Germany: Memories of a Nation

A History of the World in 100 Objects” marked a transformative moment for the British Museum. A groundbreaking project devised in 2010 with BBC Radio 4, it included a 100-part radio series voiced by the museum’s director, Neil MacGregor. Now “Germany: Memories of a Nation”, a similar collaboration developed to mark the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, sees Mr MacGregor’s erudite, entertaining voice returning to the airwaves. He narrates another project that again hopes to make its audience reassess stories they thought they knew and consider those they never knew at all. This combination of radio series, book and exhibition seems particularly deserving of attention in a year that also marks the centenary of the outbreak of the first world war, an anniversary that has not necessarily encouraged a thoughtful examination of German history.

Analysing that history is a complex task. Even a simple definition of Germany is not easy; the text of Mr MacGregor’s book is preceded by eight maps illustrating how Europe’s borders have shifted since 1500. Königsberg, the home of Immanuel Kant, is now Russian-ruled Kaliningrad; Strasbourg, central to the work of Goethe, lies within the borders of France. As Mr MacGregor writes, the project “does not attempt to be—it cannot be—in any sense a history of Germany, but it tries to explore through objects and buildings, people and places, some formative strands in Germany’s modern national identity.”

The project takes a collection of disparate items and allows them to be considered individually and as part of a whole. The range of items under consideration is particularly striking. The Lutheran Bible in effect created the German language, and the exhibition includes a copy of the 1541 version, signed by Luther and with his transcription of the 23rd Psalm on the flyleaf. Here too is Tischbein’s famous portrait of Goethe (pictured), an image still recognised by almost every modern German (or at least those Mr MacGregor stops in the street). The museum’s Great Court holds a 1953 Volkswagen Beetle, an icon whose origins can be traced back to the 16th-century origins of Germany’s tradition of fine metalwork: Vorsprung durch Technik, Mr MacGregor reminds us, is not a new idea. And here, also, are the material relics of the darkness of Germany’s 20th century: the main gate from the Buchenwald concentration camp with its eerily elegant Bauhaus lettering declaring: “Jedem das Seine” (“To each what they are due”).

“Memories of a Nation” is a knowingly loaded phrase. Modern Germany has taken courageous steps to face its past, but this is an unending, difficult process. The wording allows for the consideration of Germans’ memories—and others’ recollections of the country, too. As Mr MacGregor writes, “the debate about memory in Germany is as much about what is not remembered as what is.” This impassioned project will bear the scrutiny it invites, while consolidating the ambitious plan that was begun by “A History of the World”, to make the British Museum a museum for all the world. “Germany: Memories of a Nation” is deeply felt, carefully conceived and an important addition to any consideration of the shape not only of modern Germany but of Europe as a whole.

“Germany: Memories of a Nation” is at the British Museum in London until January 25th 2015