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Issue 455 -- Oct 16 - 22, 2010
Germany's First Hitler Exhibition Opens In Nervous Berlin Museum
Hitler and the Germans: Nation and Crime aims to expose cult of personality surrounding the rise of the Führer
Curators at capital's Historical Museum hope display will show role of German society and illustrate that Hitler was only one aspect of Nazi system Link to this video
A groundbreaking exhibition about Adolf Hitler opens in Berlin tomorrow, the first time since the war that a major museum has explored the relationship between the Führer and the German nation.
Hitler and the Germans: Nation and Crime, at Berlin's German Historical Museum, has been praised for smashing taboos and opening afresh the debate about how Hitler managed so successfully to seduce a nation. "Whether we like it or not he remains our strongest trademark," said Karl Schnorr, a 68-year-old retired engineer at the preview. "Maybe it's time we shook him off, but first we need to understand how we fell for him so utterly."
The opening coincides with a study published this week in which one in 10 Germans professed they would like a "Führer" figure to "governGermany with a hard hand", while 35% said they considered the country to be "dangerously overrun" with foreigners.
The exhibition sets out to explain how the persona of Hitler and his ideals infiltrated the furthest corners of Germans' lives. Among the hundreds of exhibits are collections of Nazi memorabilia and propaganda, including beer mats, postcards, playing cards, lead soldiers and swastika lampshades.
Germans' fetish-like obsession with uniforms during the Nazi era, as well as issues such as how the established churches so readily fell in line, are closely explored.
But in a reflection of the sensitivity of the subject matter there are almost no objects Hitler might himself have touched. "Such tangible relics would carry with them the danger of encouraging a Führer cult," said Simon Erpel, one of the curators. "We were offered his briefcase by one collector, but we rejected it for that reason."
Among the exceptions is an elegant dark wooden chest of drawers from Hitler's chancellery, filigreed with hundreds of swastika forms, which has been hung at a diagonal angle on a corner wall, and is further protected from possible Hitler admirers by a thin gauze panel.
In a country where the Nazi salute, Mein Kampf and swastikas remain banned, the nervousness of the curators is palpable. As well as the decision to play no audio recordings of his speeches, no image of Hitler is shown in isolation. The three huge portraits of him in different stages of his life that open the exhibition include a photomontage of his face set against a skull. Behind each picture printed on gauze are images of his supporters, marching soldiers and unemployed workers.
As well as SS uniforms there are uniforms of concentration camp prisoners and "Jews forbidden" street signs, to ensure the Nazis' greatest crimes, the murders of millions of Jews, Gypsies, and regime opponents are an integral part of the debate.
A propaganda film showing Mussolini's visit to Berlin in 1937 is juxtaposed with extracts from Charlie Chaplin's satirical film The Great Dictator. "We're fully aware of what we're doing and we planned this all very carefully," said Professor Hans-Ulrich Thamer, the chief curator. "The reason this is happening now is that every generation has the need to ask questions. The demon died long ago, what remains are many contradictory impressions and explanations. The current generation is approaching this with a new curious openness," he said.
Crammed together in a single glass cabinet is an array of Hitler busts in bronze and terracotta. "We've placed these particularly carefully so that no one can easily pose next to them," said Thamer.
The exhibition, which was six years in the making and relied heavily for input on British historian and Hitler biographer Ian Kershaw, embraces the thesis that the Nazi leader managed to mobilize Germans' social hopes and fears, but that his ability to seduce them had little to do with his personal characteristics. "He was a rather unprepossessing character as a young man," said Thamer.
The exhibition follows a series of recent films, documentaries and even comedies that have sought to demystify the Nazi leader. The most acclaimed attempt was 2004 film Downfall, which dramatized the Führer's last days in his claustrophobic Berlin bunker.
An indication that the topic is far from exhausted is a lecture accompanying the exhibition, entitled "We're far from finished with Hitler"