art, Berlin, Germany, history, Life in Berlin, News, politics

The Bode Museum marks the 70th Anniversary of End of World War Two

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two. To celebrate, Russia staged its biggest military parade, involving thousands of troops marching across the Red Square in Moscow, displays of ballistic missiles and over 100 war planes.

Here’s a clip of what it looked like:

While such scenes of nationalistic machismo, mirroring those that led up to the second world war in the first place, are clichéd and shallow, here, in a quiet corner of Berlin’s Bode Museum, a much smaller display makes for a deeper impact.

The Lost Museum Exhibition is about the hundreds of art works from the Berlin collections that went missing, were stolen or destroyed, due to the second world war. It consists of partly destroyed works, reconstructed pieces, photographic reproductions and information about the lost works.

The partly charred or smashed statues are devastating to see, but worse are the black and white photographic reproductions of paintings, like this Rubens:

photographic reproduction of lost Rubens at Bode Museum, BerlinA masterwork like this, drained of the colour and brushstrokes that bring Rubens’ paintings to life with fleshy sensuality, makes one feel the absence of the original even more.

IMG_20150510_140410Other stand out pieces, like this plaster cast of Donatello’s John the Baptist – the original has disappeared – demonstrate the value of such a restitution project as it reintroduces the piece to the narrative of art history.

The exhibition also raises interesting questions about itself. For example, should the few remaining fragments of works that survived the Friedrichshain Bunker fire be reconstructed, taking the artists’ original visions and intentions into mind? Or should, according to the standards of historic preservation, any change in the state of a work of art be respected? In short, is it more important to show the original idea of a work of art, or its history?

The exhibition is insightful and questioning and, on a positive note, is possible due to the ongoing and ever-strengthening collaboration between German and Russian museum professionals.

What remains though is the feeling of loss for all those hundreds of works that have vanished. It is a loss to civilisation. A fissure in art history. The visions and spirits of the people that lived in those works, forever lost.

The Lost Museum: The Berlin Sculpture and Paintings Collections 70 Years After World War II is on at the Bode-Museum until 27th September 2015.

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Germany, history, Literature

Vansittartism

Last Wednesday, I  learnt a new word that filled me with a mixture of glee and shame at Hans Vaget’s lecture Vansittartism Revisited. Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, and the Threat of World War III at The American Academy Berlin.

“Vansittartism” is a  Germanophobic doctrine, set out by former British foreign minister Lord Vansittart in his BBC radio addresses and book Black Record: Germans Past and Present (1941). It states that there is no difference between German leaders (at that time the Nazis) and the German people.

According to Vansittart, the Germans are characterised by “envy, self-pity and cruelty” and Nazism had “finally given expression to the blackness of the German soul”. He based his view on the fact that the Germans had been involved in five wars in the past 100 years (the three wars of German unification and the first and second world wars.) His analysis completely ignored the role of Austria, where Hitler was born and his views formed, (like the Austrians themselves, who in an act of collective amnesia forgot their Nazi past and blamed the Germans.)

As you can imagine, I was nudging the Bavarian with glee during this definition of his people. When I was young, I read Roald Dahl’s The Twits, and I think it is the book that has most defined my approach to marriage – a series of pranks and oneupmanships. The glee came tinged with shame, because Vansittart’s rhetoric is both ridiculous and racist. As Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil makes clear, peoples of every occupied country (except maybe the Danes) were complicit in the terrible crimes committed during WWII.

The lecture, however, provided food for thought. Vaget focussed on the reception of Vansittart’s ideas in the German exile community. Famously, it was a matter of contention between Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht in the USA. While Brecht dismissed Vansittartism completely (as a communist, he made a strong distinction between the German people and those in power), Mann was more ambivalent. His thoughts on Vansittart’s ideas varied at different times in his life, but the lecture proposed that overall, he took Vansittartism seriously and his view was closer to that Willy Brandt – at that time in exile in Sweden.

What is clear, however, is, notwithstanding the fact that Vansittartism is a racist product of the British Empire at war with Germany, the questions it raises – Why the Germans? How could a country that produced some of Europe’s greatest intellectuals be responsible for such barbarity? Who is to blame? – are still relevent.

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.

Germany, history, Life in Berlin

Berlin vs. Munich

Every time I mention the fact that my other half is a Bavarian to a Berliner, they raise their eyebrows and ask how he’s getting along. It’s condescending, this idea that a Bavarian in Berlin is some sort of lederhosen-wearing in-bred farmer holding a weiß wurst in one hand and a weiß beer in another as out of place as Crocodile Dundee in New York.  I tell them that he is getting along just fine, which he is – he likes the laid back atmosphere, the brunches, the culture, the coffee places, the cinemas and drinking beer from the bottle on the U-Bahn. Why shouldnt he?

What I failed to understand was that the Berliners were not merely being condescending in their reaction – they were being nasty. When we went to a Skunk Anansie concert in Berlin a while back, Skin informed the crowd that they were performing in Munich the following night: the crowd booed magnificently.

The obvious reason for this antagonism is that Berlin and Munich are completely different. Even the swimming pools are different, as we discovered today when we visited the Spreewaldplatz swimming pool in Kreuzberg. The Bavarian was devasted to discover that there was no bubbling hot-tub that he could laze in, and that the only thing for him to do was swim. It was not only the lack of big slides and water refuges of over 30° that caused him to mumble “everything’s better in Bavaria” but the fact that you had to stick a Euro into the lockers instead of those little plastic entry coins you get in Bavaria, and little coins into the hairdryers as he used to do as a child. Coming from England, where we have functional swimming pools, I’m more or less delighted by every single German swimming pool I visit, but I have to admit, the swimming pools in Bavaria are the best.

Like most things, it comes down to the fact that Munich is rich, while Berlin is poor. But the differences are endless; Munich is pretty, Berlin is a building site; Munich is conservative, Berlin is liberal; in Munich everything opens early, while Berlin eases itself into the day; Berlin is significantly more multi-cultural; Munich is significantly more Catholic….when I asked a school-friend of The Bavarian’s whether these differences were the reason behind the Berlin/Munich divide, he simply shrugged and said that the Münchners didn’t really bother hating the Berliners too much – they had better things to do.

So what prompted the open-minded peace-loving Berliners to rage against the Münchners? It’s the war, stupid.

Munich was the birthplace of the Nazis. Hitler was popular there, while Berlin had always been a leftist city. In fact, Hitler hated Berlin – it was Goebbels’ idea that the new government should set up in Berlin. As a result, the city was damaged by air raids, and especially by the Battle of Berlin. After the war, Berlin suffered once again when she was split among the allies and consequently the divided by The Wall. While Berlin paid for Munich’s mistakes over decades, Munich prospered – and still prospers now, while Berlin, the great building site, is in ruins.