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Memory Loss

Stereotypes about German history and about the German Democratic Republic distort history. Simplifications of the past inhibit our ability to understand the nature of fascism and anti-fascism, to understand the complexities of socialism.

Glass Mosaic at East Berlin’s Haus des Lehrers,Robby Block

Many in Britain would be hard put to think of anything German beyond nazis, jackboots, humourlessness, lederhosen and beer gardens.

Those stereotypes are surprising, because it could be argued that Germany 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. 

From the 16th century onwards, German culture and language came to dominate much of central Europe, from Basel in the west to Koenigsberg in the east, as well as the outlying Hansa cities around the Baltic, the North Sea, Scandinavia and what are now the Baltic states. 

Situated at the core of Europe, Germany has more common borders with other states than any other European nation and this has contributed to its problems as well as being to its advantage.

The exhibition Germany: Memories of a Nation at the British Museum spans 600 years of history and its  200 exhibits attempt 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. The fact that it has been conceived as a response to the anniversary next month of the fall of the Berlin Wall perhaps indicates its political orientation.

Many of the philosophers and musicians Germany has produced are ignored, as are medical pioneers and scientists. There are other glaring omissions and the curators’ justifications for selecting some objects and not others appear obscure if not downright obtuse.

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

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The accompanying text informs us that “East and West Germans had lived for decades under very different political systems but 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 to, never mind sharing in, the creation of a new Germany. 

According to the text, “East German demands for more freedom and democracy in 1989 shifted to an emphasis on speeding up reunification.” Yet there is 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 of the unification process before East Germans could fully develop their own concepts.

The art exhibits constitute a confusing and whirlwind tour, from two delightful portraits by Lucas Cranach — including his famous Luther portrait — a Holbein and three large, anodyne landscapes by Carl Carus alongside a miniature Caspar David Friedrich. 

There is a Kathe Kollwitz self-portrait and a woodcut of her memorial to the murdered communist Karl Liebknecht. We are dubiously informed that her birthplace Koenigsberg, today’s Kaliningrad, “remains in Russia” rather than stating that it is now part of Russia after the post-war settlement.

The Bauhaus movement is highlighted with a superb baby’s v-shaped red and yellow cot designed by Peter Keler in 1922, a practical geometric demonstration and a magnificent work of art. 

There are also several small posters of Bauhaus design and a Gutenberg Bible, symbolising German advances in printing and literacy and the connection with Luther’s 16th-century Reformation movement that took Europe by storm.

Yet original copies of the Communist Manifesto and of Marx’s Capital, with no wider connections made, appear incongruous and, while Goethe is given pride of place in the famous Tischbein full-length portrait, his contemporary Schiller — arguably the better playwright — is not. 

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

There’s a tacky model of the Friedrichstrasse underground and check point linking West and East Berlin along with a wet suit used by an East German who tried to escape to the West, symbolising “the many people who attempted to leave the impoverished communist state,” a statement ignoring UN data demonstrating that the GDR had one of the highest standards of living in Europe, even if it was much lower than its Marshall Plan-aided counterpart in the west. 

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 no mention is made of the fact that he and his friend and contemporary Kathe Kollwitz were both celebrated and revered in the GDR, with their portraits on postage stamps. 

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 and historical processes and key events are given only superficial coverage or ignored altogether. 

That the setting up of 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 and the establishment of the GDR and the introduction of its own currency in response to the former is glossed over. 

The introduction of new post-war currencies in West and then East Germany, a caption tells us, “reflects the different perspectives on German history, with East German notes featuring revolutionary figures such as Karl Marx while their West German counterparts took their cue from the age of the artist Albrecht Durer.”

The fact that two of the three GDR banknotes feature Goethe and Schiller is conveniently ignored, presumably because this would upset the black-and-white political imagery.

Screened as one of the exhibition’s related events, The Murderers Are Among Us was one of the first post-war films to deal with the nazi period. Made by the DEFA film company and largely shot in the Soviet sector, it was originally entitled The Man I Will Kill but the script and the title were changed because the Soviet authorities were afraid that the public could interpret it as a call for vigilante justice and the killing of former nazis.  

It was first shown in 1946 in the Soviet sector yet it was only screened in the Federal Republic in 1971. That does not get a mention — nor do the many anti-nazi films made by the GDR, which are not in the programme either. 

Any exhibition in Britain which attempts to illuminate the contribution made by the German nation to world culture is long overdue. 

Sadly, this isn’t it. By refusing to challenge the simplistic shibboleths of the Federal Republic’s monopoly on the interpretation of more recent history, it’s a deeply flawed exercise.