The Germans at Least Are Looking in the Mirror

Roundup: Talking About History

Serge Schmemann, in the NYT (Nov. 10, 2004):

... There's no escaping the past in Berlin. An exhibition currently at the German Historical Museum on the Unter den Linden, the "Myths of the Nations,'' has attracted considerable attention with its displays of how people from different nations - Russians, Americans, Europeans - have formed and reformed the narratives of their experiences of World War II and the Holocaust over the past 60 years. The purpose is to impress on the visitor that national memory is really the past continuously reinterpreted through the present. "Nowhere have the memories of the war faded,'' the text declares. "On the contrary, they are constantly being renewed in ever-changing variations.''

Like much of what the Germans do with their past, the exhibition is open to the criticism of seeking to "relativize'' Nazi history. The display about the United States, for example, is dominated by a clip of Jimi Hendrix playing his screeching version of "The Star-Spangled Banner'' at Woodstock. The text with the display says it was the first assault on America's postwar image of itself as the champion of liberty and democracy - a longing to deflate the victor, or perhaps nip at the invader of Iraq?

The irony, intended or not, is that the exhibition stands at the heart of what is perhaps the greatest collection of overlapping national myths, Berlin itself. So thick are the layers - the Berlin of Prussian kaisers, of "Cabaret,'' of the Third Reich, of East and West, and of today - that it can be hard to decide where to begin peeling them back, and when to stop.

Near the German Historical Museum (formerly a museum of Prussian might, then of Nazi might, then of Communist might) stands the massive hulk of the Palace of the Republic. The East Germans raised this garishly modern monolith, sheathed in bronze-tinted windows, over the bombed-out Prussian Royal Palace to proclaim the triumph of Marxism over Prussian militarism. After reunification, it had to be gutted because of asbestos, and the new masters announced plans to rebuild the Prussian palace. That's being disputed, of course. In the meantime, the bronze box has found its own niche in the present - as a popular setting for art and music shows....

In the end, experiencing the layered myths of Berlin is incomplete if it doesn't include a long look in the mirror. The Germans, at least, have accepted the responsibility for untangling their past. But there's terrible history elsewhere - the Gulag, the "disappeared,'' Cambodia, Rwanda - that needs to be stripped of congealed myth and denial.

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