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An ungainly treasure chest

Historian Christoph Jahr casts a critical glance at the new permanent exhibition in Berlin's German Historical Museum

When Claudia Schwartz reviewed it in this paper in early June, she wrote of the new permanent exhibtion at the German Historical Museum in Berlin: "It feels like you're in a showy treasure chamber." And none of the other reviews of the exhibition in the former Berlin armoury really mustered more enthusiasm. Critics commented on the museum's "aversion to interpretation," and a portrayal of history reduced to the "big men" and their deeds, "which authors of school textbooks have steered clear of for a good many years." This conscious decision to avoid analysis could be read as a refusal on the part of the museum organisers to style themselves as historical know-it-alls or as the self-appointed elite of historical political correctness. But it could also be seen as a sort of crypto-conservative fear of purportedly objective presentation. However it's not fair to give a broad brush description of an exhibition spread over 8,000 square metres and with just as many exhibits on show. Reason enough to take a closer look at these first impressions.

Chancellor Angela Merkel at the museum's reopening on June 2. All images © German Historical Museum

Concern has repeatedly been voiced that the German Historical Museum would display Teutonic nationalism in a favourable, uncritical light. These fears were fortunately allayed. The first panel of text was clear enough, talking about the Celts, who inhabited large areas of this land later to be known as "Germany" even before the Romans and Teutons. "Nos ancetres les Gaulois": an appropriate first sentence to a German history book. Quite how influential our European neighbours were, and particularly France, becomes more and more apparent later in the exhibition, particularly in the 17th and 18th centuries. The sheer number of exhibits is overwhelming, but the exhibition space is well designed, allowing you to hurry through or linger in quiet contemplation.

Map of the Holy Roman Empire, ca. 1735

Yet you're still left with the rather unsatisfying feeling that the sheer number of exhibits obscures the essence of the exhibition. Many of the mistakes could easily be corrected. For example Ernst Moritz Arndt's old question about "the German fatherland" right at the start of the exhibition is answered in an unclear way. In the foyer, a map of "Germany" across the eras is periodically projected onto a physical map of Europe. Going by this, Alsace Lorraine, North Schleswig and the East Cantons of Belgium were still part of the German Reich in 1919.

What's more irritating is the apodictic, unreflected style of some of the explanatory texts. The part of the exhibition devoted to the roots of German nationalism in the 1800s describes "resistance and national awakening" using the very language of the period. And the teleology of lower-middle class nationalism finds its way into a text about the Peace of Pressburg in 1805. The transfer of land belonging to the Habsburgs along the Austrian border to Baden and Württemberg signified the "driving Austria out of Germany" - as if Prussian-Austrian dualism didn't continue for another 60 years.

Examining an East German Trabant

The exhibition is surprisingly soft on the GDR. The construction of the wall, the GDR government's declaration of political bankruptcy, is commented in the very style of that government. "Closing the border," the text says, "heightened the country's diplomatic profile." From then on the border was "respected internationally." You have to ask yourself whether a group of old communists aren't playing a trick on an old enemy by managing to smuggle these lines into the text. Much of the commentary on National Socialism is downright infuriating because it lacks the necessary distance to the "Lingua Tertii Imperii", the language of the Third Reich. Battle terminology adopted by right-wing nationalists and National Socialists such as "Jewish world dictatorship", "Lebensraum" or "Aryan" are merely printed in italics, giving them greater prominence, and otherwise left uncommented. For example, visitors learn that Walther Rathenau "became a symbol of the hated Jewish republic due to his Jewish roots." None of what is written in this sentence is true. The first German democracy was not a "Jewish republic," but was defamed as such by its right-wing extremist enemies. Its foreign minister who was murdered in 1922 did not have "Jewish roots" – a strange and imprecise description – in fact he was born a Jew, and maintained his religious affiliation his whole life, even if he did not practise.

A selection of Nazi uniforms

The curators evidently have faith the visitor will be able to differentiate between analytical language and historical lingo. Otherwise, however, little faith seems to be placed in visitors' reflective capacities. This exhibition not only lacks theses, it also lacks self-confidence. General Director Hans Ottomeyer explains tirelessly that the exhibits speak for themselves and regain their authenticity when placed in the right surroundings. Yet every first year history student knows you only get an answer if you ask a question. Deputy General Director Dieter Vorsteher takes this methodical naivety to another level when asked what other exhibits he would have liked to show. "There's a lot we'd like to have. But the imperial regalia of the Holy Roman Empire are in Vienna, where they belong." Quite why they belong more to Vienna than to Nuremberg, for example, where they were held from 1424 to 1796, is not clear.

Characteristically, museums will base their representation of history on the objects at their disposal. However one longs to see this historical positivism broken at one point. The Kaiser's crown would fit the bill, since it symbolised "the glory of the medieval empire" and "national grandeur." As the French troops were advancing in 1796, the crown was evacuated to Vienna through Regensburg. Then after the "Anschluss" in 1938 it was taken back to Nuremberg, the town of the Nazi party rally, and in 1945 returned to Vienna by the Americans. The fact that it is not possible to put the crown on display in Berlin reveals more about the ruptures in German history than many of the illustrious exhibits in their showcases.

Ryan Dirksen: "Europe – All our colours to the mast", poster, 1950

My final criticism of the German Historical Museum's show concerns its character as a national exhibition. The idea of nationalism is one of the most pervasive of the last two hundred years, and the nation-state is and remains a central facet of modern society. In that respect, a national historical museum retains its legitimacy. But the fact that it fails to fully reflect on its very reason for being, rooted in the 19th century's nationalisation of historical representation, gives good grounds for criticism. General Director Ottomeyer likes to describe the museum as an institution of "national self-assurance", without adding that this image of history, fixated with the idea of the nation-state, is itself a historical phenomenon, and has pushed aside other perspectives. This exhibition confuses the discourse about the past with the past itself, and is entirely silent about its very premises. But at the beginning of the 21st century, a museum that tacitly presents the nation-state as the goal of historical development can only fail to convince.

The German Historical Museum is located in the Zeughaus in central Berlin, and is open daily from 10 am to 6 pm.


The article originally appeared in German in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on August 8, 2006.

Christoph Jahr
(bio in German) teaches in the Modern History Department at Humboldt University in Berlin.

Translation: Abby Darcy.

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