Germany: Memories of a Nation – review

And now, by way of a total contrast, a review, of the British Museum’s Germany: Memories of a Nation exhibition. Why, in a zenpolitics blog? I’ve no easy answer, let’s just say this is the real world.


A people, a language, a territory, latterly a nation. Princes, electors, bishops, prince… an empire, a republic. Boundaries which shift with the tide of history. The best and very worst of religion. Cataclysmic wars, extreme suffering brought upon itself, and yet achievements which help define man’s highest and greatest capabilities. How to tell this story?

This is an exhibition built around a number of objects, as you’d expect, linked as it is to Neil MacGregor’s BBC Radio 4 series, and so many of them have a meaning and a resonance and story to tell. It can’t be a history of Germany, and as it rightly explains and explores, Germany is a loose construct, only a nation from the 19th century, but there’s a sense of identity if not nationhood long before then. I loved the Dürer engravings, Melancolia supreme now as it was for Vasari, as it was for William Blake. Goethe is rightly celebrated, referencing his encyclopaedic interests alongside the famous Tischbein portrait. Nearby is one of the original Gutenberg bibles, next to which I rested awhile, in awe of an adventure in print which truly changed the world.

As a reminder of another darker side, there’s the gate to Buchenwald, with Jedem Das Seine, to each his own, above; it’s illuminated from behind, and it’s as if you could pass through, even become one of the 50,000 plus who died there, an extermination of minorities, not on the level of Auschwitz, but chilling just because any and all unwanted minorities were sacrificed there – ‘worked to death’ is one phrase.

And yet, this is also the country of Schinkel’s marvellous Gothic cathedral, an early 19th century painting, bright sky back-illuminated, calling up the medieval soul of Germany. Nearby are the four Riemenschneider evangelists, early 16th century, with a rough almost peasant depth of expression. Almost contemporaneous with Martin Luther: his original bible, in two volumes, is there for us to ponder – a translation which introduced the vernacular into a German language which Luther intended everyone should understand.

Five centuries later Gerhard Richter and Anselm Kiefer seek out the soul of Germany in painting, not language, this time post-war, post-Holocaust. Kiefer’s Margarete, evokes a Paul Celan’s Holocaust poem. [Rilke’s words, “For /beauty/ is nothing but the beginning of /terror/, which we are still just able to endure,” are quoted by Sue Hubbard in an article – not connected with the exhibition – on Kiefer’s series of straw paintings, of which Margarete is the culmination.]

This is an exhibition that opens doors, opens up ideas, sets you planning an itinerary, to see Hans Sachs’ and Durer’s Nuremburg, the Fugger banking city of Augsburg, even Friedrichstrasse station in Berlin: there’s a model of the station, designed it seems to allow surveillance by the Stasi.

A poignant statue of an angel, Der Schwebende, emerging like a ship’s figurehead, designed by Ernst Barlach as a war memorial for Güstrow cathedral, in what became East Germany, tells its own story. First installed in 1927, destroyed by the Nazis, it was recast and re-installed in the 1980s. It seemed at the time that the two halves of Germany would be there for the foreseeable, if not forever.

And yet, I mentioned opening doors… at the very end there’s a door which flaps open, and it takes you back to the beginning, to the first room, to a film of crowds pouring through from East to West Berlin in November 1989 – you’re beneath the film, almost a part of it, you come full circle.



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