A new exhibition at Bonn's history museum Haus der Geschichte unpacks half a century of founding myths. Some 900 objects from East and West Germany, as well as from the reunified nation, link pivotal historic moments.
As soon as you walk into the current exhibition on "German myths since 1945" at the Bonn history museum, it becomes clear that this show is divided in two, just as the country was from the end of World War II through 1990.
On the one side you have founding myths of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), or West Germany, and on the other you have those of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), or East Germany. After 1949, both entities developed into their own respective German state, each with a totally contrasting political structure.
Subjective and separate
When we speak of myths, we aren't talking about made-up legends or the fake news of today, the exhibition's curator, Daniel Kosthorst, explained. Rather, it's about "stories of collective memory." Kosthorst underlined that there was no shared German myth in the aftermath of WWII, something which the exhibition makes plainly clear. Instead, each German state developed its own, often politically-grounded myth.
The stories presented from the early years of the capitalist, democratic FRG after its founding in 1949 include the "Economic Miracle" ("Wirtschaftswunder") and the introduction of the former West German currency, the deutsche mark. Both examples suggest that hard work and good policies helped achieve a strong postwar recovery.
In the GDR of that same era, posters and other socialist propaganda objects show how the state's foundation was built on a top-down "antifascist" narrative.
Both East and West German founding myths involved distancing themselves from Nazi Germany. But it's only after 1990 that Germans in a newly reunified country were able to create and share a new founding myth based on the experience of two countries coming together again as one.
A box with deutsche marks shows how the currency, no longer in circulation, was important in the West German narrative
Myths through hindsight
With some 900 exhibits spanning seven decades of German history, visitors to "German Myths" can build their own impressions as to which political, sporting, cultural and societal events have become the stuff of founding narratives. Above all else, the selection shows how subjectively myths are perceived and propagated.
A quote from French writer and critic Marcel Proust, written in giant letters on the show's first wall, sets the tone for the visit: "Reality is only formed in memory." Oftentimes, it's only through hindsight that we can judge which events went on to become historically important dates, or even mythical ones.
The exhibition "German myths since 1945" at Haus der Geschichte in Bonn is on display through September 16. It was previously on show in Leipzig.