The British view of a nation that never was

Albrecht Dürer, Rhinoceros (1515). © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Kupferstichkabinett.

Dürer’s rhino, Luther’s Bible, Bismarck dressed as a blacksmith, a VW Beetle and a replica of the gate to Buchenwald concentration camp – the exhibits of the ‘Germany – Memories of a Nation’ show seem both somewhat random and predictable.

What I was missing most of all was a grand narrative guiding me through the exhibition, directing my view from one item to the next with that inevitable logic with which A leads to B leads to C, although, as a historian, I should really know better.

I was probably expecting the museum counterpart of the undergraduate introduction to modern German history, ‘From Bismarck to Hitler’, or, if we want to start in the early modern period, ‘From Luther to Hitler’. And this being a British exhibition originally created for a British audience about its World War II enemy, some of that was certainly there. But it seems that the collaboration between curator Barrie Cook of the British Museum, and his former boss, Neil MacGregor, also tried to avoid too much coherence and inevitability, and that was probably a good thing.

Yes, there was the Reformation with the invention of the printing press and Luther’s Bible translation, there was the Thirty Years’ War, there were references to the nationalist movements of the early nineteenth century with their romanticised depictions of the German countryside, and space dedicated to Bismarck’s German unification of 1871. Yet, none of those movements settled the national question in any sort of definite or satisfactory way. The Reformation left Germany divided into Catholic and Protestant states and any subsequent attempts at German unity were overshadowed by the question who should or should not belong to the club.

There was surprisingly little about World War I, but a broad selection of bank notes illustrating the hyperinflation of the Great Depression, while World War II was represented more through images of suffering in concentration camps or destroyed cities like Dresden rather than by the standard narrative of Hitler’s rise and fall. Post-war German history was represented by the new division of East and West, a labyrinthine model of Berlin’s Friedrichstraße station as a central border crossing and the rather unexpected wetsuit worn by an East German in his attempt to defect to the West by swimming across the Baltic Sea. You need a lot of imagination to fill the gaps.

A similar exhibition about the United Kingdom over the space of the last 600 years, would probably have led neatly from the Reformation of the Tudors, which created the national Church of England, to the Stuarts, who initiated the Union of the Crowns, to the Hanoverians, whose protestant successors are on the English throne to the present day. The exhibition would have centred on London with the rest of the country as its periphery, but few would have questioned its narrative, and only the most hard-line Scottish and Irish nationalists might have questioned its coherence.

For a German historian and journalist, who lived in the UK for the best part of 15 years, it was odd to see this ‘British View’ of my country here in Berlin. I listened to a number of Neil MacGregor’s excellent programmes on BBC Radio 4, when I was still living in Newcastle, and loved them, but I never travelled down to London to watch the exhibition there. So now it has followed me to Germany, and I see my own history through the eyes of my adopted country and I barely recognise it. It’s not that the facts are not familiar, or the items unseen. It’s just the alienation that arises when an outside observer arranges the memories of a nation that exists on paper somewhere, but that its citizens have never been quite at ease with.

Part of German identity still is the strong regionalism going back to the patchwork of states and micro states constituting the Holy Roman Empire from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century, and part of it is the love for Europe and the desire to dissolve its internal borders in an attempt to free the country from its dark Nazi past, which celebrated the nation and its people to its own destruction.

According to a recent YouGov poll, national identity among Germans does not seem particularly strong. Only 31 per cent of those questioned described their identity as ‘German’ first and foremost. Some 13 per cent identified more closely with their local region, 12 per cent with their city, and 11 per cent with the state they live in. One in ten Germans also said they saw themselves as Europeans first of all, with an equal number of people responding they considered themselves as ‘citizens of the world’ (Teresa May would squirm in horror at such a result for the UK).

The fact that Germany has been willing to take in so many refugees from war-torn Syria and other nations since September 2015 is only one of many manifestations of this attitude and of the country’s attempt to rid itself of its nationalist and xenophobic image. Its new openness might be an attempt to atone for the sins of its past as well as a new show of strength intent on setting a new agenda.

With this in mind, the British view of Germany represented in the exhibition at Gropius-Bau Berlin is that of a nation that never was and that is still in the process of finding and forging its own identity. It’s that of a nation struggling to make peace with its past in an attempt to have a brighter future.



The British View: Germany – Memories of a Nation, Gropius-Bau, Berlin, open 8 October 2016 through to 9 January 2017.


By thehistorywoman

Historian & journalist.

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