from buses, dustbins or letter boxes, a ceramic-cook top scraper for stubborn glue or posters, and a pen for writing over the slogans, just in case these fail to do the job. Simply leaving the xenophobic slogans alone is just not an option for Mensah-Schramm, a pensioner who used to work as a remedial teacher at a school for handicapped children. This is clear not only from her years of dedication to fighting the Right, but also from the force with which the 68-year-old woman from Stuttgart talks about her actions. And from the anger to be felt when the grey-haired lady with the bobbed haircut talks about the ignorance of so many people.

It all began in 1986 with a small sticker in Berlin-Wannsee appealing for the liberation of the NS-war-criminal Rudolf Heß. Irmela Mensah-Schramm discovered it at a bus stop on her way to work. When she returned home that evening, it was still there, so she immediately removed it using her key ring. That was her first minor action; there were many to follow. All over Germany. Irmela Mensah-Schramm is quite aware of the fact that she occasionally breaks the law and causes criminal damage to property, but she still continues: “If I don’t do it, who else will?”

Unafraid of confrontation

Irmela Mensah-Schramm has received numerous awards for her determination, among them the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany. She returned the latter, however, upon learning that the same award was given to a local politician who was in the Waffen-SS during the Second World War and later elected to the country council on the right-wing NPD List. It was no great loss for her, after all, she is not out to gain honours or prizes anyway. “The personal acknowledgement I get from the people I stand up for is of much greater value to me than a piece of metal like that.” Harsh words, but Irmela Mensah-Schramm is not a person to mince words, especially not when speaking about her particular cause.

Not even when things get dangerous. Several years ago, for example, while removing a swastika from a street bollard in Cottbus, she was challenged to stop by a Neo-Nazi. This only encouraged the courageous pensioner, who is married to an African, to continue her clean-up job. “Then the young man shouted that I was to leave the swastika where it was”, she reports, “but unfortunately I had already wiped it away.” The mischievous look in her eyes indicates the extent to which she can still rejoice in her actions. Irmela Mensah-Schramm did not run away when the Neo-Nazi got angry, she even approached him quietly with a smile. This was just too much for the young man, who made off, unable to cope with such an unusual reaction. “Of course, I was shaking at the knees afterwards. But that’s the way I am.”

Exhibition and theatre play

In order to make more people aware of this problem, Mensah-Schramm has been documenting the right-wing slogans in photographs since 1988. These pictures can be seen in her travelling exhibition Hass vernichtet (Hate destroys). “A lot of people write to me saying that after visiting the exhibition, they suddenly discovered things they had never noticed before on their way home.” Like a student from Kassel, who after seeing the exhibition noticed a swastika in the bus and scribbled over it. With the approval of the bus-driver, as Irmela Mensah-Schramm points out. Yet she realises that her actions do not always find people’s approval. One indicator of this is a traumatic head injury she suffered in the early 1990s when a security guard from the Berlin municipal transport services pushed her over during a cleaning action. Such opposition only encourages Irmela Mensah-Schramm more. Recently she expressed her opinion about right-wing extremism in Germany in the documentary theatre project Mit Tötungsdelikten ist zu rechnen (Homicide it to be expected) at the Hans Otto Theater Potsdam.

Even though recognition and honours are not important to her, Irmela Mensah-Schramm was very hurt when, in 2005, no one from the Berlin Senate was willing to hold a laudatory speech for her on the occasion of her being awarded the Erich Kästner Prize in Dresden. However this did not prevent her from continuing her fight against right-wing extremism. Until everyone finally understands. “Regardless of which party rules in Berlin, the Senate wants nothing to do with my project because through it, I put my finger on a very sore spot.”