“History has each successive day new attractions for me. I wish I had studied nothing but history for ten years together; I think I should have been another sort of being” (Friedrich Schiller, in a letter to his friend Theodor Körner, 1786)
This quote by my then favorite poet Schiller was glued into my history binder in my two last years of school. When I was only 14, my mother had already predicted that I would study history at university, and I found Schiller’s words to be ever so true for myself. During those two last years of school, I attended history classes at an advanced level and our teacher was very strict, demanding and skilled. I remember one of my sources to understand classes and research for homework was the Lemo (Lebendiges Museum online = Living Museum Online), a service by the Deutsches Historisches Museum (German Historical Museum). They had everything beautifully explained there and it was so helpful for school.
Last Sunday, finally I made it to the actual museum. I don’t know why I never went there before when I was in Berlin. I mean, it’s like a pilgrimage site for someone like me. The day I went there, it happened to be free admission as well because the city wanted to reward its citizens (for helping out voluntarily in the refugee crisis, actually).
When I walked up the stairs of the former armory in which the museum is located, I already sensed the uplifting feeling that I get in good museums. And this is a good museum. It was crowded with people, from pensioners with their French visitors conversing about the set up of a medieval city, children with their dads explaining in detail the representation symbols in a king’s portrait, or teenagers voluntarily studying a globe from the 1400s on which North and South America was just one large black spot.
There was so much to learn in this exhibition that was, for German standards, rather progressive in its museum pedagogy. You could listen to texts from different centuries read out loud in the century’s German (I started understanding in 1600). You could flip through a little book explaining the Reformation (beliefs and customs of the Catholics on the left page and of the Protestants on the right page). You could learn that the Reclam family, a name associated today with its “little yellow books” in which they publish literature classics, were originally French Calvinists. You could marvel at Napoleon’s hat, imagine!, the real one, the one his head touched.
You could goggle at the fact that when the Germans tried to form their first democratic parliament, there were only 2 percent of journalists among them. (However, teachers and lawyers were already then, as today, a large part of parliament.) You could look at the “Baden Lullaby” and imagine a mother singing “Sleep my child, outside goes the Prussian murdering everyone” to a baby. You could amuse yourself when looking at the board games people invented when trains became a thing in the 1800s. “Train trip to Paris” was one of them. Passing by various places of interest, one reaches Paris playfully, one’s hand is made up by train tickets and ID cards. (I dislike most board games but I would love to try that one.)
You could start understanding the luxury you live in when examining the models of the workmen’s dwellings in the 1900s. And did you know the word “tariff” is Arabic and was introduced into our languages after the Crusades? Or that Lübeck in the 1400s was the second biggest city in Germany, only topped by Cologne? Hamburg was not even half as big as Cologne then!
My history teacher in the U.S. upon asked why she studied history said “Because it seemed like a big bunch of exciting stories to me”. She took the words right out of my mouth.
If you’re in Berlin, go visit the DHM on Unter den Linden 2, daily 10 am to 6 pm.