Lessons from Berlin

| June 13, 2017

Last week I spent a day in Berlin on my way to Amsterdam. Berlin is a mecca of interesting museums, but one that particularly struck me was the DDR museum, the Deutsche Democratic Republic, or the museum of Soviet occupied Germany. After writing recently about memory, I was surprised to remember again that Berlin was deeply buried within the partitioned East Germany, which meant that this cosmopolitan city was often at the mercy of the Soviet Union for supplies brought by truck. This vibrant city was partitioned into 4 sectors at the end of World War 2.

There were many interesting moments in the DDR museum: both the sublime and the ridiculous. I thought that it was particularly interesting that the training to become a good socialist began with group toilet training, where each child sat on a single board with multiple holes, and waited until all children were finished to leave. There is something very telling about having to share even this most private human moment with your community.

I also visited the museum of German history. Here, I was once again struck by the role that design played in turning Hitler into a cult of personality. The display started with posters after World War One, expressing German dissatisfaction over the heavy reparations they were forced to pay WW1 victors, tariffs so high that Germans were left starving.

The early posters of the Third Reich offered simple solutions to these issues. And took credit for many corrections that were actually set in place by the Weimar Republic. They were strident Red and Black posters promising simple solutions.

One of the most chilling displays for me was actually a children’s dollhouse, in which hang portraits of the leaders of the Third Reich, another early inculcation into a particularly dark brand of patriotism.

It occurs to me that the Germans were people in crisis looking for a savior, who made the mistake of responding to a man who preached slick and simple sound-byte answers to large problems. The darker objectives of the Third Reich were draped in nationalism, which isn’t in itself a bad thing, but this was the sheep’s clothing hiding the wolf, Germany’s desire for larger control and wealth. As I looked at how faithfully the city of Berlin doesn’t shrink from its dark past, but articles the history, it makes me think about the US, and how hard it is for Americans to own their nation’s collective mistakes. It occurred to me how hard it might be to live in Berlin today, surrounded by documentations of a dark past. But this kind of recording urges us all never to forget, lest we repeat this history.

Germany has mounted these exhibits to make sure that they, that we all, never forget the lessons of World War 2. This warning seems especially sobering for Americans, as we live in a country whose leadership feels so out of control. It is tempting for so many of us to do what the East Berliners did before 1961, and vote with our feet, moving away from the United States and a regime that seems so ungainly, so large and inefficient, and so often wrong-headed.

Category: Graphic Design, History, Museums

About the Author ()

Jen McKnight is an associate professor of art and art history at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. Jennifer McKnight earned her BFA at Washington University in Printmaking and her Masters in Graphic Design at California Institute of Arts (CalArts). Her work is recognized in publications such as Print Magazine, :Output, and “Becoming a Graphic Designer: A guide to Careers in Design” by Steven Heller and Theresa Fernandes. Her design writing is published in the AIGA National Education Archives, Redaction Magazine, No Tasarim, as well as in Means by Which we Find our Way, edited by David Gardner and Andrea Wilkinson and Robin Landa’s Graphic Design Solutions 4th ed.

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