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"Weimar: The Essence and Value of Democracy"

Nadine Wojcik db
April 5, 2019

Democracy is not a given, but it is worth fighting for. "Weimar: The Essence and Value of Democracy" is a Berlin exhibition focusing on the challenges the Weimar Republic faced.

three teens and a woman standing around a table, doing an experiment
Image: Deutsches Historisches Museum/Thomas Bruns

"I know what it is, I know, I know!" Eagerly raising their hands, a group of grade school kids gathered around a showcase in the "Democracy Lab" at the Deutsches Historisches Museum are trying to get the tour guide's attention. They have immediately recognized the exhibit in the case, a jersey worn by the soccer star Mesut Özil.

"But I haven't even asked a question yet," curator Patrick Helber laughs. The fifth-graders go ahead and tell him what they know about Özil, including the conflict over a controversial photo the former German national player took with Turkey's president, Recep Tayip Erdogan.

Helber tells the group all about citizenship, explaining that since people from many different countries live in Germany, some people have two passports. "Pluralism is a part of democracy," the historian says. The kids have an explanation for the term pluralism, too: "It's when not everyone is the same." Time and again, Helber observes how convinced they are of democracy. "The students immediately notice and address injustices," he told DW. "They argue in a very ethical and moral fashion."

Dispute over democracy

At this point in time, this is a really important exhibition, Helber says, adding that the current political climate in Germany is tense as openly racist parties with their "authoritarian and misanthropic attitudes infiltrate society." The museum decided to change the narrative by expressly not admonishing visitors or showing up anti-democratic tendencies — thus giving them a platform — but by turning the tables and emphasizing what actually constitutes the essence of a democracy.

Özil's soccer jersey at the Deutsches Historisches Museum
There's a story behind the Özil soccer jersey Image: Deutsches Historisches Museum/Peter Schuetzhold

Özil's jersey in the "Democracy Lab" interactive space at the "Weimar: The Essence and Value of Democracy" exhibition is one of seven objects that invite people to take a stance. Others include a bag full of deposit bottles, an East German ballot and the two ties worn by a homosexual couple for the first same-sex marriage in Germany. Videos, interactive games and newspaper clippings complement each of these exhibits, allowing visitors a playful approach to the basics of a democracy including fundamental rights, the protection of minorities, the right to participate and freedom of expression.

Rediscover the Weimar Republic

The same basic issues are addressed on the first floor of the museum, though here, they are embedded in the historical context of the Weimar Republic (1919 - 1933). Again, the focus is on controversial issues, compromise and — ultimately — what was accomplished. The show avoids the approach students usually get in history lessons at school, which highlight a fragmented, chaotic multi-party system that led to the rise of the Nazis and Adolf Hitler. Instead, curator Simone Erpel says, the focus is on the many progressive reforms in electoral law, in how sexuality was perceived in society and on the welfare state that largely survived National Socialism and WWII and continues to determine German society today.

The first thing visitors see is a construction site, scaffolding with 2,500 exhibits and texts that underline what this show is all about, namely that democracy is a constant struggle for compromise — forever a construction site. An end is not in sight as people will always have to renegotiate how they live together.

a wall full of posters
Election campaign posters from the Weimar Republic eraImage: Deutsches Historisches Museum/David von Becker

Social tug of war

The era saw the introduction of unemployment insurance in 1927, a hotly contested reform project, as was the design of the national flag of Germany's first parliamentary democracy. The idea was to replace the monarchy's black, white and red with black, red and gold. The flag dispute went on for years, led to street battles and ended when the Nazis seized power. The exhibition shows a black, red and gold flag that dates back tom the Weimar Republic, a flag someone back then hid in his garden shed.

Exhibits that resonate with commonplace issues we face today focus on the freedom of the press, for instance, including excerpts from the 1930 anti-war movie film All Quiet on the Western Front as well as clips from the massive right-wing protests against the film. Posters and photographs on sexual education ("Don't stumble into marriage! Get counseling") show just how free and liberal the Weimar Republic was.

Can people learn a lesson from the Weimar era, then?

The fact that the exhibition constantly stresses the necessity of compromise shows that it always takes some back and forth. It is exhausting, sometimes even painful, but — just remember the 1919 introduction of women's right to vote — it is worthwhile.