Germany: Memories of a Nation – a promising exhibition that fails to deliver

Last week, I paid my (fairly obligatory) visit to the British Museum exhibition, “Germany: Memories of a Nation”, the accompaniment to Neil MacGregor’s Radio 4 series which I wrote about here.

Reaction to the exhibition has been mixed, often fairly critical. Charges are levelled against mundane objects with “large wodge[s] of text”, the cramped layout and the lack of female figures. My objection to the focus on elite figures and high culture in MacGregor’s radio series also applies to the exhibition.

At the sharp end of many reviews is the section dealing with the Holocaust – although there is a fair amount of praise for this bit too. Following several rooms of traditional, even old-fashioned, exhibiting techniques – old objects in glass cases with bits of explanatory text – you come to a large alcove whose walls are mostly blank. There’s a bench to sit on – the only one in the whole exhibition – and the white walls are broken only by a replica of the gate to Buchenwald concentration camp and two small segments of text.

Section on the Holocaust - British Museum exhibition - Germany: Memories of a Nation

Section on the Holocaust

You’re taken aback by the juxtaposition. The blankness after the artefact-filled displays of the previous room is unnerving. There are no words or objects that can guide you comfortably through this bit of history, it seems to say. And indeed, that’s exactly what it does say – the Holocaust “poses an insoluble question for Germany and the world”, we are told. “There is no narrative that can encompass it”. The text introducing the whole room reiterates this viewpoint. We read that the Nazis “left a dark memory that can be neither avoided nor adequately explained”.

The language is echoed in reviews praising the exhibition’s acknowledgement that this part of German history is indeed “unpalatable” and “unspeakable”. Such language, filled with negations – insoluble, neither/nor, no narrative, unpalatable, unspeakable – is now in common usage with regard to the Holocaust. I can understand its place in discussions regarding the emotional and personal engagement with the Nazi past that is faced by German individuals and the German nation – a struggle that has its very own German word, Vergangenheitsbewältigung.

Yet the task of an exhibition such as this is neither emotional nor personal but historiographical. And the events, ideological movements and widespread prejudices that led to the Nazi atrocities are explicable and can (and should) be discussed. To avoid doing so and instead simply offer a place to sit and reflect seems like a cop-out, a neat way to evade the perhaps even more unpalatable truth that this segment of the past can be “adequately explained” as part of a historical narrative.

There is a danger in suggesting, as this exhibition does both implicitly and explicitly, that this part of history is entirely different to the rest of it, that while the rest can be neatly manifested in an eclectic array of books and paintings, clocks and hats, silverware and wetsuits, the Holocaust can be manifested in neither object nor word.

This both allows the Nazi past to go unaddressed – and this exhibition was surely a great chance to present a more considered narrative than we are offered in popular novels and films – and undermines the complexities, nuances and suffering present in the rest of German history. Nearly half of the German states’ male population were killed during the Thirty Years War and villages that survived the marauding armies took a century to recover. The fluidity of national borders that once encompassed Kaliningrad, Prague and Strasbourg caused untold disruption, confusion and crises of identity. These human consequences remain concealed in an exhibition that focuses mainly on historical fact.

There is no denying that the Holocaust is a unique event in German history and its depiction in an exhibition deserves careful consideration. But the same could be said of most of German history, especially the parts thought worthy of a place in the British Museum. No part of Germany’s narrative (or the narrative of any nation) is free of complexities or controversy, and there is little that is free of emotional resonance.

Perhaps, then, we should confront the idea that no part of history can be explained by a numbered artefact and a paragraph of text. Most of us learn from a young age how to look at an old vase or piece of bone in a glass cabinet, skim some text and move on, our eyes glazing over as object follows object. What’s good about the Holocaust section – that it makes us stop and think – should be replicated in the whole exhibition. Although its technique of blankness and near silence might not be received too well among the fee-paying visitors.

The exhibition shop at British Museum - Germany: Memories of a Nation

The exhibition shop

The exhibition shop provided a final disappointment. Filled with sausage-eating, beer-drinking rubber ducks, dachshund cufflinks, VW campervan money boxes and 3D Neuschwanstein jigsaws, it reverts to and takes commercial advantage of customary stereotypes, none of which featured in the undeniably stimulating and stereotype-free exhibition.

Bavarian rubber ducks on sale at British Museum - Germany: Memories of a Nation

Bavarian rubber ducks

It’s a shame that the final impression is one of kitschig beer mugs and plastic Beetles. The shop, like the exhibition, was ripe with potential to challenge conventional ideas about Germany with an exciting, thought-provoking narrative. In my view, both fail to deliver.

Neil MacGregor on Germany: From Wurst to Walhalla

The BBC Radio 4 enthusiasts among you will know that Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum and professed Germanophile, is currently making a daily appearance. At 9.45am every weekday we are being treated to fifteen minutes of enlightening discussion in his series Germany: Memories of a Nation.

Topics so far have ranged from Kafka to Kaliningrad, Goethe to the Brandenburg Gate. It’s perhaps unsurprising that a series broadcast on Radio 4 and accompanying a British Museum exhibition should focus on high culture, monumental architecture and individuals famous for their literary and philosophical achievements.

Walhalla, hall of fame in Bavaria honouring esteemed German artists, scientists, sovereigns and politicians of the past.

Walhalla, hall of fame in Bavaria honouring esteemed German artists, scientists, sovereigns and politicians of the past.

But as a student of popular culture and with a growing awareness of its importance for a nation’s sense of self, I’m disappointed. In his wonderfully eloquent and undeniably fascinating attempt to piece together a history of German national identity, MacGregor has neglected everyday people, for whom Rammstein and Schumacher are far more important than Walhalla and Kant.

 

Sausage and beer

One episode bucks the trend. In it, he traces the history of those celebrated German gastronomic exports – sausage (Wurst) and beer. For many Germans (or at least the 91% who aren’t vegetarian), sausage in one of its approximately 1200 different forms is indeed a staple food. And at 106 litres per year (compared to 68.5 in the UK), the average German’s beer consumption also lives up to the stereotype.

Not only is the “sausage and beer” stereotype actually rooted in fact, it’s also a fairly positive one compared to the other weary stereotypes – Germans are over-efficient, Germans are humourless and German women have hairy legs. Every Briton visiting Germany – or one of those half-authentic German Christmas markets that spring up everywhere from Birmingham to Bournemouth – buys a beer and a sausage and, perhaps a little grudgingly, admits that they’re pretty good.

Yet in the popular British films, novels and TV dramas made in the years after the Second World War – surely a time when Germans needed all the positive stereotypes they could get to counteract the negative – I have yet to find a German character eating a sausage or drinking a beer.

Since sausage-eating and beer-drinking have been part of German culture for centuries and were even defined as national activities by the German nationalists of the 1800s, British ignorance of these habits can’t be blamed for the omission. So what’s the reason?

Sink the Bismarck!

Things become clearer if we compare the British and German characters in these post-war films and novels. The 1960 British war film Sink the Bismarck! is a perfect example. The British characters – from admirals to cadets – are regularly seen doing very ordinary English things like drinking tea and eating sandwiches, even in the midst of battle! In one scene, two men on lookout for a German battleship in Icelandic waters discuss quite seriously their crumpet cravings.

Their penchant for stereotypically English food and drink makes these characters seem very ordinary, very human and very English – just like the cinema audience themselves – despite the extraordinary events.

In contrast, the German characters are rarely seen eating, drinking or discussing such basic human needs and cravings. If they are enjoying a beverage, it’s usually an expensive tipple in a fancy glass. They seem either unhuman, almost machine-like, in their lack of any need for sustenance or inhabitants of a luxurious world detached from that of the ordinary British cinema-goer.

Ironically, Sink The Bismarck is now a beer by BrewDog, supposedly the strongest beer in the world.

Ironically, Sink The Bismarck is now a beer by BrewDog, supposedly the strongest beer in the world.

It sounds crazy, but it’s true that more sausage-eating and beer-drinking in these films and novels would have vastly improved the post-war image of Germany among ordinary Britons. Of course, the intention was often to depict truly repulsive Germans and the lack of eating or drinking was a device to emphasise how different they were to the rest of humankind.

So we’ve made real progress to get to a point where two of the biggest stereotypes about Germany are so positive. In his episode on sausages and beer, Neil MacGregor quotes the Roman historian Tacitus writing about the Germanic tribes, among whom “to pass an entire day and night in drinking disgraces no one”. Perhaps such habits, widespread among Britons and an important part of German identity, could be the twenty-first century glue that binds us all together. Or perhaps not.