German History Museum Tells Story of Hitler's Life

On Friday, the German History Museum is opening postwar Germany's first-ever comprehensive exhibition on Adolf Hitler. Curators went out of their way to avoid creating an homage -- yet they are still concerned about attracting cheering neo-Nazis and angry protesters.

The portrait is rather pretentious -- oil on canvas, and a whopping156 by 120 centimeters (5 feet 1 inch by 3 feet 11 inches). It shows Adolf Hitler the way his Nazis and favorite artists most liked to see him -- posing as the visionary ruler against a backdrop of an imagined German landscape.

"We likely could have had it," says Hans-Ulrich Thamer. The US Army, which has held the painting since 1939, would certainly have been open to loaning out the painting. But Thamer, a curator for the German Historical Museum (DHM), didn't want it. The rationale, it appears, was that German eyes shouldn't be dazzled a second time by this sort of monumental state-sponsored art from the Third Reich. Thamer prefers, instead, to display smaller reproductions of the Führer. "That detracts from his impact," the curator says.

An extensive exhibition about the dictator opens this Friday at the German History Museum in Berlin, the first in Germany's post-war history to focus exclusively on Hitler's life. The exhibition is not without risks: Organizers fear that the show could be showered with unwanted praise from right-wing extremists -- and with bitter protest from the rest of the country. Indeed, out of a lack of trust in those who will visit the exhibition, the show will omit anything that might glorify Hitler as a hero. "We cannot provide any opportunity to identify with him," has been the watchword for Thamer, who developed the show.

To be sure, there have been countless exhibitions in Germany addressing the Third Reich, covering topics including the Holocaust, crimes committed by the German military, the Nazi justice system, medicine in the Third Reich, forced labor, concentration camps and other horrors. Until now, though, museum directors and politicians responsible for cultural affairs have shied away from dealing directly with the man who presided over those horrors.

The exhibition comes following years in which the public image of Hitler has changed drastically. Recently, he has been portrayed as a nervous wreck during his last days in his Berlin bunker in the film "Downfall;" then as a laughingstock played by German comedian Helge Schneider in "Mein Führer." Hitler is even in Madame Tussauds in Berlin.

Hitler Exhibit Makes Germany Uneasy

Each new realistic portrayal of Hitler has been accompanied by a debate as to the wisdom, for example, of installing a wax Hitler as a tourist attraction next to Heidi Klum in a wax museum. But the discussion has tended to quickly subside (apart from the incident which saw the Hitler wax figure decapitated by a protester. The figure has since been repaired by the museum and is now displayed behind bulletproof glass).

Nevertheless, there are plenty of taboos the museum curators didn't dare touch, starting with the exhibition's title. The idea of calling the show simply "Hitler" was quickly nixed by an expert committee of prominent historians convened in 2004, when the museum first raised the idea for the show. For both conservative historian Michael Stürmer and more leftist colleagues such as Reinhard Rürup, such a name was not permissible.

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