In their neatest handwriting, hundreds of children wrote to Adolf Hitler congratulating him on his 43rd birthday in 1932. One letter is on Mickey Mouse writing paper; others enclose photos of their diminutive authors posing in “Heil Hitler” salutes or waving swastikas.
“I hope that you will save Germany in the election on April 24!” writes 12-year-old Elga. “Here in Liebenburg, 90 percent of the people are Nazis and voted for you!”
More than 65 years after Hitler’s death and the collapse of the Third Reich, the German Historical Museum is seeking answers to a question that each generation asks anew: How did Germany, known as a nation of poets and thinkers, fall under Hitler’s spell and let him commit some of the worst crimes in history?
The new exhibition, called “Hitler and the Germans, Nation and Crime,” is the first in Berlin to focus exclusively on the dictator and his influence over the people. That is not to say that Hitler is still a taboo topic in Germany, as some of the international coverage of the exhibition would have it.
Far from it. Hitler sells. Television news channels such as N-TV and N-24 broadcast Hitler documentaries back-to-back in non-peak hours. Der Spiegel news magazine has put him on its cover no fewer than 40 times since 1947. The first academic biography of Eva Braun, published this year, became a bestseller. The fascination extends beyond Germany: the English- language film rights to the book have already been snapped up.
Matter of Time
It was just a matter of time until this show took place. The German Historical Museum -- located in the center of Berlin, opposite where the Nazis held book-burning ceremonies -- first mooted the idea of an exhibition about Hitler several years ago. The museum’s academic advisory board nixed it on the grounds that it would be open to charges of lionizing the dictator and pandering to a fascination for evil.
Since then, there has been an increasing acceptance that public exhibitions about the Nazi era should address the perpetrators as well as the victims. After all, understanding how the terror arose is crucial to preventing it recurring.
In April, an exhibition focusing on the ideology and crimes of the SS opened at Wewelsburg castle, which Heinrich Himmler planned to turn into a center for elite meetings. The Topography of Terror in Berlin, the site of the SS and Gestapo headquarters, opened a new building and exhibition in May.
Taboos remain. The German Historical Museum rejected displaying personal items belonging to Hitler, such as his uniforms, on concern they would be viewed as “relics” that could be construed as a homage.
“We are not exploring Hitler as a person,” said Hans Ottomeyer, the director of the museum. “Presenting Hitler to the public is always tricky: Is it allowed? Can you do it? Should you do it if you can do it?”
The exhibition focuses on the propaganda that accompanied Hitler from the early days of the Nazi Party and shows how the personality cult infiltrated the everyday life of Germans.
Bizarre displays include a showcase stuffed with the busts of the Nazi leader that were mass-produced for homes and offices. Toy soldiers sport Nazi uniforms; among them, a miniature Hitler stands behind a lectern, arm raised in salute. A tapestry for a church in Rotenburg an der Fulda features images of the town’s women and their houses, interspersed with the Lord’s Prayer -- and swastikas. A card game called “Fuehrer-Quartett” features portraits of Hitler and other Nazi leaders.
Many Germans willingly allowed him to intrude into their private lives. A 1933 telegram to the chancellery, from someone called Wedekind, asks: “Permission to give son second name Hitler.”
Maintaining the “Fuehrer mystique” was another important aspect of Hitler’s hold over his people. His outsize chancellery was part of his larger-than-life persona. Enormous offices require enormous furniture to match, and one of the most imposing exhibits is a vast sideboard, inlaid with swastikas and eagles, designed for the chancellery by Albert Speer.
An emergency-red Stormtroopers’ standard, featuring two swastikas and an eagle, urges “Germany, Awake!” Copies of “Mein Kampf,” Hitler’s book, translated into several different languages, signposts for “Adolf Hitler Platz,” and popular photographs of the Fuehrer at leisure also feature.
The conclusion reached by curator Hans-Ulrich Thamer is that Germans were yearning for salvation -- for someone to rescue them from poverty and chaos. The British historian Ian Kershaw, writing in the catalog, quotes a Hitler speech from Sept. 13, 1936. “It is the miracle of our time that you have found me,” Hitler said in Nuremberg. “You found me among so many millions! And the fact that I found you, that is Germany’s fortune!”
A quiet, darker section of the exhibition focuses on the other side of the story -- the murderous consequences of Hitler’s warped racial ideology. It showcases a homemade tin sieve used by concentration-camp survivors on the “death marches” at the end of the war. The starving victims would reduce pieces of tree bark in it, and boil them up into a kind of broth.
Less sensational than a swastika banner, it is still a much more powerful symbol of Hitler’s terror.
“Hitler and the Germans, Nation and Crime” is showing at the Deutsches Historisches Museum through Feb. 6, 2011. For more information, go to http://tinyurl.com/2aas8d2
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Beech at firstname.lastname@example.org.