Germany's History Lesson for Britain

By Malik, Kenan | International New York Times, October 24, 2014 | Go to article overview

Germany's History Lesson for Britain


Malik, Kenan, International New York Times


The story of a sculpture contains a message about how a country must come to terms with its past.

CORRECTION APPENDED

Ernst Barlach was one of Germany's great Expressionist artists of the early 20th century. A virulent nationalist in the run-up to World War I, Barlach found that his experience of the Western Front stripped him of his jingoism. Much of his subsequent work explored the sorrow and suffering that he saw as the human condition.

In 1927, he created for the cathedral in Gustrow, a small town north of Berlin, a war memorial called Der Schwebende ("the Floating One"). The sculpture featured a figure with a haunted, grief- stricken face cast in bronze and suspended from the ceiling, as if hovering, angel-like, over the fields of Flanders. Ethereal and transcendent, the memorial is far from the monumental structures that usually commemorate the fallen, and yet captures so starkly the loneliness and terror of war.

In 1937, the Nazis declared Der Schwebende "degenerate" and later melted down Barlach's work to make munitions for the next war. Thankfully, a new figure was cast from a secret copy, and after World War II it was installed at Gustrow, which then stood in the eastern half of the divided Germany.

Last year, after much debate, the congregation of Gustrow Cathedral agreed to lend the statue to the British Museum in London to help the process of reconciliation during the centenary of World War I. Barlach's angel now floats above the museum's new exhibition on German history.

This show, "Germany: Memories of a Nation," which opened last week on the 25th anniversary of Germany's reunification, tells the story of Germany through a series of objects that range from a copy of Martin Luther's first German Bible, to the gates of Buchenwald concentration camp, to a fragment of the Berlin Wall, pulling together the threads of both civilization and barbarism that make up the nation's history.

How, asks the exhibition, can anyone understand a nation's history when burned into our gaze is a darkness as unfathomable as the Holocaust? And how can a nation's identity be reconstructed after such an episode?

These are questions with which Germany has wrestled for the past seven decades. But they are equally important to Britain. Britain possesses a particularly myopic view of German history -- one that reveals a deep lack of self-awareness about its own history.

"Two world wars and one World Cup," runs a popular English soccer slogan. (England won the 1966 World Cup on home soil, beating Germany in the final. England has never reached a final since, whereas Germany has since won the tournament three times, most recently this year.)

The slogan sums up Britain's attitude toward Germany over much of the past half-century and more. Britain's part in the Allied victory over Hitler's Germany was its last act as a true world power. That historical moment provided both a means of accessing a seemingly glorious past to buttress a less than glorious present, and a precious asset in promoting a sense of what it still meant to be British.

So baiting Germany about defeat, whether on the battlefield or the soccer pitch, became as much part of being British as drinking tea or complaining about a wet summer. …

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