All 6 entries tagged Berlin
December 22, 2010
Airports are open, so my three-month stay in Berlin ends today. Time for some summary reflections on this city, starting from the obvious: 3 months is not nearly enough to experience a city as large, varied and complex as Berlin.
Arm aber sexy
“Poor but sexy” is Berliners’ self-portrayal, starting from mayor Wowereit who, as a gay, can avoid the charge of sexism the use of the S word would involve in more PC countries. It’s an honest self-portrayal. Berlin is by far the cheapest capital of western Europe, and cheaper even than some eastern European capitals – after all, it still is a half-Eastern European city, and the other half wasn’t even a capital until quite recently. A near-20% unemployment rate does moderate prices. In all other European capitals the majority tends to be money-rich but time-poor, with an effect of hurry, selfishness, arrogance. Berlin is different: people have time rather than money, good taste rather than expensive cloths, bikes rather than SUV, spend the week-end in the parks and lakes rather than on foreign breaks.
It may change. The completely redeveloped Mitte may have some great new architecture, but is already undistinguishable from any downtown in Europe or USA. And in 2009 Berlin has overtaken Rome as third most-visited city in Europe (after Paris and London): demand is bound to increase prices and distort habits. But Berlin, while continuously changing, also develops forms of resistance. Gradual gentrification in once-popular neighbourhoods (first Prenzlauer Berg and Mitte, then Kreuzberg, now North Neukölln…) meets opposition, and so does tourism. The radical Left’s magazine Interim has launched, for 2011, an anti-tourism campaign with sabotage and disruption of hotels and tourist sights. Even if this materialises, if you visit Berlin in 2011 you have two solutions: first, do what is logic anyway, throw the Lonely Planet into the bin and stay off the beaten track, thereby avoiding the protests; alternatively, accept that the radical Left is itself a Berlin attraction, and join in, maybe asking passer-byes to take souvenir pictures of you throwing eggs at the sightseeing bus under the Brandenburger Tor.
Not only Currywurst
Germans share with Brits a dubious record: nations that spend the smallest share of their income on food. So none comes to Germany expecting gastronomic revelations. As an advantage over the Brits, Germans at least have their practical, efficient functionality: so food at least is real, not junk. I like the markets with, in Autumn, the central European wild mushrooms, root vegetables, apples & pears, smoked freshwater fish (eel!), cooked meat (Blutwurst!). And bakeries, despite the expansion of chains, are mostly still real bakeries making a large variety of excellent bread (alongside less inspired cakes): my street has seven bakers, more than the whole of Coventry. Imbiss kiosks, with their shared standing tables, offer more reasonable food in a more social setting than fast food chains or British fish & chips – even if I believe the Berlin’s pride “currywurst” should have remained what it originally was: a mistake, not a recipe.
Restaurants and bars tend to offer reasonable, reliable, comfortable fare for very reasonable prices – from the traditional potato soup, Eisbein (pork hock) and calve liver, to, increasingly, healthier things. Execution and service tend to be very skilled, thanks to the German vocational training system, and waiters strike the right mid-way between Italian overfriendliness and French stuffyness. In the huge surrounding parks you can also have idyllic near-wilderness experiences in outposts such as the Alte Fischerhütte or the Forsthaus Paulsborn. Italian restaurants are very popular, also thanks to the large Italian ex-Gastarbeiter population, but having tried a few I was just confirmed in my belief that yes, you can eat fantastic Italian food outside Italy, but only if you pay for it more than the price of a ticket to Italy. A newer and more interesting fashion is Austrian food, with cafes, patisseries, delicatessen shops and restaurants: try Sebastian Frank’s Horváth in Kreuzberg before it is deluged with Michelin stars. For more ambitious German food, in minimalistic settings, “N°45” on the new-posh Kollowitzplatz (with its organic Bio-market for VIPs, equivalent of London’s Borough Market or Paris’ organic Sunday market on Bd Raspail) cooks with local, Brandenburg ingredients, extremely sophisticated techniques, but none of the obsession with presentation and concept that overburdens the nouvelle cuisine of France or Britain. So Berlin’s food is, too, “arm aber sexy”.
Angela Merkel may repeat that multiculturalism – whatever she means by it - has failed, but in Berlin, in an important aspect of European culture, it is alive and well: you can find bars to watch, with the corresponding community, food and beer, just any European football league: Italian, Turkish, English, Spanish… And when the time comes for Germany-Turkey in the Olympiastadium, the 80,000 public is evenly split between Germans and Turks, Özil scores a fine goal for Germany, and after the game the injury and arrest count is three times lower than for the average second-league Hertha game.
On the other side, while eastern Europeans and southern Europeans (including many Turks) blend in a rather lively way, in comparison with other large western European cities Berlin is still remarkably white, especially in the eastern part, except for some residual ex-DDR Vietnamese (who cook well, by the way). I hear repeatedly that blacks don’t feel welcome, also in comparison to the rest of (western) Europe. Recent research (from Bielefeld’s sociologists, as well as from Münster’s) points that Germans are more hostile to non-Europeans, Muslims and Jews (!) than the neighbouring nations – although, at least, not in an “aggressive” way: fear of the unknown more than hatred of something real. Germany‘s enviable record of not having a significant rightwing-populist party may not last for long – so far, the populist Right had little space because the Linke covered social discontent, and the FDP covered the middle classes’ – but now the FDP tax populism has imploded (in the opinion polls the party is down to 3%, from 15% last year, good omen for the British Lib-Dems), while the Linke is deeply split.
The best mean of transport in spacious, green and flat Berlin is the bicycle, but the round-the-clock public transport (also considering the large investment that was needed to link the eastern and western networks) is not bad. Or so I thought until, in November, I was informed that my monthly pass was extended for two more weeks, as a compensation for the poor level of service offered – which I hadn’t even noticed: used to Italian, Polish and British standards, I don’t have high expectations. Actually, does this extension-compensation principle apply to the rest of the EU? I should be entitled to a few years free transport in Milan and in the West Midlands…
In fact the disservice (again over the last few weeks due to snow) was limited to the S-Bahn, the bit which has been privatised (to Deutsche Bahn), while municipal buses, tramways and U-Bahn are perfect. Just another lesson on privatisation and efficiency…
German newspapers are as thick and heavy as the British ones, but have much less advertising and much more to read. They are also more old-fashion: mostly broadsheet, with a focus on main news rather than investigative journalism or comment, and rather similar titles to each others and to the previous night TV news. I wonder if they can survive for long in this way in the internet era. For a three-month stay, I came to enjoy their rather old style, especially when reading them in the already old-style decadent setting of Berlin’s cafés, and their international coverage is impressive (for British newspapers, foreign news mostly means “US+Commonwealth+British tourists abroad”, and for Italian newspapers, it mostly means “what the world says of Italy”). Serious national papers are also more numerous than in any other EU country (stricter antitrust laws than in UK or Italy), which must be good for democracy.
While the main German papers are from West Germany, Berlin has its good share of serious papers: Tagesspiegel, Berliner Morgenpost, Berliner Zeitung. Good local news pages across Germany may partly explain a new wave of local-issues collective action across the country. I became affectionate to the Berliner Zeitung, originally from East Berlin, left-of-centre, similar look to the serious Zürcher Zeitung but lighter, proving that you can write short but non-nonsense articles, and devote much space to culture (it collaborates with the Frankfurter Rundschau). But the best Berlin’s paper is Tageszeitung, or taz, originally from the New Left and Kreuzberg’s occupied houses, now a bit too close to the Greens but still with excellent writing. And Berlin even has two other newspapers more to the Left: the former-SED Neues Deutschland and the former FDJ (DDR Youth) Junge Welt. Both a bit too propaganda-like to my taste, but with interesting information on union issues.
The problem is the excess of choice, source of dilemmas and regrets as you will miss 99.9% of the 3 thick pages of events published in the newspapers everyday. Cabaret in French, opera in Italian, talks in English, songs in Russian… Large choice of international, original language films, even if the Hollywood blockbusters are (deservedly) dubbed. The best concert hall and the best philharmonic orchestra in the world (with a new director from Birmingham, how little the world is).
And the museums. I have an ambivalent attitude to the museums. When I first visit places, they are never a priority (I confess to have seen no New York museum after three stays there): I have so many art books at home that the added value of seeing the original after the reproduction is marginal, in comparison to the irrepleceable and irreproduceable value of experiencing new quarters, views, foods; and most museums are just too big and crowded to provide a pleasant experience when visited in a hurry. But if I stay in a place for longer, and I can find the right time (Monday 9am, Tuesday 9pm…) to go, I love them and can’t understand how the locals can ignore their offerings, maybe because they have already seen them 20 years ago. Berlin is phenomenal in this regard. The Museumsinsel is being modernised and the ‘new’ Neues Museum and Bodemuseum are spectacular, with the right light for each individual work. The Zeughaus and the Judisches Museum are as instructive and absorbing as the best history books. On the Freie Universität campus, just out of the office for my lunch breaks, there are the Dahlem ethnographic and Asian museums, excellent compensations for an otherwise Eurocentric city. The Hamburger Bahnhof hosts amazing contemporary exhibitions in an exceptionally spacious setting. But my old favourite is still the Berggruen Sammlung – now, after his death, Berggruen Museum. A relatively small museum in a homely setting, with only masterpieces from Picasso, Matisse, Klee, Giacometti, individually chosen with a strong personal touch by Berggruen himself while he was helping Picasso & Co to sell (what a difficult job): I leave it as happy as after having seen old friends, not museum pieces.
December 16, 2010
Neukölln, in South Berlin, has been elevated to the status of the most infamous neighbourhood of German politics by Thilo Sarrazin. The (ex)socialdemocratic Bundesbank board member, in his xenophobic, eugenetics bestseller “Deutschland schaffts sich ab”, devoted a long part to Neukölln as a dangerous ghetto demonstrating the impossibility of integrating Turks, and the necessity of hard “help less, ask more” policies towards immigrants. He largely quotes is party-comrade Buschkowsky, mayor of Neukölln who had warned about the failures of multiculturalism, in contrast to the equally socialdemocratic, but more politically correct and inclusive Berlin’s gay president Klaus Wowereit, keen on developing a ‘diversity-friendly’ image for the capital.
But if you go to Neukölln expecting some thrilling emotions, to see flying knives, masked terrorists or anything of the like, you will be bitterly disappointed. Coming from the city centre, when entering Neukölln you actually first go through the trendiest part of today’s Berlin (“Kreuzkölln”, or crossing between gentrified-Kreuzberg and Neukölln): here are the most fashionable clubs, and in a grid of pleasant, leafy streets there is a variety of cafés, ethnic delicatessen, art shops and bookshops – often combined in the same outlet. At Hermannplatz the more ethnic part of Neukölln starts, and the 20%-plus unemployment is reflected in the poorest standard of shops and bars. But still, coming from the West Midlands and being familiar with its 80%-Asian neighbourhoods (Sparkbrook), I wonder how they can call this heterogeneous mix of Arabs, Turks, blacks, eastern Europeans, South Europeans and, indeed, Germans, a “ghetto”. The schools of the area had gained a bad reputation of segregation, failure, drop out and violence – but over recent years they have shown mark improvements with a series of pragmatic integration policies such as longer school hours (despite his sometimes alarmist tones, on pragmatic grounds Buschkowsky is certainly capable and widely appreciated). Social housing is sometimes controversial (i.e. the high towers Gropiusstadt, setting of Christiane F.'s "Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo"), but better than certain British council estates or French HLM. Green areas are pleasant and there are popular playgrounds with spontaneous multi-ethnic social activity, but are now threatened by developers: who should be blamed then if integration fails? The nearby recently closed historic airport of Tempelhof, now a huge park, offers opportunites of regeneration - or speculation.
Neukölln main street is Karl-Marx Straße, and in the middle of it, behind a pleasant courtyard, is hidden a surviving, stylish XIX-Century Ballroom, now turned into café, cultural centre and theatre, Heimathafen. The café Rix is in old Berlinese style but mixes German with Middle-Eastern food. The theatre is austere, as it receives no public funding, but its program exciting. I went to "Arabqueen", directed by Nicole Oder, loosely based on the recent novel on forced marriage “Arabqueen oder der Geschmack der Freiheit” by the young feminist writer and journalist of Turkish origins Günner Yasemin Balci. German literature is currently being reinvigorated by a lively generation of writers with immigration background: four of the six authors, including the winner, of this year Deutscher Buchpreis have non-German origins. In Arabqueen, just three actresses (Tanya Erartsin, Inka Löwendorf, Sascha Ö.Soydan) play a dozen parts, sometimes changing role during the same scene: the two sisters Fatme and Mariam, their mother, their Paris-raised hippy friend Lena, a few other funny local characters and, with great effect, the Middle-Eastern macho-acting boys. Thanks to their outstanding acting skills, this multiple interpretation has the effect of highlighting the complex, contrasted variety of humanity in Neukölln – starting from the ambivalence of the headscarf. The only character who never appears on stage, despite being heavily felt, is the tyrannic, double-standard moral father, who interrupts Fatme’s flirting and imposes a forced marriage.
The play is very well received, by critics and by the audience, as a revival of "Volkstheater", people’s theatre’: close representation of local everyday working-class life, by local actresses, with no political tones but still a political message. But after so much funny and moving theatre, once the lights on, with everybody clapping, it was impossible not to notice that, in the middle of Neukölln, Turks made just about 10% of the audience (although a good thing with Turks is that you can’t always tell them apart…). Which is better than in many other cases of ‘ethnic arts’ (i.e. blues music in Chicago, where the only blacks are unavoidably the performers), but reminds that cultural segregation is a reality.
December 11, 2010
The Hamburger Bahnhof, a derelict station in no man’s land at the times of the Wall, claims now to be the biggest contemporary art museum in Europe – at least in the narrow sense of art from 1960 (Museum für Gegenwart, i.e. Museum of the Present). Its size allows it to currently host the unique exhibition by Carsten Höller, “Soma”.
Soma is the miraculous drink allowing enlightenment and access to the divine sphere in the Ringveda, the oldest Hindu scripture (and, from the 2nd millennium BC, arguably the oldest surviving religious scripture overall). As it happens after so much time, nobody remembers the nature of this Soma, but since the XIX century philologists, scientists and ethnologists have converged over the hypothesis that the decisive ingredient was the fly amanita mushroom. Wait: the fly amanita mushroom is poisonous, so how could they drink its extract? Simple, by filtering – and the most likely way the Central Asian tribes of 4,000 years ago could filter it is through the kidneys of their fellow reindeer, who, themselves, are keen fly amanita eaters. Reindeer urine (possibly with some taste corrector) should have been the basis of Soma and the key to knowledge and to the divine sphere.
This is hitherto just speculative hypothesis. Carsten Höller, who has a Habilitation (second PhD) in agriculture sciences and whose artistic work focuses on the relation between science and art, as well as on human interactions (e.g. the huge “Test Site” in the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern in 2006), proposes now an experiment. The Hamburger Bahnhof is split into two symmetric parts. In each there are six reindeer, who are fed large amount of (frozen) fly amanita. Their urine is collected and stored. In each half there are then three species of experiment animals: twelve canaries, four mice and two flies. Over weeks, it can be observed whether the animals on one side start behaving differently: if they drink Soma, will they achieve enlightenment? As science requires, the experiment is double-blind: the animals are not told whether they are fed Soma or just some placebo. Nor are the visitors, as they become, in their interactions, part of the experiment: we do not know which group (if at all!) is fed Soma, and which one is there just for control.
When it starts becoming a bit extravagant is with the double bed in the middle of the hall: here, for just €1,000/night, it is possible to spend the night and observe, undisturbed by other humans, whether maybe the animals achieve the enlightenment when the lights are off and the museum is closed (unfortunately, it is already fully booked until the end of the exhibition).
There’s no actual experimenting: nobody takes any note, and the number of animals is too small as a sample. An experiment is turned into artistic experience and scientific observation into aesthetic observation (the lucky Germans as usual have two words for “observing”: betrachten and beobachten).
In the process, on a conceptual level the visit raises a number of questions as to the impossible communication between science and religion, as to the role of art between the two, and as to the possibility of objective observation. Can humans make scientific experiments on the deepest aspects of humanity? Well, as a social scientist, I found there enough to short-circuit positivists and critical realists.
On the human visitors, the experiment seems to me successful: after overcoming the initial scepticism and incredulity, and once got used to the smell (Soma must have been an acquired taste), visitors spend hours observing the animals and trying to guess which ones are enlightened. Much is pondered about the fact that one of the two canary cages has started weighting more than the other: is it because enlightened birds become lighter? or heavier? A pseudo-scientific idea, in its artistic form, inspires metaphysical questioning.
A spectacular and exhilarating creation, as contemporary art can do. Only in Berlin, until the 6th February 2011. After then, the reindeer will go back to their native Sweden.
December 10, 2010
Writing about web page /guglielmomeardi/entry/marathon_football_in/
Writing about an entry you don't have permission to view
I returned to the An der Alten Försterei stadion on Monday, intrigued by the fans contestation of the SkyTV-induced Monday schedules, and by the experience of football as a winter sport. The weather has been near-polar for a few days, and last Thursday, just across the border, on a white pitch and with -16C Lech Poznan eliminated Juventus from the Europa League (two cheers, one for Poznan, where I went on my first student exchange in 1989, and one for the detested Vecchia Signora).
Winter prevailed and most fans protested by staying home. Only 10,898 other people were as mad as me. The temperature touched -9 and I appreciated, again, the standing stalls: they allow fans to adopt the penguins surviving strategy (see "March of the Penguins"), forming a thick crowd to mutually protect from the freezing wind, with a slow circular movement whereby fans at the outer margins rotate slowly, as they periodically go to refill their glasses with Glühwein (another great thing of German stadions). The match was horrible, FC Union lost, but still the athmosphere in this stadion is better than at the Olympiastadion, where the huge size and empty spaces, the distance from the pitch (it's a stadion for atheltics, not football), and the rightwing Hertha supporters made it cold even without winter.
November 24, 2010
Since last week there is in Germany one of those unspecified terrorist alerts that Michael Moore ridiculed in his "Fahrenheit 9/11". Possible targets are airports, stations and Christmas markets in the big cities. Reichstag’s dome by Normal Foster has been closed to tourists, and there are scary pictures in the press of armed police with their German Shepherd dogs in front of the Brandenburger Tor. And we are continuously reminded that the 9/11 terrorists came from Hamburg and there is a good share of Taliban fighters with German passports.
On the other side, I have been through the airport at the week-end, and yesterday I was at a very big event with the economic and political elite, including Angela Merkel. In both cases extra security measures were clearly visible, but rather low-key and unobstrutive – any British airport without alert is more fussy than the German ones during the alert. Which begs the question: if these alerts are for political consumption, why does not Merkel use it to the full? Is somebody else behind it? Who, the media who don’t have anything else to show to sell? Or worse of all, if it is not for political consumption, should we then start worrying for real?
Not that the Germans seem to worry much. But with a self-deprecating attitude that seems to characterize all European nations, they blame themselves not to worrying enough, rather than congratulating themselves for non panicking. In the news they even report that in Britain they know much better how to behave in case of terrorist alert because the government informs everybody and people have been trained for any event. I can’t remember anything of this kind: it must be that the neighbor’s terrorist alert is always greener.
More seriously are taken the financial alerts: the Euro is not as loved and looked after as the DM but it is still something very important. Yet the reactions to the Irish crisis are very different from those to the Greek crisis at the beginning of the year (on which I recommend this working paper by Dorothee Bohle). When it was Greece needing bailing-out, all the German media were scandalized by the breaching of the Growth and Stability Pact and by the immorality of saving the undeserving, undisciplined Greeks. Now, while in the English speaking media (Guardian, Financial Times) there are articles criticizing German strictness and self-righteousness, actually, the Germans this time are being very quiet and condescending, back to the old motto "a good German is a good European". Merkel has expressed a little obligatory concern with fiscal discipline (well, she can't say the Irish are free to use the 85bn Euro as they like, can she? there is not enough Guinness on the island) but basically nobody objects to saving Ireland, and there is very little fuss about it.
Why the different treatment of the Irish and the Greeks? Certainly, you can lose virginity only once, and once the Growth and Stability Pact’s article on national debts being non-transferable has been violated once, the following violations make little news. Also, there are objective differences between the nature of the debt of Ireland and that of Greece: while Greece has been in chronic debt since independence, Ireland was running, until the crisis, a clean budget. Germans still remember, with a little shame, how just a few years ago Ireland had a budget surplus while Germany itself (tu quoque!) was breaching the deficit limit – and how the Council criticized Ireland for planning tax cuts, while it closed an eye or two on Germany. Beside these objective differences, there may well be a little bias: it is undoubtedly easier, in Germany, to despise the Southern Europeans (I know something about it), than it is despising the Irish.
But more important than the national bias may be the economic bias. That is, falling into debt because of unbalanced, “over-generous” social welfare and subsidies to a frail economy, as in Greece, is morally unacceptable. But falling into debt in order to save disastrously-behaving banks, in which incidentally the Germans have invested so much, is morally OK.
October 25, 2010
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.