Sixty-five years after the end of the Second World War, Adolf Hitler remains an explosive topic. How was his rise to power possible? How could Hitler and National Socialism – which were responsible for war, crimes and genocide – count on the acceptance by German society? Why were so many Germans willing to align themselves with the Führer and so support the Nazi dictatorship?
Since 1945 every generation has asked these questions, and now Berlin’s German Historical Museum addresses them in its new exhibition ‘Hitler and the Germans: Nation and Crime’. In eight exhibit rooms, covering nearly 11,000 square feet, the rise, acceptance and downfall of Nazism is traced through text, images and related paraphernalia.
Young Hitler was an unprepossessing character who became the most powerful man in Europe by mobilising the fears and hopes of the German people. But rather than focus on the dictator as an individual, the exhibition concentrates on the support that the public gave him. ‘It is the miracle of our time that you have found me,’ he declared in Nuremberg in 1936. ‘You found me among so many millions! And the fact that I found you, that is Germany’s fortune!’
In the showcases are mass-produced Hitler busts, tin Wehrmacht soldiers marching past a miniature Führer, arms raised in salute, playing cards featuring portraits of Nazi and historical German leaders, SS cuff-links, jackboots, knuckle-dusters and truncheons.
Most disturbing is the work – and the indoctrination -- of children. Dozens of carefully-written letters – one on Mickey Mouse paper – congratulated Hitler on his 43rd birthday. ‘I hope that you will save Germany in the election on April 24,’ wrote 12-year-old Helga, surrounding her text with hand-coloured swastikas. Nearby an eighth-grader’s school project celebrated the glories of Nazism in an notebook entitled ‘Culture Theory’. Then in the next room are juvenile drawings of bunks, barbed wire and guard-dogs which were sketched at Theresienstadt concentration camp.
‘(After 1945) the Germans pinned the sole responsibility for the defeat and crimes of the Nazi regime on Hitler and his ruling clique,’ concludes the Historical Museum’s catalogue. ‘The collective refusal of the people to address their own collaboration paved the way to the civil society of the Federal Republic. In East Germany the Nazi regime was depicted as a kind of foreign rule of “monopoly-capitalistic” groups over the German people, which served to exonerate them as a whole.’
This is the point -- and importance -- of the exhibition. That expedient self-deception is exposed by detailing the true extent of public collaboration with the Nazi regime between 1933 and 1945. On display, for example, are illustrated essays on Dachau and Oranienburg in popular periodicals like Deutsche Zeitung and Bayerischen Heimgarten. Personal photo albums, shot by soldiers and housewives, included snapshots of deported Jews and arrested Russian peasants. Road signs declared ‘Juden sind in unserem Ort nicht erwünscht’ (Jews are not allowed in our town). A 1944 memorandum from the Erfurt firm J.A. Topf and Sons recorded a customer’s complaint over the delayed delivery of ventilation fans for Auschwitz’s gas chambers. The memorandum was initialled by all the company’s managers. As noted in the accompanying text, the purpose of the ventilation fans was known to every employee of the firm. No one was ignorant of what was happening.
The exhibition, which runs until 6th February, has attracted international media attention and tens of thousands of visitors. Cynics have suggested that the motivation for its staging is financial; Hitler remains a big crowd-puller (Der Spiegel magazine put him on its cover 46 times between 1949 and 2010). But Simone Erpel, one of the three curators, rejects the criticism, stating that her goal is ‘to make a contribution to the de-demonizing of Hitler’. Hitler’s personal items – for example his uniform which is displayed at a military museum in Moscow – have been excluded from the show.
‘To confront this question seriously, as we have, is an important step on the path of normalizing the shadows of history that still exist today,’ said Erpel. ‘My wish as a curator is that such exhibits will no longer be necessary, and that ten years from now nobody will be interested in seeing a show about Hitler.’