‘Equality exists in Valhalla’

Richard J. Evans

  • Germany: Memories of a Nation by Neil MacGregor
    Allen Lane, 598 pp, £30.00, November 2014, ISBN 978 0 241 00833 1
  • Germany: Memories of a Nation
    British Museum until 25 January 2015

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.

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[*] John-Paul Stonard wrote about the Kiefer exhibition in the LRB of 6 November.