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Arts

Neil MacGregor: Understanding the German soul

Neil MacGregor, outgoing head of the British Museum and founding artistic director of Berlin's Humboldt-Forum culture and science center, discusses his book "Germany: Memories of a Nation," just published in German.

"Germany: Memories of a Nation" is a combination of the British historian's perspective as an outsider paired with great insider knowledge about Germany.

The Victory Gate in Munich, for instance, calls to mind the towering victory arches in London and Paris - but there's a huge difference, Neil MacGregor said at the presentation of the book's German edition in Berlin this week. The Munich arch isn't about victory or triumph at all: The monument originally dedicated to the glory of the Bavarian army no longer bears reliefs to that effect, they were destroyed during WWII.

Germany didn't reconstruct the gate, but added an inscription that reads "Dedicated to victory, destroyed by war, urging peace" - effectively turning a monument into a memorial.

That right there is a major difference between the German and the British remembrance culture, the historian explained, adding that Germany doesn't look back at its own history for reassurance, but looks cautiously ahead to the future.

The complexities of German history

MacGregor didn't write the book with a German audience in mind, it's actually a by-product of a hugely successful 2014 exhibition of the same name he curated at the British Museum.

Neil MacGregor, Copyright: dpa - Bildfunk

Neil MacGregor steps down as the director of the British Museum at the end of 2015

The book is aimed at a British or international readership that knows little about Germany but for the fact that Germany started World War II and is responsible for the Holocaust in Hitler's name. MacGregor felt that 2015 was the time to take a new look at Germany as the world commemorated both the end of World War II and the 25th anniversary of German reunification, he told the audience at the book presentation.

At last year's exhibition, MacGregor placed a VW Beetle smack in the middle of the London museum's light-flooded main hall. The beetle may have been designed during the Nazi era, but it stands for a different Germany and for the "Wirtschaftswunder," the economic miracle of rebuilding the war-torn country. It's the first time a German word with a positive connotation made it into the English language, he told the audience, pointing out that the infamous "Blitzkrieg" was already known, while "Autobahn" is also linked to Hitler.

Fascination with Germany

Neil MacGregor has a special fondness for Germany. His grandfather and parents had visited the country and young Neil, who took French and German in school, went to Hamburg as an exchange student at age 16. Given the fact that Britain had bombed the port city during the war, he was surprised by the people's friendliness - and by how northern Germans spoke about Bavaria in the south.

From the Thirty Years' War to the Nazi era, in his new book, MacGregor conjures suitable images for every one of the traumas in Germany's collective memory, traumas that still continue to have an effect today.

Buchenwald concentration camp gate, Copyright: REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

All Buchenwald prisoners passed through this gate

The Nazis' cruelty is exemplified by the inscription in the Buchenwald Concentration Camp gate: "Jedem das Seine" (To each his own). Unlike the cynical slogan "Arbeit macht frei" at the gates of Auschwitz, Dachau and Sachsenhausen, the inscription in Buchenwald was originally a guideline of German constitutional legality. The letters were beautifully crafted in the Bauhaus style, created by Franz Ehrlich, a prisoner and former Bauhaus student. Perhaps it was a rebellious act, MacGregor said, and pointed out that Ehrlich not only subtly opposed the Nazis while still imprisoned, he was a spy for the Stasi secret police in East Germany after the war.

'What would we have done?'

"We Brits never had to wonder how we would have acted in a dictatorship," MacGregor mused. The story of Franz Ehrlich begs the universal human question: "What would we have done?"

MacGregor clearly wasn't interested in simply retelling German history, but in understanding German memories and painting a portrait of the German soul.

The historian doesn't shine a light on carnival or other German traditions, but he highlights artists like Käthe Kollwitz, Albrecht Dürer and Gerhard Richter. The latter in particular: MacGregor chose Richter's portrait of his daughter, "Betty", to symbolize how Germans deal with history. The girl's upper body and head are turned back, toward the past, but you just know she is on the verge of looking straight ahead again - to the future.

It's no surprise that the Germans are excited about MacGregor's interpretation of the German soul: He credits them with handling the past in a manner that is not just exemplary but an important impetus for Europe, especially within the current refugee crisis.

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