Friday, May 3, 2013


J and I spent a whirlwind 36 hours in Nuremberg over the weekend. Despite having written (in my capacity as book review editor) a finely crafted, 120-word booknote for Kansas History on the memoir of a guard at the Nuremberg Trials, we weren't sure what to expect. One doesn't think of Nuremberg as a city -- just a courtroom -- but today it's the pleasant heart of a metro area of over 3.5 million people. As you might expect, though, the ghosts of the past roam freely here. 

Soon after arrival, and after the requisite visit to the first of several Old if Rebuilt Churches, we enjoyed a rejuvenating Thai meal. I think the food was great, but I'm not sure; I could barely taste it because I went a little overboard, due to the sheer joy of access, with the multiple house-made chili sauces (which tellingly required a special request to secure). We spent all Saturday afternoon at the German National Museum. Brent had warned us that we'd need a lot of time, but wow, that really was a lot of Roman pots. The museum has 20 million items, although I think that number is a bit inflated by counting each individual beer glass in the dollhouse collection (home of a 1639 dollhouse). 

Apparently Das Germaniches Nationalmuseum also has a bunch of important art, too, and the oldest globe in the world (Dürer's), and some big chest where they stored the jewels of the Holy Roman Empire, but I can't remember any of that stuff after seeing 3261 paintings, musical instruments, and recreated German kitchens in 139 minutes. I do remember the 1960 Luftansa serving tray, however.

We also struck the mother load in the Bruegel department. Although the Detroit Institute of Arts owns Bruegel's "The Wedding Dance," part of a trilogy of paintings that includes the even more famous "Peasant Wedding," somehow this painting appeared right in front of us in Nuremberg. I couldn't find any mention online of "The Wedding Dance" being on loan, but here's the proof.

Bruegel put us in a middlebrow mood. Every once in a while when traveling there comes a time to abandon the fruitless search for the authentic, pick up the guide book, and embrace the unabashedly touristical, in this case, the world's oldest Nuremberg sausage house. (Nuremberg sausages, similar to small American breakfast links, are among our favorite.) So off we went Zum Gulden Stern, first mentioned in 1419, and the survivor of many wars.

The sausages were indeed excellent. But here was the precise moment when I hit the wall on the absurd lack over here of a) beer variety in restaurants, a.1) craft beer culture, and b) vegetables not named potato or gemischter salat. Sprich mir nach, Deutsche: A-L-E. (Gillian, you would have died of laughter the next day, when, as the result of this apotheosis of German cuisine, I wandered the streets like a mad man looking for a Berkeley-style vegan wrap establishment. Needless to say, my search was in vain, even if claims 12 vegetarian restaurants in the city.) The beer, a mass produced but local Tucher Pils, was the absolute worst of the trip -- so vaguely sweet and weak and flavorless that I am willing to give Zum Gulden Stern the benefit of the doubt that they gave me a Radler (beer mixed with Sprite) by mistake. Don't be fooled by Tucher's advertisement with the nice view of Nuremberg and one of the Old Churches.

And just look at this meal, a parody -- if a true-to-life example -- of carbs gone wild (and touristical bread). I should admit for the record, however, that said worst beer of the trip is the one on the left nearly entirely consumed, while J's acceptable hefeweizen is still invitingly full. Look, I figured that if I raced, then the server would ask me if I wanted another, which is a rarity around here ...

I did like the fact, though, that even in this shrine to Germania, the new Germany was well on display. The sausages were made by a team of an older woman of European descent who was likely born in Germany and a man of Asian descent who was likely an immigrant. Here's to open societies and open-grill cooking ... if not entirely open borders in the U.S.

Absolutely insistent on finding a real beer vom Fass, we then headed to Kloster Andechs "Das Wirsthaus," the satellite establishment of a monastery near Munich brewing since 1455. Now we were getting somewhere! The doppelbock was very good, if not as remarkable as suggested by its astounding scores of 97 on Beer Advocate and 99 on Rate Beer. We might have to put the actual abbey on our list after reading this blog description...

But I digress. On Sunday morning, we took the tram to the Nazi Documentation Center a few kilometers from the center of town, in the enormous but mostly uncompleted complex that the Nazis built as a massive party center. You might recall that Nuremberg was a key locale for the Nazis and the site of those eerie mass rallies well documented on film. The museum, open for barely a decade, is located in the quarter-completed Congress Hall.

The main exhibit inside, which emphasizes the rise of the Nazis from a local perspective, is well done, and got me thinking about historiographical debates I hadn't thought about since I was an undergraduate, when I wrote my senior thesis on Nazi ideology. These were the years of the height of the Histoikerstreit (historians' quarrel) about the rise of and nature of National Socialism. This debate centered on such questions as: was the Holocaust unique?; can we meaningfully compare Nazism to other forms of totalitarianism?; to what extent were the mass of German people responsible for the crimes of Nazi Germany (as Hitler's "Willing Executioners"), or can we start to think of some non-Jewish and non-gay and non-disabled Germans as Hitler's victims also?; and, was Nazism somehow the result of unique "peculiarities" of German history or was it much less inevitable? A related debate concerns whether we can and/or should "historicize" Nazi Germany, that is, consider it a "normal" (if utterly vile and criminal) part of history.

For the most part the museum did a good job of presenting mainstream historical interpretations. And it clearly concluded that the masses shared the blame. Still, my ears perked up a couple times when listening to the audio guide. At one point, when describing the Tasel on the Cult of Hitler, the recording said, "It was difficult for any individual to resist the cult of the Fuhrer." Oh really, so after a party of virulently racist thugs takes over power, usurps democracy, and employs kitschy rhetoric combining a childish take on German folk traditions and the ancient world ("restoring pageantry and colour and mysticism to the drab lives of twentieth-century Germans," as William Shirer wrote in his diary), it was difficult for thinking Germans to resist an idiotic worshiping of an idiotic man?

Walking around the complex also got me thinking about historical memory and commemoration. It's been more than a decade since I dabbled in the history and memory literature -- though I can still make Professor Mohr, my master's advisor, laugh out loud by invoking the one phrase -- "outside memory worker" -- that I (attempted to) contribute to the field in my article on the commemoration in Brookings, Oregon, of the World War II bombing outside of that town by a Japanese submarine. [Ok, try translating that last sentence into German!] So I'm out of my league here. But how are we to commemorate evil? Part of Zeppelin Field, where the largest rallies were held, still stands. One can walk out onto the same central podium that Hitler did.

The area in front (where Hitler's soldiers are marching in the first picture) is now essentially a closed street, and the day we were there, some 20-somethings were playing a game of rollerblade hockey. (The main rally grounds beyond are now soccer fields.) And every year it's also used as part of an auto racing track. So is that appropriate? What should we do with crumbling evil space? On the one hand, I wish Hitler could have seen a multi-ethnic group of friends making a mockery of his sacred space. And maybe it's good that one can rent a plastic swan boat to take on the lake. On the other hand, does using Nazi rally grounds as playgrounds and soccer fields historicize the Nazis too much, making them too much a part of the normal and very long ebb and flow of German history? Should the U.S. have destroyed the huge swastika after the war? Should we not rope off this complex and put a big sign up that reads "Serious Bad Stuff Happened Here?" There are signs commemorating the rally grounds, of course, but they normalize Nazi history a bit too much for my taste. The one near Zeppelin Field, for example, traces the history of those flying machines and explains how the field Hitler built on was a testing ground for them. And another sign, near the beer hall that has never ceased operating on the edge of the lake, shows turn-of-the-century Germans row boating and explains new middle-class leisure activities. Does such signage turn the Nazis into just another moment in time? And finally, how much money should private organizations and the state pay to maintain a rain-damaged stadium that the Nazis used? Would that money not be better devoted to aiding past and present victims of attempted genocides? Which reminds me, I was very glad that the museum pointed out that Hitler also oppressed and killed gay people.

I can understand now why the Germans retreat so much into the distant past. After the Documentation Center, visiting Nuremberg's Imperial Castle was a welcome relief. About a 1,000 years old, it was an official residence of the Holy Roman Empire (and apparently most of the Emperors until the 16th century spent substantial time there). Nice view of the city, too.

From there, it was a mad dash through the usual historic square, with the famous Golden Fountain, more Old Churches, Dürer's House (why do the Germans love audio guides pretend-narrated by the wives of long-dead famous people?), and the city museum. Many of Dürer's paintings are in Washington, D.C. right now, by the way.

We thought we had entdeckened the perfect way to end the weekend: a burger at the burger-specializing place near the train station. But, unfortunately, after no one came to the table for 12 minutes, we decided it was better to catch our train -- and to put on hold our continuing search for a decent burger.

Meanwhile, it's time for me to spend more time emulating "The Scholar" in the National Museum.


  1. I have already told you that your search for a decent burger in Central Europe is a lost cause. If you are tired of schnitzel, look for falafel.:)

  2. I'm yet to have a schnitzel on the trip ... been meaning to. Doesn't seem to be a big Swabian specialty, although maybe they stuff them with brain or something along those lines. Central Europe, eh?

  3. Derek: You're a published historian of public memory, so you're not out of your league! You raise great questions about how one (or one's society) commemorates evil. And you're point is well-taken: that there's a danger in normalizing the atrocious past at places like Nuremburg. Though as a historian I favor conservation of the past not merely in archives but in museums and historic sites, in some cases (as a citizen as well as an historian) I'm not sure it's not a better course to demolish and transform such landscapes and places, building new, more humane structures (say, an In-And-Out-Burger place in Central Europe). This does not necessarily allow forgetting--which can be accomplished in other ways--but does impede perverse, retroactive glorification, perhaps. It seems to me that the most effective commemoration/memorials are those dedicated to victims, not perpetrators. It's important to see the effects or consequences of Nazism or other monstrosities. Among the best I've heard about--in Berlin (I've never actually been there) there are "stolpersteins," raised golden cobblestones dedicated to victims of the Holocaust, which promote tripping over the unsavory past . . . .
    Good luck in your quest for the holy grail of German ale.

  4. Derek,

    Go to Policy History in Columbus next year and we can go to their kitschy sausage restaurant in Germantown for a reenactment of your feast.

    I'd kind of prefer keeping the Nuremberg arena big and empty and there w/your Bad Things Happened Here sign.