Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Germany and the complexity of memory

VW Beetle at the British Museum. Ink on A5 paper, A Kendal
It is perhaps one of life’s little tricks that, having grown up in a rabidly anti-German home, I should become a Germanophile.

One of the contributory factors was history. Studying for my O’ level and bored to tears with the Corn Laws (well, who wouldn’t be?) the course that probably gained me a pass was Bismarck and German unification. Because it was the one course that absolutely fascinated me.

Some 20 years later, during a stint at the online version of the Guardian, I was subbing an article by its then Berlin correspondent, John Hooper, about the Lange Kerls, Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia’s extraordinary regiment of particularly tall men.

It was far from being the same period as that which I’d so enjoyed studying in the 1970s, but it reminded me of that. In the next few days, I started hunting in bookshops for books on Prussia; the start if an affair that would grow to encompass an ever-wider area of history.

And even now, I will judge a bookshop on the basis of whether or not its history section contains anything beyond the Nazi era.

So when it was announced that the British Museum was hosting an exhibition on Germany: Memories of a Nation, it was always going to be a must-see.

Neil MacGregor is director of the museum, and his own previous works include A History of the World in 100 Objects. Here, the exhibition itself was built around a substantial new tome by MacGregor, plus an acclaimed BBC Radio 4 series (which I missed), and takes a similar approach.

I’m not sure that I went expecting to be educated as such, but more that I went in anticipation of seeing things, in the flesh, that would provide a visual companion to some of what I’ve read in the past 14 years or so.

Having walked up the steps of the Reading Room, past a VW Beetle and a fragment of the Berlin Wall, the exhibition proper begins with a brief explanation of how Germany has not long been that; that it shares more borders with other countries than any other European nation, that its borders have been more fluid than those of other nations and, indeed, that there was, for most of its history, no such thing as a common and single ‘Germany’.

All this I – and The Other Half – was familiar with. Which made me realise that I’d probably never attended an exhibition with as much base knowledge as I already had in this case.

But to be honest, I don’t think that we were the core target audience.

The exhibition sets out, it seems to me, to convey a wider picture of Germany than that which has been dominant in the UK since 1939.

The Blacksmith of German Unity, print
You cannot, of course, omit the Nazi era, and the exhibition does not, including a range of exhibits from a pre-war anti-semitic poster to a 1935 sheet of a cut-out Hitler and marching brown shirts for children.

Here too is a replica of the gate to the Buchenwald concentration camp: wrought iron; small, like a garden gate, with its motto, ‘Jedem das Seine’ (‘to each what is due to them’) facing inward for the prisoners on the parade ground to see every day; a motto, one could feel, that is even more sinister even than the famous ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (‘work makes you free’) of Auschwitz, Dachau or Sachsenhausen, where it was facing outwards to be seen by those arriving at the camps.

But the designer of the Buchenwald gate, Franz Ehrlich, had learned his art in Bauhaus: the lettering was, unlike that elsewhere, an obvious nod to the modernism that Hitler considered ‘degenerate’.

And that motto could be seen in another way, as meaning that the guards, the torturers and the killers would, one day, get what they were due.

It is a perfect illustration of the complexity of German history.

MacGregor explains in the accompanying book that one of his aims was to examine how Germans see themselves and their own national story, a quarter of a century after it’s latest incarnation came into being with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

There are many things that could be viewed as strange omissions – and all of us with some knowledge would doubtless be able to cite a few.

Personally, I was surprised to see no mention in the exhibition itself of Thomas Mann, although he’s in the pages of Neil MacGregor’s book of the same name. There’s no Günter Grass in either.

Less personally but more surprisingly, there’s no mention that I can recall of music – and Germany provided two of the trio of composers who all singlehandledly changed the course of classical music. Setting aside Mozart as Austrian, that still leaves Beethoven and Wagner, whose absences seem particularly strange if one is attempting to convey that wider picture.

One can only guess that it was assumed that this was a known part of German history and culture, although the different ways in which, post WWII, these two composers have been treated can itself offer an interesting way of exploring MacGregor’s themes.

It is, I think, rather a butterfly of an exhibition: a gentle flit across a period of history that is largely unknown to most Britons.

Yet that lightness is deceptive, and in the selected objects there are plenty of things to fascinate, intrigue and even stun.

Napoleon's hat from Waterloo
You will not often, for instance, see an edition of Martin Luther’s own translation of the Bible into German, with his own handwritten version of Psalm 23 and his signature on the facing page, dated 1542.

That’s the sort of thing I find stunning.

And then there was one of the remaining 48 copies of the Gutenberg Bible from 1455, with its still-immaculate Gothic type.

Both these Bibles serve as a reminder of the linguistic and democratic impact of the Reformation – no matter how much the latter was to shock and appall Luther himself.

Among the other objects that hit one like a hammer is one of Napoleon’s hats, taken as war booty from his abandoned carriage after his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo.

There’s an intriguing iron and terracotta statue of Bismarck, showing the Iron Chancellor as a blacksmith, standing at his anvil, crafting a united Germany.

Next to it is a copy of Marx’s Capital, volume one, presented to the museum by the author himself, who had spent many an hour working in the old reading room.

A Bauhaus cradle by Peter Keler (1922) – a design still being produced – shows how good design is good not simply because it looks good, but because it works well too.

There’s a stage design for the original production of Brecht’s Mother Courage, plus Dürer’s Rhinoceros (1515) and then a vast Meissen porcelain version (1730).

If Isaac Habreacht’s 1589 ‘portable’ Strasbourg clock is incredible, then the astronomical compendium by Johan Anton Linden (1596) is simply astonishing.

But one of my particular personal highlights was the chance to see Tilman Riemenschneider’s Four Evangelists, stunning wood carvings from 1490-92 from an artist/craftsman I’d encountered before only thanks to Andrew Graham Dixon’s The Art of Germany.

Carved from the traditional lime wood, they are quite beautiful – not idealised, as you’d expect with the Renaissance, but with real, human faces. Unbelievably, they were, at one point in their history, painted. Fortunately, that has been very carefully removed.

Riemenschneider's Four Evangelists
But Riemenschneider’s own story – whether historically accurate or not – is entirely in keeping with part of MacGregor’s aim. Legend has it that, in the German Peasants’ War of 1525, as a city councilor of Würzburg, Riemenschneider took the side of the peasants. After their defeat, he was arrested and his hands broken. What is certain is that no work of significance by him exists after that year.

How you see it – what you choose to believe – is all very much about how we construct the wider stories of which we are parts.

That Thomas Mann, for instance, chose to believe the story of an heroic Riemenschneider siding with the peasants tells you something about Mann himself – not about whether it really did happen or not.

On the way out, passing the VW Beetle once again, it occurred that one can see the same duality there too: once hailed by Hitler as ‘the people’s car’, its later links with flower power and hippies effectively made it ‘entartete auto’. Which is really rather pleasing.

If this feels in some ways a very small exhibition, it leaves you with a sense of something far, far larger. On a practical level, you will need at least 90 minutes to really get the most out of this – and on the basis of what I’ve read so far, the book is vital to really extending knowledge and understanding of the exhibits and their context.

In asking about Germans and the construction of national memory, MacGregor opens the door to asking everyone else to do the same.

In England at this time, that would be every bit as pertinent an exercise.  

No comments:

Post a Comment