Above all, the organizers wanted to avoid breathing new life into the old excuses from the postwar period that painted Hitler as the evil seducer of an unknowing and innocent general population. In the end, the exhibition on this sensitive topic was given the title "Hitler and the Germans: Nation and Crime."
Today, of course, it is no longer a matter of dispute that Hitler represented the view of the vast majority of Germans, of the Volksgemeinschaft, at least until 1941 -- that Germans saw themselves in their "Führer." Thamer, who teaches history at Münster University, says "our picture of German society grows bleaker and bleaker," in reference to the current state of research.
Still, an exhibition held in the center of the former Nazi capital follows different rules than the ones that govern academic discourse, and the curators exercised great caution in choosing items for the show. Many of Hitler's uniforms and other personal items have been preserved, in storage in Moscow, but there are no plans to display them. "Using relics like those would cross the line into making this an homage to a hero," Thamer says. The intention is always to create a critical distance between the viewer and the 20th century's greatest criminal.
Visitors to the exhibition are first greeted with three photographic portraits -- Hitler as a party agitator, as a statesman and -- in a photomontage -- as a death's head. Behind these images, which are projected onto a transparent screen, other photographs light up -- of unemployed people, of cheering supporters and of soldiers marching past a burning house. The dictator is never shown alone -- he is always embedded in the social, political and military context in which he acted.
As an additional precaution, an accompanying catalog provides an enormous amount of context, with historians presenting their views on "the Nazi Party's breakthrough," "the iconography of the nation," "women in the wartime community" and various other subjects related to Hitler.
Typifying the entire exhibition is an essay by Ian Kershaw, the British biographer of Hitler, who describes Hitler supporters' quasi-religious relationship to their messiah. "It's a miracle of our times that you have found me," the dictator declared to 140,000 excited supporters in Nuremberg in 1936, "that you have found me among so many millions! And that I have found you, that is Germany's good fortune!"
Kershaw takes a sentence uttered by a Nazi state secretary -- that every German should "work toward the Führer to fulfill his goals" -- as a good explanation of the inner logic of the Nazi dictatorship and of the crimes committed by a population that sometimes acted on its own initiative.
The German History Museum exhibition includes evidence supporting this thesis. There is a tapestry, for example, embroidered by members of two women's groups in the town of Rotenburg an der Fulda. It shows Hitler Youth, SA and League of German Girls formations arranged in the shape of a cross, marching toward a church. The embroiderers further embellished the work with the text of the Lord's Prayer in half cross-stitch. Thamer, who was born in Rotenburg, came across the tapestry by chance during a visit.