THERE ARE FEW countries as preoccupied with its own past— and not necessarily as a conservation exercise—as Germany. This is understandable. After two World Wars that led to defeat, devastation, the deaths of millions of its people, international opprobrium, the loss of territory and a painful partition, the German people are anxious to never repeat the 20th century. This has involved a series of intellectual acrobatics—some born out of a commitment to a European utopia and others totally contrived.
I spent a day at the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin and then at the Topography of Terror exhibition at the site of the former Gestapo headquarters to understand Germany’s public portrayal of its history. What was reassuring is that no attempt has been made to air brush the past, particularly the 12 years of the Third Reich.
The steady growth of militarism— an uninterrupted process that began with Bismarck, Kaiser Wilhelm II and assumed a hideous form under Hitler—is wonderfully documented. There is no attempt to underplay the fact that all three were figures of adulation. There are revealing exhibits of how much school children, for example, identified themselves with Hitler and how Germany’s defeat led to a wave of suicides by people who couldn’t imagine a future bereft of National Socialism. At the same time, the Topography of Terror exhibition at a centre overlooking the last remaining section of the Berlin Wall and Herman Goering’s Air Ministry building which survived the War miraculously intact, is brutally explicit about the concentration camp and the the Nazi regime’s callous disregard of the so-called inferior peoples. Not unnaturally, the permanent exhibition at the Museum of Jewish History is richer in presenting the horrifying details of the Final Solution.
My only real complaint is that the reconstruction of the past understates the fact that the two wars also involved a staggering amount of German suffering. The consequences of the systematic carpet bombing of German cities from 1943 to 1945 is understated. There is also only perfunctory references to the mass ethnic cleansing of Germans from the areas that once constituted East Prussia and the Sudetenland. I think this tragedy too needed to be recorded.
European history from the end of the Napoleonic wars to the collapse of Hitler was dominated by Prussia, first as the kingdom that triggered the unification of Germany and subsequently as a politico-cultural phenomenon. It is therefore something of a revelation to discover the extent to which the reinvention of post-war Germany has involved the obliteration of Prussia. True, Potsdam and Berlin still contain imposing Prussian buildings and there are plans to recreate the Hohenzollern Palace in its original site. But the loss of East Prussia, with its large estates, and the expulsion of the entire German- speaking population from the region after 1945, meant that an entire culture was also uprooted.
I have always been fascinated by the spiked Pickelhaubes helmets that were an integral part of German military paraphernalia until Hitler got rid of them—not least because they were unsuitable for war. I have also yearned to own one, which I can keep next to my collection of sola topis. Unfortunately, I was strongly advised by European friends that trying to go on a hunt for German military memorabilia would be politically misconstrued. Consequently, I am limiting my search to a large photograph of the German Kaiser with his imposing moustache, in a Pickelhaubes. Maybe this won’t be deemed offensive.
ONE THE THINGS that rankled with both the Kaiser and Hitler was Germany’s lack of colonies. As a late starter, the Reich did have a few possessions in East Africa, South-west Africa, the Pacific islands and an odd enclave in China. However, compared to Britain and France, these were peanuts. Worse, after the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was stripped off all its colonies. Hitler hoped to set it right by acquiring lands in eastern Europe for Germany’s proverbial living space.
It was in this context that I was fascinated by the special exhibition on German colonialism in Berlin. Alas, it proved a colossal disappointment.
I can understand that colonialism doesn’t warrant glorification. But the opposite is equally true. I was horrified that one example of installation art comprised a fallen bronze figure of an erstwhile colonial administration that had once graced the University in Hamburg. Worse, it had been vandalised by yellow spray paint to suggest contemporary disdain.
We don’t always need to glorify the past. But we don’t need to desecrate it either. History can do without shrill slogans.