This was published in the Guardian 2014, September 26

6 Oct

Please go to the link below if you want to see and read about these 10 objects that Neil MacGregor chose:

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/sep/26/10-objects-made-modern-germany

Ten objects that made modern Germany
To mark the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and ahead of a British Museum exhibition, Neil MacGregor chooses the icons that shaped the memories of the new nation

It is 25 years since the Berlin Wall fell and a new Germany was born. In the last quarter of a century the country has seen an unprecedented opening up of archives and a programme of national education and much public debate about the different inheritances of East and West Germany. There has also been an unprecedented building of monuments marking the horrors of the recent past. But what are the memories that German citizens bring to their new state? What, in short, does the world look like if you are German?

At the forefront of that memory is the Third Reich and the Holocaust.

But there is more than that, and one of the ways that German history is not like other European histories is that Germans consciously use it as a warning to act differently in the future. As the historian Michael Stürmer says, “for a long time in Germany, history was what must not be allowed to happen again”. This is very different from Britain or France, where most public engagement with history, in terms of monuments and memorials, is to honour valour and heroism, with little public recognition of any wrongdoing, or of follies that might have led to the wars in which the valour had to be demonstrated. What is striking about German war memorials is that they look forward not back – a characteristic clearly visible in their parliament building.

The historic Reichstag was burnt out in 1933, with the fire blamed on the communists and used to advantage by the Nazis. During the war it was badly damaged, then occupied by the Russians. After reunification the decision was made to restore it, but the marks of the 1933 fire, as well as graffiti made by Soviet soldiers, were left untouched, as a reminder to legislators that if you get things as wrong as Germany did then the consequences are unimaginably terrible. An MP travelling to the Reichstag today will pass not only the Holocaust memorial but also memorials to the killing of homosexuals, disabled people and Roma. When they get to the building, they find it topped by a huge glass dome, to which the public have access. So not only do you have an emblem of a transparent legislature, but the public can literally exercise oversight over their government – a direct reversal of the situation under both the Nazis and the Stasi.

In effect the building is a meditation on different aspects of history. I can’t think of another country in the world that lives so closely with the acutely uncomfortable reminders of its past in order to help it act more wisely in future.

In making our radio series, British Museum exhibition and book we have tried to look at objects that evoke memories of which pretty well all Germans can say “this is part of me”. Some are obvious, such as the Gutenberg Bible. Every German knows that Germany invented printing and, in that sense, made the modern world. But we have also tried to focus on elements that the British public might not be so familiar with, as well as areas of German history about which there is still a reticence in Germany. People talk about the Holocaust very honestly and fully, but subjects such as the huge civilian losses from allied bombing raids are little discussed, unlike in this country. Yet it remains a potent memory.

It has always been the British Museum’s job to present the history we need in order to make sense of now. Germany is the European state we most need to understand if we are going to comprehend both Europe, and the world.

• Germany: Memories of a Nation is on BBC Radio 4, Monday to Friday at 9.45am, for six weeks from 29 September. The exhibition opens at the British Museum on 16 October, britishmuseum.org. Germany: Memories of a Nation by Neil MacGregor is published by Allen Lane on 6 November (£25).

9 Responses to “This was published in the Guardian 2014, September 26”

  1. auntyuta October 6, 2014 at 3:45 pm #

    ” . . . . one of the ways that German history is not like other European histories is that Germans consciously use it as a warning to act differently in the future. As the historian Michael Stürmer says, “for a long time in Germany, history was what must not be allowed to happen again”.

    I was born in Germany in 1934. After the Second World War I consciously accepted this warning that a war like this must not be allowed to happen again. Having lived in Australia since 1959 I still have not changed my mind about this.

    And on the subject of surveillance by the state here is what it says about the picture of a wetsuit from GDR times:

    ” . . . . the wetsuit is not only evidence of one citizen wanting to flee, it also became an symbol of state surveillance, designed to prevent others from trying to escape. One of the most remarkable things to come out of opening the Stasi archives was evidence of the extent of this surveillance. It is reckoned that one in three of the population of the GDR was at some time, in some way, informing on their friends, neighbours or families. The memory of that has had profound implications for the new German state . . . . “

  2. Three Well Beings October 7, 2014 at 3:30 am #

    “It has always been the British Museum’s job to present the history we need in order to make sense of now.” This is an excellent way to think of a museum’s ultimate purpose. I think every country (and citizen of that country) needs to assess the past and take responsbility for horrors as well as successes. I can understand the sensitivity of the German people in continually being reminded of the “sins of the past” and at least in my lifetime, I think the Holocaust will always be the act we point to as the ultimate evil, although Germans aren’t the only people to bear responsibility for all that transpired. Evil changes masks, but exists in every country, just not always as visibly and on such a large scale. And it’s hard for me to believe it has been 25 years since the Berlin Wall came down. I can remember hearing our then President Reagan speaking while I was in the car on a very long road trip, far away from a television, and flipping radio channels back and forth trying to capture as much of the excitement as I could possible take in. I’ve visited two museums with pieces of the wall on display to the public and I always just stop and stare and try to drink in all that those slabs represent. This was an interesting post, Uta. Thank you.

    • auntyuta October 7, 2014 at 9:40 am #

      Debra, I thank you very, very much for this very interesting and thoughtful reply. In a few weeks I will probably write something about what our thoughts were on that day when the wall came down. A quarter century: I too must say too that it seems to have passed enormously fast! 🙂
      As far as evil is concerned, the NAZI movement and anything that slightly resembles it, makes me shudder in my bones.

  3. stuartbramhall October 7, 2014 at 1:23 pm #

    I think any genuine attempt to “understand” Germany must include an examination of the firebombing of Dresden and other German cities by the allies. The deliberately targeting of civilian populations in this way constituted a war crime according to the Geneva Convention (which all the allies except the Soviet Union signed) – yet the war crimes of the allies, Including the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki went unpunished.

    • auntyuta October 8, 2014 at 4:06 pm #

      Hi Stuart, I may be wrong, but does the Geneva Convention in practice really help to reduce war crimes?
      I think British Neil MacGregor has a very good insight into the German psyche when he says: “People talk about the Holocaust very honestly and fully, but subjects such as the huge civilian losses from allied bombing raids are little discussed, unlike in this country. Yet it remains a potent memory.”
      During the time of bombing raids Germans stayed away from cities as much as possible. In my experience people did get more and more used to these raids. When they could escape severe injuries they would laugh about it how lucky they were. Of course not everyone was lucky. But then there was a war going on, wasn’t there? People thought in wartime they had to put up with this.
      Deliberate targeting of civilian populations goes on to this day. And what about the millions and millions of people who have to flee their home countries because of fighting?

      • stuartbramhall October 8, 2014 at 4:27 pm #

        Prior to the formation of the International Criminal Court, I would say no – the Geneva convention had little effect on war crimes or war criminals. However several countries have filed criminal complaints against Bush II and Henry Kissinger, and both men are severely restricted in their international travel.

        The current Israeli leadership is also very concerned about a complaint Palestine is taking to the ICC – and they’ve asked the US to intervene on their behalf.

        I’m currently reviewing a book about the deliberate targeting of German civilians during World War II. It sounds like the Germans were really successful in sending their children to the countryside, but this author quotes numerous adult bombing survivors who had nowhere to go and were clearly traumatized by the incessant bombing – particularly by the use of phosphorous bombs (which set people on fire) and the firestorms.

      • auntyuta October 8, 2014 at 5:00 pm #

        Thanks, Stuart , thank you very much for all this information.
        One question: Does the USA recognize the International
        Criminal Court?
        It is said that Australians so far have refrained from bombing targets in Iraq. I understand the Iraq government has now agreed to Australian bombing raids, however it seems Australians want to be sure that there are no civilians among the targeted areas.
        I don’t know, can you ever be sure of this?

      • stuartbramhall October 8, 2014 at 5:08 pm #

        The US doesn’t recognize the ICC, but that doesn’t stop countries like Malaysia and Spain from charging American politicians with war crimes.

        Don’t worry. If the Australians kill civilians with their bombs, it will be reported through Syrian and Iraq social media sites.

    • auntyuta October 8, 2014 at 5:23 pm #

      I cannot help but worrying about everything that goes on in the Middle East.

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