As uncomfortable as it may be, we have to remember that the powerful Germans do not have any unique claim to militarism, for in the lauded Golden Age of Ancient Rome, whose beauty and greatness we can also see in the rooms of the Museum Island, there was a military order which was so strong that the year actually began in March, the month dedicated to Mars, the god of war. Only toward the end of the Republic did the month of January replace March to become the first month of the year.
For its part January took its name from two-headed Janus, god of passages, doorways, transitions and time, who was invoked at the beginning at end of a war. When a conflict began, the doors of the Temple of Janus would be opened in order to invoke protection and at the end the doors would be closed once more. The doors to the temple in Rome practically remained open for centuries, from the defensive struggles with its neighbors to those of the conquest of the peninsula and then the known world.
The concept of aggression’s destructive nature is an ancient concept, but how ancient?
In Room 306, on the third floor of the Neues Museum, we are provided with an immediate answer.
It seems as if war began in the Bronze Age, about 4,500 years ago. When human beings began to work in metals they also organized themselves into social and political structures with elites that controlled the exploitation of the mines and organized the work and commercial relations between the work sites. Already the struggle to win the lands richest with deposits led to the first clashes between clans.
The successive Iron Age succeeded in nothing other than diversifying the various groups and the social stratifications while simultaneously accentuating the differences.
It is interesting to note how wars always have two different, and parallel, temporal modalities. If on the one hand these indisputably explode, on the other hand they are also slowly prepared for like a basso continuo of instability that gradually grows on its way to catastrophe.
After every war then people punctually point out with desolation that the devastation caused a distinct break between that which came before and that which is to come after and those who survive for the rest of their days carry profound wounds when not on their bodies, then most certainly in their souls. Therefore wars are, in certain ways, all completely the same in their destructive nature, but in other ways all have their own unique details.
It is difficult to estimate all of humanity’s conflicts, the same Norna Urd becomes sad every time we ask her the question and lowers her head while uttering the same litany in her ancient tongue: rage, revenge, blood and pain, loss…and when we try to distract her with more detailed questions, Urd insists: rage, revenge, blood and pain, loss…
A painting full of blood and vertiginous cosmic emptiness, which synthetically and metaphysically represents all wars can be found on the third floor of the Alte Nationalgalerie. It was painted in 1849 by Carl Rottmann and is called “Schlachtfeld bei Marathon” (The Battlefield at Marathon). The name evokes the famous ancient battle between the Greeks and the Persians but the context is completely atemporal. You don’t see any historical references or even men, but just a great red and gray, a cloud of light and nimbuses, layers of earth which seem to be bathed in blood, slivers of calm sky in a dark horizon of rain and sea, sky and blood that seem to be mixing together. This painting was done after the popular revolutions of 1848, which didn’t spare Berlin either.
Futhermore, the Museum Island got to know the wars of the second half of the 19th century that led to the declaration of the German state in 1871 and the two world wars.
World War I included some of the most violent moments of our world because it was the first time in the history of humanity that so many nations found themselves fighting one another simultaneously, establishing alliances and growing into two great line-ups. It was a terrifying event caused also in part by the development of industry which brought with itself new and potent means of destruction and military strategy. Millions of young soldiers suffered for years in the trenches and this immense bloodbath together with the horror of everything they experienced left deep scars upon humanity.
On our island those were the years in which they gave it their all to keep the Pergamon going for a second time.
In the rooms of the Alte Nationalgalerie every so often there is an exhibit put together from the collections of other museums in Berlin like the Neue Nationalgalerie or the Brücke Museum, canvases of Expressionist faces, upset, worried, afraid, eyes wide and soaked with blood and foreheads covered in creases like Ludwig Meidner’s self-portrait from 1915, or Ernst Ludwig Kircher’s “Self-Portrait with Model”, also from 1914/1915, where the painter has an angular face looking beyond the painting and the girl behind him has a long, sad face and is looking elsewhere. There is such a new kind of pain in the paintings done after the First World War that you can even date them with great certainty from afar without having to go and read the descriptions with their dates every time.
After World War I, however, there would be something even more terrifying.
That it wouldn’t be a pleasant time the Berliners could intuit from the moment the Nazis began to take down trees and remove bushes from the Lustgarten and lay down cement across the large square in order to use it for rallies and parades welcoming thousands of die-hards while Schinkel’s beautiful classical staircase was turned into a pulpit for propaganda.
The Nazis began to ferociously repress all artists who were not with them and the Jews, at first with words then by collecting all the works of art from the museums that they considered to be “degenerate” in order to display them in the infamous “Entartete Kunst” (Degenerate Art) exhibit of 1937.
They instituted a real commission entrusted with collecting all the works that did not honor the German race to decorate a gallery that was created for foreigners and Jews.
“The cleaning of the galleries has been finished,” Franz Hofmann declared in March of 1938, department director of the figurative arts in the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda led by Joseph Goebbels. (The Italian fascists, for their part, echoed the sentiment in 1937 by turning the Ministry for the Press and Propaganda, created just two years earlier, into the ambitious Ministry of Popular Culture, grotesquely and notoriously abbreviated as Min.Cult.Pop.).
The exact number of works removed from the island and elsewhere has never been known. The propaganda apparatus claimed 12,000 pieces, likely an exaggerated number, but without any doubt at least 700 pieces of great international value disappeared, sold off to museums and collectionists throughout the world.
On June 30, 1939, for example, there was an auction at the Grand Hotel in Geneva where 60 paintings and statues of modern artists publically despised by the regime (though privately understood to be masterpieces) were brought. The shrewd buyers were, in any event, in agreement among themselves that they would offer the smallest bids possible in order to limit the monetary gain of the Nazis. It seems that even Göring himself sold three Van Goghs – “A Loving Couple” from 1888, “The Wheat Fields” from 1889, and “Daubigny’s Garden” from 1890 – to a German banker who then passed the painting of the garden on to a collector from Amsterdam; after the end of the war the painting appeared in New York.
A law from May 31, 1938, established that the regime could display degenerate works however it liked and, seeing as that many of the Nazi leaders were themselves fine collectors of degenerate art, many of them even hung famous Impressionist and Expressionist paintings in their offices and had themselves photographed next to them. It is curious that the Allies forgot to nullify the law at the end of the war and thus many pieces were mysteriously swallowed up by the market without leaving any traces. At times they reemerged in Switzerland, in Holland, in New York, in Moscow…
Those non-degenerate works of art which by law were allowed to remain in the five museums of the island were then quickly prepared for war with sacks of sand near the windows and next to the reconstructed temple columns, while statues and paintings were taken down to bunkers, mines, banks, and basements and Jewish sponsors and curators were removed.
When the war began, the youngest of the museums, the Pergamon, was only nine years old. Although the works were able to remain more well hidden than the civilians, this was not enough to save all of them. Even the statues which had already lived through various moments of destruction and earthquakes could not even remotely imagine the violence that this war would unleash. If in 1800 scholars had unearthed millions of objects from the bowels of the earth and then meticulously reconstructed the gigantic puzzles with care, love, and patience, thereby offering the world an emotional vision of the past, the bombs which rained down from the skies in just a few nights of blind fury managed to destroy decades of meticulous work leaving bewilderment in the present and unease at the thought of the future.
Those who survived were subjected to terrible fines of millions and tears for the works destroyed cannot but accompany the horrific memory of the human victims with contrapuntal pain.
By the end of the Second World War, 70% of the Museum Island had been destroyed and countless works lost.
The tragedy was greater and more unimaginable than any monster the ancient Greek mind could have produced, more than any millenary philosophical battle between good and evil.
The war left long-lasting marks upon the island, but little by little the museums began to reopen, one by one, and at the end of the 1950s many pieces were returned by the Soviet Union with great fanfare.
Only the Neues Museum in the 1980s was still like a ruin with birches growing out of the remains of the roof and climbing weeds everywhere.
It had been heavily bombed in three phases. In 1943 its splendid staircase burned, the pride of all great public buildings in the 19th century, and, together with it, the gigantic 75-meter-long friezes representing the history of humanity: the Tower of Babel, Homer and the flowering of Greek culture, the destruction of Jerusalem, and then the Huns, the Crusades and the Reformation, everything described in faithful Hegelian ascent and waterproofed by a special kind of new technique that promised to make the pictures on the wall last forever. But the bombs of ’43 burned everything. Then came the raids of February 1945 that annihilated the north-west wing and then those almost at the end of the war in April, which completed the work of destruction. The hall which symbolically and physically connected the Altes Museum to the Neues Museum was also blown up together with the courageous southern cupola and a great part of the whole building. In 1987 it was thus celebrated as it was, as a ruin, together with all the pride and for other reasons rather ruined GDR for the 750th anniversary of the founding of the city of Berlin. International attention for Berlin, the reunification of Germany, the new optimistic cultural enthusiasm, culminated with the proclamation in 1999 of the entire Museum Island as a UNESCO world heritage site. The first order of business was making it secure again with new steel and concrete poles to replace the rotten wooden ones and then tenders for its restoration. The British architect David Chipperfield was awarded the final tender and the new New Museum carries his signature. It was boldly decided to leave the signs of time on the front of the building, or rather, the scars of the devastating war, of great interest to us today. Thus we can see the decapitated statues in the external niches, Ionic columns half-white and half-burned, the frieze representing the Metopes of the Parthenon hung in pieces inside, the holes left by incendiaries in the walls of rough brick and the fragments of the frescoes of humankind’s history left as they are, shreds of memory.
The heart of the great restoration you see today by the monumental staircase. No more Pompeian red on the walls, no more gilded railings, no more white amphora and statues standing in contrast to the walls, no more gigantic frescoes, and no more paneled ceiling. Or rather, the ceiling is still paneled, but in a modern way, with powerful lights, the wall is made of natural brick and of the frescoes here and there a small piece peeks out and everywhere you breathe the air of a huge, unique space between the four floors linked by the incredible staircase and the immense windows.
Rising up out of its sad ashes with a clear, airy, and peaceful sobriety in October of 2009 the new Neues Museum finally re-presented itself to the world.
( Translated by Alexander Booth )
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