How Germans remember the past

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On a day when we're remembering soldiers and wars, it's also useful to think about how we remember. In Germany, memory of the past is often painful: two world wars, the Holocaust, the Berlin Wall. Now, Germans are again thinking about how they remember these events. Writer Alissa Quart visited a couple of museums in Berlin.

MARCO WERMAN: On a day when we remember soldiers and wars, it's also useful to think about how we remember. That can depend on the nature of historical events and whether we view them with pride or with shame. In Germany, memory of the past is often painful. Two world wars, the Holocaust, the Berlin Wall, now Germans are again thinking about how they remember these events. Writer Alissa Quart visited a couple of museums in Berlin that memorialize the past in different ways.

ALISSA QUART: Berlin is a city of odd collisions. Collisions of architecture, 19th century buildings next to severe modern ones. Angry graffiti on fancy stores in the former East Berlin. People collide here too. I was part of that briefly. An American Jew sorting through the city, adding the fragments of my own family's history in Europe into the mix. Berlin's buildings offered some clues. This is the Neues Museum. Neues means new in German and this museum is new, well pieces of it are. As I walk up the museum's giant steps, I can see strips of exploded old bricks incorporated into sturdy new ones. The museum has been rebuilt using the ruins of the original 19th century museum building. It was bombed during World War II and then left to decay by the East German government. It reopened late last year. The new structure, renovated by British architect David Chipperfield uses bits and pieces of the 1850 one. There's weird 19th century iron work, World War II bullet holes, walls and ceilings left chipped and stained. I had to fight through the crowds to get through. Olivia Zorn who works at the museum leads me around. She points out the layers from different periods.

OLIVIA ZORN: The idea of the conservation of this building was to show all what is preserved. We topped the painting, the paintings on the pillars. After that it was damaged in the Second World War. And we will show all these details.

QUART: We pass the bust of the Egyptian Queen Nefertiti. It's the best known exhibit here. It too is surrounded by fragments of history. Sitting under a half conserved kitschy 19th century mural of the Roman God Hercules. Nefertiti is very beautiful. The Egyptians want her back now. I am told I can't ask about that. The sound of a large curved horn from the Bronze Age plays next to where the horn itself is displayed. Nearby ancient bracelets and rings are shown in dirt and sand. Some critics and curators find the renovation of the Neues Museum annoyingly artsy. The bullet holes and broken brick, cliche of World War II trauma, all in clever quotations. A more direct approach can be seen at the museum at the Wannsee Conference House. It was at this house in 1942 that Nazi leaders planned the Final Solution, the extermination of Europe's Jews. Among them, many in my own family. The museum is start and the house unchanged. Tapes featuring the voice of Adolf Eichmann play in a corner of one room. I had forgotten that cigarettes and cognac were served during the planning of the Final Solution. The Neues Museum, of course, is aiming for a more self conscious vision of German history. Art historian Benjamin Buchloh thinks the result is remarkable, incorporating fragments like corny 19th century wall paintings. Those reminders of the past hint at how the history of Germany's heroic fantasies about itself long preceded Fascism.

BENJAMIN BUCHLOH: They really give us a sense of the intensity with which Germans in the 19th century desired to remake themselves in the image of the Greco-Roman culture. That type of imagery that is still left in the museum reminds you of that. So as you go through the museum, as you look at the collection, you start thinking about the history that necessitated and formed the collections and the museum architecture itself.

QUART: Buchloh is also impressed that the Neues rebels against a typical new museum building. Many new museums aim to invoke jaw dropping awe, sometimes at the expense of the art they're showing. And the Neues engages you more than those buildings do, says Susan Howe, an American poet who has been writing about the Neues. That's because the museum doesn't try to be a shiny new place that has all the answers. This museum is purposefully incomplete.

SUSAN HOWE: This building represents a feeling of no final intentions, or a museum that is open, open to the sky literally.

QUART: I, too, have long believed places and histories are more fractured than they appear. I think that's what the museum is saying as well. In Berlin and in so many other cities, the best thing any new structure can do is disown the past and honor it as well. The Neues Museum does this by retelling the past in fragments, while still cherishing Nefertiti. For The World, I'm Alissa Quart, Berlin.

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