Turning Points: Germany’s National Day
3rd October: Germany’s National Day
Twenty-fifteen is a big year for anniversaries, and nowhere is this more true than in Germany. Besides the ongoing commemoration of the centenary of World War One, 2015 is the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War (May 1945). Perhaps even more significantly, it is also the 25th anniversary of the ‘reunification’ of Germany, which took place just after the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, on 3rd October 1990.
Many would agree that 1945 and 1989/90 are the pivotal moments of modern German history. It won’t come as much of a surprise then, that they are the subject of two temporary exhibitions at the German Historical Museum in Berlin. The first, entitled 1945 – Defeat. Liberation. New beginning, has been running since 24th April and will close on 25th October 2015. The second, Unification: German Society in Transition, has been open since 19th June and will finish 3rd January 2016.
It goes without saying that these are two very different events, accompanied by very different modes of commemoration in Germany. The first is sobering: it represents unconditional surrender, mass death and displacement and the country’s unprecedented physical destruction in 1945. Remembering this has been a soul-searching enterprise for Germans for over half a century. Were they the victims or the perpetrators of WWII? The second, in contrast, gives grounds for pride, celebration and relief. To quote the museum’s website, ‘since 1990 two societies that were separated for forty years are growing together again.’ This is why the 3rd of October, known as the Day of German Unity and the official date of reunification, is now a German national holiday: THE German National Day. And this is also why the two displays in Berlin’s German Historical Museum have little more in common than their simultaneity.
1945 On Display
The first is in the basement of the museum, and starts with a small, dark room, blacked out with thick curtains. There, the visitor is overwhelmed with giant photographic reproductions, revealing Europe’s destruction at the end of the Second World War. These are projected against a wall, without sound.
The next room is semi-circular and startlingly white and bright. It is filled with wooden pillars of differing heights, making the visitor feel disoriented. These serve as memorials to the masses who died, were displaced and suffered as a result of the war.
The main section of the exhibition is a large, semicircular space beyond the first two areas. It is divided into different segments, each of which presents an overview of the sociopolitical climate immediately following the war in twelve different European countries: Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Great Britain, Denmark, Norway, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Belgium, France and the Soviet Union.
The display is striking in its use of white text against black walls with dimmed lighting. Each country’s display showcases artefacts, such as newspaper clippings, political slogans and everyday life objects such as a wedding dress made out of a parachute or a refugee’s suitcase.
Each national case study is also accompanied by at least two biographies, meant to illustrate the impact of the war on individuals’ lives. At the same time, the exhibition as a whole presents the aftermath of war as a pan-European experience. At the exit, one is struck by images of atomic bombs dropping on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – a reminder that Europe’s ‘new beginning’ was not congruent with the end of the war itself.
1989/90 On Display
The reunification exhibition is very different, both in terms of scope and presentation. It occupies a large, single, well-lit space on the ground floor. Drawing on a range of different media (photographs, magazines, newspapers) and tackling themes such as crime, nationalism, art and employment, it constructs a sinuous path through the 11 months from November 1989 to October 1990.
The display undoubtedly has a playful dimension. For instance, visitors from what was formerly East Germany are encouraged to share what they bought with their first 100 deutschmarks of state-provided ‘welcome money’ — whilst small pots enable the visitors to discover familiar ‘Eastern smells’ such as coal or a particular brand of soap. Another display with rotating panels of short biographies of East and West Germans has a surprise mirror-panel, in lieu of a biography.
Nevertheless, the display also touches on more serious issues that arose as a result of the sudden social, economic and cultural change. A series of photographs personalise the plight of former East German citizens, most of whom faced unemployment following reunification (the photographs are arranged chronologically: 1990, 1992, and 2004 respectively). The files of the state security police, the Stasi, are mentioned too. The final display gives a short history of the German Historical Museum and its East German collection during the 1989/90 transition phase.
In its equal presentation of opportunities and very real challenges of reunification, the exhibition at the German Historical Museum underscores the variegated effects of reunification for citizens of the two Germanies. It thereby dismantles the ‘Easterners’ (Ossis) / ‘Westerners’ (Wessis) binary, and calls into question forms of remuneration.
The two exhibitions leave the visitor with very different impressions of each period. This has as much to do with the topic as it does with the formal display of content. The aesthetics alone impact the visitor’s emotions and experience.
In the first exhibition, the dim lighting, limited number of interactive displays, and separation of countries by high-walled panelling encourages recollection and mourning. The loneliness, the silence, and the darkness are overwhelming: it is impossible to know who or what is around the corner or when the exhibition will end. The experience therefore is induced both by the gravity of the topic and the configuration of the space which is imposed on the visitor.
Conversely in the second exhibition, one is instantly uplifted and secure: the room is mainly white, the artefacts colourful and the path to follow clearly marked out on the floor. It is possible to gain an overview of the entire space from the entry and one can see and hear other visitors at all times. In fact, the space is dominated by a range of noises stemming from the many interactive artefacts (videos, sound samples and touchable objects) as well as the omnipresent chatter of other visitors.
The visitor’s reaction therefore, is perhaps generationally determined — as few who visit the first exhibition will have had first-hand experiences of the events, while a quick glance in the guest book reveals that many feel a personal connection with the second. Yet were the two events that different? In both cases, were there not winners and losers and a slow but permanent recovery? Is the curatorship manipulative?
The Politics of Commemoration
Things are not that simple.
For most Germans, 1945 was no grounds for celebration. And yet a self-pitying depiction of Germany in 1945 is at variance with today’s apologetic German political culture. In that sense at least, the curators were well-advised to show that war, reconstruction and reckoning were international as opposed to national challenges. As for 1989, it was certainly a mixed bag for most Germans. But if both hope and fear were present in 1989/90, hope has certainly won out. Although 1989 was arguably a European feat, Germans are proud to claim that year as their own and this ought not to be contested. The Thatcherian fears of a revived nationalist Germany as a result of reunification have since been disproved.
Still, you wonder, when we talk about reunification and the end of the war, aren’t we talking about the same thing? Doesn’t 1989 implicitly contain 1945 anyway? Die Wende – ‘the turning point’ – as 1989/90 is known, was not just a reunification, but also the actual end of the post-war period. Only then did Germany become a fully sovereign state once more; only then was the peace treaty finally signed and the Second World War officially over.
Perhaps this Day of German Unity is also implicitly a celebration of the end of the Second World War and, as such, perhaps the two exhibitions really do belong together. For this reason alone I would urge you to visit the German Historical Museum and rush, while one still can, from one to the other, from the 1940s to the 1990s — from disaster to euphoria. In the meantime, 25 years on from reunification and 70 years after the end of WWII, on this 3rd of October 2015, we remember history and we face new challenges, saying: Deutschland, Alles Gute!