Hitler's relationship with Germany explored

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Posters of different 'German races' and a Nazi era warning poster on inter racial breeding
Image caption,
The new exhibition in Berlin has Adolf Hitler as its focus for the first time

The title is important: Hitler and the German People. The first ever big exhibition in a major German museum to focus on Hitler is not just about him but about his relationship with the people.

And that, of course, makes for discomfort. After all, the people who come to the German Historical Museum in Berlin are the grandchildren and, occasionally, the children of those who participated in the poisonous relationship in the 1930s and early 40s. This is not an exhibition where the visitors view coolly from outside. It is one where they look into themselves, too.

What they will find as they walk the rooms is that Hitler and the Nazis permeated ordinary German life. There are tiny toys depicting him, children's models of him in uniform with his arm outstretched in salute.

There is a quilt where the inhabitants of a village have depicted their homes in delicate needle-craft - alongside the Nazi symbols also stitched with great care. There is a cup and saucer with a swastika, and a lamp shade with the same symbol. There is a deck of playing cards showing Hitler and other Nazis. There is a gravestone from 1938 with a swastika.

Media caption,

Museum director Hans Ottomeyer on why the exhibition was put together

There are also exhibits that give the game away, as it were. There is a very ordinary amateur painting, but on the back you see the Torah, the implication being that the sacred Jewish text was just taken and used for material for a hobby. Who now knows where it came from or what became of the original owners?

As you look, you wonder.

One of the few bits of personal memorabilia is a vast wooden desk with an eagle and snake on the front, and used by Hitler. The conclusion the organisers want you to draw is about his obsession with aggrandisement. It is a desk that is useless except for what it says.

There are paintings of the masses as just that: the masses - regimented, indistinguishable one from the next. There is a painting from before the war which depicts the masses hauling their leader - depicted as a monstrous giant - in adoration. The organisers said they want the viewer to conclude: don't say nobody knew it was coming because here it is foretold.

Image caption,
The depiction of the swastika remains illegal in public places

The exhibition is ground-breaking because it breaks a great taboo in Germany - and remember that the depiction of the swastika or the Nazi salute remain illegal in public places (the museum is exempt because it's technically for research purposes). But previous attempts at exhibitions focusing on Hitler came to naught because of the fear of attracting neo-Nazis.

Six years ago, for example, a similar exhibition entitled Hitler and the National Socialist Regime was rejected because it was felt to be too personalised - too focused on the man.

It's the images of Hitler that remain the problem, and in this current exhibition they are sparse. There are the busts of him, which were turned out industrially for mantelpieces throughout the land. And there are pictures of him in rows on the front covers of today's news magazines, perhaps to make the point that Hitler sells.

But there isn't personal memorabilia. The clothes he wore are not here. The German museum has not, for example, borrowed one of his uniforms from a museum in Moscow.

Simone Erpel, the curator of the exhibition, said: "Something worn by Hitler, even if it was just twice, could become a fetish."

There's no doubt it is all very thoughtfully done, but people remain uneasy. On the one hand, there are people who say that Hitler is not studied enough in schools so the more serious contemplation and sheer information there is, the better.

Image caption,
Busts of Hitler were turned out industrially for mantlepieces

But there are also those who see dangers. Also in the week when the exhibition opens, three small brass plaques on cobble stones were laid in a quiet street a short distance from the museum.

On them were the names of three people executed by the Nazis for organizing resistance and saving Jews. One of the people at the street ceremony was Hans Coppi whose parents were hanged.

"I find the exhibition of Hitler not a good idea. I believe the neo-Nazis will come," he said.

To which the director of the Museum on Unter den Linden, Hans Ottomeyer replies: "We are not haunted by neo-Nazis because we are a place of enlightenment. They don't read books and they don't go to exhibitions".

"Hitler was a poor tramp and it needed the acclaim of the Germans to make Hitler what he became. This the exhibition tries to reflect. It is about propaganda and it is about the means of his attraction."

So does the holding of the exhibition mean that Hitler is now in the past, a person for museums but remote from today's reality?

"He is not past and remote. He is still everywhere to be feared," says Mr Ottomeyer.

"Our cities and our public buildings are still destroyed and not rebuilt - and the same is true of the minds and the values of the people which were heavily hampered by the Third Reich and its effects."

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