Politician Strauss Depicted as "Villain": Madame Tussauds Riles Bavaria

By in Munich

Leaders of Bavaria's most popular political party, the conservative Christian Social Union, are outraged at a Madame Tussauds display in Berlin that depicts a political legend as a villain. The squabble with the British waxworks museum is threatening to develop into a diplomatic row.

Politicians in Bavaria are angered over Franz Josef Strauss's alleged depiction as a "villain" my Madame Tussauds.
DPA

Politicians in Bavaria are angered over Franz Josef Strauss's alleged depiction as a "villain" my Madame Tussauds.

Only a few weeks after its dramatic Berlin opening, the Madame Tussauds waxworks museum is back in the headlines. First it drew criticism for including Hitler and his bunker in its exhibition. Then a vandal decapitated the Hitler wax figure on the first day it was open to the public. And now the museum has angered politicians in the state of Bavaria for depicting a controversial former German defense minister as a "villain."

In a display entitled, "Heroes and Villains," Franz Josef Strauss appears in a photocollage with notorious East German spy Günter Guillaume -- and both are clearly slotted in the category of "villains." As heroes, the image features would-be Hitler assassin Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg and fighter pilot Manfred von Richthofen, who became known as the "Red Baron" during World War I. Though Strauss didn't make the cut to get a wax statue, the display has become a lightning rod for criticism.

Strauss is less known abroad than he was in Germany, where played a role in one of the most important chapters in postwar history -- a role the waxworks is seeking to illustrate in its exhibition. The text for the image, under the headline "political scandal," points to the so-called SPIEGEL affair that led to Strauss' resignation from his job as German defense minister in 1962. "Strauss ordered the arrest of SPIEGEL publisher Rudolf Augstein," the text reads. "He was held prisoner for 103 days. At first Strauss denied all responsibility, but he would later admit, under massive pressure, in a hearing of the German parliament, that he had lied. Afterwards he resigned."

The so-called "SPIEGEL Affair" was the most important event in the magazine's history. After SPIEGEL published a cover story about the weaknesses of Germany's defense strategy against a Soviet invasion, police raided the magazine's office and arrested its publisher, Rudolf Augstein (along with a handful of top editors), and detained him for 103 days. The magazine was accused of treason, but the scandal reinforced its "reputation as a bulwark of press freedom," as the Columbia Journalism Review recently wrote.

Strauss was deeply implicated in the scandal. He had secretly and illegally ordered Augstein's arrest. The scandal offered the first major test of West Germany's young democracy, and Strauss was forced to resign. The affair became so important in German postwar history that Madame Tussauds' new Berlin museum could hardly overlook it.

But was Strauss a "villain," or not? Natalie Ruoss, a spokesperson for Madame Tussauds in Berlin, said the point wasn't to pass judgement. "It's up to visitors to decide whether he is a hero or a villain," she said. Madame Tussauds claims it "hasn't categorized" any of the characters. She said Madame Tussauds wasn't trying to depict Strauss' entire life, either -- just the SPIEGEL scandal.

Nevertheless, the kerfuffle has outraged politicians in Bavaria, where Strauss is seen by many as a hero, a man who helped pave the way for reunification. Recently, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in Communist East Germany, pointed out, "If it weren't for this man, I would not be standing here and the Berlin Wall would not have fallen." Senior members of Strauss' party, the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), as well as the former defense minister's family, are deeply offended by his portrayal at Madame Tussauds.

'Comparing Dog Shit to the Materhorn'

After the SPIEGEL affair, Strauss returned to Bavarian politics -- except for one three-year stint in Bonn as finance minister. He served as Bavaria's premier from 1978 until his death in 1988, and remained a lifelong anticommunist. He's remembered in particular for opposing a 1973 "detente" treaty to normalize political ties between East and West Germany. He said the treaty violated a constitutional measure to seek eventual German reunification.

"What a mess," CSU boss Erwin Huber huffed to a reporter with Munich's Abendzeitung newspaper about the Tussauds affair. Anyone who so "steadfastly" fought for German reunification "can only belong to the list of heroes." Strauss' son, Max Strauss, said: "These guys are out to lunch." And another Strauss son, Franz Georg, announced: "We are going to take action against them." Georg said he was particularly offended by the comparison of his brother to Guillaume. "It's like comparing dog shit to the Materhorn," he said.

The politician in Bavaria responsible for the state's ties with the European Union, Markus Söder of the CSU, says the Madame Tussauds affair could lead to a full-on diplomatic row with Britain. He's asking the German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier to intervene. "He needs to tell people in London that an action like this puts a strain on relations between Bavaria and England." Söder, who claims that as a child he hung a "giant poster" of Strauss in his bedroom, is outraged. "This is a real scandal. And they are attempting to provoke people with this exhibition."

He also called on Madame Tussauds' British historians to visit a recently opened exhibition about Franz Josef Strauss's political career at the Bavarian government's offices in Berlin. "There they could learn how to truly appreciate the importance of Franz Josef Strauss."

Two weeks ago, a traveling exhibition about Strauss' political work opened in Berlin to commemorate the 20th anniversary of his death. Tussauds spokeswoman Ruoss said she would keep Söder's tip in mind, but that she "hadn't heard anything" about the exhibition.

The CSU party's general secretary, Christine Haderthauer, said Tussauds historians could stand to learn a thing or two about Strauss. She said she planned to send them a package of information. After reading it, "they will conclude that there is only one correct place for Strauss: on the list of heroes," Haderthauer told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

The head of the CSU faction in the Bavarian state parliament, Georg Schmid, is also calling for changes. "I expect the exhibition to be overhauled," he said. But Madame Tussauds spokeswoman Ruoss said no such consideration had been made, and that no one from the state had made personal contact with the museum.

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