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Germans and their history

March 26, 2017

At the Haus der Geschichte museum in Bonn, a young Iraqi learns about German history, in particular the years of the Nazi dictatorship. Hayder al-Maliki found that Germans can be ambivalent about their country's past.

Deutschland | Ein Irkaer im Haus der Geschichte
Image: DW/Ab Al-Khashali

The horror hits you right at the start. I've only just entered the Haus der Geschichte in Bonn, Germany's museum of national history, when I am confronted with grim scenes from the Second World War - as well as its historical ramifications, the traces it has left in the collective memory of German society. One thing above all quickly becomes clear to me: Why Germans are not nearly as proud of their country as I'd thought. On the contrary - they don't want to be proud, especially not of the 1930s and '40s: the Hitler years.

As soon as I enter the first room, I see the red swastika flags of the Nazi regime. I sense the power these flags must have possessed, and imagine the soldiers stumbling into the catastrophe of World War Two. Some war scenes are playing on video, while other pictures display the centers of political and military power in the Third Reich.

Papers, telegrams and medals of honor document the bureaucratic and symbolic order that underpinned the Nazi state. The exhibition includes soldiers' headgear, like the beret worn by members of the Luftwaffe. There are also some Wehrmacht tanks, which give a strong impression of the power of the weapons being used at the time. I am astonished that military equipment like this was being deployed as early as World War Two.

Deutschland | Ein Irkaer im Haus der Geschichte
Germany's military history is a source of shame to someImage: DW/Ab Al-Khashali

Remembering a dead father

In one of the rooms, I stand looking at an old soldier's uniform, next to an elderly man who is also engrossed in the exhibit.

"Excuse me," I ask him, "is this your first visit to the museum?"

"No, it's my third," he says. What makes him keep coming back here? "My father died in the Second World War," he replies. "And when I look at these uniforms, I remember the last time I saw him before he died."

"Are you proud of Germany?" I ask him.

"No!" he answers firmly. "Least of all the Nazi period. Hitler's rule cost the lives of millions of people from a great many countries. But I am proud of German history since 1945."

I'm surprised. His attitude is completely different to what many people in the Arab world would expect it to be. Many people there believe that Germans are proud of Hitler. How wrong they are!

The new beginning

Soon afterwards, I visit the museum for a second time. This time I head for the rooms devoted to the post-war period. Instead of the swastika, I'm now looking at the black-red-and-gold flag of the Federal Republic. The political leadership has been replaced, and people seem happy with their country. They're especially happy with their new currency, the deutschmark. It's brought Germany back into the fold of international commerce, reviving the economy. The museum has dedicated a whole room to the period of the so-called "economic miracle."

Deutschland Haus der Geschichte |
Positive aspects of German history are also on displayImage: DW/M. Reitz

After that, another big exhibition room documents the start of another era: the fall of the Wall and the process of reunification from 1989 onwards.

Again, I ask some of the visitors whether they're proud of German history. Here, in this room, people answer differently. "We're only proud of German history before and after the Nazi period," they tell me. It seems some Germans do identify with the period before and after the 12 years of Hitler - but not with the period between 1933 and 1945.

Fractured relationship with German history

From one room to the next, I follow the course of recent German history. This exhibition makes me realize how differentiated Germans' feelings are about their country and history. It's as if I'm reading a breathtaking novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez: The book opens with the war on the first page, then the white flag of capitulation flutters before the reader's eyes, before going on to a new, exciting chapter: the Cold War - the face-off between West and East, capitalism and communism.

"Are you proud of German history?" The question makes some Germans reticent, others embarrassed. Some answer with an emphatic "No," while others are more hesitant. Their faces reflect the complexity of the question. Some reject national pride entirely, others only with regard to certain periods in German history.

Teaching acceptance

I wander around the museum, trying to find one visitor prepared to answer my question with an unqualified affirmative: "Yes! I am proud of German history." I don't find a single one.

My visits to the museum have helped me to understand something. Unlike many Arabs, Germans are not at all proud of their country's military history. In trying to understand why this is, I think of what colleagues in DW's Arabic Service have told me about German schools. Children are taught in the spirit of tolerance and acceptance of others. The teachers teach them the value of peace, and respect for other people. I start to realize that this is why Germany was accepted back into the community of nations relatively soon after the horrors of the Nazi era. History requires us to engage with it, to analyze and address it.

Hayder al-Maliki lives in Basra, Iraq. He recently completed an internship with DW's Arabic Service in Bonn.