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Review - Exhibition - A nation in thrall to fascism

Hitler and the Germans: People and Crime

Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin


To February 6

Admission: 6 euros; under-18s free

Were a vote to be taken, it is a fair bet that Adolf Hitler would come top as the nation's favourite classroom bogeyman. His standing as evil incarnate makes him an object of fascination both in school and out, with various media - most obviously film, books and television - conducting what seems like an unending post-mortem on the man and his murderous ambition.

"Hitler and the Germans: People and Crime", the compelling exhibition at Berlin's Deutsches Historisches Museum, eschews such mythologising. As its title suggests, the exhibition views Hitler not only as an individual but also a social phenomenon, the more effectively to pose a question urgent to all students of the period: to what extent were so many Germans beguiled rather than bullied into Nazism?

A-level history students, and teachers in particular, will find much to debate on the approach taken by the museum to this central issue: over and again, visitors read that the "Fuhrer" (a title always delegitimised here by quotation marks) was granted power by a nation in thrall to the symbols and the central principles of Nazism. Hundreds of exhibits, many placed next to captions of unsparing bluntness ("The collective refusal of the people to address their own collaboration") show people's unforced allegiance to Hitler and his acolytes.

Rooms crammed with Nazi memorabilia effectively evoke a society in which party symbols and personnel were suffocatingly ubiquitous. "Deutschland Erwache" ("Germany Awake") reads a swastika-topped banner, perhaps once held erect by some straight-backed, goose-stepping devotee. A display cabinet with Nazi party collection boxes is matched with film of Hitler giving his pfennigworth to the cause. Footage of the leader at the podium addressing a massive audience is echoed in a toy model that has the leader, similarly positioned, flanked by uniformed cronies.

It was a society in which uniforms defined role, status and sentiment. A large display shows various outfits common to Nazi Germany, many with the swastika armband. Uniforms denoted unanimity of thought and purpose, badges of conformity and inclusiveness that made the wearer feel part of a seemingly irresistible force.

Outsiders also had their uniforms, albeit less elaborate ones. A yellow star bearing the word Jude (Jew), was worn by Jews on pain of severe punishment. The wearer was thereby revealed as the ultimate outsider, the eternal "parasite" and threat to the national will. Should the wearer not resemble the vicious racial caricatures elsewhere in the exhibition - a hook-nosed puppet; a fat, cigar-smoking plutocrat - the star would tell the truth. "Juden sind in unserem ort nicht erwunscht", reads a metal plaque from the time: "Jews not wanted here."

Such pernicious paraphernalia - rings, beer steins, cufflinks, badges, postcards, all with the swastika prominent - vividly disclose the omnipresence and eventual omnipotence of Nazism. The groupthink they helped create will not be lost on students. These and other exhibits bring added meaning to the eventual, catastrophic outcome, the responsibility for which the organisers once more lay squarely at the feet not just of one man, but of many.

Film clips, newspaper cuttings and official posters show a society gradually given over to brutality and benightedness in the pre-war years and beyond. In its depiction of a populace polluted by over-breeding "defectives", Nazi propaganda lays the ground for a policy of euthanasia. Lunatic notions of racial superiority result in the planned or spontaneous slaughter of millions, some here preserved on camera by soldiers in the manner of holiday snaps. A blotchy film clip shows bedraggled and half-starved children whimpering with fear after being caught trying to smuggle bread into the Warsaw ghetto. At the war's end, a plane flies over a German city so pitted and cratered by bombing it can scarcely be recognised as such.

The exhibition, the first of its kind in Germany, is attracting record crowds. For the most part, onlookers move silently through the rooms, many doubtless trying to fathom how their forebears could have been so bewitched by a man presented here as exceptional only in his capacity for hatred. Through nothing more than mere accident of birth, students from this country who ask the same question can count themselves lucky to be able to do so without any nagging sense of legacy.


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