New museum explores German identity

Hitler's globe, Napoleon's hat, tell story of Germany's violent history in new exhibit.

hitler 88 (photo credit: )
hitler 88
(photo credit: )
The globe Adolf Hitler gazed upon while contemplating world domination is in remarkably good condition but for one blemish, the bullet hole directly through Berlin, inflicted by a Soviet soldier after the Nazi dictator's defeat in 1945. The oversized orb is just one highlight of the more-than 8,000 artifacts in the German Historical Museum's groundbreaking new permanent display on the country's 2,000-year-old past, which seeks to help Germans rediscover their identity. With World War II and the Nazi genocide still in living memory, many Germans have shunned the study of their own past. Museum director Hans Ottomeyer hopes the exhibit can contribute to changing that. "It is a history that has been shaped by dramatic wars and long periods of peace," Ottomeyer said. "We attempt to show what strategies are used to generate hate, to vilify others, and start wars. On the other hand we show how reasonable policies form the basis for prosperity and times of peace." Though the 12 years the Nazis were in power makes up one of the largest sections of the exhibit, Ottomeyer said the museum also wanted to make sure to put the era in perspective to show "that there is also another history than the one which found its terrible fulfillment in the 20th century." The bullet-pierced globe signifies the Nazi collapse. Among many other items, the museum also displays Hitler's massive wooden desk from his Berlin chancellory, and a model of architect Albert Speer's plan for a massive "Hall of the People," the never-built centerpiece to Hitler's concept of a new Berlin called "Germania." In addressing the Holocaust, the museum augments artifacts with art and photographs, but focuses on a haunting all-white cutaway model of the gas chambers and crematoria at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Small figures are shown walking in, undressing, being gassed, then being shoveled into the ovens. "There was a big discussion about how one could present the Holocaust," Trabold said. "How can you look at six million dead? The artist here presents it as individual fates, and when one sees this the unimaginable is slightly more tangible." The 7,500 square meter (more than 80,000 square foot) exhibition, being officially opened Friday by Chancellor Angela Merkel at the museum on the Unter den Linden boulevard, spans long corridors posted with "milestone" markers, in English and German, that tell the story of each era. Visitors interested in more about a certain period can head off the main path for side exhibits at every stop. The journey starts in 9 A.D., a common marker of the birth of Germany when Germanic tribes ambushed and destroyed three Roman legions in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. The defeat ended Roman plans to extend their power beyond the Rhine River. Alongside bones from the battlefield is the eerie iron mask from a Roman's helmet dug up at the site in northwestern Germany. "The mask flew off, the Germans took all the silver off of it, and this is what survived," said museum spokesman Rudolf Trabold. "The exhibits are all originals. The idea is that the objects of the time are all eyewitnesses." As the visitor walks through the centuries, the museum seeks to put its artifacts in context, using different forms of media from each period to illustrate the era. Some items of interest include Napoleon's hat that he wore at the Battle of Waterloo, where combined British, Dutch and Prussian troops defeated him in 1815. A rare German copy of the US Declaration of Independence, dated July 4, 1776 with John Hancock's name at the bottom, starts with "Wenn es im lauf menschlicher Begebenheiten..." instead of the better-known "When in the course of human events..." "There were a lot of German-speaking citizens in Philadelphia, so they also printed a German edition," said Trabold, adding it is one of three known German-language copies to have survived. The death mask of German President Paul von Hindenburg, whose passing in 1934 allowed Hitler to effectively take over his office after being elected chancellor the year before, serves to help mark the beginning of the Nazi era. The exhibition winds up by taking visitors through postwar divided Germany, then to the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification, ending with a picture of the "Wrapped Reichstag," when in 1995 New York-based artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude covered the German parliament building in a silvery fabric, creating a flow of vertical folds. Again, the choice was symbolic. "A people who can allow that to be done with their house of parliament is comfortable with their history," Trabold said.