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The German Historical Museum Aims for an Open View of the Past (June 2, 2006)

The German Historical Museum opens after almost twenty years of heated scholarly debate on the appropriate presentation of the German past. A journalist describes the upbeat mood at the official opening and goes on to discuss the nature of the museum, which emphasizes the presentation of historical artifacts and aims for “authenticity instead of display,” in the words of director Hans Ottomeyer. The journalist expresses general enthusiasm for the museum’s permanent exhibition, which walks visitors through the highest and lowest points in 2,000 years of German history, but also points to critical voices.

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“It’s done!”

It was as though God, too, had given his blessing. At the very moment that Minister of Culture Bernd Neumann declared the large, permanent exhibition “German History in Images and Artefacts” officially open, the bells of Berlin Cathedral chimed.

But on earth, as well, in the marvelous, light-filled Schlüterhof of the arsenal Unter den Linden, an armory built under Price Elector Friedrich III and the pantheon of the Prussian military, there was a palpable sense of friendly ease, a cheerful lightness, which otherwise isn’t exactly a hallmark of German history.

Whoever wanted to could read this atmosphere of joyful relaxation as a practical commentary on the current patriotism debate, which seems to revolve chiefly around the question of who was the first to feel the new love for Germany in the area above his beer belly.

The sun was shining through the translucent roof, a cute baby boy of just under a year was crawling peacefully, pacifier in mouth, across the light-colored stone floor, the Vice President of the German Bundestag, Wolfgang Thierse, casually joined journalists at one of the standing tables in the back, and in the first row Helmut Kohl’s radiant visage seemed visible even to those who could only see him from behind.

Not without good reason: on this morning, no name was mentioned as often as his. It is the former chancellor who is chiefly to thank for the fact that now, after almost twenty years of preparation, the German Historical Museum [Deutsches Historisches Museum or DHM] can finally present its programmatic exhibition on 2,000 years of German history. Even Berlin’s incumbent mayor, Klaus Wowereit, who raised his glass for a toast with the words “It’s done!,” emphasized this fact straight out: “And I say this emphatically as a Social Democrat.”

When Helmut Kohl gave voice to the idea of a Museum of German History in the mid-1980s, he and the later founding director Christoph Stölz encountered massive criticism. It was the time of the passionate Historikerstreit [“Historians’ Quarrel”] over Auschwitz and the gulag and the comparability of the Communist and Fascist logic of annihilation.

Leftist intellectuals warned against a neo-national historiography with a reactionary tendency, against putting a sparkling gold gloss on the past, and, naturally, against the relativization of German responsibility for the war and the Holocaust; in short: against a dangerous historical-political turn back to the Biedermeier era of a hypocritical Reich of the German Nation.

None of that has come to pass. On the contrary. All the great debate about Nazi terror and the destruction of the Jews, about German guilt and national responsibility, took place during the last twenty years. The exhibit, too, shows no lack of clarity when it comes to these things.

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