Exhibit Review, July 2005


1945--Der Krieg und seine Folgen: Kriegsende und Erinnerungspolitik in Deutschland, Deutsches Historisches Museum ( Berlin , Germany ), 28 April to 28 August 2005

Reviewed for H-German by Joe Perry
Department of History , Georgia State University

8 May 2005 , Berlin: On the sixtieth anniversary of the end of World War Two,  the "unmasterable" German past is alive and kicking. The proliferation of official events, demonstrations, and media productions that rake through the horrors of the war and the dramatic "last days" of the Nazi regime threatens to drown the public sphere in a flood of commemoration. As Chancellor Schroeder joins Bush, Putin, and 56 other state leaders in Moscow to honor the Red Army, a massive police presence on Alexander Platz keeps apart left- and right-wing demonstrators battling to define the meaning of Germany 's defeat (liberation or capitulation?) .The official opening of the "Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe" (10 May) takes place down the street from a Brandenburg Gate temporarily decorated with a massive photograph of its war-torn appearance in May 1945. On television, a much praised, four part series on Albert Speer and Hitler (poetically titled "Speer und Er") competes for attention with the recently released BBC Holocaust documentary and countless other shows on the history of the war.  Those with a preference for "action" can watch prime time dubbed versions of the American series "The Band of Brothers" ("Wir waren wie Brueder") or any number of other war movies from the last half century. Two recently released documentary films, "Hitlers Hitparade" and "Das Goebbels Experiment," both collages of original audio and visual material with no formal historical commentary, take viewers into the daily life of the Nazi period on one hand and into the private life of the propaganda minister on the other.  The Spiegel media company's attempt to market "the adventure of reality" with special magazine issues on the Second World War and a twelve DVD set on contemporary German history (titles include "The Fuehrer State," "Hitler's War," and "Breakout from the Ruins"), competes with more scholarly books, journal articles, and newspaper editorials to stake out, define, and sell parts of the past.  But enough.  Even as 8 May 2005 fades into the historical record, this selective review of the memory work going on in contemporary Germany suggests that the Nazi past is currently being packaged and sold more often, to more people, for more profit than ever before.

Curators at the German Historical Museum (DHM) in Berlin --the royal road to the German past if there is one--would be remiss if they failed to use the museum's powerful institutional authority to grapple with this uncomfortable anniversary.  Indeed, Hans Ottomeyer, the General Director of the DHM, announced that the museum was "duty bound" to deal with the war and its aftershocks at the opening ceremony for the exhibition "1945--The War and Its Results: War's End and Memory Politics in Germany " (1). The exhibition explores the social and political consequences of World War II from the immediate postwar period to the present, in East and West Germany but also to some extent in neighboring nations.  Sprawled across the top two floors (800 square meters of exhibition space) of the new I. M. Pei addition behind the "Zeughaus," the main DHM building on Unter den Linden, an extensive collection of images and objects addresses an ambitious agenda with important political ramifications. As Dr. Christina Weiss, State Minister for Culture and Media, put it at the opening ceremony on 27 April, the resolution of persistent problems with neo-Nazism, social intolerance, and anti-Semitism requires a continual reworking and a "collective engagement with history to come to grips with the monstrosities of the twentieth century." In their effort to meet this agenda, the curators have clearly done their homework. The exhibition addresses broadly, if somewhat vaguely, the key issues that drive recent academic scholarship on German memory. It provides as well historical context for the contentious debates on the meaning and use of the past that surface with regularity in contemporary Germany: the controversial relationship between representations of victims of German aggression and Germans themselves as victims of World War II, the on-going attempts to accept responsibility and atone for the Holocaust and the Nazi war of aggression, the conflicts between those who want to "normaliz e" and those who want to "work through" German history, and the elisions and emphases that have defined conflicting and competing East and West German memory cultures (2).

These issues weave in and out of the exhibition, and if they are never really explicitly addressed as historical problems, it is not because of a lack of material.  The 500 items on display include photos, films, texts, posters, audio recordings, cartoons, works of art, and a remarkable selection of ordinary objects and personal effects that reveal the impression of collective memory projects on individual "everyday" worlds. This material is divided into seven main themes, presented in seven color-coded "rooms" in rough and overlapping chronological order: 1) War and Liberation in Europe; 2) Consequences of the War in German Society; 3) Dealing with National Socialist Crimes; 4) Rapprochement and Conflict between the States; 5) Rapprochement and Conflict in the Societies; 6) Relations to War and the Military; and 7) Remembrance and Repression.  Introductory wall texts in German and English provide an overview of the content of each room, which are themselves divided into three or four smaller sections, each with an explanatory paragraph of wall text.  Individual items are captioned in German and English with up to ten lines of explanation.  A headphone "audio tour" offers the curious visitor even more detail.  The exhibit catalog includes a complete list of the items in the exhibit, with numerous reproductions, seven short articles that provide background reading, and a useful bibliography organized by room themes (3).

There is far too much on display here to provide an in-depth review of each section of the exhibition. The individual rooms, however, seen as a series of separate but linked "texts," proffer a message that in my reading is indicative of the state of official Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung ("mastering the past") in contemporary Germany.  The exhibits tell interlocked stories about the successful, though on-going struggle of state and society to admit and atone for the crimes of National Socialism.  They acknowledge that people and politicians, in East and West Germany , have had problems dealing with the Nazi past, but offer comforting narratives of maturation and the progressive overcoming of ignorance and repression. Single displays consider competing claims on and reconstructions of German history, often from opposing radical left- and right-wing perspectives. This presentation of competing voices effectively captures the contested nature of memory politics in the rarified space of the museum, but also underscores, in the best light, the open and democratic nature of the reunified Federal Republic . An even-handed treatment of East Germany shades away from the black and white tones of Cold War propaganda to express official efforts at reconciliation with the citizens and history of the "new federal states."  The inclusion of representations of German victims of the war, particularly East Prussian refugees, reflects broader trends in official attempts to manage the past, manifested, for example, in the memorial to the "victims of war and persecution" at the Neue Wache, just next door to the DHM. In short, the exhibition makes a determined attempt to the politics of memory in contemporary Germany in the best light.  It is an act of "mastering the past" in its own right, which concludes that Germany 's difficult history can be managed through processes of openness, engagement, and negotiation.

In room after room, the visitor encounters fairly straightforward narratives of reconciliation through democratization: things are getting better, the Germans are coming clean, even if Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung remains an incomplete and conflicted process.  The room on "Dealing with National Socialist Crimes" (room three), for example, opens with displays on incomplete denazification under Cold War pressures in East and West Germany, moves on to examine conflicts over the Nazi pasts of important West German politicians in the 1960s and 70s, and closes with the creation of the creation of the foundation "Erinnerung, Verantwortung und Zukunft," charged with organizing restitution for victims of the Nazi state. The final displays in this room, however, show that war prisoners who worked as forced laborers still have substantial problems in gaining compensation.  

In a related move, the exhibition suggests that the rehabilitation of the German past allows for German action in the present. Room six, titled "The Relations to War and the Military," on the legacies of Nazism in the East and West German military, shows that state and society have increasingly recognized and atoned for the crimes of the Wehrmacht.  Displays here cover West German controversies over the failed military coup against Hitler (disputes about whether the July 1944 conspirators were traitors or heroes dominated public discourse in the 1950s), issues surrounding the growing acceptance of conscientious objectors, and the rather transparent and unpopular attempts, in East Germany, to portray the Soviet controlled army as the people's friend.  The room closes with an exhibit on debates over German participation in the war in Kosovo. This final display links the new post-unification willingness to use the German military in international conflicts to a rejection of the Nazi past and an increasing toleration of open discussion and criticism.  Problems with the past persist, these displays insist, but can be resolved through rational appraisal and democratic action.

One of the most effective parts of the exhibition are the twinned sections which compare "rapprochement and conflict," first on the state and then on the social level, in the East and West blocks.  Here again the separate rooms tell hopeful stories of negotiation and reconciliation, concluding with German unification (in room four) and the contentious debates that greeted Willy Brandt's version of Ostpolitik in 1969-70 (in room five).  Some of the most interesting material deals with the integration of East Germany with its East Block neighbors Poland and Czechoslovakia . The displays emphasize the difficulties the East German government had in making its version of postwar memory politics stick, but the curators chose to avoid overt criticism of the regime.  Instead, a set of displays focuses on ordinary East Germans, whose earnest attempts to find reconciliation with their former enemies took the form of bicycle tours and other types of personal culture exchange, but also underground expressions of support for the revolt of the Czechs in 1968 and the Poles in 1980. The inclusion of objects and images that encourage the visitor to link memory politics to the "ordinariness" of everyday life is a strong point here and elsewhere in the exhibition. The section of the 40 centimeter high cement barrier that divided the Dutch and West German parts of the border town of Herzogenrath/Kerkrade from 1968 to 1993, for instance, offers concrete evidence of the "long road to normality" in relations between the Netherlands and the Federal Republic .  The board game "Wer gewinnt Prag-Berlin-Warschau," from 1954, with which children could pretend to bicycle in the East block version of the Tour de France (the "Friedensfahrt"), marks the growing inclusion of East Germany in international sports competition.  Such displays offer engaging visions of reconciliation in daily life even as kitschy items from East Germany play to the popular appeal of "Ostalgie."

The DHM's new willingness to present Germans as victims in this show hardly means ignoring German responsibility for World War II and the Holocaust, though it does create some potentially awkward comparisons.  The first room in the exhibition, titled "The War and Its Results," includes ample evidence of German war crimes, from the Holocaust to the bombings of Coventry and Warsaw , the massacre at Lidice , and the harsh occupation policies in East Europe . Concurrent DHM exhibitions on "Legalized Robbery: Government Finance and the Expropriation of the Jews in Hessen and Berlin 1933-1945" (through 18 September) and " Europe 's Jews in the Middle Ages" (through 28 August) further serve to deflect accusations of inappropriate relativism. Yet displays on Stalingrad , the bombing campaign against Germany , and the Battle of Berlin, suggest that Germans were victims as well as perpetrators in World War II.  The sense of Germans as victims dominates the second exhibition room (on "Consequences of the War in German Society"), which features displays on hunger, homelessness, and the sufferings of German refugees and POWs in the "shaken society" of the immediate postwar years. The concluding two sections in the entire exhibition, in room seven ("Remembrance and Repression"), provide a revealing example of the way conflicts over victimhood are tacitly embedded in official memory narratives.  "The End of Repression: the Holocaust as a Social Theme," the penultimate display, provides ample evidence that East, West, and reunified Germany have increasingly come to terms with the Holocaust in public discourse. The last section in this last room, however, on "Memories of Flight and Expulsion," returns to the debates about German expellees from East Prussia . These final displays speak to popular interest in the history of the refugees--in a recent trip to Dussmanns, one of the largest bookstores in Berlin , I found eight books alone on this topic on the sales shelf. Here the curators carefully included voices that offer nuanced and critical views of revanchism, such as manuscript pages from Guenter Grass's Im Krebsgang and a manifesto for "Enlightened Discourse instead of a Revanchist Center" signed by an international group of intellectuals.  Yet some visitors might feel that these concluding sections strike a poorly chosen juxtaposition between Holocaust victims and German refugees that equates the suffering of Germans with suffering caused by Germans.

The curatorial team speaks with pride about the "aura of authenticity" of the items on display and their ability to speak "as witnesses to historical reality" (4).  One of the real strengths of the exhibition is indeed the remarkable selection of the material objects, which give a powerful sense of they way war memories, reconstruction, and reconciliation permeated everyday life in East and West Germany over the past sixty years.  But beyond appeals to "authenticity," which seem ahistorical in any case, I missed a more determined effort to problematize such "eye-witness" testimony. These items are no doubt "real" and thus authentic, yet they are anything but transparent.  Entombed in the sterile environment of a museum vitrine, simple objects become relics that speak with powerful and sometimes disturbing voices. The accompanying descriptions remain for the most part descriptive and carefully non-judgmental. Displays of the death certificate for the Polish nun Janina Zakoscielna (a victim of the bombing of Warsaw in 1939) or the improvised grave marker for a resistance fighter who died in the Warsaw Uprising tellingly and movingly bear witness to the suffering caused by German aggression.  Visitors tend to linger, however, over the melted bottle dug out of the rubble in Dresden , the beat up shoes worn by a POW during his "homecoming" from the Soviet Union , or the chest of keepsakes carried by a refugee family from Schlesien.  These objects evoke an inescapable emotional charge of sympathy for the victims of the war and its aftermath, and for German victims in particular, since they are the dominant focus in room two of the exhibition.

Questions about the appropriateness of representations of German victims is of course one of the signal tones of contemporary debates on Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung, and the curators were entirely right to include such material here and elsewhere in the exhibition. At times, single displays include critical perspectives that at least implicitly address this issue, but in the curators seem to sidestep difficult questions: "The current debates about the war and its consequences suggests among other things a tendency toward a renewed emphasis on the German victims," the wall text (in English translation) in the final room on "Remembrance and Repression" blandly asserts.  "This serves to level off the differences between the various groups of victims and place the Nazi crimes in a more relative context. It is not yet possible to predict whether this tendency will gather further momentum in the future or not."  Historians like Robert Moeller have shown that social acceptance of such "war stories" can quickly lead to exculpation of German perpetrators and can have real and damaging ramifications for groups seeking compensation for Nazi crimes (5). It seems a lost opportunity not to have used this exhibition to examine the negative aspects of these reconstructed war memories more explicitly.

The blurry, large-scale reproductions of famous photographs of the Holocaust, war crimes, and their aftermath, presented as an "epilogue" in the last room of the exhibition, offer a final comment on contemporary German Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung and on the exhibition itself. These "eingebrannte Bilder" (burnt pictures), by Berlin artist Ernst Volland, are recognizable, but only just, as for example the photo of a young French Jewish boy raising his hands during a German raid, or Eichmann in the dock. These images have indeed been burned into our collective memory through constant repetition, until they have become icons that help us understand and manage the most extended tragedy of the twentieth century.  Volland presents these familiar photographs in an uncanny light that calls attention to the centrality of commercial endeavors, media specials, and the mass marketing of history--such as exhibitions in the DHM--for our understanding of Nazi atrocities. If these images encourage a rethinking of one's personal relationship to memories of the violence and horror of World War II they also provide an ironic footnote to the exhibition. The deliberate haziness seems to embody the inability of the curators to develop a stronger critical narrative.

It is probably not fair to criticize this exhibition for its breadth, but a visit to this show is an almost overwhelming experience, and part of the problem with the message is this excess of form. It is virtually impossible to absorb, in appropriate detail the films, images, objects, voices, and didactic texts that compete for the visitor's attention. This leaves several options: pay close attention in the beginning of the exhibit, only to tire out in the last displays on the second floor (my own first response); move quickly and skim the show for particularly interesting objects (apparently the preferred method of museum-sponsored group tours); or make a repeat visit (probably the best option but unpalatable or impossible for most casual visitors and tourists). One could bemoan the lack of a more disciplined organizational focus, but to be fair, an exhibition on the politics of memory in Germany from 1945 to the present is a massive topic, and opting for inclusiveness at the expense of clarity makes some sense after all.

The most challenging aspect of the exhibition is in fact the relative openness of its overarching narrative. At its best, this creates space for a plurality of voices expressive of public discourse in a democratic state. And it is clear, there will be no Schlussstrich drawn between the German past and the present, at least not by an official institution like the DHM.  But the didactic impact of the show is nonetheless vitiated by the lack of a critical edge or even a guiding thread--beyond a rather general claim to investigate the "politics of memory in Germany "--that could tie things together.  It may be asking too much of the curators to define one central thesis about this sweeping material, which introduces visitors to events, themes, and evidence that have driven countless professional monographs on markedly different topics (as the catalog bibliography suggests). Yet I suspect that this loose approach is by design rather than default.  In his remarks at the opening ceremony, Dr. Burkhard Asmuss, the lead curator, asserted somewhat defensively--perhaps in a lingering response to critical questions at the press conference earlier that day--that the exhibition was meant "to inform, not judge." The lack of a clear stand on the problems of German casualties in the bombing campaigns of World War II, expellees and refugees from East Prussia , revanchist claims for recovery of "the Eastern territories," right-wing opposition to "Ostpolitik," and the abuses of the East German dictatorship, may be exactly what the German public wants. Deferred judgment is the politic response to these controversial and sensitive issues and this carefully relativist position makes the exhibition a telling example of official attempts to "master" the last sixty years of German history. But it leaves the curatorial team open, to some degree, to charges that they have stepped back from the sort of "working through" called for by Minister Weiss.


(1) Those looking for some sense of the visual impact of the displays can visit the DHM website http://www.dhm.de. The images on this page have been graciously provided by Dr. Rudolf Trabold of the DHM. Note that the exhibition at the DHM is the largest of a group of three related shows in Berlin, including "Berlin 1945: The Private View-Photographs by American, British, and French Soldiers" at the Allierten Museum "Outpost" (through 4 September 2005), and "Triumph and Trauma: Soviet and post-Soviet Memories of the War 1941-1945" at the Deutsch-Russichen Museum in Karlshorst (through 28 August).  Here, however, I can only review the main exhibit.

(2) For one recent overview of "Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung" see Peter Reichel, Poliltik mit der Erinnerung: Gedächtnisorte im Streit um die nationalsozialistische Vergangenheit ( Frankfurt a/M: Fischer, 2001), ISBN: 3596141443 [review at http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.cgi?path=35411105462709]

(3) Burkhard Asmuss, Kay Kufeke, and Philipp Springer, eds., 1945 -- Der Krieg und seine Folgen: Kriegsende und Erinnerungspolitik in Deutschland (museum edition: Berlin : Deutsches Historisches Museum , 2005; ISBN: 3-86102-133-1/book store edition: Boenen: Druckverlag Kettler, 2005; ISBN: 3-937390-54-5).  The catalog includes excellent classroom material and offers a nice graduate-level introduction to issues in German memory studies.

(4) Hans Ottomeyer (DHM Director), "Vorwort," in 1945 -- Der Krieg und Seine Folgen, 11.  He also made this point in his remarks at the opening.

(5) Robert Moeller, War Stories: The Search for a Usable Past in the Federal Republic of Germany ( Berkeley : University of California Press , 2003), ISBN: 0520239105.