Why Did Germans Embrace Him?

Nazis are never far from the news here, but “Hitler and the Germans: Nation and Crimes” is Hitler’s biggest coup in Berlin since Mel Brooks’s “The Producers” lit up the German capital last year. The exhibition at the German Historical Museum has attracted a mountain of domestic and international media attention and brisk business. During its opening weekend alone, 10,000 visitors lined up to learn how Germans embraced this man who led them down a road of madness and mass murder. It is a story told through everyday objects, photographs, videos and a lot of text.

There is a satisfying irony to the fact that the Zeughaus, which currently houses the museum, was the scene of a botched attempt to assassinate Hitler in 1943. The show makes a case that the German people invested Hitler with their hopes and dreams and explores the fascination that the dictator continues to exert on the German public. “With many of the Germans who come here, a grandfather might look around and say, ‘We also played this Nazi board game’ or ‘I too was in the Hitler Youth,'” explained Simone Erpel, one of the exhibit’s three curators. “It’s not like we’re done with this chapter because 65 years have passed. The new generation is asking new questions about this history.” The show addresses the question of how Hitler was possible, and how violence on this scale was condoned.

Women working on small busts of Adolf Hitler in 1937.

The eight exhibit rooms, covering nearly 11,000 square feet, contain the sort of Nazi paraphernalia that, in any other context, would be illegal in Germany. Yet the curators have excluded items that might have special fetish value. The museum decided, for instance, not to present Hitler’s dinner jacket, currently displayed at a military museum in Moscow. “The history changes depending whether you see it in Berlin or Moscow,” said Ms. Erpel. “If we were to bring Hitler’s coat back to Berlin, it would be some bizarre sort of triumph, like Hitler returning to Berlin.”

Instead, you find a collection of letters and brightly colored postcards to Hitler on his 43rd birthday. Nearby is a set of Nazi toy soldiers with a miniature Hitler orating wildly from a podium. A computerized display lets you click through an eighth-grader’s assignment titled “Culture Theory,” a meticulously presented school report on the glories of Nazism. This 80-page notebook is one of the show’s most effective items; in our thinking about Hitler, we rarely consider how young people were indoctrinated with evil.

Hitler’s biography itself does not play much of a role in the show, which concentrates on the years 1933 to 1945. Aside from a picture of Hitler at age 10, one of the only bits of background is a collection of busts of “Führer figures,” which includes Siegfried, Frederick the Great, Bismarck, Hindenburg and Mussolini.

By stressing the popular support that Hitler enjoyed, at least until 1943, “Hitler and the Germans” is intent on shattering the myth that the Nazis seized power. It describes various Nazi strategies to win the loyalty of ordinary Germans, while stressing how symbiotic the relationship was. Some Nazi methods, such as the occupation of public space through the building of monuments and renaming of streets, are presented with compelling displays.

None of the ideas advanced by the exhibit are especially new or revelatory, admitted the museum’s press officer, Rudolf Trabold. “We are dealing with classic themes, but we’ve made an exhibit for the general public,” he said.

It is one thing to understand Hitler’s appeal to German society, and quite another thing to hazard an explanation of the crimes the Nazi regime committed in the name of the German people. The exhibit is more concerned with the former than in answering the question of how German society went along with genocidal plans.

At most, the exhibit seems to agree with the British historian Ian Kershaw that “the road to Auschwitz was built by hate, but paved with indifference.” At one point, the show claims that the murder of the Jews was “condoned with a mixture of partial approval, moral indifference and growing fears of terrorist measures.” Another typical sign tells us that public acts of violence met with “the approval or at least acceptance of the population.”

The exhibit also stresses how Nazis embraced technology, which enhanced their appeal and could also work against them. The radio was a powerful disseminator of propaganda, while lightweight and inexpensive 35mm cameras enabled the regime to document its crimes so thoroughly.

The final rooms of the exhibit shift focus to the fascination that Hitler continues to exert. Small though it is, it is the most unique section of an exhibit that often feels like a repackaging of the museum’s permanent collection. A welcome, if unexpected, touch is the inclusion of “Downfall” parodies that have become a YouTube phenomenon. The opposite wall is taken up with the 46 issues of Der Spiegel where Hitler has graced the magazine’s cover from 1946 to 2009. A bit further down, one finds a case full of confiscated Nazi memorabilia. (Incidentally, this stuff often winds up at flea markets in Berlin, the Nazi insignias hidden beneath little stickers.)

Ms. Erpel feels that this exhibit is fruitful for Holocaust education and coming to terms with the past. “The goal of this exhibit is to make a contribution to the de-demonizing of Hitler,” she said, suggesting that we can no longer view Hitler as a ranting lunatic who seduced the German people. She added that the public’s fascination with Hitler clearly indicates the central role he still occupies in our thinking about the Nazi period.

“To confront this question seriously, as we have, is an important step on the path of normalizing the shadows of history that still exist today,” she said. “My wish as a curator is that such exhibits will no longer be necessary, and that 10 years from now nobody will be interested in seeing a show about Hitler.”

Mr. Goldmann writes about arts and culture from Berlin and New York

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