"Forced labour", "Hitler & the Germans": controversial exhibitions in Berlin
Berlin , an ever-evolving history exhibition in itself, is hosting two historically significant history exhibitions: “Zwangsarbeit” (Forced labour) in the Jewish Musuem, and “Hitler und die Deutschen – Volksgemeinschaft und Verbrechen” (vaguely translatable as Hitler & the Germans – national community and crime – but the English never had a Volksgemeinschaft, thanksfully) in the German Historical Musuem. Significant, if not for other reasons, because they are the first exhibitions on forced labour and on Hitler in Germany ever – however strange this may sound at first.
The Jewish Musuem is a difficult place to host an exhibition in. Built in 1998 in Kreuzberg by Daniel Libeskind, it is such an astonishing building – with its broken geometry and its “voids” - that it attracted more visitors in the first three years, when it was empty, than since 2001, when the Museum was inaugurated – and still many say the museum was better when there was no museum. Temporary exhibitions, however, are in the old building so at least they don’t have the empty corridors as hard (impossible) act to follow. “Forced labour” in Nazi Germany has been, until now, overshadowed by the bigger and unique crime of the Shoah. In the after-war processes, it was not treated as a crime against humanity in itself – only individual (and hard to proof) cases of inhumane treatment were persecuted. It had, however, a huge importance: it involved millions of victims and was an inherent part of the Nazi economic and military machine. It is therefore significant that this exhibition comes from the Jewish Museum, certainly the last institution wanting to downplay the Shoah. Not only: this exhibition is not Jewish specific, and it pays equal space, from the beginning, to non-Jewish victims, from German opponents, to Gypsies, to Poles, and eventually the inhabitants of all occupied countries and 600,000 Italian soldiers after Italy's surrender (by the way, my grandfather escaped forced labour by pretending to be German – this family story explains why I started to learn languages very early).
The exhibition contains telling documents and images of conditions in labour camps. For instance, official inspection reports checking prisoners’ conditions and concluding “the food is insufficient to survive – no action required”. I found most telling the letters from forced labourers in agriculture, mostly Poles. Forced labourers constituted half the wartime agricultural workforce of the Third Reich (in other words, half of Germans’ food came from slaves' work), but within Germany they were mostly kept separated: one per farm. They therefore suffered from extreme isolation and although some were treated humanly, the letters show how inhumane the farmer could be. And if each German farmer had a forced labourer, how does the story that the German population didn’t know hold?
What however lacks in the exhibition – and again I speak from a professionally distorted point of view – is the context and nature of forced labour. Unpaid labour was essential for the German economy (already since 1933) – but how essential? Occasional employers are named or portrayed, but which large companies used forced labour most? And, crucially, how? Which forms of constraint could guarantee a decent productivity? What were the relations, if any, between forced and "normal" labourers? And which survival (literally) strategies could workers use? Sorry if these questions sound cynical, but I don’t think we can grasp the phenomenon without answering them. In the exhibition there is a striking lack of data, figures, company names, and work schedules. It is still worth seeing, but is not enough. All the more that – something which is never mentioned – slavery has not disappeared and there are millions of forced labourers around the world.
The German History Museum is in amazing building too. The Zeughaus is the best baroque building in Berlin, on Unter den Linden, besides the Dom. And it has not been elegantly enlarged by I. M. Pei, in Louvre’s style (Kohl ‘s timid answer to Mitterrand). But in this case, the crowd comes for the exhibition: for Hitler? No Nazi in the long, at least half-foreign queue, of course, but it is still quite shocking. In post-war Germany – where a Nazi salute still lands you in jail, unlike in Italy – nobody had dared devoting an exhibition to Hitler before. This first attempt has very clearly avoided any celebratory style. There are no “relics” (which are anyway kept safe in Moscow) apart from a couple of autographic sketches and notes, and no monumental portrayal. Moreover, all propaganda material is directly counterbalanced by critical comment and images on the criminal dimension behind it – footage from the 1937 Hitler–Mussolini summit being followed by Chaplin's caricature of the same meeting, for instance). And the exhibition is not on Hitler. It is on Hitler and the Germans. Germans, the curators say, have tended in both East and West to unload all guilt on Hitler and not thought enough about what relations they had had with him. Movies such as "The Downfall" have gone in the same direction of isolating the individual from the context.
This is the proclaimed reason for this exhibition: Hitler’s problem is still open, and each generation has to find its own answers. This is an understatement: of course the Hitler problem is not closed. A book is coming out ("Das Amt und die Vergangenheit”, by E. Conze, N. Frei, P. Hayes, M. Zimmermann), as a result of a historians’ commission called by then Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, on the role of the German Foreign Office in the Thirld Reich. And it found that, against the received myth of their non-co-operation and even conspiracy, German diplomats actively participated in Nazi crimes. Believed innocent, they mostly remained in their posts after the war, but it now emerges that, when in the Fifties they all looked good Europeans, they were also secretly assisting Nazi criminals in foreign hiding. So sure, the story is not over and there are new questions to be asked all the time.
But does this exhibition ask the questions? The understandable concern with “the context” made the curators fall into the opposite mistake than those of the one on forced labour. The context is overwhelming, and the visit turns into an intensive crush course on the history of the Third Reich. Some details do indeed shed some light on the relation between Hitler and its Volk. Some Nazi posters and the huge variety of little souvenirs are impressive (and one poster was a reminder that the issue is not closed: a racist graph showing what will happen to Germany if “low-quality” people make have more children than “high-quality” people; it looks, apart from the racist pictures, as taken directly from the bestselling book by Sarrazin that is dividing Germany right now, and on which I will comment in another blog). Some information is interesting, for instance employers’ reports, on one side grateful to the regime for keeping wages so low, but on the other side moaning about all symbolic practices they had to introduce to pretend they were comrades with the workers. I found most interesting the number of letters and cards sent to Hitler on his 43rd birthday, by adoring men, women and children, with poems, prayers and drawings. I would have made an exhibition just out of that material – although obviously counterbalanced by epistolary materials from Hitler’s victims. Instead, the curators overburdened the ten rooms with all sort of historical material about all that happened in Hitler’s political life. People’s perception of Hitler, and Hitler’s manipulation of it, which should have been the focus, is therefore lost under a mountain of contextual and unoriginal information, which might have been better visually separated. If you want to know about resistance, for instance, you need to wait for a multimedia computer at the end. Tourists seemed to enjoy the exhibit, but I doubt the new German generations will find their answers, or even their questions, in it.
More answers are provided by the film retrospective associated to the exhibition. Besides a few fiction movies, the highlights were Leni Riesenthal’s films (Der Sieg des Glaubens; Tag der Freiheit: Unsere Wehrmacht; Triumph des Willens). This again is significant because these films, which were seen (willingly or not) by one third of the Reich's population, can only be shown in today’s Germany within a cultural event and with an expert’s introduction and guidance, so they are hardly known directly, a strange fate for what are considered by some as the most important works in cinema’s history. When queuing with H for the screening of Der Sieg des Glaubens we even felt a moment of uneasiness, as if doing something not so licit. The historian Jeanpaul Goergen did his best to make sure the spirit of the German constitution was respected with his very erudite but also quite boring 45min introduction, that would have screened away any non culturally-motivated spectator – but there was no need for it (an interesting bit of information, though, was that it is the Riesenthal’s fake re-enactment propaganda images, not the historic ones, which are still unawarily used in history books, and even on the website of the German parliament, to illustrate the 30th of January 1933). It’s especially the second of the Nüremberg movies that portrays a symbolic “marriage” between a marching Volk and a Führer arriving from the sky, who find each other in a symphony of images and unite at night. The effect of such images in the 1930s is hard to underestimate, although it can't have been the only factor.
The significance of these two controversial exhibition is apparent in the contrast with a third, uncontroversial one. One floor above the crowded Hitler’s exhibition there is another one, included in the same ticket. It is devoted to Reunification. It was near-empty, and so was the cinema during its own film retrospective (at one screening we were three in total: they kept the museum open for us). As I had written in my previous blog, that topic has become so boring in just 20 years. Other topics have not, after 70 years.