Brits need to understand the impact on the German psyche of its people being the victims of “the biggest forced migration in Europe’s history”, according to the Director of the British Museum Neil MacGregor.
The “Vertreibung” of 1945-47, in which millions of ethnic Germans from areas such as Prussia, Pomerania, Silesia and Sudetenland were uprooted from their homes and made to live within the diminished territory of post-war Germany will form a centrepiece of a major cultural project – Germany – Memories of a Nation – which the Museum is staging with the BBC.
Mr MacGregor said the mass expulsions were “little-known in Britain” and “one of the great folk memories of Germany that we don’t have” but that an appreciation of the “German mindset” was essential to understanding modern Europe and the world.
“Between 12m and 14m ethnic Germans were forcibly removed or fled from eastern territories, and came to Germany speaking dialects that were very hard for people to understand,” he said. “It is I think impossible for us to imagine what this means. It’s as though in 1945 the entire population of Canada and Australia had been forcibly settled in Britain. It’s certainly the biggest forced migration in Europe’s history, possibly in all history.”
The trauma of the expulsions will form a critical part of the 30-part series, which will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 from 29 September, alongside a major exhibition at the British Museum. “It’s something that is very little known in Britain but it’s estimated now that pretty much every family in Germany, two generations on, has a grandparent who was involved in this. This is part of the memory of every German,” said Mr MacGregor.
Announcing details of the series, the BBC Director General Tony Hall, said there was “no better time” for such a project, following the recent anniversaries of D-Day and the start of the Great War, the 25 anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall this year and the recent triumph of Germany at the World Cup.
Mr MacGregor will present the series following his previous Radio 4 successes with A History of the World in 100 Objects and Shakespeare’s Restless World.
Comparing Britain to a nation like Germany that “has never had a stable state”, he said: “It’s extraordinarily difficult for an island people to imagine people spread over large areas without frontiers.”
He was asked at the launch of the new project as to whether Germany: Memories of a Nation did enough to represent the memories, and silences, surrounding “perpetrators” of the nation’s wrongdoings. He admitted that was “an essential question” but said “we know it’s a gap”.
Among the artifacts considered in the series will be the work of sculptor Grete Marks, a Jewish refugee who fled to London from Nazi Germany. Another exhibit is a children’s cardboard cut-out game from 1937, featuring Nazi figures including the Fuhrer.
The series will examine Germanic history over 600 years and extend beyond its modern borders to important “German” cities such as Prague, Strasbourg and Kaliningrad, the former Prussian city of Konigsberg and home of Immanuel Kant. Mr MacGregor pointed out that the great philosopher never set foot in what is now Germany.
Among other pieces featured in the exhibition – which is being curated by two German members of the museum’s staff and two British, including Mr MacGregor - is a stunning copy of King Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Emperor crown, commissioned by Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1913 ahead of the Great War. The radio series will include a reading by Benedict Cumberbatch from Kafka’s Metamorphosis and a full dramatization of Brecht’s Mother Courage.Reuse content