Germany confronts its own imperial past

Berlin is not a city of tall buildings. From the rooftop of the newest presence in its skyline you can still see the old patchwork apparatus of Prussian power laid out beneath you: the Altes Museum, the imposing Protestant cathedral, the red-brick Rotes Rathaus town hall.

If you twist your neck and look upwards, you will see, crowning the ensemble, a 4.7m-high gilded cross fixed to the top of a baroque cupola, the pompous ghost of a history long buried beneath the moral grime of the Third Reich.

In the dome beneath the cross, golden letters the size of an adult’s forearm proclaim the words of Philippians 2:10, the slogan that underpinned the supposedly divine authority of the Prussian monarchy: “At the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow.”

On the face of it the Humboldt Forum, Germany’s answer to the British Museum, which was inaugurated with a mute digital fanfare shortly before Christmas, is an anachronism in every sense of the word. Three of its four facades and its interior courtyard are faithful replicas of the Berliner Schloss, the Prussian royal palace that once stood on the same site until it was ruined by Allied bombing in 1945 and then demolished by the socialist government of East Germany.

The decision to resurrect this hulking chunk of authoritarian kitsch in such loving detail has been castigated. Gentler critics have described the structure as a “Prussian Disneyland”. Others have called it the “revanchist” incarnation of a sinister and revivified German nationalism. There is even a not entirely serious campaign to have it blown up again in 2025.

It’s a profoundly good thing that this debate is happening. Overshadowed by the atrocities of the Nazis, the Prussian age has up to now been subjected to nothing like the critical frenzy with which the imperial era and its legacy have been discussed in Britain.

Yet this half-century in which unification shaded into empire indelibly moulded modern Germany, for better and for worse. To understand the period is to grasp many of the reasons why the country is the way it is today. “Slowly,” the German-British historian Katja Hoyer writes in Blood and Iron, an elegant new book on the period, “a society emerged that shared values such as hard work, punctuality, honesty and precision that came to be seen as intrinsically German.”

Take Germany’s approach to Europe and foreign policy. Under Bismarck, Berlin became the continent’s diplomatic primum mobile as Germany sought to establish itself as the “honest broker” of tensions between the great powers arrayed to its east, west and south.

At the same time the Zollverein, a loose customs union of German states, was folded into a single national entity through free movement and the standardisation of weights, measurements, regulations and currency, providing an early template for the single market. This finesse in balancing competing interests and this strong consciousness of the power of common rules are now the lodestars of Germany’s conduct in the EU and on the broader global stage.

The era of the kaisers also left its imprint on modern Germany’s culture wars. Today the interior ministry is struggling with the influence of Turkey and other Islamic nations upon German Islam, which raises concerns about the emergence of parallel societies. There are also periodically poisonous rows about the notion of Leitkultur (“guiding culture”), under which residents of Germany would be expected to master the language and subscribe to often vaguely defined “German values”.

Both were prefigured by Bismarck’s illiberal efforts to repress the Roman Catholic church and the French and Polish minorities on German territory. The 1871 “pulpit paragraph”, which banned the expression of political views in sermons, was the opening salvo in the Iron Chancellor’s ill-starred Kulturkampf against Catholicism. The state also assumed control over schools, which were obliged to teach in German.

The focus of the Humboldt Forum is inevitably on another dark facet of the German Reich. The building’s centrepiece will be two museums of ethnographic artefacts, with whole galleries of artworks purloined from subjugated nations through trickery or outright force majeure. The Benin bronzes were stripped by British soldiers from a royal palace in what is now Nigeria. The murals from the sacred Cave of the Ring-Bearing Doves, painted 1,500 years ago by Buddhists in the desert near Urumqi, were prised from the naked rock and packed off to Berlin in 1902.

At a time when France is handing back its imperial loot and a senior curator at the Pitt Rivers museum in Oxford argues that most of his collection should be “repurposed and dismantled”, these anthropological Wunderkammers are as unfashionable as zoos.

But the project strives to become what one of its founders, the former British Museum director Neil MacGregor, has described as a “museum for the world” – not a mouldering warehouse of stolen goods, but a lively meeting place in which these events and ideas are talked about with the seriousness they merit.

Its advisory boards are peopled with scholars who have thought long and credibly about how to handle the tainted inheritance of colonialism, such as the British-Ghanaian cultural theorist Kwame Anthony Appiah. There have been proposals to address the German genocide against the Herero people of what is now Namibia, and to return some of the Benin bronzes to Nigeria.

These ambitions warrant the benefit of the doubt. In the vacuum of nuanced and informed discussion the public conversation about the Prussian period has too often degenerated into a cartoonish punch-up between the nationalists of the Alternative for Germany party, who regard the Nazi era as a “speck of birdshit on a millennium of successful German history”, and those on the left who treat what came before it as a Third Reich in embryo.

Germany needs and deserves a better reckoning with this neglected chapter of its past.

Oliver Moody is Berlin correspondent.

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