The German Historical Museum in Berlin. Photograph courtesy of Angelika Schoder.
The German Historical Museum in Berlin. Photograph courtesy of Angelika Schoder.

Our guest blogger, Angelika Schoder, conducted her recent PhD research into the representation of National Socialist crimes at IWM London, and the German Historical Museum, Berlin. Here she outlines the findings of her thesis, which will be published in Germany in spring 2014.

It’s not easy to explain the meaning of the term “Erinnerungskultur” – the German “culture of remembrance”. The struggle to come to terms with the National Socialist past has been a pervasive issue in German society since the 1950s. In Great Britain, on the other hand, a “commemorative culture” of the National Socialist period and its victims has developed slowly since the early 1990s – and has only gained prominence in national consciousness in recent years. Yet today, in Great Britain as well as in Germany, the Holocaust takes a central position in the national commemorative cultures.

The history museums of both countries put great store by showing the historical background of the National Socialist era and its crimes. In my PhD, I compared the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in London and the German Historical Museum (GHM) in Berlin, with the goal of showing which museum-specific, pedagogical methods were used to accurately represent the National Socialist crimes in British and German exhibitions. My PhD analysed in detail the “Holocaust Exhibition” which opened in June 2000 at the IWM, and the exhibition “Holocaust. The National Socialist Genocide and the Motives of its Remembrance” (Holocaust. Der nationalsozialistische Völkermord und die Motive seiner Erinnerung), which was on display from January to April 2002 at the GHM.

My study of the two Holocaust exhibitions showed notable similarities. For example, the use of testimony from Holocaust survivors and contemporary witnesses  is a prominent story-telling element in both exhibitions. To emphasize that there’s an individual story behind every historical fact, both museums decided to introduce their visitors to contemporary witnesses who were given the opportunity to speak for themselves. The IWM exhibition uses oral history on an ambitious scale, with filmed interviews on monitors throughout the Holocaust Exhibition. The witnesses describe their own personal experience of antisemitic persecution and how non-Jews in their neighbourhood reacted to their treatment. At the GHM, on the other hand, it was decided to embed the oral history element in the audio-guides.

My thesis shows how both museums used survivor testimony to ensure that the victims of the Holocaust were not seen as a ‘faceless mass’, but rather as real people. Moreover, my analysis of these exhibitions explains how, in both museums, country-specific mechanisms of memory and transnational interpretations work together, so that national perspectives are abandoned in favour of common transnational references.

My research on the topic would not have been possible without the kind support of the staff of the IWM. Not only was I given access to the collections at the museum, for example the Books and Publications Section for secondary literature, but also the Museum Archive. Additionally, Suzanne Bardgett, Head of Research at the IWM, provided me with files and personal records concerning the planning of the Holocaust exhibition. All of these important sources provided an invaluable research basis for the writing and completion of my thesis.