Germany: Memories of a Nation 
by Neil MacGregor.
Allen Lane, 598 pp., £30, November 2014, 978 0 241 00833 1
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Germany: Memories of a Nation 
British Museum, until 25 January 2015Show More
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Twenty-five years​ after the fall of the Berlin Wall, two major exhibitions in London take stock of German identity, history and memory, each in its own way providing a powerful reminder of the legacies of a contested past in the culture of the reunited Germany of today. One of them, the beguiling exhibition at the British Museum curated by Barrie Cook, displays objects of many kinds, from the wooden sculptures made in the late 15th century by Tilman Riemenschneider to the metallic icon of the Volkswagen Beetle, in order to address the question of Germany’s fragmented sense of itself across the ages. The other, the Anselm Kiefer retrospective at the Royal Academy, confronts the problematic subject of what the title of the British Museum exhibition describes as Germany: Memories of a Nation.*

The parallels and contrasts between the two exhibitions are striking. Entering the British Museum show, the visitor is confronted by Georg Baselitz’s Inverted Eagle with the Colours of the German Flag: the German imperial symbol, its contours blurred by its beating wings, is superimposed upside down on the black, red and gold of the present-day German flag, rendered in broad brushstrokes that begin at the top and end raggedly at the bottom, giving it a frayed and bedraggled appearance. As the British Museum’s director, Neil MacGregor, says in the book published to accompany the exhibition and a parallel series of broadcasts on Radio 4, German history in this vision is so tattered and damaged that it has to be subjected to repeated reworkings. If the eagle represents the imperial tradition with its militarism and authoritarianism, the black, red and gold represent the counter-tradition of liberal revolution in 1848 and Weimar democracy in the 1920s; the eagle, along with everything it stands for, is still present, but indistinct, and its beating wings suggest an attempt to escape the enveloping flag that is bound to be unsuccessful.

At the entrance to the Kiefer exhibition, the visitor is confronted by another eagle, two vast leaden wings sprouting from a large pile of disordered books and some broken-up chairs perched precariously on top of a plinth. The boldness of the statement is striking, but so too is its oppressive weight: the books in Kiefer’s Language of the Birds (2013) are made of lead, ‘heavy enough to carry the weight of human history’, as he explains, but a material that in his work often carries the potential to be transformed by alchemy into silver or gold – a brighter, shinier thing. ‘History,’ he has said, ‘is a material you can form like a sculpture,’ but the sculptor has to pay attention to the material, or one false blow of the hammer or chisel will destroy it. In Resumptio (1974), the wings, painted in blue outline, are attached to a palette which is shown rising from the grave: art emerging from the corpse of the German past.

In the British Museum exhibition, art and craftsmanship are used as a way of freeing German history from the corpse of the Third Reich. The exhibition could hardly look more different from the Kiefer show, where nearly every work is on a vast, almost overwhelming scale. The objects in Germany: Memories of a Nation are mostly small-scale, even intimate (the Beetle is an exception). The aim is to illustrate Germany’s many-sided nature as well as the diversity of its cultural achievements. This means not only demonstrating that German history didn’t begin in 1933 and end in 1945 but, more important, inviting the visitor to escape from the teleological vision that sees everything in the German past as leading up to Hitler and everything in its memory as focused on the crimes of Nazism. Elaborately carved silver tankards show the skill of German metalworkers at the time of the Hanseatic League, the association of traders who made the first attempt at a union of Germany’s obstinately independent towns and cities. Early craftsmanship is displayed in Riemenschneider’s wooden sculptures and the extraordinary clock made by Isaac Habrecht, a model of his larger creation in Strasbourg Cathedral, with moving figures and varying chimes. Gutenberg’s printing press is displayed alongside a first edition of the Bible translated into German by Martin Luther.

All of this testifies to a flourishing urban cultural life in the late medieval and early modern period. The Holy Roman Empire and its elaborate judicial, administrative and electoral institutions held things together only in a limited sense, as a display of the many different coins issued by individual German states shows. The Great Nef, a mechanical galleon made around 1585 by Hans Schlottheim, was intended to symbolise the empire’s harmonious operation by showing the Imperial Electors processing before the emperor, who sits on a throne beneath the main mast, while the sailors strike the quarter-hour on bells located in the crows’ nests. The empire was undermined by the rise of the territorial state and collapsed after Napoleon inflicted a series of crushing defeats on the Habsburg armies in the early 1800s. A dream of unity emerged later in the minds of a handful of nationalist thinkers, and was symbolised in the ‘imperial crown of Charlemagne’ (actually Otto I), which Kaiser Wilhelm II had copied on the eve of the First World War. Nowadays, as MacGregor notes, it has become a symbol of friendship between France and Germany, each of which has claimed to be Charlemagne’s true heir.

As we move through the centuries, there are Dürer etchings and Bauhaus prints; there’s a 17th-century plague mask and billion-mark banknotes from the hyperinflation of 1923. The exhibition makes German history come alive. When I visited it I came across MacGregor showing round a delegation from the Foreign Affairs Committee of the German Federal Parliament (a high proportion of the ordinary public seemed to be German too). I asked them what they thought. They nodded in approval: ‘You have to come to London to see a really good exhibition on Germany,’ one of them said.

At nearly six hundred pages, MacGregor’s book considers many cultural objects which couldn’t be fitted into the museum space. There’s a particularly good section on public monuments, from the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag building to the Victory Arch in Munich and the Victory Column in Berlin. All of these have complex and multi-layered histories which MacGregor brings out expertly. After the defeat of Nazism a new inscription was placed on the Munich Arch: ‘Dedicated to victory, destroyed by war, a warning for peace.’ There’s an illuminating chapter on the Hall of Heroes, the Valhalla Monument built by Leo von Klenze at the behest of Ludwig I of Bavaria on a hill overlooking the Danube (it’s also the subject of a painting by Turner, who was present at its opening in 1842). Friezes display Germania, the symbol of German unity in the 19th century, and Hermann or Arminius annihilating the Emperor Augustus’s legions, led by by Publius Quinctilius Varus, in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in the year 9 ad, thus according to nationalist tradition preserving Germanic freedoms from the Roman yoke and setting the German nation on its historic course. Behind the Doric columns that march around the monument’s periphery, the brightly coloured interior contains 130 white marble busts of ‘illustrious Germans’, selected according to Ludwig’s instructions (‘No condition, not even the female sex, is excluded. Equality exists in Valhalla’). Obvious figures like Frederick the Great, Goethe, Schiller, Beethoven and Kant were included, but religious prejudice on the part of the Catholic monarch ensured that Luther didn’t enter Valhalla until 1848; neglect of Baroque music kept Bach out until 1916, and it took until 1990 for the first Jew to arrive – Einstein. Heine, who poured scorn on the monument, was added in 2010; the sculptor split the stone from Heine’s cheek to his chest to indicate his probable reluctance to be included. Marx still hasn’t been let in; anyone who wanted to see him would have had to go to the Valhalla of the Present installed by the conceptual artist H.A. Schult in the concrete ruin of an unfinished hotel near Cologne at the end of the last century; Marx looks out from a window onto a motorway along with Mother Teresa, Princess Diana and Barbie.

A large part of the exhibition concentrates on the movement for national unity in the 19th century, a movement that eventually secured the dominance of Prussia over smaller kingdoms like Ludwig’s Bavaria. Bismarck, the architect of German unification and Prussian hegemony, is well represented, most arrestingly in a novelty painting made on strips of wood arranged so that you can see Kaiser Wilhelm I in it if you gaze at it straight on; if you move to the left it turns into a portrait of Bismarck; and if you move to the right it turns into Crown Prince Friedrich, who had just come to the throne following his grandfather’s death. ‘When you look at Bismarck and Kaiser Wilhelm together,’ MacGregor points out, ‘Crown Prince Friedrich is completely invisible, which is of course exactly what Bismarck would have wanted.’ In politics, as in art, the crown prince, who had a strong reputation as a liberal, was kept firmly out of sight by the duumvirate of the chancellor and the kaiser. In fact Friedrich only had a few months as kaiser before he died of throat cancer, handing on the throne to his self-willed son Wilhelm II, about whom neither MacGregor nor the exhibition has much to say.

The show doesn’t dodge the difficult questions. Both Paul Celan’s Death Fugue and Kiefer’s work feature here as ways of remembering the 12 years of Nazi rule, but there are other, more prosaic objects too. The concentration camps are represented by a replica of a gate at Buchenwald, inscribed not with the usual ‘Arbeit macht frei’ but with the even more cynical ‘Jedem das Seine’ (‘to each his own’). The words were placed not at the camp entrance but over the modest door through which prisoners left every day on their work details. They echo the motto of the Prussian Order of the Black Eagle, which was stamped onto the coins issued by the first king of Prussia; the phrase was also used as the title of a Bach cantata of 1715. As MacGregor points out, the motto with its varying uses raises the central question of modern German history: how could such a noble ideal be perverted?

The exhibition doesn’t offer an answer, but it challenges the visitor to think about the question. Yet the Buchenwald gate also gestures towards an alternative tradition in modern German history. It was designed on the orders of the SS by Franz Ehrlich, one of the camp’s numerous communist inmates, who had studied at the Bauhaus under Klee and Kandinsky. Ehrlich obeyed, but used lettering that the inmates would have understood as a subtle subversion of the gate’s, indeed the camp’s, purpose; to them it signalled that the spirit of resistance was still alive, and alternatives to Nazi kitsch still existed. The prisoners could even read the wording as a promise that one day the SS would get what was coming to them.

That spirit of resistance is represented in the exhibition by a range of artists including Brecht and Käthe Kollwitz, whose woodcuts renewed the tradition begun by Dürer and continued after her by Kiefer. Kollwitz was the artist of poverty and oppression, and her Memorial for Karl Liebknecht, the communist leader murdered by right-wing paramilitaries in 1919, introduces us to the alternative social democratic and communist traditions in modern German history. The exhibition devotes too little space to these. Although MacGregor argues that Germany, unlike other nations, doesn’t have a single national memory because it has been such a fragmented and shifting polity, this exhibition can be read as an attempt to produce one. It focuses overwhelmingly on the political structures of Germany, on the story of overarching institutions like the Holy Roman Empire, the German Confederation of 1815-66, the Bismarckian empire of 1871-1918, the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich and the Federal Republic (East Germany gets its place, but only a very small one; it would have been nice to see a Trabant opposite the Beetle). Clearly an exhibition illustrating the high standards of German workmanship and its contribution to European culture through the ages is going to concentrate on objects produced for the rich and powerful. But this provides a rather partial picture. Space might have been made for some of the products of the folk traditions that dominated up to the end of the 19th century in a rural Germany that seems under-represented here.

By 1912 the German Social Democrats were the largest political party not just in Germany but the world. The labour movement had a rich cultural tradition that deserves more than the display of a first edition of Marx’s Capital. The liberal alternative to Bismarckian nationalism and its successors is well illustrated, but the social democratic tradition, which was stronger and, under the Weimar Republic, far more important, is short-changed. Neither the Social Democratic Party nor its leaders, including August Bebel and Friedrich Ebert, even appear in the index to MacGregor’s book. At times the Social Democrats are described as ‘liberals’, which they assuredly were not: the rival declarations of a republic on 9 November 1918 were made, for example, not by ‘both communists and liberals’ but by a communist and a social democrat. Unusually, MacGregor gets things wrong here: the Spartacus League didn’t try to establish a communist government in Berlin in 1918 (he seems to be referring to the so-called Spartacist Uprising of January 1919). The exhibition should have made room for the rich artistic legacy of the social democratic tradition, the subject of a large number of exhibitions in Germany itself over the last few decades. Without coverage of this tradition the show seems unbalanced.

But MacGregor is brilliantly able to explore the multiple and often conflicting memories incorporated in the cultural objects he writes about. Symbols like the forest provide the focus for many of his reflections. The forest, as he points out, was the setting for many of the folk tales collected by the Brothers Grimm, a dark and forbidding place where ‘character is demonstrated and evil is overcome.’ The German oak came to stand for such victories. Caspar David Friedrich’s The Solitary Tree (1822) shows a battered oak in the foreground, damaged by the storms of the French invasion and the Napoleonic Wars but still in full leaf on its lower branches, providing shelter for a shepherd and his flock. Its loneliness is mitigated by a scattering of other oaks and a hamlet in the middle distance: German identity persists, but it has been assaulted and is championed only by a few. The oak leaf reappears in a wreath on the Iron Cross, the medal for courage in battle introduced during the final struggle against Napoleon in 1813, and, much later, on the first coins issued in West Germany.

For​ extreme nationalists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Germany’s roots in the forest contrasted strongly with the rootlessness of the Jews, a people of the desert who had to act as parasites on other races in order to survive. One of the many monuments illustrated in MacGregor’s book is the Hermann Monument, which stands nearly ninety feet high on a rise above the Teutoburg Forest, where it was erected in 1875 to celebrate victory in the Franco-Prussian War. Most Germans nowadays, he notes, are rather embarrassed by this late 19th-century appropriation of the Hermann story, and there was no public commemoration of his victory on the two thousandth anniversary of the battle in 2009. For Kiefer, the forest is a nationalist icon to be subverted. His trees almost always appear as tightly packed trunks, with only the lower part visible. In ‘Forests of Myth, Forests of Memory’, an essay written for the Royal Academy’s lavishly illustrated catalogue, Christian Weikop compares Kiefer’s work to Georg Baselitz’s The Tree (1966), which shows a lone tree trunk, burned, disfigured, with blood dripping from its bare branches: Germany wounded by the violence of the Nazis. Kiefer’s Varus (1976) shows a snowy blood-flecked path through a thick forest; above the path are written the names of German generals (Blücher, Schlieffen etc), as well as nationalist philosophers such as Fichte and Schleiermacher: the path leads from the legendary battle of the Teutoburg Forest to the nationalism of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th.

Kiefer’s forests frequently take on more complex resonances, however. Sometimes the wood is oppressive and impenetrable, as in Winterland (2010), where the trunks emerge from dirty snow, and in the foreground a mass of dead twigs is tangled like barbed wire. At other times the image is subverted by its association with militarism, as in Tree with Panzer Tank (1977). In Resurrexit (1973), the forest, bare in the winter gloom, is divided by a central avenue along which a snake is moving; expelled from the Garden of Eden after the Fall of Man, it stares upwards in hope of redemption. Attached to the top of the painting is a representation of the staircase leading to Kiefer’s own studio; it is made of wood, suggesting the transmutation of the German past in the artist’s work, a sign of optimism and renewal explicitly announced in the work’s title.

The snake and the studio reappear in Quaternity (1973), where the reptile represents Satan and is set alongside the fires of the Trinity blazing from the wooden floor. More often, the Trinity appears as a group of three chairs, tangible objects posing the question of how to represent the intangible and the spiritual, as in The Rhine (1982-2013), the last piece in the Kiefer show, a labyrinth of free-standing canvases through which the visitor has to find a way to the exit. In other works, the trees have vanished, leaving a desolate landscape of mud or snow, covering the memory of Germany’s past with silence, from which, as in For Paul Celan, Ash Flower (2006), untidy leaden books emerge, containing the weight of history for those who have the strength and the will to pick them up, interspersed with the thin grassy stalks of memory pushing tentatively from the ground. Celan’s poetry, along with that of Ingeborg Bachmann, is a major inspiration for a number of these works; in For Ingeborg Bachmann: The Sand from the Urns, a crumbling brick wall looms to the rear with the ground in front covered in bricks and fragments of bricks.

Kiefer addresses himself explicitly to a number of historical issues as well as approaching history and memory at a more general, often mythological level. The exhibition begins with some early works depicting the artist in various locations giving a Nazi salute. Widely misunderstood at the time, these works were conceived as a frontal assault on the amnesia of postwar Germany, West and East. In Sulamith and Margarethe (1983 and 1981, respectively, the names taken from Paul Celan’s Death Fugue), he sticks strands of woven straw onto the canvases to represent the blonde hair of a concentration camp guard, and shows seven flames, perhaps of a menorah, burning at the back of a vaulted crypt designed in 1939 as a memorial space for fallen soldiers of the Reich. In Operation Sealion (1975), the three ochre-coloured chairs of the Trinity hover in judgment over a zinc bathtub surrounded by troops, with toy battleships firing their guns and one of them bursting into flames. Morgenthau Plan (2013) is one of a number of works showing part of a cornfield, with allusions to Van Gogh in the ominous black crows overhead, to signify the deindustrialised economy advocated unsuccessfully by the US during the war as a way of keeping Germany from making another attempt at world domination. Here, as in many other works of Kiefer’s maturity, the surface is roughly textured, with materials of many kinds affixed to the canvas, giving a sense of German history as awkward, recalcitrant, difficult, the reverse of smooth and shiny oil paintings of the kind made by earlier artists like Anton von Werner who specialised in nationalist depictions of historical scenes.

The Nazi period looms over everything. Yet, like MacGregor, Kiefer wants to reclaim the broader sweep of German history, its myths and symbols, from the meanings attached to it by the Nazis. In the Parsifal triptych (1973), he reworks not only the Norse myth of the perfect knight but also its appropriation by Wagner and the exploitation of Wagner’s work by ultra-nationalists, anti-Semites and Nazis. We see Kiefer’s cot against the wooden background of his studio; a spear and two swords, one blood-stained, the other shattered, are sticking into the floor. There is no triumph or glory here, just a prosaic assemblage of symbols.

The memories of the German nation remain divided, uncertain. At the end of the British Museum exhibition, there is a bronze memorial sculpture by Ernst Barlach, made for Güstrow Cathedral in 1927, then removed and melted down by the Nazis, who loathed Barlach’s work, with its indebtedness to Russian primitivism and its pacifist message. Barlach’s friends kept the mould, made a new copy, which they hid, and then restored to the cathedral after the war. An angel, clothed in a long robe, its wings folded, its eyes closed, its hands crossed over its chest, hangs horizontally, suspended from the ceiling by two long chains. Its face is that of Käthe Kollwitz, whose work exposed the cruelty and suffering of war. But its position, hanging in the air, suggests the uncertainties of German history and memory.

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