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Exhibition teaches lessons from 20th-century Europe

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. It has been 75 years since the start of World War II, 24 years since German reunification and 21 years since the launch of the European Union. To commemorate these milestones, the Asan Institute for Policy Studies and the German Embassy are cohosting the exhibition, dubbed the “Dictatorship and democracy in the age of extremes: spotlights on the history of Europe in the 20th century.”

The event, which kicked off at the Asan Institute building on Oct. 31, is scheduled to run through Nov. 21.

A total of 190 photographs and captions trace the turning points of the 20th century in Europe. Dr. Andreas Wirsching and Dr. Petra Weber, from the contemporary history think tank Institut fur Zeitgeschichte Munchen-Berlin, curated the event.

“The German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Hegel said in 1830: The only thing we learn from history is that people learn nothing from history,” German Embassy First Secretary Markus Hatzelmann cited in a news conference. “But we are trying to prove him wrong by looking back at our history and trying to prevent the debacles from recurring.”
Spectators look at posters outlining the 20th-century history of Europe at the Asan Institute building in Seoul. (Asan Institute for Policy Studies)
Spectators look at posters outlining the 20th-century history of Europe at the Asan Institute building in Seoul. (Asan Institute for Policy Studies)

Twenty-six large posters outline major events and trends — World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution (1917), the Great Depression (1929), fascism in Germany and Italy, World War II, the Jewish holocaust, the start of the Cold War, the detente policy, the fall of the Soviet Union, the formation of EU and NATO, and more — to exemplify the struggles between dictatorship and democracy over the past century.

“The German national policy goes beyond ‘unification’ to ‘integration,’” Sogang University professor Lee Kyu-young said in an interview with The Korea Herald. Lee said Germany’s forthright repentance of its past wrongdoings enabled social and economic integration beyond territorial and political unification.

The decision not to punish former communist leaders for their crimes against humanity was a “high-degree political maneuver,” Lee said, a move calculated to unite all factions of society, including the Stasi.

Lee said that German people, out of consideration of their neighbors, do not use words like “nation” and “nationalism” in public discourse or discussions. What they use instead is “patriotism.”

The seminal incident of Chancellor Willy Brandt kneeling down, unplanned, at a Polish war memorial to Nazi victims in December 1970, laid the groundwork for improving relations with Eastern European countries and eventually helped Germany take center stage in European politics, Lee stressed.

Facing opposition from many nations to Germany’s reunification in 1989, the Germans countered with the logic that a reunified Germany was the only gateway to a unified Europe.

“Germany’s guileless approach freed it from the shackles of the past, rather than enchaining it,” Lee said, adding that advocating democracy helped undo the bulwarks of communism, culminating in the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Lee stressed that because of Germany’s “tradition of repentance” — institutionalized in the 1965 Federal Restitution Law — victims of the Third Reich still receive compensation to this day. According to German Finance Ministry data, government and private firms have paid over $110 billion in compensation since 1951.

Moritz Haarstick, 24, an exchange student at Korea University from Bremen, Germany, said Germans are “very clear” about their history: “We are the bad ones, we did wrong.”

In an interview with The Korea Herald, Haarstick said Germans learn about Nazi atrocities, communist dictatorship, National Socialism and European history, and people are “very ashamed” to learn of their forefathers’ failures. “Other people may joke about German history, but it’s nothing to joke about for Germans,” Haarstick added.

Germany’s first Chancellor Konrad Adenauer offered an olive branch to France as a gesture of reconciliation in the 1950s. According to Haarstick, it was a “bold move” after three successive wars waged against France by Germany — the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), World War I (1914-18) and World War II (1939-45).

Improving relations with France was important for Germany, because it was a prerequisite to assuming a central position in Western Europe. The Cold War developments also pushed West Germany in this direction due to the possible communist influence of the Soviet Union.

Haarstick cited the example of the “Montan Union” — the precursor to the European Union — that produced coal and steel in a security alliance among member states. The joint production of these “war materials” ensured that France and Germany could keep an eye on each another to build trust. West Germany set its economy on an export-oriented path and the “Made in West Germany” movement led to the “Miracle of the Rhine.”

People from around the world now view Germany’s success with equal measures of envy and admiration, but what is seldom mentioned is the financial cost of the unification process, Haarstick said. West Germans paid a backbreaking amount of taxes to develop the underdeveloped East Germany, and even after 25 years, the region still lags behind the West by one-fifth in terms of national income.

“There are older generations from the East Germany who feel ‘Ostalgie (nostalgia for aspects of life in East Germany),’ but I think there’s no place for it in today’s Germany,” Haarstick said.

“East Germans lived an imprisoned life. I believe that people always remember their hard times tenderly. Running a marathon was grueling. But looking back, it’s a fond memory now.”

By Joel Lee (