This is my latest column for the International New York Times, published under the headline ‘Germany’s history lesson for Britain’. You can read the full version in in INYT.
Ernst Barlach was one of Germany’s great expressionist artists of the early twentieth century. A virulent nationalist in the run-up to the First World War, Barlach found that his experience of the Western Front stripped him of his jingoism. Much of his subsequent work explored the sorrow and suffering that he saw as the human condition.
In 1927, he created for the cathedral in Güstrow, a small town north of Berlin, a war memorial called Der Schwebende (the Floating One). The sculpture featured a figure with a haunted, grief-stricken face cast in bronze and suspended from the ceiling, as if hovering, angel-like, over the fields of Flanders. Ethereal and transcendent, Barlach’s sculpture is far from the monumental structures that usually commemorate the fallen, and yet captures so starkly the loneliness and terror of war.
The Nazis declared Barlach’s work ‘degenerate’ and melted down Der Schwebende to make ammunition to fuel the next World War. Thankfully, a new figure was cast from a secret copy and after World War Two it was installed at Güstrow, which then stood in the eastern half of a divided Germany. Last year, after much debate, the congregation of Güstrow cathedral agreed to lend the statue to the British Museum in London to help the process of reconciliation during the centenary of World War I. Barlach’s angel now floats above the museum’s new exhibition on German history.
The exhibition, Germany: Memories of a Nation, which opened last week on the 25th anniversary of German reunification, tells the story of Germany through a series of objects a copy of Martin Luther’s first German Bible, to the gates of Buchenwald concentration camp, to a fragment of the Berlin Wall, pulling together the threads of both civilization and barbarism that make up the nation’s history.
How, asks the exhibition, can anyone understand a nation’s history when burned into our gaze is a darkness as unfathomable as the Holocaust? And how can a nation’s identity be reconstructed after such an episode?
These are questions with which Germany has wrestled for the past seven decades. But they are equally important to Britain. Britain possesses a particularly myopic view of German history — one that reveals a deep lack of self-awareness about its own history.
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