A photo-essay on the German capital in six parts.

5. Kultur

The major art galleries of the West are often billed as 'museums', and, in many cases, its major museums are full of art: art that has been dug up, art that has been hauled half-way around the world, and sometimes both.

Berlin's Museumsinsel ('museums island', in the former East) has two major museums of antiquities, both testifying to 19th century Germans' determination to import as much of the classical world as possible. The Altes Museum holds hundreds of decorated pots, small sculptures, mosaics, and gold and silver relics: a collection to rival the British Museum's Greek and Roman holdings, and easier to absorb, thanks to the scarcity of signs in English. (When visiting dozens of museums in a few days, less information is, paradoxically, sometimes welcome.)

The most overwhelming part of the collection, though, is in the Pergamon Museum. Here, the marble booty of countless German archaeologists and very strong porters sits in halls designed to hold not just a few statues but entire Greek and Roman temples. I wouldn't have thought it possible to make the Elgin marbles seem modest by comparison, but this collection does; a walk through the Pergamon is like a stroll through outdoor ancient Athens. And that's only part of it. In another room stand the Gates of Babylon: two and a half thousand years old, covered in navy blue tiles, and dug up and shipped north a century ago.

Repatriation of museum objects is a sensitive issue in Europe, and seeing the Pergamon you can tell why. True, the Gates wouldn't exist in this form if not for painstaking German archaeologists carefully excavating and reassembling its broken parts. But it's hard to savour the thought of an ancient Greek temple being sliced off at the foundations and hauled north like some cultural kit home. No matter how much the 19th century Germans wanted to belong to the Classical tradition, importing whole chunks of Classical landscape seems like overkill.

There's no denying the impact of museums full of this stuff, though. Visiting them is, for an Antipodean, a bittersweet experience. Europeans have such easy access to collections of Old Masters and antiquities; such easy familiarity with their own collective heritage. We Aussies hold our breath when the NGA coughs up a few million for a single Monet or a painted cardboard box by Picasso; Berliners just pop out to Charlottenburg to visit the Sammlung Berggruen, a small gallery that just happens to hold one of the most comprehensive collections of Picassos anywhere.

Viewed in this light, the blockbuster exhibitions held by Australia's major galleries over the past decade have been important not just for giving us a few nice pictures to look at, but in giving Australians a better sense of our own heritage—a heritage that's as much ours as Europe's. Titian and Turner belonged to our great-great-grandparents too, and seeing their paintings reproduced in full colour isn't the same as seeing them in full view.

Still, it could be worse: some peoples can't afford to hold such exhibitions, or to visit Europe to see their past on display. That lends a bittersweet taste, again, to the Museum für Völkerkunde (Ethnology) in Dahlem, one of the most spectacular of its kind. Its pre-Columbian collection was the best I'd ever seen (until I saw the one in Vienna; smaller, but with more gold and jade objects, and with the only surviving Aztec feather headress); the Native American collection was as good as any in the Western U.S.; and the Polynesian collection rivalled any in New Zealand or Hawai'i. But the African galleries were the most impressive of all: a reminder that German explorers and colonists made up for lost time in the 19th century by grabbing as much of the continent as they could. Benin bronzes, exquisite ivory carvings, elaborate masks and costumes: it's all here.

It's not all loot, either. Many of the objects are labelled as gifts from old African kings to old German Kaisers; and others would have been bartered or purchased outright. Not all the objects on display would have been preserved by their original owners, in any case: there are everyday objects as well as treasures. But there's enough treasure to wonder when Europe's kings would ever have decided that they had treasure enough.

African Masks in the Ethnology Museum, Berlin.

When it came to culture, Germany clearly couldn't get enough of it, which makes the paroxysms of its twentieth century history all the more paradoxical. Here was a country shared by a people who had made a rich contribution to German culture over many centuries—and here was a country that regarded those same people as uncultured and inhuman.

It's hard to comprehend how deep that hatred ran, even when considering its awful consequences. For me the most disturbing glimpse into the Nazi mindset came from one picture among many at Berlin's open-air Topographie des Terrors exhibit. The picture showed an admiring crowd gathered around a statue being unveiled in the suburb of Zehlendorf in the 1930s, swastika flags and armbands intermingled with smiling old frau. The statue showed a naked muscular figure raising a hammer into the air, ready to bring it down on the snivelling wretch gripped in his left hand. The wretch had a heavy brow, a giant rat-like nose, ears set back into a thick animal neck, and three stubby fingers on each clawed hand.

When that's your mental image of fellow human beings, your conception of morality moves outside normal human boundaries.

Germans have been re-establishing those boundaries for fifty years. Perhaps the best indication of how far they've come is Berlin's Jewish Museum. Long a department of West Berlin's city museum, it recently moved into an amazing new building designed by American architect Daniel Libeskind. From above, its jagged shape is reminiscent of a broken Star of David, or a bolt of lightning striking the city. From the ground, its metal walls shine silver and gold like a religious relic. But the most powerful effect is inside.

From the entrance, a staircase descends below ground to a junction of three corridors representing three axes. The first, the axis of continuity, leads up into the main exhibition of the museum, taking us through centuries of Jewish history in Germany and Europe. Persecution recurs again and again throughout that history and throughout the continent: Germans were not alone in their anti-Semitism. Towards the end, a brief window of civilisation is opened, when Jews are treated as equals in the 19th century. Then, quickly and brutally, closed. Germany had 600,000 Jews before the Nazis. It has 100,000 today, 80,000 of them recent immigrants from Russia.

The second axis leads out to the Garden of Exile, a grid of concrete pillars with young trees growing out of the top, set on an angled surface designed to suggest the sense of imbalance felt by all migrants. About half of Germany's Jews emigrated before the door was closed in 1941.

The third axis leads along an underground corridor to a heavy iron door, which swings open with an echoing click. On the other side, you stand in a grey concrete room that goes up, up, up to a jet black ceiling. Halfway up one wall, way above your head, a steel ladder starts and leads nowhere. The muffled roar of Berlin's traffic howls around you. One of the four walls sits at an angle, turning the room into an arrow that points to a small shaft of sunlight in one corner. You stare up at the light. You stare. You stare, and you don't move.

Holocaust Tower, Jewish Museum, Berlin.

The Holocaust Tower is one of the most disturbing spaces on Earth. A dark masterpiece of design; as fitting as any memorial to such horror can be. A testament, too, to how far the German people have come, that they can build this fifty years after Dachau.

The lesson of the Jewish Museum is that the Final Solution addressed the wrong problem. There was no 'Jewish problem'; there was only ever a non-Jewish problem. The solution to hatred was never as straightforward as the removal of the object of hatred; we have the last fifty years to show us that. Wherever the solution to the non-Jewish problem may lie, modern Germany has at least been trying to find it. One can only wish them success.

26 July 2002 · >>next>>

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