by Tiia Sahrakorpi and Janine Noack
This morning, the first episode of the BBC radio 4 programme Germany: Memories of a Nation aired. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, presented on some of the most symbolic monuments found in German history. As the title of the episode indicates, “The View from the Gate”, we are given a glimpse into the history of the Brandenburg Gate, the Holocaust monument in Berlin, and the Siegestor (Victory Gate) in Munich. Tiia Sahrakorpi (TS) and Janine Noack (JN), German historians from different backgrounds, will provide their own commentaries and thoughts on each episode that airs.
JN: As a German historian interested in ways to present history to the public, I was very curious to listen to the first episode of the BBC radio 4 series and the way the British radio presents 600 years of German history. Right in the first episode, Neil MacGregor’s statement that “The story of Germany is like no other in Europe“ made me a bit suspicious. The thesis of the specific German Sonderweg (separate path/special way) in its historical development is one of the most critically discussed narratives among historians.1 Is BBC Radio 4 now trying to present another story of the German Sonderweg? A question that is yet to be answered. The motive of the program is to present many different historians of Germany with a special focus on the cultural memory all Germans share. The narrative starts with the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, which the German Federal Minister of Culture, Monika Grütters, calls “the German national monument“ and a building of national and also international meaning. This should demonstrate the transnational approach the BBC aims to take in the series.
Even though the leaning towards the Sonderweg was a little bit suspicious, the first episode was worth a listen because of its interesting approach of taking symbols everyone knows (such as monuments) to examine different histories of Germany. The sound effects gave the impression that listeners were right at the places Neil MacGregor visited. I am curious about the next episodes and hope this is not going to be another version of the German Sonderweg, but rather an informative series about a vibrant German history.
TS: As a Finn who is a German historian, many parts of the German narrative presented in this episode resounded with Finnish history. I was initially not as worried as Janine about the Sonderweg-alluding statement, as each European country seems to boast their own history is “like no other in Europe” (looking at you, Britain). Also, it’s no longer a big hot potato in terms of historical arguments as it was some years ago. The beginning of the episode, which focused on the changing borders of Germany throughout the centuries, brought out one of the fundamental pieces of European history: the creation of the nation state.
Similar to Germany, Finland didn’t become an official state until 1917 and border changes still occurred well into World War II. The differences in experience, as MacGregor aptly pointed out, can be noted in the monuments erected at various times of German peace and conflict. The Holocaust memorial monument located in Berlin, for example, serves as a place of memory, reconciliation and learning. The atrocities of the Nazis seem to be dealt with quite readily and publicly, and while Finland doesn’t hide its Nazi ties, the presence of the Holocaust is permanent in Germany.
This episode seems to emphasize the idea that memories are an important way to connect a nation state, and it seems that the trauma of the Holocaust (at least in present day) is a shared memory that links together the whole of Germany. The show did not take into account the different narratives of East and West Germany concerning the Holocaust, but given that there were only fifteen minutes, it’s understandable that it wasn’t mentioned in more detail.
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1. For more information on the German Sonderweg debate, read this HistoryToday article: http://www.historytoday.com/edgar-feuchtwanger/peculiar-course-german-history↩