Thursday, 16 October 2014

Review of: Germany: memories of a nation
(16 Oct-25 January 2015)
Room 35, British Museum

An exhibition in Britain which attempts to illuminate the contribution made by the German nation to world culture is long overdue. Many Brits would be hard put to think of anything German beyond nazis, jackboots, humourlessness, lederhosen and beer gardens.

At its height, from the 16th century onwards, German culture and language came to dominate much of central Europe, from Basle (in Switzerland) in the west, to Prague (now the capital of the Czech Republic) and Koenigsberg (now Kaliningrad in Russia) in the East, as well as the outlying Hanseatic cities around the Baltic and North Sea, in Norway, Estonia, Latvia and Denmark. 

It could be argued that Germany, as a nation, has had, since classical times, more impact on European and even world culture than any other European nation. Its philosophers, scientists, writers, artists, and composers, as well as its bankers have profoundly influenced the way we live and think today. Germany, situated at the core of Europe has more common borders with other states than any other European nation; this has contributed to its problems as well as being an advantage.

This curators of this new exhibition, looking back over 600 years of history, have selected 200 German objects around which they have attempted to weave a cohesive cultural and historical fabric. It is, of course, over ambitious, and unavoidably reflects contemporary political perspectives as much as it offers genuine illumination. Minimal textual explanations don’t help either. While such modern approaches to museum exhibitions can provide genuine insights and offer illuminating connections, they can also create short circuits and undermine more profound understandings.

The curators of this exhibition readily admit that they have ignored the many philosophers and musicians Germany has produced, but they have also ignored medical pioneers, scientists and most writers. There is also much else that has been ignored and their reasons for selecting some objects and not others are obscure if not downright obtuse.

Historically transformative events like the Peasants’ War in the 16th century, the 19th century struggle for German unification and the 1848 revolution, as well as the student rebellion of 1968 are all ignored.

The exhibition was conceived as a response to the anniversary, in November, of the fall of the Wall, so that in itself perhaps indicates the political justification.

The visitor is met with a video of milling, euphoric crowds celebrating the fall of the Wall, together with a poster of that time with the slogan, ‘We are one people’ on a map of Germany.

The wall text tells us that ‘The citizens of East and West Germany had lived for decades under very different political systems, but they shared many deep memories, which they brought to the new state.’ It gives no intimation that West Germany imposed its own systems on the East and has denied the former citizens of the GDR the right to make their own contribution, never mind sharing in the creation of a new Germany. The text goes on to tell us that East German demands for more freedom and democracy in 1989 ‘shifted to an emphasis on speeding up reunification’. No mention of the fact that a genuine demand for more freedoms in the East was hijacked by West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl for his own electoral purposes and that it was he who demanded an acceleration up of the unification process before East Germans could fully develop their own concepts.

The exhibits take the visitor on a confusing and whirlwind tour. From two delightful portraits by Cranach, including his famous Luther portrait, together with a Holbein and three large, anodyne landscapes by Carl Carus alongside a mini Caspar David Friedrich. There is a Kaethe Kollwitz self-portrait and a woodcut of her memorial to the murdered communist Karl Liebknecht. This is in connection with a description of her birthplace Koenigsberg (today Kaliningrad, but we are dubiously informed by the caption that ‘it remains in Russia today’, not that it is now part of Russia as a result of the post-war settlement).

The Bauhaus movement is highlighted with a superb baby’s cradle which looks like a practical demonstration in geometry and is a magnificent work of art in itself: A v-shaped cot, its sides painted in bright red and yellow, is bound at each end by two black hoops of steel forming its rocking part. It’s like a three-dimensional Mondrian painting, and was designed by Peter Keler in 1922. There are also several small posters of Bauhaus design.

A Gutenberg bible symbolises German advances in printing and literacy and their connection with Luther’s 16th century Reformation movement that took Europe by storm. 

Surprisingly the exhibition does include one of the original Communist Manifestos and of Marx’s Capital, but they are somewhat incongruous here with no wider connections.

Goethe is given pride of place in the form of the famous Tischbein full-length portrait, but his contemporary Schiller who was arguably the better playwright, is not.

Brecht and the Berliner Ensemble are represented by a small model of the scenery for Mother Courage, but no mention of the fact that Brecht and his theatre were based in the GDR.

A tacky model of the Friedrichstrasse Underground and check point linking West and East Berlin is included, probably because it was rescued from the GDR’s Ministry of State Security and was ‘used for Stasi training to ensure that no East German escapes’. A wet suit which was, the caption says, used by an East German who tried to escape to the West symbolises ‘the many people who attempted to leave the impoverished communist state of East Germany’. (According to UN data, the GDR had one of the highest standards of living in Europe - something any unbiassed visitor could validate, even if it was much lower than its Marshall-Plan aided counterpart in the west. Most of those who left the GDR did so for reasons other than ‘fleeing poverty’)

Hans Barlach’s powerful bronze sculpture Floating Figure is a fitting commemoration of human resilience and hope, even in times of war. But again, no mention is made of the fact that he and his friend and contemporary, Kaethe Kollwitz were both celebrated in the GDR, their portraits on postage stamps, their works revered and monographs published. In the West they had both been largely ignored until after the Wall came down.

The nazi period is dealt with largely in terms of the holocaust and the extermination of the Jews, with no mention of the mass extermination of Slavs, gypsies, gays, the disabled, socialists, trade unionists and communists. Nor is the role played by big business in Hitler’s rise mentioned.

Historical processes and key events are given only superficial coverage. That the setting up of a the Federal Republic of Germany in the western sectors in 1949, soon followed by the introduction of a separate currency was in contravention of understandings laid down in the Potsdam Agreement is totally ignored. The setting up of the GDR and introduction of its own currency in response to the former is glossed over. The museum text says glibly that ‘two states were established - the German Democratic Republic and the Federal Republic’ , implying that the former preceded the latter, and with no further explanation.

An example of a German bank note from the the massive inflationary period during the twenties is shown in connection with the introduction of new post-war currencies in West and then East Germany. These, the caption tells us, ‘reflect the different perspectives on German history…East German notes feature revolutionary figures such as Karl Marx, while West German notes took their cue from the age of the artist Albrecht Duerer’. The fact that of the five GDR banknotes, two featured Goethe and Schiller is conveniently ignored as this would upset the convenient black and white political imagery.

The exhibition is receiving considerable hype here in Britain but clearly also in Germany if the press opening is anything to go by. There appeared to be more German journalists and ‘experts’ than British milling around - such a rare occasion is it for the British to be taking a serious look at German history and culture.
Although the actual exhibition is limited and in quite a small venue, there is a daily broadcast over six weeks by the Museum’s director, Neil MacGregor, of over 30 episodes dealing with the exhibition and where he goes into more detail. However, even here he replicates the jaundiced view of the GDR experience and sometimes historical details are either factually wrong or distorted. He has also written an accompanying book to be published on 6 November. The museum is also hosting a number of lectures by the usual suspects, film showings and public forums. 
Showing in the British Museum cinema as one of the events around the exhibition is the film The Murderers are Among US, the first post war film to deal with the nazi period. It was made by the DEFA film company and largely shot in the Soviet sector. Originally the film was to be titled Der Mann den ich töten werde (The Man I will kill) but the script and the title were changed because the Soviet authorities were afraid that viewers could interpret it as a call for vigilante justice and the killing of former nazis. 
Murderers Among Us was first shown on 15th October 1946 in the Soviet sector. It was shown on GDR television on November 1st, 1955 and in the Federal Republic only in November, 1971. That, too, is something you are unlikely to be told. Nor will the many anti-nazi films made by the GDR. be mentioned or shown.
While this exhibition has to be welcomed as an overdue gesture of recognition for German culture and as a contribution to a better understanding between our two peoples, it is also very disappointing because it doesn’t question simplistic shibboleths or the Federal Republic’s monopoly of the interpretation of more recent history.


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