Finding new narratives

How is Germany dealing with its past? International visitors trace German 20th-century history.

The East Side Gallery at the Berlin Wall
The East Side Gallery at the Berlin Wall dpa

Buildings and rooms, according to Mirza Mešković, have an aura that reflects their history. The young Bosnian is a founding member and Deputy Director of the Genocide Museum in Sarajevo, a small, privately financed institution informing visitors about the atrocities of the civil war in Yugoslavia. “Visitors often approach me and say they are certain that something terrible happened in this or that room of the museum.” He can’t confirm this, but equally he can’t exclude it either. “It may also simply be the impact of the exhibits that radiates back into the space.”

At the present moment Mešković is himself standing in the middle of an exhibition that exudes an oppressive feel and taking in the rooms. He and 15 other international participants travelled to Berlin and Dresden as part of the Visitors Programme of the Federal Republic of Germany. The trip’s theme was Germany’s approach to its 20th-century history. One of the items on the itinerary was a visit to the former headquarters of the East German Ministry for State Security in Berlin’s Lichtenberg district, parts of which have been converted into a museum. The young museum director from Sarajevo is impressed: “You have access to a great many exhibits that are very well presented. At the same time you are directly at the scene of the action and can sense the atmosphere and spirit of the central power apparatus of a dictatorship.”

The East German power apparatus, as also becomes clear to the exhibition visitors, very much sought to entrench a certain narrative among the population – namely that of the supremacy of the communist regime back then. A discussion with Christiane Brandau, who conducts research on school books for the Georg-Eckert-Institut, focussed on the topic of how strongly certain narratives continue to take effect across the world to this day and how rewarding it can be to dismantle them with a new, diverse view.

Joint textbook for Germany and Poland

School textbooks, especially for the subject of history, are central to the development of a particular national identity, noted Brandau. Yet knowledge of certain events is often portrayed very differently from country to country. Her institute has written a joint history textbook for teaching in Germany and Poland, which among other things is designed to highlight precisely these differences. “If you were to ask people in Germany about the Battle of Tannenberg, for instance, virtually no-one would be able to tell you anything.” For the Polish, in contrast, the battle in the early 15th century, known in Poland as the Battle of Grunwald, is considered a key identity-forming event, she says. According to the narrative, it was when a decisive victory was won over arch-rival Germany. “A story that in Poland literally every child knows.”

This reminded Nigerian journalist Samuel Kayode of a particularly extreme example from South Africa. “Until the early 1990s children were taught in schools there that whites and blacks colonised the country at the same time – essentially making it wrong to speak of something like Apartheid.”

Our goal is to enter into dialogue with the countries of origin about our joint, sometimes problematic history.

Hermann Parzinger, founding Director of the Humboldt Forum

Africa, to be more precise Germany’s shared history with the continent, was the focus of the discussion with Hermann Parzinger, President of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation and founding Director of the Humboldt Forum, together with other participants in the newly constructed Berlin Palace. The Forum, conceived as a cultural meeting place, recently came in for criticism owing to its planned show of exhibits from the holdings of ethnological museums. The critics claimed that anyone presenting such pieces, which often had unexplained colonial origins, needed to concern themselves more consistently with their colonial past than was the case in Germany. For instance, Germany has still not officially apologised for its crimes in the former colony of “German South-West Africa”, present-day Namibia, as Mnyaka Sururu Mboro from the NGO Berlin Postkolonial pointed out.

Generally speaking however, both parties in the debate were conciliatory in their joint wish to make Germany’s colonial past more transparent and exploit the Forum’s potential for promoting understanding between peoples. “Our goal is to enter into dialogue with the countries of origin about our joint, sometimes problematic history, as well as to seize the opportunity to work on new narratives,” commented Parzinger.