2013 Conway Scholarship Report - Sebastian Huebel

On June 22, 2013, our journey to Europe started. Thanks to a Conway Travel Scholarship generously endowed by Professor John Conway, I was able to undertake a historical excursion to Germany this past summer. Together with my fiancée who accompanied me for the first half of my trip, I set off to Frankfurt from where we reached our first destination: Dresden. Before I start with my travel monologue, however, some words about my background are in order. As a doctoral student who specializes in modern German history, I was very eager to apply for the Conway travel scholarship. The guidelines for the scholarship stipulate that no archival research (towards an academic degree) should be the purpose of the trip; instead, with the funding provided, the holder of the scholarship is to experience and explore Germany, its culture, customs, and the numerous places and sites that are imbued with historical importance. With these guidelines set straight, I prepared myself for four adventurous weeks of exploration. Germany, however, is not as unfamiliar to me as one might think. I was born and raised in Germany and moved to Canada when I was twenty years of age – with my parents and sister. So what good would a travel scholarship to my old home country be if I was relatively familiar with its culture, language and customs in the first place?

I was born in the very south-west corner of Germany, near Basel, Switzerland. Before moving to Canada, I had spent pretty much all of my childhood in this area, except when my parents took me and my sister on a nice summer vacation. But having lived in Canada now for the last ten years, and having studied in more detail the history of my home country, I realized how little I have actually seen in person and how little I knew about all the fascinating places of historical eminence that Germany stages. The treasures around us can sometimes appear so banal and normal that we lose appreciation - no wonder, if we are constantly surrounded by them. Thus, it took me ten years to realize what I had missed out on in the past. Half-Canadian, half-German, I felt like a lost son, who after a long time, returned home. It was a trip back to my roots.  

Yet, I decided on an itinerary that would not simply allow me to jump back in time and re-visit the places I have been familiar with; instead, I drew on a north-south trajectory of Germany with stops in Dresden, Munich, Nuremberg and Berlin, four fascinating cities that I was simply unacquainted with and that have promising histories worth exploring.

I chose Dresden for its reputation. Formerly known as the ‘Florence of the Elbe’, I knew that Dresden was home to some fascinating rococo architecture of the Baroque era, including the famous Frauenkirche, the Royal Palace of the Saxon Kings (including the world famous Green Vault with its unique art collections), and the Zwinger, the royal exhibition grounds, which is home to a number of important museums today. Although the weather was not on our side at first, my fiancée and I still managed to visit and thoroughly enjoy these impressive places. The Panometer, a gigantic 360-degree panoramic painting in a former gasworks building that evokes an illusionary image of what Dresden probably looked like in 1756 (www.asisi.de), was a further highlight. With their attention to detail, the various facets create an impression that allows us to look back into the past. Viewed from a narrow tower in the center, the 100 meter wide (in circumference) and 30 meter high piece of art permits the viewer from the distance to become part of historic Dresden, to participate in a normal day in the Baroque city.

This illusion of historical realism relates to the first of three issues that I would like to discuss in this essay. Why does it concern us? Why is the preservation and representation of our past so important to us in general? And more specifically, is this calling for more authentic historical representations, this desire for more tangible history, around us feasible in the first place? When we first visited the Frauenkirche, a monumental Baroque church built in the late 1700s, my fiancée raised the very valid question of how authentic or ‘real’ the church actually was. It is a well-established fact that Dresden was heavily bombed during the Second World War; the Firestorm of Dresden in February 1945 has since lingered in the soul of German society. So seeing the church in 2013 for the first time in person, it became instantly clear to me that this was not the 18th century church I had heard about so much, but a beautifully rebuilt and restored alternative.  Having walked up some long steps all the way to the top of the dome, we learned the church was only re-opened a few years ago. For decades, the church rubble had been left untouched by the socialist regime in East Germany. To me this was hardly surprising, since religion and the church as institutions separate from the state never featured prominently under socialist regimes. Yet, the very fact that this particular church was left in ruin for so long made me contemplate the intentionality of this colossal project of architectural resurrection in the first place. If the ruins were not an object of interest for more than 40 years, why in the early 2000s did the federal and state government of Saxony decide to invest millions of taxpayer euros? What rationale lay behind this re-surfaced interest in the city’s history? From German televised news, I could vaguely recall that for years this issue of re-construction was fervently debated. A similar discussion currently takes place in Berlin, where the city government recently decided to rebuild the Imperial Palace, which had completely vanished in 1945, without any remnants whatsoever left on the ground.

Fig.1 The darker stones of the exterior are originals.

Clearly this is a fascinating topic: the way society commemorates its past and creates historical memory and thereby a sense of identity. It is not that I disliked the Frauenkirche in any way – it is truly a fascinating building, and the popularity amongst most Dresdeners behind this project indicates that it was not a top-down political decision that called for this architectural landmark to return. Although paradoxically more and more Germans are turning their backs on institutionalized religion, the resurrection of the Frauenkirche clearly filled a vacuum in Dresden society that transcends religion itself; this socio-cultural vacuum was left unfilled after the fall of the SED regime in 1989. My impression thus is that Dresden not only had cultivated a reputation for being an artistic and architectural center for centuries, but that its cultural-aesthetic legacy was not allowed to come to fruition again after the war in 1945. After the fall of the Wall, however, a return to the conscious self-understanding as a Baroque city was realized and a renunciation of the socialist state-imposed understanding of what constituted art and what did not was palpable.

 In the end, however, the city’s self-interest in rebuilding lost monuments was permeated with a capitalist flavor. Investing large sums into restoring the Frauenkirche, the Royal Palace and other important buildings clearly was meant to generate some monetary returns. So while Dresden is again an international attraction for its unique Baroque splendor, it is apparent that economic interests lay at the heart of regaining the status of an artistic powerhouse. Whether it was a form of psychological remedy for the citizens of Dresden who simply needed their landmark restored, as a sign of identification with the city and its historical roots, or whether the numerous hotels, restaurants and the city administration itself have been the major beneficiaries of the elaborately and intricately restored Old Town of Dresden – which is today part of the UNESCO world heritage - is in my opinion not central. I find it much more important to stress that when we go to see places like the Frauenkirche, we have to realize the multiple layers of history that are complicated and physically interconnected with each other. Some stones of the Frauenkirche are perhaps some 300 years old; but many more are non-original. Today’s variant of the historical Frauenkirche has probably little in common with its original physicality. The original, authentic church has been long gone. But how unauthentic is the newer church? And does it really matter?

What left a deep impression on me, therefore, is how Dresden and other cities in Germany that were heavily impacted by the war came back to life. The Zwinger, an exhibition complex the royal family had built in the 18th century, as well as the world-famous Green Vault in the Palace that houses numerous art collections, precious stones, imperial crowns, and lavish paintings, all surrounded by astonishing architecture, can today be admired again in person. What truly shook me though was the history of the history that I had naively ignored for so long – how these buildings and exhibitions with their collections were restored and how complicated and enduring this process was.  Controversial to this day are the art treasures that remain abroad, particularly in Russia, which still is in possession of many precious collectibles from the Saxon dynasties. The many narrative panels in each museum within the Saxon metropolis were therefore of enormous help, as they illuminated not only the historical context of each manufactured object, but also the object’s history since. Looking at photographs that showed the untouched, decaying condition of the Royal Palace, for instance, as recently as the early 2000’s was not only an eye-opening experience to me; it also convinced me that the physical remnants of German history that survived war, destruction and horror need to be salvaged after all – even with an inevitable loss of authenticity.

Fig. 2 The Interior of the Royal Palace in 2006

The second of three themes that I would like to address orbits around the issue of education and pedagogy in museums. In Berlin, Nuremberg, Dresden and Munich, I was able to attend a number of world-class museum and exhibitions. With some expertise in the scholarship about the period of the Third Reich, I was particularly interested in visiting the former grounds of the Nazi Party Rallies that were annually held in Nuremberg and that were home to numerous mass spectacles with fanfares, parades and speeches. Leni Riefenstahl’s still popular masterwork Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will)  provides some vivid imagery of what these party rallies looked like through the eye of a contemporary spectator. So with these 70+ year old images in mind, I took on the adventure of travelling outside of Nuremberg to visit the remaining ruins of the festival grounds.

The so-called Documentation Center is one of Germany’s most popular tourist destinations, for domestic and international visitors. The Congress Center – one of the last remaining buildings commissioned by the NSDAP and still standing – is home to the documentation center and is an impressive piece of architecture. Ironically, it is not only one of the last remaining buildings that survived the war; it was also never used for its original purpose – the annual congregation of party functionaries - as construction was halted during the latter part of the war. How the incomplete building might have looked if the war had not interrupted construction remains for our imagination. However, despite the architecture’s pretentious monumentality (although incomplete), there was little else to see. After having walked the arena of the Coliseum-like building, we then trekked the periphery – a walk of approximately 90 min. – to see the Lange Strasse (a long, wide street that the numerous party organizations would march onto in their uniforms), and the former Reichssportfeld (the large rectangular field, where all participants in the rally would congregate to listen to the Fuehrer). All in all, it was impressive to see these places in real life. Standing at the very place (or at least one of them), where one of the most destructive regimes in world history had propagated hatred and war triggered indeed a strange feeling in me. On the other hand, if I had not previously known so much about this particular place and period in German history; if I had not visually pictured Riefenstahl’s photographs and motion pictures while walking along these last remaining physical objects of Nazi dictatorship, I most likely would have felt somewhat indifferent. After all, the Lange Strasse, for example, does not look out of place and is even still used. The German Automobile Club (ADAC) trains young drivers there. Numerous joggers and bicyclists also seemed to care very little about the spooky aura that this place radiates. The taste of historicity was, in the end, hardly palpable.

To infuse a more stringent level of historicism, the former Congress Center was therefore transformed into a documentation center several years ago. Ironically, it was in this museum, that I encountered most of the tourists. Not along the ruins, and physical remains, but within a number of renovated, dark rooms that physically had very little to do with the original buildings. Naturally, with my thirst to learn more about this mysterious place, my fiancée and I spent quite some time in the museum. Equipped with audio guides in both German and English, we traversed the place for about 2 hours, getting introduced to a general overview of the history of the Third Reich. Large panels were thematically and chronologically structured: how the Nazis came to power, how they manifested their power, all the way to how they eventually faced their demise in 1945. The visitor is guided through different panels that attempt to attract interest through very large photographs and short texts to read, often textbook-like summaries and experts from some primary sources such as newspapers and diary entries.

Personally, most of what I encountered in the museum was hardly new to me. The documentation was – unsurprisingly enough - not built for PhD students of German history but, of course, for the general public. Thus, I re-adjusted my bearings and used this unforeseen opportunity to rather analyze the museum’s functionality: how it was organized and how its visitors interacted with the museum, the panels, the plethora of information and everything else. I turned into an observer who stood outside the masses, mostly school kids, who came to learn something about German history. Because summer holidays do not start until late July, I was able to witness how high school classes, which at intervals arrived in large numbers, “behaved” in the museum. Thinking about how my classmates and I a very long time ago behaved on class trips, I witnessed a very similar pattern of behavior. In room 1 and 2, the audience generally was quite interested and focused, reading the texts and investing a few seconds in contemplating thoughtfully the photographs. Yet, after about 30 to 45 minutes, the students like most other visitors started to show signs of mental fatigue, a loss of concentration, and started walking through the rooms and panels, in a brisker, more haphazard manner. It seemed that they were drained with early Nazi history and that their only possible rescue was to find the exit sign. While my fiancée and I tried to perhaps endure a bit longer, in the end we also rushed through the museum to find a place for resting.

The Documentation Center, in my opinion, provided a great introduction to what happened between 1933 and 1945 in Germany and to some degree Nuremberg (some panels were reserved for a city history). With many great visual auxiliaries and audio guides, the museum visitor of the 21th century is indeed quite privileged for not having to spend precious time vis-à-vis every single panel and read long texts provided – an image that we probably call up when we think of museum visits in our childhood. From this perspective, the pedagogical value of a museum visit today vs. yesterday has increased tremendously. Listening to the audio guides can be very entertaining and stimulating, compared to the perhaps more exhaustive, tedious approaches to museum education in the past. In our technologically-driven world, we can comfortably receive and process more information in a shorter time. Little cinemas and theatres within the museum also contribute to a higher efficacy and help the visitor to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the subject matter in a relatively short time, be it a museum of the Third Reich or Modern Art.

However, a strange aftertaste remained after I had left the Documentation Center, as well the Topographie des Terrors Museum in Berlin, a museum built on the grounds of the formers SS and Gestapo headquarters (the Reichssicherheitshauptamt). In both cases, I noticed that these visits were strenuous. If I had invested the time to read each and every panel, read all the texts, and processed all the information, I would have spent many many hours in there. The human brain, however, is not made for such gargantuan endeavors. At least not mine. Thus, I think museum pedagogues need to find ways to reduce – if possible – the amount of texts (not in a postmodern sense) provided in today’s museums, some of which do not even exhibit any physical artifacts or objects as in these cases. Both museums I visited had reduced their exhibits to texts and photographs. Follow-up visits are also rather the exception, since tourists usually come from out of town and do not plan on returning. A thorough and complete museum visit then should be feasible in one visit. But if confronted with an overwhelming matrix of (historical) information, by necessity, museum visitors will make selections and filter through what is interesting and important to them and what not. In the end, most end up, I would say, with a distorted or at least incomplete mind-map of the histories the museums try to bring closer to us. Reading a comprehensive book at home could in all honesty be more effective. More is not always better.

Visiting a number of museums this summer, I also noticed that pedagogically, museums are not necessarily the right place for young children. Not that I am child-hater, but I was in fact quite perplexed to encounter kids from the age of 6 to 12 in the Nazi Terror museum, playing hide and seek or running up and down the stairs. My astonishment is in this case not so much directed towards museum pedagogues and directors, who legitimately enough try to attract as many visitors as possible. Instead, I am rather surprised why parents for some reason think it is genuinely fun for young kids to visit a museum of history. A dinosaur or science exhibit, which offers hands-on experiments from the world of physics, evidently causes more excitement. But history museums, often with very few physical objects and artifacts to see, experience and study in the first place, do not. Perhaps it is the parents’ indifference, or the lack of insight into their child’s interest, but seeing bored children in these museums who palpably had no interest in Hitler nor any understanding of the context made me realize that although it may be the easiest choice for parents to visit a museum on Sunday afternoon with their kids, the profession of museum education deserves more respect and a higher status than that of a time-killer. On a positive note, I also witnessed many school classes that were dragged into these museums by their school teachers. Although not everyone might have had a blast, the necessity for access to knowledge, be it historical, artistic or scientific is a treasure we need to value. For some, a book might do it. For others, a museum is the better choice.

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Fig 3. Children in the Nazi Terror Museum, Berlin.

The last issue I would like to briefly touch on and that I thought about a lot during my trip and since revolves around money-making within the context of history-related tourism. Generally, museums cost money. The restored art treasures in the Dresden castle, the jewel crowns, the intricate porcelain, mirrors and many other invaluable, elaborate art objects within the impressive architecture that was relatively recently rebuilt made a hefty entrance fee for me justifiable. Even with university student discounts, I spent many euros on cover charges to see some amazing places and sites. I have referred to the Frauenkirche already, and the issue of authenticity. While no doubt the people of Dresden expressed their good right to have their church that they had lost many decades ago restored, it must be stressed that historical tourism is also great source of income. The innumerable tourists who flock to Dresden, Berlin, Nuremberg and Munich every year support the livelihood of an entire industry, including souvenir shops, restaurants, hotels and much more. The tourism industry’s profitability is, of course, not groundbreaking news, nor is it confined to the Germanic lands. What at times puzzled me, however, was a moral crossing into a questionable sphere of profitmaking. Charging entrance fees to see the inside of a church, the Dom (cathedral) in Berlin for instance, is a reality that I found somewhat appalling. Despite being a member of the corresponding denomination, I find paying to enter a house of God highly questionable. Should a church where people should find peace, condolence and support, in the name of religion, not be free of charge? In Germany, members of both major religious institutions – Catholic and Protestant – already pay a Kirchensteuer, a church tax. While I can see how increasingly challenging it has become for some church communities – Kirchengemeinden – to stop the current loss of members and simultaneously keep the historical infrastructure intact, it is this aspect of greed, of charging tourists who come from far away to see something spectacular and who pay the fee regardless of whether they like it or not, that made me realize that history and the preservation of history has a further component of morality. In a religious context, this is obviously more problematic. Paying an entrance fee to the world-famous Pergamon Altar – an enormous antique relic that German architects excavated in the 19th century – did not generate any opposition in me; paying to enter the Dom next door, did. My impression was further enhanced while visiting a number of churches in Nuremberg and other cities where postcards, books and portraits of Jesus were sold. Sure, these monies might be used for some valuable deeds, such as the maintenance of the building or donations for the poor. Yet again, the impression that entering a house of God orbits so much around money is saddening. I encountered the most appalling example of money-making within the context of historical tourism in the concentration camp of Dachau (which ironically was free of charge), adjacent to which is placed a little convent that visitors walk through. Selling portraits of Jesus and other holy figures in such a place for the extortive cost of 40 plus euros stopped my breath for a second. In my opinion, a level of immorality here has been reached that evidently and primarily aims at making money, perhaps with an appeal to guilt, pity and emotion. Selling expensive religiously-themed artifacts in such a place, where thousands of people had to endure horrendous crimes and atrocities, is misplaced and appalling. It makes me wonder whether we came together to these places to commemorate and learn something from the past, or to pay our dues to forget history and feel better.

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Fig. 4 Religious artifacts for sale in Dachau

Overall, my trip to Europe was very enlightening and sparked some critical thinking in me. Despite the critiques I have elaborated here, I must stress that this trip was packed with fun and good times. I will miss the unparalleled German beers, the mouthwatering pizzas in Berlin (ironically made by Turkish cooks) and the overall street life in most German cities, where young and old intermix and engage in conversations on a park bench, play funky music at metro stations or perform stand-up comedy.  For all these experiences, I would like to thank Dr. John Conway once again for his generous contribution that allowed me to return to my roots and re-visit the country I have come from yet have wholly experienced so little.                  

Fig. 5 In Dresden with my supervisor, Dr. Chris Friedrichs.