Gerhard Richter was born to Horst and Hildegard Richter in Dresden on February 9, 1932. Having married the year before, Gerhard was their first child, with a daughter, Gisela, arriving in 1936. Horst Richter, with whom Gerhard did not have a close relationship, was a teacher at a secondary school in Dresden. Hildegard was a bookseller and, like her father, a talented pianist. She was passionate about literature and passed on her enthusiasm and knowledge to the young Gerhard. They were, in many respects, an average middle-class family. In an interview with Robert Storr Richter described his early family life as “simple, orderly, structured – mother playing the piano and the father earning money”.
In 1935, Horst was offered a post at a school in Reichenau, then a part of Saxony, now Bogatynia in Poland. The family duly moved to the town, which was much smaller and less stimulating than Dresden. While living there was to prove much safer than being in Dresden when the war began, it perhaps marked the beginning of a gradual deterioration in the relationship between Horst and Hildegard. The strain was increased when Horst was conscripted into the German army. He left to fight first on the eastern front and then on the western front where he was captured by the Allied forces and detained in an American prisoner of war camp until the end of the war. In 1946 he was released and returned to his family, who by now had relocated from Reichenau to the even smaller Waltersdorf, a village on the Czech border.
On his return, Horst’s reception was not as warm as he might have hoped. Commenting on this many year later, Gerhard explained: “He shared most fathers’ fate at the time… Nobody wanted them.” In an interview with Jan Thorn-Prikker in 2004, he added: “[We] were so alienated from him that we didn’t know how to deal with each other.” Although he seemed to have held neutral political opinions, Horst’s former membership of the National Socialist Party – an organization that all teachers had been obliged to join – made it virtually impossible to return to teaching. He worked for a while in a textile mill in nearby Zittau before finding a post as an administrator of a distance learning program for an educational institution in Dresden.
Gerhard’s own memories of his early years are a combination of fondness and frustration, sadness and excitement. While his family left Dresden when Richter was only three years old, he recalls the house in which he was born in Grossenhainer Strasse, and in particular the house of his great-grandmother “not far from the original Circus Sarrasani building, where as a young lad I could see the elephant stalls through the cellar windows. My great-grandmother’s sewing box, made of armadillo skin. A man falling from a ladder – something that, according to my parents, only I had seen”. Little is documented about Gerhard’s memories of Reichenau, though his recollections about his time in Waltersdorf are more vivid, not least because when they moved to the village, he was already more than ten years old. He has been described as “a highly gifted child but notoriously bad in school” with Dietmar Elger noting that “he even brought home poor grades in drawing”. He dropped out of grammar school in Zittau and attended instead a vocational school, where he studied stenography, accounting, and Russian. In addition to not enjoying school, he felt he didn’t really belong in Waltersdorf. He recalled, “We had moved to a new village, and automatically I was an outsider. I couldn’t speak the dialect and so on.” Like most boys of his age, he was obliged to join the Pimpfen in 1942, an organization for children that prepared them for the Hitler Youth. Fortunately, he was just a little too young to have been conscripted to the army himself during the last year of the war.
Despite living in the countryside, Gerhard’s experience of the war was nonetheless intense. Apart from economic hardship and the absence of his father for several important years in his development, his family did not escape personal loss, with Hildegard’s two brothers, Rudi and Alfred, both being killed in active service. “It was sad when my mother’s brothers fell in battle. First one, then the other. I’ll never forget how the women screamed.” Hildegard’s sister Marianne also encountered a regrettable end to her life: suffering from mental health problems, as a result of the eugenics policies of the Third Reich she starved to death in a psychiatric clinic.
While spared much of the direct bombing to which nearby Dresden was exposed, the war was very much present in Waltersdorf. Speaking to Jan Thorn-Prikker, Gerhard remembers, “The retreating German soldiers, the convoys, the low-flying Russian planes shooting at refugees, the trenches, the weapons lying around everywhere, artillery, broken down cars. Then the invasions of the Russians […] the ransacking, rapes, a huge camp where us kids sometimes got barley soup.” Gerhard was fascinated by the military, commenting, “When the soldiers came through the village, I went up to them and wanted to join them.” Speaking to Robert Storr, he explained, “When you’re twelve years old you’re too little to understand all that ideological hocus-pocus”. With boyish curiosity and a sense of adventure, he and his friends would play in the woods and trenches, shooting rifles that they had found lying around. “I thought it was great. […] I was fascinated, like all kids, or all boys”. Although he was young, he understood the significance of the war, and in February 1945, recalls the virtual obliteration of Dresden: “In the night, everyone came out into the street in this village 100 kilometers away. Dresden was being bombed, ‘Now, at this moment!'”
The end of World War II in many ways coincided with Gerhard’s transition from childhood to adolescence, and, now under Soviet control following the Potsdam Agreement, it was to be a very different Germany to the one he had been born into.
Read more about Gerhard Richter and see his work at www.gerhard-richter.com/en.