“What I could never escape was Germany, and being German” – Georg Baselitz, artist
A couple of weeks ago, my dad, his partner Sue, Ben and I took a Sunday afternoon trip to the British Museum. It’s one of my favourite museums in the world, and I love literally everything about it, even the loos, which are a little like descending through the tunnels of a pyramid…yes, I know that’s a bit weird! Dad and I often take advantage of the specialist exhibitions running throughout the year. I like to indulge my inner history geek every now and then, and Dad shares a similar interest in history, so we bond over cabinets full of curios and stories of a time since past.
This time round we were visiting Germany: Memories of a Nation. The exhibition uses a range of artefacts to take you back through the last 600 years of German history, and I think it does a great deal to present a more rounded view of Germany than what may typically spring to mind. I’m sure you all studied the First and Second World Wars to death at school, as I did. I found it fascinating (what kind of historian would I be if I didn’t?!), but when all you hear growing up about German history is negative, it’s so refreshing to explore a different angle.
I actually have more of a connection to this exhibition than just historical interest. My great-grandfather on my mum’s side was German, and although he lived in the UK for a great deal of his life and was married to an English woman, during the First World War he was sent to the Isle of Wight to prevent him from acting as a German spy. Following the end of the war, he was then naturalised, which is a rather disturbing sort of phrase for what was essentially just changing his name from Friedrich Steinbrenner to Fred Darch. Although that in itself must have been a pretty big change for my great-grandfather; losing his identity for the right to remain in a new, strange country. Alongside my family link, I also studied German up to AS Level, and visited Berlin in summer 2012. So all in all I was intrigued to explore more of the culture of a country that I have such a connection to.
We started off with footage of the fall of the Mauer (Berlin Wall) in 1989. There was a lot of big 80s hair, and as a child of the 90s it was strange to watch something which looked like it should be in a lycra-clad film about time travel or welders in the context of something so serious. This placard, ‘Wir Sind Ein Volk’, translates as ‘We are one people’, and was used in a demonstration in East Berlin. It’s been shaped to resemble the outline of Germany on a map, and is coloured in the red, gold and black of the German flag. Interestingly, this flag didn’t appear until the 1800s, when it stood for a united, republican, constitutional Germany. It was made in the struggles between liberal and conservative forces around 1848, and although it briefly became the national flag, it was suppressed until after the First World War, when the Weimar Republic reclaimed it. It was once again subdued when the Nazi swastika flag was introduced, but following the end of the Second World War it was once again resurrected as the flag of the nation.
The main impression I got from the exhibition was how fluctuating German culture has been over the last 600 years. A unified Germany was an alien concept to begin with, with tribes and kings in different areas. Even now, it is divided into 16 separate regions, each with their own federal identity. I would argue that it is only in the last hundred years or so that they have found a shared identity. This, more than any other incident in the last 600 years of German history, seems to me to mark the unification of Germany and the creation of a national identity.
My other highlights from the exhibition are showcased below:
This silver-gilt automaton from 1617-1620 in the form of a huntsman and dog is the crucial piece of one of the most awesome-sounding drinking games of all time. With a removable head that could be used as a cup, the automaton was set off to cross a table until it came to a stop. The unlucky person it landed nearest to would have to down the contents. It sounds like the ultimate dinner party game, or an alternative to Ring of Fire when pre-drinking before a night out!
I was surprised at how pastoral some of Germany’s background is. I shouldn’t be surprised considering that this country is the home of the Black Forest, but I had forgotten it. Some of the landscape paintings drew on this theme as well, using it as a new symbol of German identity. In-keeping with this element was the first edition of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales, which I gawped at and wished I could read from cover to cover!
There were also a few pieces I liked, but didn’t capture on camera. For example, Napoleon’s hat from the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, and a copy of the Bible translated into German by Martin Luther in the 1500s. The latter’s work is said to have “created modern Germany”, as although the country remained divided, he brought them a universal German language. In a similar way, King Frederick II, known as ‘the Great’, and seen in porcelain form, was commemorated by the writer Goethe as “the Pole Star around whom Germany, Europe, even the world, seemed to turn.” He is the person known as Old Fritz, which satisfied a Blackadder reference which had been lingering in my mind for years!
One of my least favourite periods of history to study at school was inter-war Germany. This was largely due to the heavy emphasis on the financial crisis – I am a lifelong hater of maths and economics in all forms. It’s a small wonder that I ended up dating Ben, considering that his degree was in economics and management! But for all my A-Level woes, it was fascinating to see the Notgeld, or emergency money, which was printed in endless quantities during the financial crisis. I remember reading about people taking their money to the shops in wheelbarrows, and it still not being worth enough to buy a loaf of bread. That sort of instability must have been terrifying, and was a perfect reflection of how out of control the situation in Germany was becoming, how much it was spiralling out of control.
I was glad that the exhibition, although making mention of the world wars, didn’t dwell on it too much, or give greater weight to that section of its history than the rest of the artefacts on display. Obviously there had to be a nod to the cultural changes implemented by the Nazis, including this sheet of cut-out figures of Hitler and German soldiers, produced during the Second World War. This was a little disturbing, but fitted perfectly with the Nazi propaganda of the time.
Alongside this simple child’s toy, there was also a replica of the gate to the Buchenwald concentration camp, with the phrase ‘Jedem das Seine’ – ‘To each his due’ – across the top. The phrase is a perversion of an ideal of Roman law, but the most interesting aspect of this gate is its creator. Former Bauhaus art student Franz Ehrlich, one of the prisoners of the camp, designed and created the gate. Bauhaus art was disapproved of by the Third Reich, and many German artists from this movement emigrated to America during the war to escape persecution. In a show of defiance, Ehrlich took inspiration from Bauhaus design in the design of the gate. One of the saddest facts I read in the exhibition was that over 90% of Jews living in Germany at the outbreak of the Second World War died during the Holocaust. That’s a shockingly huge amount, and the fact that many of the survivors remained in exile from Germany following the war, tells a sad, sad tale about the near-eradication of an entire people from a country.
On 8th May 1945, Germany reached Stunde Null, or Zero Hour, and as a nation, ceased to exist as a state. A country which had been in such a state of cultural flux for so long was now flat-lining in the shadows of defeat. This led to a crisis of memory, whereby Germans today have to look back and reconcile the memories of the past with what they want for their country and themselves in the future. Every country has such scars in their past that they are not proud of – look at Britain and its slavery background. But I think that Germany has done a stellar job of moving past that now.
Even Angela Merkel has given this exhibition her seal of approval with her recent visit! And she is one of the figureheads for the new, modern Germany: a country which now stands for financial success, ruthlessly efficient businesspeople, and a fantastic, World Cup winning, football team. Each of these aspects, as well as many more unlisted, are making strides to reclaim Germany’s national identity from the negative connotations of the last century.
I was a bit late in posting this, as the exhibition finishes on Sunday 25th, but you can still drop by and visit this weekend, and if you have any interest in this country and its culture and history I strongly recommend you go and see this fascinating collection. It was a powerful and refreshing take on a coutnry everyone likes to claim they know.