The Nazi era is extensively documented and studied in Germany: museums looking at the regime and its crimes exist in many major cities, and the Second World War is a central part of every German child's school curriculum. But there's one figure at the burning-white center of the Holocaust that for many Germans remains too hot to touch: Adolf Hitler himself.
On Friday, the German Historical Museum in Berlin opened the first major exhibition on the dictator since 1945. The idea of a high-profile show dedicated to a leader who cultivated a cult of personality around himself has many Germans worried. How can an exhibition illustrate the impact that Hitler had on his German followers without adding to his potential myth and fascination? Will the prestigious museum become a pilgrimage site for Neo-Nazis?
"To portray Hitler is delicate," Hans Ottomeyer, president of the Foundation German Historical Museum told reporters at a press conference on Thursday. According to Ottomeyer, an attempt to put on a Hitler-exhibition several year ago failed due to the resistance of the museum's expert advisory commission. He said the museum's curators were careful to make sure the new exhibition was not an "homage" to Hitler. Instead the goal was to answer questions such as: "What was his image? How was it created? What did Germans see in him?"
The show, titled "Hitler and the Germans Nation and Crime," presents the argument that Hitler's successful rise to power had less to do with charisma than the fact that he was at the right place at the right time. "How can a criminal who subsisted on almost nothing but cake be that fascinating?" Ottomeyer asks. With around 1000 artifacts the curators are trying to illustrate how the general desire of the German people for a savior in the economically and politically unstable times of the Weimar Republic allowed Hitler with the help of modern media to convince the majority of the population that he was the strong leader the country needed.
It worked. Mundane items like a paper lantern with a swastika or a Hitler card game illustrate how strongly everyday life was affected by the "Führer cult." A wall rug onto which the members of a women's church group carefully stitched "Our Father" framed by swastikas is also on display. A fan-letter to Hitler written in childlike handwriting on Mickey-Mouse stationary marks the extent to which even children were affected by Nazi propaganda.
Only in recent years has it become acceptable in Germany to portray Hitler not simply as a monster, but also as a human being, such as in the 2004 movie Downfall about Hitler's last days. There have even been attempts to depict Hitler in a humorous way, such as the the 2007 German comedy film Mein Führer: The Truly Truest Truth about Adolf Hitler. The curators pick up this trend by contrasting original footage of a state visit by Mussolini with scenes from Charlie Chaplin's movie The Great Dictator it's hard to tell the difference between parody and reality.
Germany may now be able to laugh at its past and confront the Nazi legacy in museums and on TV but the country's attitude toward the dictator is still anything but relaxed. Shortly after a waxwork of the "Führer" was put on display at the Berlin branch of wax museum Madame Tussauds in 2008, it was beheaded by an angry protester. Curator Simone Erpel is not worried that an incident like that could occur at the Historical Museum. In fact, the museum hasn't even bulked up its security, she said, so confident is the administration that extremists will stay clear of the museum's premises.
For Wolfgang Wippermann, a historian at Berlin's Free University, however, Germans have become too familiar with Nazi-era retrospectives. "This exhibition doesn't shock anybody anymore," he says pointing out that a braver exhibit would confront how the tenets of National Socialism exist in pockets of global society today. "Hitler is dead, but fascism and and anti-Semitism are alive," Wippermann says.
To many Germans, Wipperman's views is confirmed by the growing popularity of far-right and proto-fascist views in Germany, even among the better-educated middle class. A poll recently conducted by the University of Leipzig found that around 13% of Germans believe Germany should have a strong "Führer." More than 10% questioned in the same poll think that "if it wasn't for the extermination of the Jews, Hitler would be viewed as a great statesman today."
Levi Salomon, the Berlin Jewish community's Commissioner for Fighting Anti-Semitism, argues that an exhibition like the one in Berlin can help to overcome this problem. "How it could happen that the German population was so enthusiastic about Hitler is a question that we'll discuss for the rest of our lives, and every generation has to start at the beginning again."