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Saturday, May 13, 2017

“Germany: Memories of a Nation”, by Neil MacGregor

656 pages, Alfred A. Knopf, ISBN-13: 978-1101875667

In my head, when I was composing this review while still reading this book, I wanted to mention that the book read like a museum’s exhibition catalogue, with the whole of the nation of Germany as the exhibit; I have since discovered that Germany: Memories of a Nation by Neil MacGregor is, in fact, the companion book to the exhibition at the British Museum of the same name, as well as to the BBC Radio 4 (radio?) series. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but if I had shelled out $40 for this thing (rather than receiving it free from the History Book Club) I might have been a touch put out. But no matter: all-in-all this was an entertaining and informative read, filled with thousands of photographs and reproductions to add oomph the (rather pedestrian) text that, as mentioned, reads as if it were written by a Director of the British Museum…which it was. It’s not often that three formats have been produced to tell one story.

Irony, it seems to me, is key to MacGregor’s written approach. Back in 1970 travelers through Berlin’s Friedrichstraße Station – which was then the only permitted transit point from East to West – were subjected to intrusive scrutiny by a system of mirrors and observation cameras, so strategically situated that a model of the station’s labyrinth was used to train the Stasi (you know, the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, or the Ministry for State Security), which earned it the sobriquet of Tränenpalast, or Palace of Tears. Today, the Friedrichstraße Station operates without a single surveillance camera. Other ironies abound: it was Adolf Hitler who dreamed up the idea of a “people’s car” while Ferdinand Porsche obliged with the Volkswagen Beetle, only to decide that production was economically unviable for the 1,000 Reichsmark price tag insisted upon by his autocratic leader, whereupon the project was shelved until the Volkswagen the Beetle would go on production during the post-war years of British occupation (after the Brits had passed on the opportunity to build it themselves) with the car’s keenest buyers being the Americans who had flattened much of Germany’s industrial strength during the war.

Another of MacGregor’s ironic footpaths leads to Weimar, first home of a school of architecture that turned for its inspiration to the guild traditions of the Middle Ages. A photograph shows a beaming Hitler at ease in what appears to be a Bauhaus chair. The style appealed, but the ethos did not: the Bauhaus, founded by Walter Gropius in 1919, was closed down in 1933. But this irony has a hellish side. MacGregor displays a replica of the gate into the hell of Buchenwald, a former weekend haunt for the artists of nearby Weimar. Other Nazi camps presented their mottos (such as Arbeit macht frei, or “work sets you free”) to new arrivals. At Buchenwald, however, a Bauhaus-trained prisoner, a Communist called Ernst Erhlich, was ordered to create a gate that would speak exclusively to the inmates: Jedem das Seine, or “To each his just due”, was the statement that would daily greet the eyes of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Leon Blum, Bruno Bettelheim and too many other during their servitude at Buchenwald. The words, crafted with deliberate art and set within the open and leafy panels of an ironwork gate, would be repainted blood red, year after year. That Cicero’s phrase might fit Buchenwald’s creators and guards better than their victims was a thought unlikely to have escaped the gate’s skilled designer (oh, and by the way: Ehrlich remained in the GDR after the war, as any dedicated Communist might have been expected to do, but when the immense Stasi archives were opened in 1990 it was discovered that the architect of Buchenwald’s boldly enigmatic gate had become a meticulous informant and spy).

Germany: Memories of a Nation the book is just what I said it was above: an exhibition book that displays a careful juxtaposition of singular objects with their surrounding history that conveys complexities of Germany’s continuing journey away from a shameful past – a past that the post-war nation continues to record in ever-more interesting and oh-so-modern monuments. While a few omissions surprise – might the swastika and its innocuous origins have earned a place? – MacGregor’s selection is largely admirable: an elaborate Torah bag stitched with the arms of the Holy Roman Emperor, alongside a photograph of Jewish mountain climbers complete with Lederhosen, reminds us that Germany was not always anti-Semitic (indeed, Germany was considered one of the least anti-Semitic places in Europe, especially compared to Russia and even France). Prints of Durer’s valiant knight and his soul-searching companion, Melancholia, usefully sum up the conflicted psyche of Bismarck’s newly united Germany.

But it is in sculpture that modern-Germany has attempted to come to terms with the recent past and to try and work through it. In 1993, Helmut Kohl selected the sculpted image of a grieving mother as Berlin’s memorial for “The Victims of War and Dictatorship”. The sculptor, Kathe Kollwitz, had lost her only son in the First World War, a war into which she had urged the under-age boy. Her wooden Pieta shows the mother protecting a child of whom only the upturned face is visible, staring up into hers. “There is no longer pain”, Kollwitz wrote as she carved it in 1937, “Only reflection”. Back in the 1920s, commemorating that earlier war, the great Ernst Barlach chose Kathe Kollwitz’s face for his Hovering Angel, a mantled bronze that he suspended within the cathedral of his home town, Gustrow. The Nazis, preferring two naked youths with a sword, banished and later destroyed the Barlach Angel. Today, travelling outside Germany for the first time in 30 years, a second bronze angel, secretly cast from the original plaster, floats above the objects from this book that are currently displayed in London.

Fittingly, MacGregor’s final image is Gerhard Richter’s portrait of his daughter Betty. The girl’s face is turned away from the artist and from us. We are not shown what she sees. We can only guess what she thinks of her father, or his generation. All we know, as MacGregor quietly observes at the end of this timely and profoundly affecting work, is that, in a moment, “this young woman will turn to face us, and the future”.

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