An Opportunity Missed The Failure of Berlin's Hitler Exhibition to Break New Ground

The exhibition on Hitler that opened in Berlin on Friday has merely tapped into existing fascination with the Führer rather than break new ground in exploring German history. It is a missed opportunity because Germany needs to find a new approach towards confronting its past.

A visitor to the Hitler exhibition at the German History Museum on Friday negotiates her way between two photographs of the Führer.
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A visitor to the Hitler exhibition at the German History Museum on Friday negotiates her way between two photographs of the Führer.

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The German Historical Museum did an excellent PR job last week. It touted its new exhibition "Hitler and the Germans -- Nation and Crime" as the first comprehensive exhibition on the Führer since 1945.

Local and international media took the bait and said the show was "breaking a taboo" with its focus on Hitler. One British broadcaster gave the impression that this was the first time Germans were being confronted with their past.

They are wrong. There is nothing truly groundbreaking about this exhibition, despite the thorough research that no doubt went into it.

It provides a potted history of the rise of the Nazi party and the Third Reich, throwing in some telling exhibits that convey how fervently the nation embraced a man the curators describe as an "unprepossessing character" -- objects such as a large tapestry lovingly stitched by women's groups showing troops of brownshirts and Hitler youth flocking into a church, a set of playing cards featuring Nazi leaders and a fan book of photos titled "Hitler as No One Knows Him."

Last Friday, the day the temporary exhibition opened in central Berlin, it was packed with Germans and foreign tourists. Few are likely to have come away much wiser. The myth of an innocent nation led astray by an evil clique was debunked decades ago as nothing more than a feeble excuse proffered by the generation that followed him. Anyone who still believes in it is hopelessly ignorant.

Authentic Sites Tell Same Story

For years, exhibitions up and down the country have focused on all aspects of the Nazi era. Ultimately, the fascination with Hitler is explored to greater effect at original sites such as the Nuremberg Nazi party rally ground or Hitler's Berghof mountain retreat, where museums have been set up over the last decade to show younger generations how their forefathers adored the Führer.

In Nuremberg, an award-winning show called "Fascination and Violence" uses contemporary film footage to convey the pseudo-religious mass worship of Hitler at the party rallies. The Berghof museum above Berchtesgaden in the Bavarian Alps, erected a stone's throw from the overgrown rubble of the foundations of Hitler's retreat, contains vintage propaganda that tells the same story as the Berlin exhibition.

The last truly taboo-breaking exhibition was shown in the 1990s and explored how the Wehrmacht, the regular German army, was involved in the Holocaust and in war crimes on the Eastern Front -- a deeply controversial accusation that brought guilt into millions of German households because it tainted fathers and grandfathers who had fought in the east.

The 2004 German movie "Downfall" about Hitler's last days in his bunker represented a far bigger step than the Berlin exhibition because it was the first to provide a dramatic portrayal of Hitler up close and personal, in fits of spitting rage and in moments of kindness towards his staff.

Exhibition Shied Away From Controversy

The historians who devised "Hitler and the Germans" have shied away from controversy. They stopped short of presenting any personal artefacts of Hitler apart form a sideboard from his bombastic Reich chancellery office.

The sound of his voice is conspicuous by its absence from the showrooms in the bowels of the Zeughaus, the former Prussian armory where the German Historical Museum is located. There is also a lack of recorded interviews with Germans alive today who followed Hitler, although it may admittedly have proved difficult to find willing subjects.

A closer, more intimate look at the man may have broken new ground, but the curators said they didn't venture that far because they didn't want to exude any fascination for him -- a faintly hypocritical stance given that they are presumably aware that the Führer's magnetism will be drawing many thousands of paying visitors into the museum in the coming months.

Hitler is Big Business

The Führer is omnipresent in Germany today. It is big business for the media. TV channels broadcast documentaries about him, the Nazi era or World War II almost daily. Newspapers and magazines regularly run stories about the Nazi era, well aware that their circulation will benefit. News websites see their page views surge whenever articles about him are published. The Berlin exhibition itself features 46 SPIEGEL front pages featuring Hitler that have been published since 1964.

The Berlin exhibition, while laudable and no doubt illuminating for school groups, merely confirms that interest in the Nazi era is steadily increasing.

Germany, or at least the western part of it, has done an impressive job of confronting its past guilt, unlike Austria or Japan. Now, as the last people who witnessed the Nazi era are gradually dying out, the country has to find a new approach towards remembering it -- a difficult task given the widening chasm between Germany's collective national responsibility for the war and the Holocaust and the absence of individual guilt in the vast majority of Germans alive today.

The country has no option but to continue confronting its past. After all, the 65 years that have passed since the end of the war are less than a modern lifetime. The Holocaust will remain in human memory for some time to come.

Focus on the Nation, Not Hitler

But could it happen again? Given that this cultured, educated, sophisticated nation embraced a Führer once before, it would be truly groundbreaking to explore whether the Germans of today have anything in common with their forefathers that could predispose them to repeating history.

A survey released by the Friedrich-Ebert Foundation last week showed what its researchers called a "significant increase in anti-democratic and racist views" in Germany this year. Based on a survey of 2,411 people aged 14 to 90, it concluded that right-wing extremism was not a phenomenon on the periphery of society but in the center.

Given the venom with which mainstream politicians are railing against immigrants in the current integration debate, a closer look at this issue might be called for sooner rather than later.

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