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Never afraid to confront the past: Hitler exhibition in Berlin

The Historical Museum in Berlin has opened another chapter in the story of Hitler and the Germans. In an exhibition that has been called ‘groundbreaking’, the relationship between the German nation and the Führer is being explored until 6th February 2011.

Hitler and the Germans: Nation and Crime walks a fine line and, according to the German media, it does it mostly successfully. Very carefully trying not to fall prey to a ‘Führer cult’ and thereby attracting the wrong kind of visitor, the exhibition is lacking in personal objects, so-called ‘Hitlerania’. Instead, it focuses on exploring questions such as: How was Hitler’s rise possible? How could Hitler and National Socialism count on widespread acceptance by German society until the very end? Why were so many Germans willing to align their conduct with the Führer and thus actively support the Nazi dictatorship?

Ironically, this sensitive way of handling the subject matter is for some too sensitive. Critics of the exhibition say the makers became afraid of their own courage and exercised a kind of unnecessary self-censorship. A historian from the Freie Universitaet Berlin, for example, noted that the exhibition portrays a fear of Hitler that he doesn’t understand.

Aside from all the contrasting expert opinions that an undertaking such as this will inevitably attract, the initiative is commendable and underlines Germany’s willingness to continue examining the country’s history, no matter how uncomfortable it is. Every generation needs to ask questions about the Nazi era, as the chief curator of Hitler and the Germans stressed, and each generation does so in different ways.

Since its opening on 15th October, the exhibition, which was painstakingly researched over years, and draws on the work of the eminent British Hitler biographer Ian Kershaw among others, has turned out to be very popular.  Only five days after the opening, the museum reported 20,000 visitors and introduced longer opening hours on Fridays until 9 pm to cope with the demand.

Of interest for modern architecture buffs might be that Hitler and the Germans is shown at the Pei building of the Historical Museum, the annexe by the American-Chinese architect I. M. Pei that was opened in 2003 and forms a fascinating contrast to the Baroque building housing the permanent exhibition.

The Pei building is part of a newly established modern architecture route in Northern Germany, which connects a number of groundbreaking 21st century museum buildings.

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