10 May 2009

A year of anniversaries

This is not just the 20th anniversary of the revolutions in eastern Europe, but also the 90th anniversary of the Weimar constitution - and also, the 90th anniversary of the Bauhaus, the avant-garde art and design institution closed down by the Nazis, the 60th anniversary (on 22 May) of the Basic Law, the de-facto constitution of West Germany promulgated in 1949 (it's also the 60th anniversary of the founding of the German Democratic Republic but that seems to be being passed over). Then it's also the 200th anniversary of the birth of Felix Mendelssohn, born into a notable Jewish family that later converted to Protestantism, but whose music and personality was disowned and banned de-facto by the Nazis. Each of these anniversaries in some sense offers an opportunity for reflection, if not soul searching, on the past and its meaning for today. This year of course also marks the 70th anniversary of the start of the Second World War.

One of the things that struck me when I arrived in East Germany in 1983 was the significance of anniversaries - I arrived as the preparations for the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther were in full swing. The communist Socialist Unity Party (SED) having previously denounced Luther as a lackey of the princes now re-discovered objectively progressive role in history. At the same time the SED was also marking the 150th anniversary of the death of Karl Marx. Such anniversaries played an important role in correcting or reaffirming the official ideological view - later on the SED would even try to appropriate Bismark for the workers' and peasants' state. In the old Federal Republic, as well, anniversaries unleashed intellectual and political controversy about the significance of the past, as with the Historikerstreit that followed the 40th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. Meanwhile, the centre for contemporary history in Leipzig warns that "history can lead to insights and create consciousness".


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