Berlin museum exhibition views Hitler's hold on Germans

"Hitler and the Germans — Nation and Crime" juxtaposes Nazi propaganda with documentation on regime brutality, German involvement.

Nazi exhibition Berlin 311 AP (photo credit: Associated Press)
Nazi exhibition Berlin 311 AP
(photo credit: Associated Press)
BERLIN — A major Berlin museum is launching an exhibition that seeks to explore how Adolf Hitler won and held mass support among Germans for his destructive regime.
"Hitler and the Germans — Nation and Crime," which opens Friday at the German Historical Museum, juxtaposes the Nazis' propaganda images and artifacts such as 1930s Hitler busts with footage and documentation on the regime's brutality and Germans' involvement in it.
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Germany has seen many exhibitions exploring the events of the Nazi era, but this one puts Hitler himself more squarely at the forefront. It comes more than 75 years after the Nazis took control, as Germans increasingly look at Hitler not just as a one-dimensional tyrant, but as a man who enjoyed vast popularity before plunging the country into war.
The aim is to explore "how this power and influence, this domination of Adolf Hitler can be explained, and to make clear that one of the factors was the readiness to approve and the readiness to go along of large parts of society," said curator Hans-Ulrich Thamer.
It "tries to explain the functioning, mass support and destructive strength of the regime," Thamer, a historian and professor at the University of Muenster, told reporters during a tour of the exhibition.
The collection of some 600 exhibits, along with 400 photos and posters, takes visitors chronologically through the life of the regime. Nearly three-quarters of the material comes from the museum's own extensive stores.
It portrays the Nazis' dual approach of making the German masses feel included in their movement — illustrated by a case full of various Nazi organizations' uniforms and a Nazi rally flag — while excluding those whom they had identified as enemies, such as Jews.
The latter is underlined by photos of Jewish deportations and of hospital patients being taken away for euthanasia — exhibited alongside an order signed by Hitler for the "incurably ill" to be granted "mercy death" — along with a note from a German company about equipment being supplied to the Auschwitz death camp.
Such exhibits underline the fact that "the persecution of political opponents, the persecution of Jewish fellow citizens, the deportation of Jewish citizens took place in front of everyone's eyes," Thamer said.
The exhibition shows Hitler's ubiquity in Nazi-era German life in everything down to playing cards, yet the curator steered clear of securing any personal belongings of the dictator. He argued that that would have little explanatory value and said he didn't want to "support the peculiar fascination" that such items might exert.
Hitler himself had little natural charisma — "all he could do was speak and agitate, but he (got) his charisma above all from expectations," Thamer said. "Other people presumed that he was the one who could bring salvation and national healing."
That led to growing support as Germans hit by the economic misery of the 1920s looked for a strong leader and sought scapegoats, "and Hitler offered them that in stigmatizing enemies, above all the Jews and Marxism," he added.
Thamer said he doesn't expect the exhibition to generate controversy and isn't worried that fringe far-right groups might try somehow to take advantage.
Germany has become increasingly comfortable with confronting the phenomenon of Hitler's rule directly over time. In recent years, Hitler has been the subject of one German film portraying his final days, "Downfall," and another portraying him as a comical idiot — "Mein Fuehrer: The Truly Truest Truth about Adolf Hitler." He also has appeared as a waxwork at the Berlin branch of Madame Tussaud's.
The general secretary of Germany's Central Council of Jews, Stephan Kramer, said he hadn't yet seen the exhibition and couldn't comment.
The show is open daily through February 6.