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.
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?”
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.
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.