Hitler exhibition breaks Germany's last taboo

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The first German exhibition since the Second World War to deal exclusively with the taboo subject of Adolf Hitler opens in Berlin tomorrow despite organisers' concerns it may be used as a shrine by neo-Nazis or invoke angry criticism from Holocaust survivors.

As a result, curators at Berlin's German History Museum have been scrupulous in their efforts to show the Nazi leader in a constantly negative light. To minimise controversy they also ruled out giving the exhibition the simple but possibly ambiguous title, "Hitler". Instead the elaborate display of Nazi memorabilia and propaganda, which includes dozens of Hitler postcards, bronze busts, paintings, Swastika beer mats and lampshades, has been more didactically named: "Hitler and the Germans. The national community and violence."

Fears that the exhibition could deliver the wrong message were underlined by Professor Hans-Ulrich Thamer, the chief curator when the idea was first mooted six years ago. He insisted that every effort should be made to avoid glorification of the Nazi leader. "We must not create any opportunity for people to identify with him," he said.

Consequently, while visitors will see plenty of images of Hitler, they will not hear him, as no audio recordings of his speeches will be played. A 1939 portrait of the Nazi leader, currently held by the US army, which shows him posing as a visionary hero, will not be shown either. "To display such relics would be overstepping the mark," Professor Thamer argued earlier this week.

The exhibition's opening coincides with a survey published yesterday which found that every tenth German would like a strong national leader or "Führer" to take power. More than 35 percent of those questioned also felt that Germany was "dangerously overwhelmed" by foreigners.

On entering the museum visitors are confronted with three portraits depicting Hitler as Nazi party activist, statesman and – confusingly at first – in the shape of a skull in the form of a photo montage. Images of unemployed workers, cheering crowds of supporters and soldiers marching past a burning house are projected on to a screen in the background as part of a permanent effort to display the Nazi leader in context.

Visitors are also able to read a powerful account by the acclaimed British Hitler biographer, Ian Kershaw, which evokes the quasi-religious, mystical appeal the Nazi leader had to millions of Germans: "It is the miracle of our times that you found me," Hitler told some 140,000 ecstatic supporters at a Nuremberg rally in 1936.

Yet the exhibition is by no means Germany's first attempt to come to terms with Hitler. Although the Nazi party remains banned in Germany and displaying the Swastika is forbidden, there have been scores of biographies and television documentaries about the Nazi leader and tens of thousands of magazine and newspaper articles about him.

In 2004, Germany's long-running post-war Hitler taboo was effectively shattered by the award-winning film, Downfall which gave a close-up account of the Führer's final days in his besieged Berlin bunker. The production was acclaimed for showing him as a "person" rather than a monster.

The cautious approach adopted by the curators has provoked criticism from Der Spiegel magazine, among others, which suggested that even 65 years after the end of the war, the organisers remained condescending towards the German public. It also took the curators to task for treating some of the exhibits "as if they were pornography".

Fears that the exhibition might be used as a rallying point for German neo-Nazis have been echoed by the Berlin Green party politician Benedikt Lux, who demanded that the museum be subjected to rigorous police surveillance, should it become necessary.

To allay such concerns a museum spokesman said the Hitler busts on display at the exhibition had been deliberately squeezed into a tiny cabinet. "Being photographed alongside in an heroic pose will be difficult," he said.

Yet Levi Salomon, an anti-Semitism expert for Germany's Central Council of Jews said he was not alarmed at the prospect of a Hitler exhibition. "We need to deal with the Nazi era in a number of different ways," he said.

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