History tourism


Berlin wears its history on its sleeve. Its reputation as the seat of Hitler’s Third Reich and pivotal position during the Cold War, then the collapse of the divide between east and west, make that inevitable. But the modern German state has propelled history further into the public eye, in the hope that frank discussion of extremism will be the antidote to its resurgence. Germany is striving to do this by putting history in the way: on street corners, in pavements, into restored and new buildings as well, of course, by way of  many museums and memorials.

A spin-off from all this is history tourism — and jobs for young historians. We joined two English-speaking walking tours, one of Berlin during the last days of the Third Reich and the other of Hohenzollern Potsdam. The first was led by an English woman with a Masters degree in German history; the second by an American, with a Bachelors in history, during which she studied post-war Judaism in Germany. I admit to some disappointment that we did not encounter young German historians; still, it was heartening to see history graduates employed in the field.

That said, the contrast between our two guides brought into clear focus the variety of skills and knowledge a history tour leader needs. It would seem obvious that interpersonal skills would top the list. In fact, neither guide was a natural but the first, Pip, made up for lack of eye contact with her insightful historical interpretation and genuine interest in the topic. The second brought to mind the Yes Minister quip that the ideal hospital has no patients; ergo a tour without tourists would have suited Rachel better. Dressed to suit her mechanical doll-like patter, she had a good spiel worked out. Our small group learned quite a bit about kings in and of Potsdam, as well as a bit about the city’s WWII and post-war story. But questions were effectively discouraged. We went away with a clear impression of what she wanted to say: Potsdam’s palaces reflect royal indulgence. A stroll through the palaces and gardens, with or even without a guidebook, would have conveyed that same message.

Pip on the other hand added to the tour an historian’s interest in changing versions of history and the discussions or emotions memorials can evoke. For example, she suggested that the myth of German efficiency in prosecuting the Holocaust needed to be modified: the megalomania of individuals in Hitler’s entourage did mean the rules were ignored at whim. She referred also to new scholarship about the use of drugs in the German army. While these had proved effective for quick campaigns such as the invasion of France – with soldiers doped enough to go without sleep for a couple of days – the same tactic couldn’t work in the vastness of the Russian terrain.

The determination in Germany to confront extremism today may make it, despite the emergence of the ultra-nationalist party Alternative for Deutschland (AfD), a less likely bed for right-wing radicalism than Sweden or Austria. This was the view Pip presented to our group, which included some young Australian travellers and a couple of ill-clad English lads, all of whom stayed the distance, listening to her explanations and asking questions that were both invited and answered.

The lessons of history are no guarantee against human folly. But seeing first-hand the destruction war creates – yes, the bullet holes in Berlin’s buildings are genuine – and sensing the heartbreak caused by the wall that divided a city and a people for 40 years might just help to stimulate outrage at attempts to repeat past mistakes. In the age of Netanyahu and Trump such optimism could be misplaced; nevertheless, Germans seem resolved now to discuss and debate their past. Let us hope that being able to call out the echoes of Nazism deployed by the Afd and others, Pip is right and Germany will stay its centrist path.

Francesca Beddie

Image: The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe or the Holocaust Memorial, designed by American architect Peter Eisenman. It covers 19,000 m2  in the very centre of Berlin.


6 thoughts on “History tourism”

  1. Good commentary Francesca. Of course if you want to speak to German historians, the internet is there. I’d agree that the tour companies should use more local historians, which they often do in other European countries.
    AfD started as a party with economic concerns but has since been tainted by people with anti-semitic views whom others in the party try to purge. However, for modern anti-semitism, the Right is a drop in the bucket compared to Islam and the New Left who are determined to destroy the homeland and last refuge of the Jewish people after they’ve been driven out of almost everywhere else except the USA.
    In this regard your implied view on Netanyahu and Trump who represent almost the only bulwarks between the Jews and the ongoing threat of a new “final solution” is naive at best I’m sorry to say.
    The existential anti-semitic threat to the Jewish people is still deadly and it doesn’t come from the tiny remnants of the old Nazi Right, nor even the new Right. Blindness won’t make it go away any more than 70 years ago. Once again, sadly, the world is afraid to confront hate, but nowadays it won’t even acknowledge the causes either. One would hope that historians have an educational role to play there.

  2. Gee whiz Tony, I usually find historians to be the ones with more nuanced understandings of the always complex origins of contemporary politics, but to suggest the ‘Islam’ (all of it, whatever that is) and the ‘New Left’ (all of them, whomever they are) are to be compared to an existential threat to Jewish people that you compare to a new ‘final solution’ is just a little strange – some may say ill-considered, if not bizarre. Unfortunately, an otherwise interesting blog post on public history is tarnished by such unnecessary comments.

    • You need to ask Jewish people whom they consider the greatest threat to them nowadays, not make our own assumptions about it. The answer won’t be “the right” (many of whom are actually strong supporters of the Jews and Israel) or AfD. Any issues there are relatively easy to deal with.
      It was the implication in this piece that the right was emerging as the only threat to the Jews that I commented on because I thought it was very misleading. In the last half-century, Jews have never been exposed to such danger as they have been during the Obama years.
      And “tarnished”? Intruded on somebody’s safe space did I? I thought the profession was about discussion and debate.

  3. It’s been a while since I checked this discussion for replies, but I was prompted to do so by this amusing little demonstration in Norway of the potential pitfalls of not approaching academic endeavour with an open mind.

    In 2016 a centre was established at Oslo University with the express purpose of investigating “right-wing” extremism, making the same pre-emptive conclusion that the Germans have generally institutionalised.

    Fast forward to 2017 and this paper, jointly produced by the centre, rolls out:

    Worth reading from end to end. It’s tentative early work but it’s based on existing data plus the surveying of Jewish people themselves and it finds that most anti-semitic attiudes in their European sample are demonstrated by the Muslim community followed by left-wing extremists, with people with a right wing or Christian-extremist view mostly coming a poor last (Figure 11 summarises this). An interesting finding is that the German police seem to categorise all anti-semitic incidents as “right-wing”, which somewhat warps perspectives to say the least (well it was in their history so it must still be the case, right?).

    Full marks to the Centre for putting their moniker on this paper. In a lot of places I’m sure it would be buried as an inconvenient embarrassment. In the almost fading-from-memory days of last century, I recall being taught at a university to do one’s research first, *then* reach your conclusions, rather than the other way around. At least the Oslo centre seems to removed the words “right wing” from their title but it’s still up-front there in its objectives.

    The only bridge that I feel this author has not yet crossed, however, is the subject of anti-Israel attitudes as actually anti-semitic attitudes in disguise, dealing as it does with the Jews’ right to exist, even in their own ancestral homeland.

    However, it’s all good work-in-progress that I hope casts further light on a complex subject – but not so complex that some broad pictures are not yet evident. And certainly not attributable to Trump and Netanyahu.

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