Berlin, Germany, history, News

Hitler and the Germans

Unlike the Austrians, the Germans have always been open about the whole business of Hitler and the Nazis. Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek famously said that the nature of German toilets, where “the hole into which shit disappears after we flush is right at the front, so that shit is first laid out for us to sniff and inspect” revealed their existential attitude as a nation; that of “reflective thoroughness”, and it would seem that he is right.

Spiegal Magazine covers featuring Hitler
Spiegal Magazine covers: countless articles have been written on Hitler

Policemen stand outside synagogues, countless books, articles, studies and films have been produced, and almost every discussion, from politics to art, comes back in some way to the Nazis. (Godwin’s Law, that as a discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison to the Nazis or Hitler approaches 1, is a fact of life round here).

However, of the many exhibitions about the Holocaust and the Nazis, the one currently at the Deutsches Historishes Museum (German Historical Museum) is a first. The exhibition Hitler and the Germans: Nation and Crime focuses on the dictator and his relationship with the German people.

It opened in mid-October amidst fears that such a strong focus on the dictator would attract and encourage Neo-Nazis. However everything on display – Nazi flags, street signs, decorations, swords, medals, newspapers, Hitler busts, portraits, propaganda images and films – serves to illuminate the relationship between Hitler and the Germans, from the hopes that he embodied for them when he first came to power to disillusionment, resistance, and representations of him in the media up till the present day. It shows how fiercely the dictator permeated every day life in the Third Reich, and throws a unique light on questions such as ‘How could such a thing have happened?”

Street sign: Adolf Hitler Platz
Street sign: Adolf Hitler Platz

Most strikingly, it draws attention to the volume of things that have been hidden, taken away and replaced, such as grave stones featuring swastikas. It also raises the fact that although the process of denazification did remove Nazi iconography from public view, its success did not extend to people and institutions.

Although a few elite were brought to trail, the majority of people who were complicit, from CEOs of companies to government officials, kept their positions – especially as the Americans abandoned their denazification programme at the onset of the Cold War. This enabled people such as Kurt Georg Kiesinger, a member of the Nazi Party and official at the foreign ministry, to continue in politics and eventually become German Chancellor in 1966.

As if to illustrate the point, just a week after the exhibition opened it came to light that the German Foreign Ministry, who had for years maintained that they had disapproved of the Nazis and their aims, had in fact, according to historian Eckart Conze, “actively supported all measures of persecution, rights deprivation, expulsions and the Holocaust.”

So it seems that Germany is suffering a kind of schizophrenia regarding its history; on the one hand there is an open, even over-compensating attitude, (I saw an example of this yesterday around Mauer Park when a group of people felt the need to protest against war whilst coach loads of old people attended a military music concert), and on the other, silence and secrets.

Yesterday around Mauer Park: People protest against war during a military music concert
Yesterday around Mauer Park: People protest against war during a military music concert

Günter Grass embodies this contradiction; he acted as the moral voice of Germany, but took 60 years to admit that he was a member of the SS.

Maybe Zizek was not entirely correct about the Germans; after all nobody has even begun to inspect the history and Nazi involvement of the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND, or Federal Intelligence Service), and I’m sure there is a lot of shit lurking there…

The exhibition “Hitler and the Germans” is on until February 6, 2011 at the Deutsches Historishes Museum.

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Germany, history, politics

When in doubt, blame the Germans

One of the great things about going out with a German is that you can always have the last word in every conflict by saying, “Yes, but we won the war”. Or something to that effect. “Yes, but we didn’t murder six million Jews” or “Yes, but you started two world wars” also work. Even if the argument is about whose turn it is to mop the living room, The Bavarian will invariably feel a stab of guilt, pick up the mop and start cleaning in the furious manner in which Lady Macbeth scrubbed her hands. It’s a dirty trick, but I’m not the only one exploiting the great burden of German Guilt.

It seems that the EU’s policy of ‘don’t mention the war’, which is essential if Europe is to move on unitedly, is not working. Germany has paid her reparations and shown much good will and support to both Poland and Greece (Walter Wullenweber of Stern Magazine recently calculated that Germans have given each Greek $12,200 since 1981), which begs the question, when will the wounds of the war heal in Europe? Will this guilt trip ever end?

For a full account, Time magazine has a good article covering this Greece-Germany conflict.

art, history, Life in Berlin

The Deutsche “Guggenheim”

This gallery has a big name but small scope. One usually associates Guggenheim Museums with vast collections, famous artists and notable works; the Deutsche Guggenheim has none of these. To be precise it has one room currently showing 8 works by relative newcomer Julia Mehretu. So for your € 4 entry fee you get each work for 50 cents (they are very big though). But here’s a tip; entry is free on Mondays.

Once you are settled with the fact that the Deutsche Guggenheim is not a proper Guggenheim Museum but a gallery born of some collaboration between Deutsche Bank and the Guggenheim Foundation (I’m not sure exactly what the details of this dark pact are, but there are more Deutsch Bank logos in the place than there are pictures), you’ll find current exhibition quite interesting.

Mehretu is an Ethiopian-American artist who was resident at the American Academy in Berlin in 2007, and her theme is the urban landscape and memory. Berlin, a city of layers and erasures of history, suits both her subject matter and technique. Her paintings are both abstract and exact, and while contemplating them amidst Deutsche bank logos, one begins to think about German Art – or lack of – and its relationship with history and money. Predictably, it’s got a lot to do with the Nazis.

Berliner Plaetze
Mehretu, Berliner Plaetze

The Nazis systematically tried to prove that all Modern art was degenerate, which, at a time when Germany (the birthplace of Expressionism) was home to many great artists including Max Ernst, Max Beckmann, Oskar Schlemmer, Otto Freundlich and Wassily Kandinsky was detrimental. Many of these artists left Germany, or were forbidden to work. The biggest devastation was that most Jewish artists either fled the country or were sent to concentration camps.

Not only did the Nazis get rid of Germany’s artists, they got rid of Germany’s art. They rounded up 650 works – including Picassos and Kandinskys – and chucked them into a Degenerate Art Exhibition, which opened in Munich in 1937 and was a propaganda stunt to prove just how mad and talentless all these modern artists were.  The idea was originally for the exhibition to run for only a few weeks and then to burn the whole lot, but it proved so popular that they kept it open and toured it throughout The Third Reich. Moreover, the Nazis received a lot of interest from buyers for these works, and subsequently started selling them off to finance the war.

On top of this, many works were physically destroyed during the war and after the war a lot of Germany’s remaining art works were taken as compensation by soldiers from the coalition armies – and that’s how Germany lost all of its art and artists and its best ideas, and why there are only 8 works – and even then by a non-German – in this gallery.