x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Exhibition places Hitler in context

"The time is right" for warts-and-all show of Nazism's role in society, which highlights the myth that German people were led astray by an evil clique.

How Germany embraced the Führer: a production line of Hitler busts in 1937.
How Germany embraced the Führer: a production line of Hitler busts in 1937.

BERLIN // Germany will open its first comprehensive exhibition about Adolf Hitler since 1945 on Friday in a fresh sign that the country is stepping out of the shadows of the Second World War. 

The exhibition at the German Historical Museum in Berlin features busts, paintings, photographs and a host of memorabilia related to the Führer such as a pack of playing cards bearing Nazi leaders and a book of photos titled Hitler as No One Knows Him.

The aim is to show how wholeheartedly the German population embraced, worshipped and followed Hitler. The museum has been at pains to dispel the myth of an innocent nation led astray by an evil clique, an excuse often heard in Germany immediately after the war. To ram that point home, the historians who devised the exhibition called it: "Hitler and the Germans. Nation and Crime". "The time is right for this," Simone Erpel, one of the curators, said. "Germany is looking back at this era with greater historical distance now.

"We are showing National Socialism in the context of society. Neither Hitler nor the small clique around him nor the political system at the time can be held solely responsible for the crimes. The responsibility also lay with German society. We are trying to portray that with a host of exhibits." German museums have dealt with countless aspects of the Nazi era in recent decades, including the Holocaust and forced labour. One of the most controversial exhibitions, launched in the 1990s, showed how the German army, the Wehrmacht, was involved in the Holocaust and in war crimes on the eastern front, an accusation that had long been suppressed because it tainted ordinary soldiers.

But no museum so far has dared to focus just on the person of Hitler. His aura remains so strong that the German Historical Museum has avoided showing exhibits that may be construed as glorifying him or encouraging visitors to identify with him. There will be no large paintings showing him in visionary pose. None of his uniforms and other personal items will be on display either, even though the museum could have borrowed them from depots in Moscow.

"Our exhibits show how the Nazi system worked because many people willingly and proactively joined in," Ms Erpel said. A particularly telling object on display, she said, is a tapestry showing columns of Hitler youth, brown-shirted members of Hitler's paramilitary Sturm-abteilung (SA) and the League of German Girls (BDM) waving swastika flags and marching into a church. It was stitched by members of a women's organisation in the town of Rotenburg. "No one commissioned that work. The Nazi party didn't order it to be woven. It was done voluntarily. It is an example of how German society worked towards Hitler," Ms Erpel said.

The taboo surrounding direct portrayals of Hitler has been eroded in recent years, most notably with the film Downfall in 2004, which was the first German-made drama to show the dictator up close and personal, exploding in fits of rage and showing kindness towards his female staff during his final weeks in his bunker. In 2006, he even featured in a German-made comedy film, as a bed-wetting drug addict who played with toy battleships in his bath.

On each occasion, a debate flared up about whether such an explicit focus on the man was appropriate given the scale of his crimes and the country's sensitivity about its past. The consensus in each case was that the time had come for the country to adopt a more relaxed and distanced view of the Nazi era given that the overwhelming majority of Germans now alive were either born after the war or were too young to have had a role during it.

However, Madame Tussaud's in Berlin got a taste of how delicate the subject remains when it put up a wax figure of Hitler at its museum in Berlin in 2008. An irate visitor knocked off its head one day after it went on public display. The figure was replaced and is now protected by a thick glass window. Meanwhile, historical fascination with the Nazi era is increasing in Germany. Documentaries about the Third Reich are shown on television almost daily, and magazines and newspapers frequently run features about the Nazis, well aware that their circulation surges whenever they put Hitler on the front page.

So far, reactions to the Berlin exhibition have been muted. Some commentators said the museum has been too cautious in its choice of exhibits. "The exhibition wants to maintain a distance between the visitor and the biggest criminal of the 20th century," wrote Bild, Germany's best-selling newspaper, in a commentary on Monday. "It wants to avoid exuding any fascination with Hitler. But the question is whether the visitor can then be shown why the big majority of Germans followed this villain of mankind."

Levi Salomon, the spokesman on anti-Semitism for the Jewish Community in Berlin, welcomed the exhibition. "We need to deal with the history of National Socialism in many ways," he told Der Tagesspiegel, a Berlin newspaper. He added that he would reserve judgement until he had visited it. The museum's curators have said they are not worried that the show will attract neo-Nazis, mainly because such people do not tend to visit museums.

"I would like the show to trigger a debate about how we should be treating the Nazi past now, where we are today and whether we have found the right approach in the exhibition, Ms Erpel said. "But now in 2010, I don't expect a major negative reaction in the sense that we shouldn't be doing this." 

The exhibition will run until February 6.