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Easter Reading: Germany – Memories of a Nation

April 9, 2015

Durer Rhino

Yesterday’s announcement by Neil MacGregor, the Director of the British Museum, that he is leaving to set up a similar institution in Berlin coincides with news that Goethe University in Frankfurt is setting up the nation’s first professorship in Holocaust studies.

I have a few memories of Germany, some good and others not so good. I once spent an idyllic autumn walking down the Roman limes – the border fortifications that marked the limit of Roman rule – in the forest near Bad Homburg, living on a diet of grapes and wurst. I had a conversation on economics – in English – with a Stuttgart taxi driver whose knowledge far exceeded my own and probably that of the vast majority of English cabbies. In Frankfurt I got drunk for the first time at the age of eighteen. The poison was a German equivalent of scrumpy, a cloudy, toxic brew much loved in England’s West Country. Not an experience I would wish to repeat.

A few years ago I made my first trip to Berlin – and hated it. I felt oppressed by its monumental architecture. Wide streets, huge buildings towering over the inhabitants. A series of messages – from the time of Frederick the Great through the Bismarck era, the Nazis period and the rivalry of two ideologies that divided the city in two during the Cold War. Even after unification, Berlin continued to build on a monumental scale, re-building much of what was flattened during World War 2, and creating steel and glass blockbusters to evidence the German state’s modern prosperity.

For me it’s a brutal city, not built for its inhabitants but to show off. Perhaps Berliners like it that way. Certainly the couple energetically making love in front of an uncurtained third floor window opposite the pavement café where I and my friends were eating seemed to enjoy sharing their passion with the rest of the world.

I should have expected the city to make a strong impression one way or another given its history, and given its modern reputation for “edginess” (one of those clichés beloved of travel journalists that usually send me on a wide berth around the object of their attention).

Goering’s Air Ministry, Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry, the grim remnants of Himmler’s SS/Gestapo headquarters next door to what remains of the Wall and the humble children’s sandpit surrounded by dowdy communist-era apartment blocks that marks the spot where Hitler’s fellow bunker dwellers burned his body were depressing landmarks of the city’s recent past. The concrete blocks of the Holocaust Memorial and the magnificent Pergamon Museum went only some way towards redeeming what was by and large rather a gloomy experience.

But as I often point out to friends whose only experience of Britain is a trip to London – a country should not be judged solely on its capital city. And given the damage inflicted on Germany’s cities by bombs and shells, it’s a miracle that so much survives – rebuilt or otherwise.

The wartime scars – and the enduring fascination in Britain with all things Nazi – tend to overshadow the fact that for much of the five centuries before  the last one, Britain and Germany – or the constituent parts thereof, were often the best of friends – culturally, politically and militarily. We acquired a German dynasty on the British throne in the eighteenth century. It was the Prussian army that sealed the victory over Napoleon at Waterloo. Queen Victoria’s consort was a German prince, and her daughter was married to the crown prince of the unified German Empire.

If Germany and its rivals had taken a different path in 1914, perhaps we wouldn’t need Neil MacGregor to remind us of its earlier legacy. We should really speak of Germans rather than Germany, because before 1870 there was no such political entity – merely a plethora of semi-autonomous city states, bishoprics, duchies and kingdoms that constituted a major part of the Holy Roman Empire.

I missed GermanyMemories of a Nation, the British Museum’s 2014 exhibition. But MacGregor’s subsequent book of the same title more than makes up for the omission.

The author uses objects and places and artists to build his narrative, much in the same way as he did with A History of the World in 100 Objects, his renowned radio series for the BBC. Gutenberg’s printing press, Luther’s bible, porcelain from Dresden, Bauhaus furniture, the Iron Cross and the German sausage. Dürer, Goethe, the Brothers Grimm, Klee and Kolwitz. Kaliningrad and Strasbourg, now Russian and French respectively – symbols of Germany’s ever-shifting frontiers.

Over six parts he traces the origins of Germany under the Holy Roman Empire, the growth of trade and commerce, the Reformation and the Enlightenment, political upheavals, civil strife and wars culminating in Napoleon’s destruction of the Empire, unification under Prussian hegemony, the disaster of 1914-1945, the division and finally the reunification of the state we know today – all by reference to the works of art, literature, architectural landmarks, craftmanship and cultural icons.

Were it not for the bestiality of Nazism, these would be the first things to come to mind when we think of Germany – unless of course we happen to be into football.

Memories of a Nation is not an ultra-highbrow tome. Although it’s likely to appeal most to history nuts and culture fiends, it’s highly accessible and beautifully written. It has as many pictures as the average coffee table book, but far more written content across its 500-odd pages.

Much of what I previously knew about Germany was in the context of English history. Without indulging in a laborious chronological narrative, McGregor fills in some gaps. For example he uses the perfection of the Chinese technique for producing porcelain to illustrate the commercial rivalry between cities and states. He tells the story of Tilman Reimenschneider, perhaps the greatest wood sculptor of the renaissance, who found himself on the wrong side of the 1525 Peasant’s Revolt, and ended up having his hands broken for supporting the demands of the oppressed.

He discusses the origin of the Iron Cross, created at a time when the Prussian state – much of it conquered by Napoleon – was confined to the enclave of Koenigsburg (now Kaliningrad, part of Russia). A shortage of precious metals was turned into a virtue; it became fashionable for society women to wear iron jewellery. And iron became a metaphor for Prussian – and ultimately German – resilience and strength, so effectively marshalled by Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor of the unified nation.

My memories of Germany are helplessly bound up by the Nazi era, more so after reading Memories of a Nation. How could a nation – in the widest sense of the word – produce Albrecht Dürer, Martin Luther, Johann Sebastian Bach, generations of classical scholars and archaeologists, writers and philosophers like Goethe and Kant, and yet descend into barbarism? How could people who contributed so much to Western civilisation devote their talent to the industrial-scale extermination of whole sections of their society? A mass psychosis brought about by the collapse of the imperial project in World War 1? A resurgence of deep-seated exceptionalism instilled in the nation in the nineteenth century?

Those questions are endlessly discussed by post-war historians far more knowledgeable than me. But MacGregor’s book led me to revisit The Topography of Terror, a chilling documentation of the apparatus of oppression and extermination established step-by-step over the twelve years of Nazi rule. Chronologies, extracts from laws, memoranda of SS and Gestapo bureaucrats, biographies of victims and perpetrators, pictures of the huge complex of headquarters buildings in central Berlin devoted to the practical application of Nazi ideology tell an appalling story. I bought the book at the exhibition on the site of those demolished buildings, of which little remains but the basement cells in which prisoners awaited torture and death, but these days it’s also available on Amazon.

It’s to Germany’s credit that it never supported a “right to be forgotten”, even if many thousands of willing participants in the Nazi project did manage to fade into obscurity, unnoticed and unpunished. Thanks to its reinvention as an energetic, prosperous and fundamentally humane social democracy, and as the passing of time extinguishes living memories of that dark era, attitudes towards the country have slowly changed from contempt to admiration, underpinned by an acceptance that “that was then, and this is now”.

Today the history and heritage of Germany serves as a lesson as much for the rest of us as for today’s Germans. Other nations and peoples have shown in subsequent decades that what happened in Germany is far from unique; that under certain conditions we are all capable of oppression and genocide, and that civilisation is a very thin veneer, easily fractured. Yet equally many of our societies are capable of stunning acts of invention and creativity, and none more so than the Germans.

Neil MacGregor has done wonders for the British Museum. It’s one of my favourite places in London. I frequently revisit galleries that feel like old friends. And some of the temporary exhibitions, particularly those of Pompeii, the Vikings and the Aztecs, have been a joy to behold.

If he can create an institution in Berlin to rival the one he is leaving, perhaps the record of German contributions to humanity in the eyes of the city’s visitors will finally put its acts of destruction in the shade.

From → Art, Books, History, Politics

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