Among the gifts I received for Christmas was Neil MacGregor’s hefty Germany: Memories of a Nation. Having listened to the radio series and visited the accompanying exhibition at the British Museum, it was a welcome one. So far, I’ve only had time to read the opening chapter, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find that the text does not consist simply of a transcript of the radio scripts.
Instead, the book – though it closely follows the pattern of the thirty radio episodes – has provided MacGregor with the opportunity to extend and enhance both previous versions of the material. It’s a handsome book, lavishly illustrated – whereas the BBC website accompanying the radio broadcasts was not. Compared to the 100 Objects website, this time the BBC did not even illustrate all thirty ‘objects’ that were the main subject of the radio episodes, let alone the many other objects, buildings, etc, to which he referred during his talks. Moreover, the text is prefaced by some excellent maps, illustrating the shifting boundaries of the ‘German lands’ – one of MacGregor’s main themes.
The book differs from the radio series in at least one respect: it opens with an introduction, entitled ‘Monuments and Memories’ in which MacGregor brilliantly crystallises the overarching theme of both series and exhibition – the way that Germans now remember their past. MacGregor begins:
Monuments in Germany are different from monuments in other countries.
He goes on to draw contrasts between three triumphal arches in the grand Roman style that, since the 19th century, have stood in Paris, London and Munich. Each one commemorates national triumph in the wars that shook Europe between 1792 and 1815. In London, at Hyde Park Corner, ‘in front of the house of the victor of Waterloo himself’, the British erected the Wellington Memorial Arch, topping it with the largest bronze statue in Europe.
The Wellington Arch, Hyde Park Corner
In Paris, the French erected the Arc de Triomphe, ‘colossal and over-scaled, carrying scenes of soldiers setting off to battle’, at the centre of a star of broad avenues, three of them named after great Napoleonic victories over the Prussians and Austrians.
The Arc de Triomphe
In Munich, the Siegestor, or Victory Gate, was built in the 1840s to celebrate the valour of Bavarian soldiers in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.
The Siegestor or Victory Gate, Munich
The three triumphal arches each look similar. Like its Roman model the Arch of Constantine, the Victory Gate in Munich is richly decorated. On top stands the bronze figure of Bavaria in a chariot drawn by lions, proudly facing north, the direction from which most visitors enter the city. Below is the inscription ‘Dem Bayrischen Heere’ – ‘To the Bavarian Army’ – in honour of those whose feats the arch celebrated.
So far, continues MacGregor, so completely conventional:
At first sight you might think that the Wellington Arch, the Arc de Triomphe and the Siegestor’ are all doing exactly the same thing in exactly the same way. But what makes the Munich arch so interesting is its other side, which tells quite a different story. It was badly damaged in the Second World War, but its restoration makes no attempt to reconstruct the sculpted classical details that were destroyed by bombs. The top register on this side of the arch is merely a blank expanse of stone. Underneath this uncompromisingly empty space are the words ‘Dem Sieg geweiht, vom Krieg zerstort, zum Frieden mahnend’ – ‘Dedicated to victory, destroyed by war, urging peace’.
The reverse of the Siegestor or Victory Gate, Munich
Neil MacGregor draws this conclusion:
Where the London and Paris arches look back only to moments of high success, presenting a comfortable, if selective, narrative of national triumph, the Munich arch speaks both of the glorious cause of its making and the circumstances of its later destruction. Unlike the other two, its original celebratory purpose is undercut by a very uncomfortable reminder of failure and guilt. It proclaims a moral message: that the past offers lessons which must be used to shape the future. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the role of history in Germany today is that, like this arch, it not only articulates a view of the past, but directs the past resolutely and admonishingly forward.
The point is that German monuments are different from those in other countries because German history is different: for one thing there’s the long history of fragmentation that MacGregor so brilliantly outlined in the radio series. But then, of course, there is the uncomfortable and uncompromising fact that the story of Germany in the 20th century makes any coherent historical narrative impossible:
All major countries try to construct a reading of their history that leads them, reassured and confident, to their current place in the world. The United States, strong in its view of itself as a ‘city on a hill’, was long able to affirm its manifest destiny. Britain and France in different ways saw their political evolution as a model for the world, which they generously shared through imperial expansion. After Bismarck had welded the different constituent states into the German Empire in 1871 and then into the leading industrial and economic power of the continent, Germany might have been able to devise some similar national myth. But defeat in the First World War, the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the murderous criminality of the Third Reich have made any such coherent narrative impossible. German scholars have
struggled in vain to piece the different parts of the jigsaw together, but none has been able, convincingly, to fit the great intellectual and cultural achievements of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Germany and the moral abyss of the Nazis into a comprehensible pattern. This is in a profound sense a history so damaged that it cannot be repaired but, rather, must be constantly revisited – an idea powerfully visualized by Georg Baselitz’s tattered and confusedly inverted national flag.
Georg Baselitz, Inverted Eagle with the Colours of the German Flag, 1977
Despite the diversity of historical experience of the various regions and states of Germany, they have all been marked, says MacGregor, by four great traumas that live in the national memory – the Thirty Years War in the 17th century, the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, the Third Reich, and the division of Germany in the Cold War.
In the 25 years since the Wall came down and today’s reunified Germany was born, MacGregor argues that Germans ‘have made enormous efforts to to think clearly and courageously about their national history’. He concludes:
The re-unification of Germany coincided with a more clear-eyed historical investigation into the complicity of much of the German population in crimes long simply ascribed to ‘the Nazis’. As Berlin has been rebuilt there has been a conscious attempt to make public the most painful memories, the supreme example being the Holocaust Memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe. In this also it can be said that German monuments are not like those in other lands.
The Holocaust Memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin
I know of no other country in the world that at the heart of its national capital erects monuments to its own shame. Like the Siegestor in Munich, they are there not only to remember the past but – and perhaps even more importantly – to ensure that the future be different. As Michael Sturmer, a distinguished political commentator, observes: ‘In Germany for a long time the purpose of history was to ensure that it could never happen again.’
MacGregor finishes his introduction with the photograph that appears at the top of this post. It shows three great monuments at the centre of modern Berlin. In the middle distance is the Brandenburg Gate, and behind it is the Reichstag. In the foreground is the Holocaust Memorial. These three monuments and their meanings, states MacGregor, ‘together convey modern Germany’s unique attempt to wrestle with its historical inheritance and its complex and changing memories’.
11.1.15: Will Hutton, in an interesting article in the Observer, writes that Germany’s relationship to history compels it never to look back:
Germany can only face its otherwise unintelligible historical crimes, genocide and futile millions of war dead with a resolve to never again make the same mistakes. Its capital city, Berlin, forces its citizens every day to confront the fact that it exterminated six million Jews in its striking Holocaust memorial; no other world capital so uncompromisingly has built monuments at its heart to force it constantly to confront past disasters.