Germans grasp nettles of their history in museum

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The Independent Online
THE scribbled notes, plus basic pronunciation guide, for John F Kennedy's famous 'Ich bin ein Berliner' speech. The desk at which Erich Honecker, late and little-lamented East German Communist Party leader, used to sit. The cardigan and pullover worn by Helmut Kohl and Mikhail Gorbachev when they got together in Mr Gorbachev's home town in the Caucasus to agree on German unity. All these items - together with thousands of others, historic and trivial - go on public view in Bonn today.

It was Chancellor Helmut Kohl who suggested the idea of a Museum of Contemporary History, back in 1982, that would be devoted to 'the history of our state, and of the divided nation'. There has since been much controversy about it. It was argued that the idea of such a museum was past its sell-by date, in a no-longer divided country. There was wariness that a political leader seemed ready to set the tone for a museum. Was this to be a political monument for Helmut Kohl?

In reality, the museum grapples bravely with the task of providing an 'objective' presentation of the past. It grasps nettles where necessary. One section is called 'The Ever-Present Past', and asks: 'How was it possible? . . . Many Germans do not want to discuss the recent past and their own complicity. The burden of Nazi crimes accompanies Germany through to the present day.'

There is a contemporary section that addresses a similar theme. There is a giant photograph of the burning house in Solingen, where five Turkish women and girls died in a far-right arson attack last May. A list of dozens of racist attacks is included with an ominously large space at the bottom, for additions - as if on a family gravestone.

If there are remaining doubts about the museum, they concern the overwhelmingly West German perspective on life in East Germany - in effect, an add-on to the original concept for a history of the Bonn republic. In the words of Freimut Duve, a Social Democrat MP: 'The history of the federal republic has been abbreviated into a museum display of the Cold War.'

Mr Kohl, in his speech at the official opening yesterday, emphasised that 'the same values and principles' apply in a united Germany as in the former West Germany. He argued: 'Nationalists and Communists - the historical losers of this century - must not and will not get a chance to change the character of our country.'

There is just one problem for the museum, which cost pounds 50m to build. It was planned for Bonn, the West German capital. Within a few years, the German capital and the government will be hundreds of miles to the east, in Berlin. It is unclear how many visitors will still be coming to Bonn after the year 2000.