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Germany’s Nazi symbols, imperial statues on display in Berlin museum

  • June 30, 2020

Long before protesters in Bristol, England, rolled a statue of 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston into the river, Berlin was grappling with what to do with monuments from a complicated past.

The push to do so, however, did not start with victims of oppression taking to the streets, but rather with victors over oppression occupying them. Shortly after the end of World War II, the Allied powers occupying Berlin ordered the removal of monuments to Germany’s national and military character.

Many of them are now displayed at the Citadel, a 16th-century fortress in Berlin’s western district of Spandau that was used by the German army during WWII to test chemical weapons. Now the Citadel is a historical site and a museum, where monuments reside in a sort of statue purgatory — neither destroyed nor revered, they instead comprise the exhibit “Unveiled: Berlin and its monuments,” open to visitors since 2016.

“It’s an opportunity to not forget this history, to not let it disappear,” says Urte Evert, who has been the museum director since 2017. “Instead, we can show that there is anger, sadness, even violence. And I hope we can do something with that by making these works accessible as they are.”

Many of the monuments on display were originally located along the Siegesallee, a prominent north-south boulevard constructed by imperial decree around the turn of the 20th century. There were dozens of them, lining both sides of the way, depicting centuries of Germanic political and religious rulers. Although most pre-date Germany’s unification in 1871 and the empire that followed, their construction and placement was an imperial project, meant to boast German power and prestige.

“Every single monument needs to be constantly discussed anew. You can never say, ‘this is the single correct way and now we’re done with it,'” says Citadel Berlin museum director Urte Evert

Today, Siegesallee is a path through the Tiergarten park. The area and its monuments were heavily damaged in WWII, and some were destroyed. Those that survived were moved, hidden or buried. They had to be recovered, partially restored and moved again for the exhibit.

Read more: Scrap heap or showpiece — What to do with cancelled ‘hero’ statues?

Presenting monuments as they were found

The Siegesallee statues were the exhibit’s impetus and remain its centerpiece. Of the approximately 100 pieces spread across several rooms, only a few deal with Germany’s Nazi and Cold War periods. A nearby church’s “swastika bell,” one of several church bells bearing the Nazi-era symbol that have caused a stir in Germany in recent years, has made its way to the exhibit, along with former East Germany’s Memorial to Victims of Fascism and Militarism, from 1969. Hundreds of more monuments, scattered about Berlin, are available to view virtually on a large touchscreen at the beginning of the exhibit.

Several Nazi-era church bells like this one in Herxheim, bearing the motto “All for the Fatherland — Adolf Hitler,” still hang in bell towers across Germany. A similar bell was recently added to the collection at the Citadel museum

Each era comes with its own baggage. While Nazi crimes are ingrained in Germany’s postwar sense of self, thirty years after reunification the country is only beginning to take a harder look at how its eastern and western parts came back together. 

The severed head from a 18.6-meter (61-foot) Lenin statue, on display in the back of the exhibit, is one point of contention, Evert says. Some visitors from former West Germany have criticized the head’s presence as honoring Lenin, while some from the former East have told her it symbolizes East succumbing to West, because Lenin is on its side — presented the way it arrived.

“Every single monument needs to be constantly discussed anew. You can never say, ‘this is the single correct way and now we’re done with it,'” Evert says. “But this allows for a conversation about the wounds between East and West that are opening up again.”

Read more: Controversial new Lenin statue unveiled in Germany

This head of Soviet leader and political theorist Vladimir Lenin previously stood atop a giant statue in East Berlin. After the statue’s removal, its head was displayed horizontally, as it had been found, at Berlin’s Citadel museum

Germany and the slave trade

Global protests sparked by the police killing of Black unarmed civilian George Floyd in the US have targeted or toppled monuments whose critics have long argued glorify historical figures while glossing over their colonial ambitions fueled by racist beliefs and policies.

That has put renewed focus on exhibits like “Unveiled,” although Evert acknowledges that Germany’s own colonial history does not play a major role at the Citadel. That is, however, not to say that such monuments do not exist — in many forms. In today’s Berlin, for example, that history is also reflected in problematic street names in addition to personal effigies.

“That era has never been very present in Germany,” Evert says of the colonial period which is officially considered to have spanned from 1884 to 1918. However, rulers of pre-unified Germany, such as Prussia, were involved in the slave trade as early as the 17th century. Friedrich Wilhelm, Duke of Prussia, established a foothold in western Africa; the fort he built in what is today Ghana became a hub for the transatlantic slave trade.

Read more: New Berlin museum stirs debate with exhibit on colonial crimes

A triumphant statue of the 17th-century Duke of Prussia Friedrich Wilhelm is still displayed outside Berlin’s Charlottenburg Palace — not pictured are the four chained human figures below, looking up at him

Today, his likeness still greets visitors to the baroque Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin’s west. He is presented atop a horse, triumphant, with four chained figures looking up at him. There is little talk of moving such a monument to an exhibit like “Unveiled,” and the fact that authorities have left it there in its original, unadulterated glory rankles many people. Several other monuments to slave traders and colonial leaders remain in place at sites across Germany.

“What do they want to show us with monuments like this?” says Mnyaka Sururu Mboro, a founder of the nonprofit group Berlin Postkolonial. “They remind us of slavery. And yet these figures are still there getting honored.”

Colonial blind spot

Mboro says the Citadel’s exhibit is one way to focus public attention on problematic history. He would also like to see existing statues remain where they are, but accompanied with additional information about racist and colonial history, and even countermonuments to contemporary African leaders and opposition figures.

Read more: Germany’s colonial era brought to light amid global protest

Berlin PostKolonial co-founder Mnyaka Sururu Mboro on imperial-era statues still standing: “They remind us of slavery. And yet these figures are still there getting honored”

“Destroying these statues won’t work,” he says, adding that he understood the pain and anger driving some protesters in recent weeks to target monuments in their cities. “But the whole history isn’t there. There needs to be context.”

Evert hopes to expand the exhibit over time. Her team at the Citadel works with researchers in Germany as well as activists in the United States to discuss how monuments can best be presented, and whether they should be at all. Yet the real work, she notes, needs to happen outside the museum.

“I hope we can deal not only with these statues as symbols, but with the problems behind them, so society can move forward,” she says.

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