December 31, 2014

Germany: memories of a nation

After a somewhat underwhelming morning of Ming at the British Museum during my last trip to London, I found myself with some time to kill. In the spirit of discovering something new, I decided to spend it having a look around the then recently opened exhibition Germany: Memories of a Nation. Having entered it somewhat deflated, I left it an hour and a bit later re-energised; I really really liked this one.

In Memories of a Nation the objects take centre stage, with each casting their own story. This mixes together into a complex historic soup that tells the story of a country that has been made and remade many times over, the most recent instance of which meets you as you enter.

Proudly proclaiming “Wir Sind Ein Volk”, the Germany shaped placard coloured in black, red and gold is a powerful image of reunification. The theme of changing borders from less recent history is also reflected upon. A stunning automaton clock by Issac Halbrecht represents Strassburg and a beautiful amber tankard takes place for Königsberg.(today known as Strasbourg and Kaliningrad respectively).

Issac Halbrecht's Carillion Clock, based upon the astronomical clock in Strasbourg cathedral. Photograph by Mike Peel ( CC BY-SA 4.0

Prague was represented by an image of novelist Franz Kafka. One of Germany’s greatest gifts to the world his works such as the Trial and Metamorphosis are now recognised as literary masterpieces.

Kafka is far from the only cultural great that was made in Germany and many of the others are well represented in the exhibition. A pair of bibles on display near to each other remind us of two of Germanys greatest revelations; the printing press and the Reformation. Gutenberg’s invention of movable type gave the masses access to texts before which they were out of reach to all but the richest of patrons.

This opened the path sixty years later to the dissemination of Luther's translation of the Bible, written in a German that could be understood by all Germans [The German language is separated into High and Low German, which Luther managed to bridge by synthesising a combination of the two in his translation]. Of course, the nature of Germany at this time played its part, the decentralised nature of the Holy Roman Empire making suppression nigh on impossible. Nonetheless, without the printing press, the word may never have got out at all.

The genius that was Goethe is also well represented by his works and possessions, alongside the iconic portrait by Tischbein.

Tischbein's portrait of Goethe in the Roman Campagna (Wikimedia Commons)

Opposite the painting hangs two engravings by Albrecht Dürer. Considered to be masterpieces of their technique, the images of Melancholia and the Knight played their own role in the history of German identity. Alongside these, you are met by a reproduction of Dürer’s most famous work, the Rhinoceros. Crafted in porcelain at the size of a dog and without flaw, this object is a testament to the Meissen factory in which it was produced, a name that is still synonymous with luxury and craftsmanship. 20th century artistic endeavours are represented through the work of the Bauhaus, including a cradle that to this day remains stylish in its simplicity.

There is however, no escape from the darker side of Germany's past which is conveyed through a number of objects. A ceramic vase by Grete Marks represents the many works branded as “Entartet Kunst” - degenerate art. Labeled as contrary to the German ideal these were ridiculed, condemned and purged, their creators marked out as enemies of the state. A particularly grotesque aspect of this section was a poster from an exhibition at the Deutches Museum in Munich. Presenting the Nazi perception of Judaism as fact, the poster typecasts the Jews as caricature villains. The man holds gold coins and a whip, hell bent on extortion and suppresion in their global conspiracy.

What was particularly horrifying was its effect, a well designed piece of propaganda broadcasting an ideal that sickens to the core. (particularly twisted is the fact it Der Ewige Jude was held in a science museum).
The conclusion of this section presents the end result of these campaigns, a replica of the gate from Buchenwald, with its motto, Jedem Das Seine; “to each what they are due”. Here the classical sentiment of justice is corrupted into confinement of torture, enslavement and genocide. Interestingly though, the motto is written in a Bauhaus-esque style, the work of inmate Franz Erlich. A graduate of the Bauhaus and a communist, he had been imprisoned in Buchenwald in the early 1930’s. His choice of style can therefore be seen as a subtle form of resistance, utilising the very artistic forms the Nazis sought to destroy.

The aftermath of the Nazi era for Germany is explored through themes of dislocation, oppression and desperation. A simple wooden hand cart is a testament to the millions of refugees who either fled from the Soviet army as it progressed into Germany. It also stands for the thousands who were forcibly relocated from their homes in the post war carve up of territory simply for the fact that they were German speaking. A model of Friedrichstrasse station, deceptively child like in appearance spoke to the oppression of the Stasi, who used it for training their agents in preventing defections from the German Democratic Republic in the east. A wetsuit in the case alongside, flimsy and cheap in appearance was used in an attempt to escape East Germany via the Baltic in the 1980’s. Had its owners not been captured before they could implement this plan, it is highly probable that they would have simply froze to death in the crossing. Yet the chance to escape to the west was to them, worth the risk.

Of course, these days have now passed, Germany once again made new with the fall of the Berlin Wall twenty five years ago. It is appropriate therefore, that the exhibition should conclude with two objects that represent reunification, reconciliation and regeneration. The first is Ernst Barlach’s Hovering Angel, loaned from Güstrow. A potent War memorial, it represents mourning and a sharing of common grief, rejecting all form of glorification or national feeling.

Barlach's Hovering Angel, a symbol of grief and reconciliation. Image By User Bodoklecksel on de.wikipedia. Licensed under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Destroyed by the Nazis but made anew twice over (a version also hangs in Cologne), it is a symbol of a quest for reconciliation.
Secondly, just before exiting, you pass a model of the Reichstag, the building that housed the parliaments of the 1870’s German Empire and the Weimar republic in 1918. Set ablaze in 1933, and abandoned by the GDR in the Soviet era, it now hoses todays Bundestag, with one interesting architectural twist; a glass dome over the chamber, where normal citizens can walk over and literally “oversee” their representatives. Given a past of imperialistic oppression and government secrecy, it is an apt metaphor for what a democracy of the 21st century should be.

The selection of objects I have written about here are just a few of the stories that are covered in the exhibition, featuring far too many in a single post. It successfully takes the many strands of the subject matter and weaves them together, telling part of the story that has given me a whole new appreciation of Germany’s role in Europe and the world in an engaging, object led display.

*Germany: Memories of a Nation is at the British Museum until January 25th 2015. Tickets cost £10. An accompanying Radio 4 series can be found on BBC iPlayer at