The story of Germany

Most people in the UK learn about German history as if 1945 is the end of the story. A new British Museum exhibition and Radio 4 series bring together a wealth of artefacts to tell the story of Germany…

Berlin Wall in November 1989

This article was first published in the November 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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A new British Museum exhibition and Radio 4 series bring together a wealth of artefacts to tell the story of Germany. Matt Elton spoke to museum director and series presenter Neil MacGregor about key episodes in the nation’s past

What first inspired this project?

This November, it will be 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. In that moment that the wall came down and East and West Germany were put together, you had a nation that had never existed before. That means that it’s the 25th anniversary of the making of a country, and that seemed a really good moment to think about its identity and its history.

The exhibition’s first object is a placard that was carried at demonstrations for the unification of Germany in 1989 [shown left]. It features a map that is familiar to us now, but which had never yet existed. Before 1945 Germany extended to the east for a long way, and after 1945 it was divided into two states, east and west. So this was a new Germany.

The phrase Wir Sind Ein Volk – we are one people – is interesting too. What memories were Germans going to bring to this new Germany? Because what makes a country, in large measure, is memories: what it knows about itself from the past. The point of this new exhibition is to look at objects that embody the memories that all Germans have about their country.

How daunting was the prospect of telling the history of an entire nation?

It’s ridiculous! And it’s not what we are trying to do. This is not the history of Germany: these are some of the memories of a nation that you can show with objects. It’s a very selective walk through Germany’s past.

But even within those parameters, choosing the objects was a fairly daunting task. The exhibition is not chronologically organised, and we decided that we wouldn’t deal with ancient Germany. We begin with where the modern world begins: with Gutenberg and the first European printed book, the 1452 Gutenberg Bible. Its publication could only have happened in Germany, and is the moment that Germany makes the modern world.

Why could this Bible only have been published in Germany?

Johannes Gutenberg was a great entrepreneur, and a great combiner of skills and techniques. It’s not that he invented anything – it’s that he put together a whole series of techniques in a totally new way.

To make movable metal type, you needed to be able to produce hundreds of metal stalks of the same height to avoid puncturing the paper. German metalwork skills were probably more highly evolved than anywhere in Europe, so making these stalks was easier than it would have been elsewhere. You also needed to ensure that you had equal pressure on all of the letters, and the fact that the Mosel area of Germany is a great wine-producing region meant that Gutenberg was able to use the wine press to give a mechanical base for even printing.

If you were going to print in any quantity, you also needed paper. The best paper came from Italy, but the hugely effective transport system on Germany’s rivers meant that there was a great fair in Frankfurt from which people across northern Europe were able to get it. So this single object tells you not just about the things that we all know – that Gutenberg printed the first book – but also that it was only possible because of the extraordinary circumstances of Germany at this point.

What effect did being divided into separate states have on Germany?

Most of us in Britain have been brought up to think of the fragmented state of Germany as a disadvantage or a political handicap – ‘poor little Germany didn’t get itself together until 1870, while we of course did it all much earlier’. But in fact, of course, creative fragmentation is a key idea in German history.

Think of printing, for instance. If you printed something in one part of Germany that the archbishop of that area didn’t like, he might forbid it – but if that happened, you simply crossed the river and went to a state where they couldn’t forbid it. That’s why the 16th-century Luther Bible [the first complete translation from the original Greek and Hebrew into a modern European language] was possible. Martin Luther didn’t just need the printing press – he needed a fragmented world in which his books couldn’t be suppressed and burned.

In England, Luther’s books were burned – all of them, everywhere. So it would have been much harder to have a Reformation in countries such as England and France, where a central power that didn’t like what your printing press was being used for was strong enough to kill it.

You mentioned Luther’s Bible, which is another key object in the exhibition.

Yes: 500,000 copies of Luther’s Bible had been sold by the time of his death in 1546. No other text in the history of the world up until that point had anything like that kind of dissemination. It just wasn’t thinkable.

The other thing that Luther’s Bible did was to create the modern German language. As well as all of the different political states, German dialects were hugely various. What Luther was trying to do was to translate the Bible into German – the language of the people – but which version of the language should he use? The people of Strasbourg couldn’t understand the people of Hamburg, and so on.

What Luther did was to construct a very deliberately intermediate, generalised German that would be as widely understood as possible – which became the German language. This is a very German idea: the language in England or in France is created by the court in Paris or in London – it’s the King James Bible, for example, published by the court. The Luther Bible, on the other hand, is done by the people, for the people. That’s possible because you have a totally different construction of culture in Germany, without a centre.

What does all of this tell us about the nature of ‘Germany’?

It points to the fact that every German has two identities: their German identity and their local one, and that all of the regions have different histories. In Britain we tend to think of a single ‘Germany’, but if you’re a Bavarian, or a Saxon, you’re not remotely interested in what’s happened in an election in Hanover, for instance.

This is a completely different way of thinking about a state than we are used to in Britain. We have a notion that a country has only one source of power, because in Britain state power has been intensely centralised for a thousand years. Germans can’t even conceive of that: they have only had centralised power for 12 years, from 1933 to 1945, which are the only 12 years that we in Britain know about. But the notion of a centrally controlled Germany was a total historical aberration – and one that, of course, ended in catastrophe.

In what other ways does our view of ‘nation’ differ from that in Germany?

It’s important to explore where the edges of Germany are. This is a really fascinating subject, because in Britain – obviously – we know where our boundaries are. But take the German city of Strasbourg, for instance. It was, until the late 17th century, a totally German city. It was in the Holy Roman Empire, it’s on the Rhine, everyone in it was German. The French then conquered it in the 1680s, and for Germans there was a peculiar sense that this city was no longer in Germany. The same is true of the city of Königsberg, which was a base for German philosophy before it became part of the Soviet Union near the end of the Second World War.

So the Germans’ sense of their cultural history has always been about places far beyond Germany. The notion of what it is to be ‘German’ is to be part of a network of formerly German-speaking communities, and so the memory of German-ness is a European memory, rather than a purely German one.

When you talk to German people, what emerges is that they see Germany’s fulfillment in the context of Europe. The model of the Holy Roman Empire, in which you had to negotiate with autonomous states endlessly until you got a solution, is very well matched with the European Union. The experience of the Holy Roman Empire, and of this creative fragmentation, makes Germany completely comfortable with the difficult negotiations of the variable geometry of the European Union.

Meanwhile the British, because they can only imagine a state with one totally dominant central power, think that’s what the European Union wants to be. They cannot imagine that there’s another way of running a political unit in which that idea doesn’t even occur.

This year marks big anniversaries for both world wars. What view  of those conflicts do we get through this exhibition and radio series?

Obviously, all German history has to be seen through the Holocaust, particularly if we’re talking about memories. For every German, the Holocaust is the defining national memory. And there’s no object that could possibly carry all of that in the exhibition.

So what we’ve taken instead, to stand for that whole period of Nazi tyranny, murder and genocide, is the gate to Buchenwald concentration camp, just outside of Weimar.

This gate [pictured left] is one of the most extraordinary objects that you can imagine. One of the camp’s first inmates was the architect Franz Ehrlich, who was imprisoned for being a communist. He was charged with designing the gate to the camp, and told that it had to feature the words Jedem das Seine – ‘to each his due’. This was the great legal maxim of Roman law, the legal system of justice that ensured that everyone did indeed get their due. So putting it on this gate was a complete perversion of the idea of justice, turning it into a hideous, sadistic motto.

But what Ehrlich did, and what the Nazi authorities didn’t notice, is to use the Bauhaus script. This is a style of the great school of design and architecture that the Nazis loathed for being left-leaning. So what you’re looking at is a very gentle act of private resistance, an assertion of dignity, in spite of everything. And through this act of resistance, another tradition – the Bauhaus tradition – endured.

Is there a single object from the exhibition that’s a favourite of yours?

Yes, and it’s a handcart. One of the episodes of German history that most British people know nothing about is that, after 1945, the borders of Europe were redrawn. From roughly 1250 onwards, Germans had started settling across eastern Europe, and German communities had sprung up right the way to the Volga. In 1945, every one of those 12 million Germans in eastern Europe was expelled as the boundaries moved – and they all had to go to Germany. It’s as if the entire population of Canada had been forcibly repatriated to Britain in 1945.

So how did they get there? Well, on these carts, about the size of a table. This is what an entire family from Pomerania, minus the men – many of whom were dead or imprisoned – used to set off to a Germany that they had never visited. Children and the elderly would ride on the cart, and the mother would pull it.

This handcart speaks for 12 million people who turned up in a Germany that they’d never been to before. Many German families now have a member or a forebear who was involved. It was the largest organised deportation of people in history, and the British know nothing about it.

Do you think that Britain’s view of Germany is uniquely skewed?

In European terms, yes. Obviously the whole of Europe begins its view of German history with the Nazis, the Holocaust, the Second World War, and everything around that. But the countries that are geographically closer to Germany – whether it’s France, or Poland, or Russia – have all been involved in very conscious and public programmes of reconciliation, of looking at their history and together deciding how to move on.

Britain and Germany have never engaged in that kind of dialogue. Most people in the United Kingdom learn about German history at school or hear it talked about as if 1945 is the end of the story. Of course, for the rest of Europe, that chapter remains absolutely dominant, as it does for many Germans, but there is also a later story. That’s why we wanted to run this exhibition, because we in Britain haven’t engaged with Germany after 1945 in the same way as the rest of Europe.

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Neil MacGregor is the director of the British Museum in London. His book, Germany: Memories of a Nation, will be published by Allen Lane in November