"Prussia: Attempt at a Balance"
Last summer the London Times, Le Monde, even The Wall Street Journal, devoted articles to the “reawakening of Prussia.” The subject was discussed in every German newspaper from Munich to Hamburg, from Cologne to Berlin. Three hundred recently published books on Prussia were listed in the catalogue of a well-known German book dealer, and the number grows.1 The center of all this interest in Prussia was a number of remarkable exhibitions in West Berlin which opened on August 15 and closed at the end of the year. The controversy over the Prussian tradition aroused by these exhibitions will no doubt continue for some time.
In Berlin thirty-five years ago, on February 25, 1947, the commanders of American, British, French, and Russian forces occupying defeated Germany issued Occupation Law 46 which said, “The state of Prussia, which has always been the cradle of militarism and reaction, has ceased to exist.” What has brought about this interest in a state that was presumed dead? Were the exhibitions in Berlin an obituary intended to confirm the death of Prussia or were they meant to lift the harsh condemnation of Prussia’s role in Europe’s history and to appeal for a fairer judgment? Were they intended to suggest that Prussia is still alive? For many visitors to the exhibitions the hope to learn more about attitudes in Germany today probably outweighed their curiosity about the Prussian past.
For me, and for many others, the exhibitions proved to be fascinating, but for unexpected reasons. What made a visit worthwhile was more the way they were organized than their political content and intentions. We are used to exhibitions of art works, of furniture and handicrafts, of developments in science and technology, but exhibitions that aim at nothing less than the presentation of an era face many intellectual and practical obstacles. Only a few of the exhibitions organized by the Council of Europe since the Second World War—for example the “Age of the Medici in Florence and Tuscany,” held in Florence last spring—have tried to cover so much. But the Prussian exhibitions in Berlin were considerably more adventurous in their attempt to bring the past to life.
“Exhibitions,” not “exhibition,” because historical Prussia was displayed in seven shows. Some of them were small, devoted to details and curiosities like photographs of military uniforms or portrait drawings from the middle of the last century, and organized in the traditional manner. The quintessence of the entire undertaking, however, was contained in three exhibitions—“Prussia: Attempt at a Balance” (held in the Gropius House, the former Museum of Handicrafts, which stands next to the Berlin Wall), “Berlin 1789-1848,” and “Le Musée Sentimental de Prusse.” In these exhibitions the visitor was struck less by what he saw than by how it was presented.
A comparison with the Museum of German History in East Berlin suggests the originality of the Prussian exhibits. The East Berlin museum contains, not surprisingly, a large section on the German workers’ movement including socialist newspapers and…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.