Berlin’s blast from the past

Berlin’s blast from the past

The founding director of the Humboldt Forum, Neil MacGregor, predicts that Germany’s grand new museum will provoke intense civic debate

The Humboldt Forum will confront the future with the past

ON SEPTEMBER 14th 2019 the centre of Berlin will ring with festive music. Luminaries will gather to celebrate the 250th birthday of Alexander von Humboldt, the father of modern ecology. They will inaugurate in style the huge building which carries his name: the Humboldt Forum. It will be a museum complex, showing collections belonging to the Humboldt and the city of Berlin, but above all displaying objects from Asia, Africa and held in the (ex-Prussian) State Museums. It will also be a centre for exhibitions, performances and—perhaps its key purpose—civic debates.

Whereas the Grand Louvre asserted France’s cultural ambitions, the Humboldt Forum will raise questions (some of them uncomfortable) about Germany’s global role. And Germany’s politicians will not shy away from answering them. That is what this new building is for.

The Humboldt Forum will celebrate one of ’s greatest scientists. It will also mark a painful expansion of Germany’s Erinnerungskultur (culture of remembering), the continuous public discussion of the darkest chapters of the past. The Germans do this well. The murderous tyranny of Nazism, and the brutalities of the GDR, have been so openly examined that their warnings are deeply embedded in German political discourse. Now there is a demand that a third era of German state inhumanity should be similarly debated: the colonial empire in Africa under the Kaiser. The Forum will force that debate centre-stage.

The weight of history

Few buildings carry so much symbolic freight. The Forum stands at the ancient heart of the capital. Its exterior is a meticulous reconstruction: three façades replicate the royal palace of the kings of Prussia and the Kaisers of Germany. As visitors in September 2019 drive down Unter den Linden, they will have no way of knowing that the building ahead of them is not the palace which the first king built around 1710 and which Kaiser Wilhelm II left in the chaos of November 1918.

But the communists who saw in that palace the symbol of Prussian militarism razed it to the ground in 1952. In its place they erected a steel-and-glass Palace of the Republic. Until 1989 this was the seat of the GDR’s puppet parliament, and a centre where East Berliners enjoyed concerts, discos and a bowling alley. After unification, it too was demolished.

The federal government’s decision to rebuild the baroque façades of the old royal palace will deliver in September a building that once again makes sense of Berlin’s historic urban plan. It will delight tourists. Architectural critics will dismiss it as pastiche. Politically, it will reignite the resentment of many from the East who feel that their GDR has been written—or built—out of history by a triumphalist West.

But the contents will cause even more trouble. In this facsimile of the Kaiser’s palace will be shown many objects acquired in the Kaiser’s colonies. Like all European colonial powers, Germany expropriated, killed and exploited its African subjects. In Tanganyika the Maji Maji revolt of 1905-07 was suppressed with a scorched-earth policy that left nearly a quarter of a million dead. In Namibia German troops methodically drove the Nama and Herero peoples into the desert to die of starvation. Today that is widely seen as the first genocide of the 20th century and a step on Germany’s journey to its wars of aggression and the Holocaust. Now there is a groundswell of demand that Germany’s colonial crimes, deemed by some to be comparable to the Nazis’, be publicly acknowledged and researched with equivalent commitment.

Exhibiting objects acquired in the context of those atrocities in a replica of the building where Kaiser Wilhelm proclaimed the first world war will be judged by some a gratuitous provocation. It will raise the temperature of debate. At issue will be not only the sombre history, but what it means for Germany’s approach to the inequities of Europe’s relationship with Africa today. Should Germany make reparation for past wrongs? Should objects be returned? And what should this mean for immigration?

The Humboldt Forum will confront the future with the past. The resulting arguments will again show that modern Germany, unlike France with its history in Algeria or in , is willing to address its past with unflinching honesty—and, in consequence, to behave differently.

Neil MacGregor was director of the Humboldt Forum from 2015 to June 2018 and is now chair of its international advisory council. He was director of the British Museum from 2002 to 2015. Mr MacGregor is the author of “Living with the Gods: On Beliefs and Peoples” (Allen Lane, 2018)