New Museum Strives To Deal With Holocaust Liel Leibovitz – Staff Writer
Berlin — More than any of its contents, perhaps, it is the building itself of the German Historical Museum that best narrates Germany’s tumultuous history.

Built in glorious Baroque fashion in 1730, the building, named the Zeughaus, or armory, served precisely that purpose for more than a century. It is from here, then, that weapons were dispatched for the Napoleonic wars, to continental skirmishes and local uprisings. Converted into a military museum by Emperor Wilhelm I in 1880, it was one of Hitler’s favorite monuments; Nazi parades, commemorations and ceremonies were held in the building’s courtyard until 1944. Severely damaged by the Allies’ bombs in 1945, the building was once again reconstructed as a museum after the war, reopening in 1952 under the management of East Germany’s Socialist Unity Party, who turned it into a museum for interpreting history from a Marxist-Leninist perspective.

Last month, following more than two decades of curatorial work, the museum was reopened once again, this time as an expansive effort to shed light on Germany’s history, from the first century to the present. Displaying more than 8,000 objects — from Roman-period coins to a Trabant, the notorious inexpensive East German car — the museum offers an integrated approach to history, allowing visitors to look at periodic artifacts before luring them away to computer screens or texts that provide detailed information, accompanied by multimedia, about each specific subject.

And while the museum’s second floor, where the permanent exhibition begins, covers nearly two millennia of war, peace and progress, the first floor is dedicated to the 80 or so years between 1921 and the present.

The discrepancy between distant and near past, said Dr. Rudolf Trabold, the museum’s chief press officer, is partly a matter of convenience. “It is like a tree,â€? he said, “you see the nearest branches first. There are also more artifacts from that period, and people are more interested in it.â€?

But ultimately, he said, it was the momentousness of the decade between 1933 and 1945 that convinced the museum’s heads to award it so much space.

“We had a very hard time when it came to how to represent the Holocaust,â€? said Trabold. Some officials, he said, suggested that the museum not sway from its regular course, and deal with the genocide of the Jews by presenting artifacts accompanied by text and interpretation. Others, however, thought the straightforward approach would fail to capture the enormity of the massacre.

“How can you explain to someone what six million people means?â€? asked Trabold. “How can you even explain six thousand? Some people, therefore, thought that the best way would be to have a dark, black room with nothing in it.â€?

This metaphorical approach, he added, was struck down as well, deemed too simplistic. Finally, the museum obtained one of Mieczyslaw Stobierski’s models of Auschwitz (the others are in Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.), making it the center piece of an extensive collection of documents, photographs, objects and texts pertaining to this darkest of periods. Here, for example, one can see Nazi propaganda films and candid snapshots from Jewish ghettos as well as concrete artifacts such as Adolf Hitler’s desk or the giant globe at the center of the most memorable scene of Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator.â€?

“Notice how even the color of the wall changes,â€? said Trabold. “We move from the light yellow of the 18th and 19th centuries to the lifeless gray of 1933 onwards.â€?

The story of the Jews in Germany, however, does not, of course, begin in 1933, nor does it end in 1945. The museum acknowledges this. Throughout the timeline of the main exhibition are strewn occasional references to the country’s Jews: Here they are in the 14th century, falsely accused of poisoning the wells during the Black Plague, and there again four hundred years later, when, following Moses Mendelssohn, they marched into emancipation.

To render the experience more personal, the museum’s ample interactive monitors allow visitors to follow the fate of the Chotzen family, a prominent Jewish family from Berlin, from 1914 to 2004. Here, family photographs and mementos are presented side by side with a historical timeline, rendering the Chotzen’s tragedy a kaleidoscope through which to observe the history of both Germany and its Jewish citizens.

But most fascinating, perhaps, are the references to the Holocaust after the war. In a section titled “Schuld Der Vater,â€? or guilt of the fathers, a text on the wall reads: “Shortly before the [Frankfurt Auschwitz trials of 1963] began, an opinion poll indicated that 54 percent of those asked wanted to consider the thing finished and not to bother the perpetrators anymore for such a long time. The trial, lasting over 20 months, changed public opinion.â€? Similarly, the exhibit includes a lengthy discussion of “Holocaust,â€? the 1978 American television mini-series that helped spark a major discussion of the topic among third-generation Germans, as well as Chancellor Richard von Weizsacker’s historic 1985 speech, the first official call by a government official to commemorate the Holocaust’s victims.

It is such candor and thoroughness that make the museum particularly appealing to the Jewish visitor. And while the Holocaust-related artifacts are, for the most parts, not different than what one would find in any Holocaust museum around the world, here they are presented not in the stand-alone context of the persecution and extermination of Jews, but rather as a strand woven into the larger quilt of German history.

This allows the visitor a rare opportunity to study both the deepest roots of the Jewish catastrophe — ancient anti-Semitism, for example, as well as the abysmal conditions of post-World War I Germany — and its aftermath. Put together, the exhibition tells a complex story, one with many bleak passages but also plenty of hope, the hope that comes from historical study, analysis and introspection.

“That’s the wonderful thing about this museum,â€? said Trabold. “Here, one and one never equals two.â€? n

The German Historical Museum (Deutsches Historisches Museum) is located at Unter Den Linden 2, Berlin, +49 – (0)30 – 20304 – 444.