Oh, how can I ever describe how amazing and moving Bonn’s House of History turned out to be? I wish they’d allowed photography, but I cheated by taking a few pictures from their book, and the rest of the highlights I’ll just have to describe. In short, it’s a history of Germany from the end of World War II to the present, and what a history it is.
The information desk offered a guide that translated some of the information into English, but it turned out to be nearly useless. I went back to my locker and got my German-English dictionary instead and made do with learning the vocabulary I needed to take it all in, which included words like refuse (as in what people used to make necessities in berubbled impoverished occupied Germany; abortion (something feminists fought for); and hostage (as in victims of bank robbers on the run.)
Just the first section about Germany after World War II shocked me. In one corner, a video played of an American soldier speaking German telling Germans of the crimes their regime had committed, interspersed with death camp survivors each coming out and giving their name, their hometown and how long they had been in the camp. You could see pictures of a whole list of German towns which had been bombed into utter rubble, with only a single cathedral or church left standing. The Germans never explained why only a church would be left. Peter thought it was compassionate, even though the tall building might still be used as a sniper outpost; another American source said a single building would be left so that, in that pre-GPS era, planes could navigate from it to the next bombing target. But what really moved me was seeing the huge file cabinets with the names of missing loved ones:
It was just huge. I remember how upset I was watching people trying to find their loved ones after the World Trade Center towers collapsed in 2001. This was like that all over the country. When their home was destroyed, and that of their friends and relatives as well, the survivors would fill out a slip with the Red Cross. First the search for the missing was local, then regional, and then country wide, but it was slow and painstaking, and more often that not, the missing people were gone for good.
There was a reproduction of a little pamphlet advising American soldiers how to behave towards the Germans in occupied territory (i.e. NO fraternization, but oh, by the way, if you get a German honey, keep in mind it may be hard to bring her home), and a map showing how Germany was divvied up between the French, the Germans, the Brits, and the Russians, and how each had different currencies and rules. It really wasn’t until 1949 or so that Germany was allowed to be its own country again, and even then, it ended up being two.
There was a section on German politics, which as far as I could understand it, in West Germany, it consisted originally of three major parties: the liberals, the commies, and the Christians. No one party ever got a majority, so they were always having to compromise with one another. I could sit in the German parliament and vote, on what though, I don’t know.
There was a section on German films, from the “out of the rubble” post-war movies to the commie ephemera of East Germany. There were German cars, including one so small you had to lift up the hood and the windshield in order to get it; and to my complete and utter confusion, a juke box playing “Itsy Bitsy Honolulu-Strand Bikini,” a complete translation of “Itsy-Bitsy Polka Dot Bikini.” And no German history museum would be complete without including the fact that (West) Germany won the World Cup in 1954, scoring the winning goal against Hungary with only 15 minutes to go in the game. Whooo! Go Germany!
And then, there was an entire section on East Germany. All I really knew about it was that I had relatives near a city that had been renamed to Karl Marx Stadt, and that the Russians thought the East Germans took communism far too seriously because they held off on getting drunk until the work day was over. Here I saw the posters, and I was truly stunned to see how very, very Soviet East Germany had been. Just like Russia, they had 5-year-plans and hero workers. Stalin was revered as the “father” of East Germany, and the national anthem had a distinct Soviet character complete with hints of world-wide Soviet supremacy. It had been far more Russian than German, and I’d never had a clue.
And then, of course, there was the Berlin Wall and the later demise thereof. Two huge, graffiti-d pieces of it stood inside the museum, with a video in front of it. Apparently, even before the wall itself came down, the guards had stopped patrolling it, and you could see video of East Germans tossing their possessions over gated portions and climbing over to welcoming West Berliners. The actual opening of the Berlin was a huge occasion and the camera captured a woman talking to the guard, apparently asking him if it was open yet. He looked at his watch and nodded, and she kissed him and walked through followed by people deliriously happy or weeping with joy.
Later on, there was a small section about Ostalgie (nostalgia for East Germany) which includes a hotel chain that bills itself as the smallest East Germany in the world. I’m not sure that’s a good selling point. I mean, what’s that really like? Maybe I can pay for the rooms with monopoly money but the staff will be surly and I’ll have to bring my own toilet paper.
I answered a poll on German concerns (i.e. are you concerned about a cut back in social services in the near future?); saw Goebell’s old rail car downstairs, which was later used by German politicians; special exhibits on German scandals and the making of the film Das Boot, but I was too dazed to go out an see the history of German playgrounds in the museum’s gardens. That whole museum was too much for one soul to take in in a day, and it only covered about 6o years.