Yesterday the publishers Influx Press announced the release of my book Ghosts on the Shore: Travels along Germany’s Baltic Coast, which will be published in June 2017. The book is an exploration of the shoreline between the old inner-German border just north of Lübeck and the boundary with Poland on the island of Usedom. The idea behind the book was to tell the stories from the shore, from folklore, art and literature to the history of the 20th century, as well as personal memories of Katrin and her family and their time living on the Baltic coast during the GDR.
So the subject of place and the importance of memory, particularly in this country I have now called home for fifteen years, has been consuming me for the past couple of years as I have been writing the book and it was therefore with great interest that I headed to the Martin-Gropius-Bau on Friday to see the exhibition Germany: Memories of a Nation. The exhibition, which first appeared in London alongside a Radio 4 series and an excellent book by Neil MacGregor, has been subtitled in Berlin as “the British view” because of its origins. On the day we were there our fellow visitors in the gallery were overwhelmingly German. I had already read the book, so most of the objects and the reflections in the accompanying text were not new to me, but nevertheless it was a fascinating exhibition that in its essence asks of us the question: what is a nation anyway?
After all, Germany as a unified nation state has only been around (and in the meantime once more divided) since 1871. German language and culture are of course much older than that, and indeed one of the first sections of the exhibition is titled Nicht mehr deutsch (No Longer German) and reflects on three cities – Königsberg (present-day Kaliningrad), Prague and Strasbourg – which are no longer part of Germany and yet play very important roles in the social, economic and perhaps most-importantly, cultural history of the nation. One thing that comes across quite strongly in those early sections is the fact that it was the fractured and un-unified nature of “Germany” before 1871 that was it strength, whether in the trading block of the Hanseatic League (there’s the Baltic connection), the importance of centres such as Frankfurt, Mainz or Nuremberg, or heavyweight cultural status of towns like Weimar that would, in other situations, been little more than provincial outposts.
Weimar is something of a thread running through the exhibition, home as it was to Goethe and Schiller and the birthplace of the Bauhaus movement. It is perhaps no surprise that when the curators wanted to bring forward the subject of the Holocaust, it was the gate from Buchenwald, just outside Weimar, that was the object of choice. There is a story, which I re-tell in my own book, about the oak tree under which Goethe once composed great works that would later stand within the confines of the Buchenwald concentration camp. The contradiction of the “Goethe Oak”, of the very best and very worst of “German-ness” located in one physical place, is something that all of us who have grown to love this country and its culture have to deal with, and one which the exhibition faces head on.
Another thread that runs through the exhibition from beginning to end is that of Käthe Kollwitz, one of 20th century Germany’s greatest artists and whose work can be found at the beginning, middle and end of Germany: Memories of a Nation. Her powerful woodcut memorial sheet for Karl Liebknecht faces across the corner of the room a horrific propaganda poster for the Nazis, featuring a terrible Jewish caricature, and we are left facing the contradiction again. These two pieces of work are both “Germany” in the interwar period, fragments of a history along with the landscape paintings of Casper David Friedrich, the artwork of Albert Dürer, the printing press and the VW Beetle, Luther’s Bible and the gate to Buchenwald, designed by a student of the Bauhaus imprisoned in the camp and which, in the words of the curators: “poses an insoluble question for Germany and the world. There is no narrative that can encompass it.”
High on one of the walls at the Martin-Gropius-Bau is another quote, this time from Goethe and Schiller’s Xenien: “Germany? Where is it? I do not know where to find such a country?” On the island of Usedom, where the border now stands, a black-red-gold border post stands facing the white and red of Poland, and we can be clear, geographically at least, where to find Germany. But like all countries and cultures, Germany is more than just the confines of lines on a map. It can also be found in its art, its literature and its memories, both good and horrifically bad. We can find Germany in the words of Goethe and the music of Wagner; in the traditions of brewing, printmaking and engineering and in the no-man’s land of the Berlin Wall; in Käthe Kollwitz’s Pieta and, of course, as we stand and face the Buchenwald gate.
As someone with roots firmly in Great Britain, at this time of Brexit and the rise of populist nationalism and anti-foreigner violence, I would like to see someone put together an equivalent exhibition about my own country. Maybe there is a curator out there, perhaps even in Berlin, willing to help us shine a light on ourselves in the same way the team behind Germany: Memories of a Nation are currently doing at the Martin-Gropius-Bau. All nations and cultures would be well served to have such a sensitive and thoughtful exploration of their own memories and stories of their past.
Words: Paul Scraton
Picture: Katrin Schönig
Germany: Memories of a Nation is at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin until the 9th January. My book, Ghosts on the Shore: Travels along Germany’s Baltic Coast is published in June 2017. You can order a copy directly from Influx Press here.