German Exhibit Shows Mass Appeal Of Nazi Ideology

Two busts of Adolf Hitler i i

hide captionTwo busts of Adolf Hitler that are part of "Hitler and the Germans: Nation and Crime," a new exhibit at the German Historical Museum in Berlin that is drawing big crowds.

Michael Sohn/AP
Two busts of Adolf Hitler

Two busts of Adolf Hitler that are part of "Hitler and the Germans: Nation and Crime," a new exhibit at the German Historical Museum in Berlin that is drawing big crowds.

Michael Sohn/AP

A new museum exhibit in Berlin focuses on the mass appeal of a failed artist who spent time in a homeless shelter and went on to become one of history's biggest mass murderers.

The exhibit, "Hitler and the Germans: Nation and Crime," is drawing huge crowds at the German Historical Museum.

The show explores how ordinary Germans not only accepted but often also celebrated and idolized the Fuhrer. It also shows how the Nazi's racist ideology seeped deeply into popular culture and everyday life with playing cards with Hitler on them, Nazi board games, Third Reich quilts and swastika party lanterns all on display.

"I think it's really important to show it again and again and again over the next decades," says 38-year-old Markus Hoppe, who came from Hamburg, Germany, to see the exhibit. "There were so many who were involved [in Nazi crimes]. ... The media and people — they were involved."

Historical Propaganda

It is not the first time a German museum has exposed the depth of the Fuhrer cult. But it is a first for the German Historical Museum — the country's national museum.

The cultural artifacts are striking. There is a large stand-up ad for drummer cigarettes with a smiling brown-shirted Nazi SA member. Hitler is a drummer for big ideas, the saying went, smoke national socialist cigarettes.

There are metal signs that were posted in public parks and at entrances to towns: "No Jews wanted," they exclaim.

The Luftwaffe- and Wehrmacht-themed board games, which suggest family fun playing blitzkrieg around the kitchen table, caught the eye of Hoppe.

"I was really impressed in a negative way by those sick games they played during the war, like war games," he says. "I can't believe this. I haven't known this before."

It wasn't just board games that targeted children. There are hand puppets for kids from the early 1930s with grotesque caricatures of Jews and other groups the Nazis would later murder en masse at death camps and elsewhere.

There are carefully colored toy figures made of plastic, a new material at the time, so kids could play with goose-stepping Wehrmacht soldiers.

And they could create their own Nazi rally with a toy Hitler giving his stiff-armed salute from a podium surrounded by swastikas and Gen. Hermann Goering, the Nazi military and party official who committed suicide after he was sentenced to death for war crimes and crimes against humanity at Nuremberg.

A Broad Regime

Historian Simone Erpel, one of the curators of "Hitler and the Germans," says the exhibit is important to underscore again that the crimes of the Nazis were not committed by only a few.

"Not only one man, not only the SS, not only some perpetrators, but the whole society [took] part to stabilize this regime and make it possible," she says.

Erpel stands before a large needle and patchwork tapestry, which was created by village women from a Protestant Church in central Germany.

The tapestry, which was started in 1933 just after Hitler took power, shows boys and girls in Nazi garb. The church congregation and the army are all marching toward the church, surrounded by the words to the Lord's Prayer. A swastika flies from the church steeple above the cross. The tapestry's meaning is clear: Party, church and state are one.

"The motive is, 'We bring the swastika into the church,'" Erpel says and notes that the congregation was ordinary and adapted quickly and eagerly to the Nazi ideology.

"There was not a political reason to do it," she says. "They do it for themselves."

Erpel also says the show comes at an opportune time given the increasingly shrill tone of anti-immigrant sentiment in Germany.

A Notable Absence

But the idea of a larger circle of guilt has been explored before, and some German critics complain the exhibit fails to break new ground.

Fuhrer Quartet Card Game i i

hide captionA Fuhrer Quartet card game that is on display at the exhibit. The show explores how ordinary Germans not only accepted but also often celebrated and idolized the Fuhrer.

Sebastian Ahlers/Courtesy of Deutsches Historisches Museum
Fuhrer Quartet Card Game

A Fuhrer Quartet card game that is on display at the exhibit. The show explores how ordinary Germans not only accepted but also often celebrated and idolized the Fuhrer.

Sebastian Ahlers/Courtesy of Deutsches Historisches Museum

Indeed, a fear of Hitler the man seems to hang over the show. There are no speeches by the Fuhrer played out loud — just a snippet on the audio guide. There is a piece of a table from Hitler's ridiculously oversized Berlin office; you were meant to feel small in front of the Fuhrer.

But after much debate, the curators decided not to include any of Hitler's personal items, like one his many uniforms, out of concern that such things might become objects of veneration by some or that they could be seen as glorifying the genocidal dictator.

"Maybe some of the visitors would interpret it as 'Hitler returns,'" Erpel says.

Other museums in Germany explore the Fuhrer cult as part of their permanent exhibits. They include the Topography of Terror museum in Berlin, the Berghof museum in the Bavarian Alps and the House of the Wannsee Conference, a memorial and museum in the waterfront mansion in suburban Berlin where, in January 1942, Nazi officials met for lunch and mapped out the bureaucratic mechanics of the "final solution" genocide campaign against European Jewry.

One wonders why a deeper exploration of the Fuhrer cult is not part of the Berlin museum's permanent collection.

A Better Understanding

Despite its flaws, many Germans who have visited the exhibit say it is eye-opening and important to have in the capital.

"We didn't learn a lot about the Hitler cult in school in the '70s," says Sabine Hornisher, who came from Stuttgart, Germany. "Of course we saw a lot about concentration camps, about who won and who lost and the political situation. But I think people were still a little bit afraid to talk about the Hitler worship [back then], and this is why I find this important now."

When you see all these pictures here today maybe you cannot fully understand it. But at least you come one step closer, she says.

The exhibit — "Hitler and the Germans" — runs through early February.

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