In the first of our 2021 Berlin Long Reads, tour guide, archaeologist and Berlin Guides Association member Nick Jackson examines the role of myth and symbols in the context of Germany after denazification and reunification.
Watch ‘Rediscovering Berlin’s Nazi Eagles’ – a 7-minute film by Nick Jackson, made to accompany this article.
Words have consequences.
One chronicler of darkest German history was Victor Klemperer. He starts his diaries, covering his life as a German Jew during the Third Reich, with the simple yet powerful idea of ‘bearing witness’.
At the time of Klemperer’s writing, this phrase captured the fear of the direction his world was taking, fear that his commentary was too dangerous to be shared with others. Half-way through he begins to write ‘Third Reich’ in Latin, perhaps to smudge any casual visibility. One can sense he fears that no-one will hear, fears that no-one would remember, and he fears for his life.
Klemperer also collated the new vocabulary seeping into everyday language during the Nazi period: grim phrases like ‘racial defiler’ or ‘sub-human’ as well as such new constructions as ‘fanatical will’, used to exhort belief without understanding. He also noted a new and constant use of superlatives. Klemperer called these ‘American’.
To him these were signals of a world that, if only as a linguist, he found new. He even pondered writing a separate work on these new words. They described a world he became mortally afraid of.
Language is a living thing, it does nothing but change as the world changes, sloughing the use of old words and adopting new ones on the whims of fashion. This is why the people of the UK now go to a ‘store’ or ‘pharmacy’ rather than a ‘shop’ or a ‘chemist’ or why, on the day after the UK voted for Brexit, a mainstream German TV news channel report had a studio background bearing a single word: ‘Fuck!’.
This change can be beneficial, but not always. There can come moments when we fail to understand a new world. For example, today’s newspapers carry a picture of renowned Fox News host Tucker Carlson captioned, ‘Profound change is taking place in our society’. Tucker thinks these changes are bad.
Another author, Christopher Isherwood, writing of his life and experiences in 1920s Berlin, claimed he acted as ‘a camera’. For the purposes of this article, I suggest we affix a powerful lens to our ‘camera’. This will give us an ability to observe space-time well beyond Isherwood’s mere cluster of years, and allow us to zoom out and scope decades, centuries, and beyond.
This will enable us to examine the main points of this piece. What is ‘history’, how is it created, and how does it change? Additionally, we will examine our work as guides, and the importance of what we do.
I also want to focus on some reminders of the history of the Third Reich still in Berlin, specifically Nazi-period eagle symbols, and to ponder if deliberate ‘cancellation’, i.e. ‘denazification’; the removal of reminders of history as an attempt to control and create a new future in post-war Germany, was a success or a good idea.
Like Klemperer, perhaps we too have the sense that today our world is changing, and raise an eyebrow at ‘newspeak’. No doubt future online ‘listicles’ (unquestionably approved by Word grammar & spell check) will give us a rundown. The following will surely be shortlisted and characterise the recent past:
- Fake news
- Cancel culture
- Smooth transition of power
Let’s bring that last phrase back to today’s Berlin as an example.
Merkel be with you, and also with you…
Angela Merkel will step down as chancellor in autumn 2021. A new chairperson of her party has already been chosen. Other figures will challenge to become the candidate to take the most powerful position in the land. Political elites, other estates, and voters will lumber into a future and change the make-up of the government. They will do this without violence, and the result will become the established norm.
This is called democracy. But also, history.
On the leafy shores of Berlin’s urban lake oases, possibly still socially-distanced middle-aged German adults will discuss these developments, the recent past, the present, and the future. There is now a new, finite chunk of history – the Merkel years. They can discuss to and fro, depending on how much they remember of it. But they will all silently acknowledge that it happened. They were there, it’s part of their lives.
When we have conversations of this sort, we are discussing 16 years of ‘history’: Simply all the events, people, success, failures etc. of that period. When we debate any positive or negative elements, we do so in relation to our values systems.
Both of these, history and values (aka political beliefs), are elements of our shared ‘myths’.
In his book ‘Sapiens’, author Yuval Noah Harari confirms that the cognitive capability of Homo sapiens to create myths is foundational to our global success, specifically complex imaginary social myth structures. We are, as far as we know, the only beast able to express this.
To psychology professor Merlin Donald these myths encompass all things to early modern humans. Everything. The earth, the heavens, the people, animals, plants, all events, and all past places visited. Faith in, and an understanding and common acceptance of, these myths permit folks to cooperate together, thrive and survive.
Myths become curated memory and create ‘culture’. As time moves on, the data of this culture is remembered as ‘history’, and that history changes.
Creating ‘Mythic culture’ was a world changer. Our ability to create it started some 100,000 years ago. Later, towards the middle of the pre-pottery Neolithic period (ca.10th millennium BCE), ‘myths’ embodied, for the first time, a unified, complex modelling of the universe, a ‘tangle’ of memories, cause and explanation, prediction and therefore control.
Developing and absorbing these myths placed every aspect of Neolithic group life in relation to and in connection with them. It was this ability that saw ‘mythic groups’ coalesce, cooperate, adapt, and survive as the world around them changed, and they relative to it. It is why humans dominate the globe.
These ‘myths’ are not narrative stories as such. Myth is a manifestation of complex neurological database capabilities (synthesising most importantly memory and language) creating a world by working together, always and instantly.
Many millennia before the slow evolution of the Mythic mind, hominids had initially developed an ‘episodic’ cognitive capability. This bestowed a conscious sense of moment, and a sense of self within that moment, before it melted into another. Much later came the second stage, what’s now termed a ‘mimetic’ cognitive capability. This Mimetic culture was an ability to impart types of information at will through enhanced memory capabilities and more complex language skills, mime, facial expressions, pointing etc.
Hominids could now remember it, think it and convey it, or even teach it – like a game of evolutionary charades. Through this they could create and express more complex and useful models and social relationships (for example co-ordinated hunting strategies or indications of danger).
Then came the third leap, a Mythic culture, something else entirely. It describes through language, it remembers, it pictures, it predicts, it ‘measures’, and creates place and time. It speaks of all things that were, are, and could be, instantly connected in the hominid brain to one endless moment.
Myth creates our social (and religious) norms and governs the collective mind.
The myth is that upon which we base our identity, scattered historical fact to be sure, but
it is ‘imagined’. Our past is a memory, the present and tomorrow entirely unpredictable. All we can do is adapt now, from what went before. This gives the appearance of structure, with a dangerous possibility of introducing ‘lies’.
Telling, drumming, singing, chanting, acting out, and believing and enforcing these myths was powerful. So was dropping out of and reforming the model, changing and developing the myth. This process might have contributed to the eventual 6th M BCE collapse of most complex Neolithic communities in the Near East for example.
Importantly, these three brain capabilities did not replace each other as time passed, they connected and co-operated in harmony and still make up our cognitive process today.
A clash of symbols.
A further evolutionary step for Mythic minded sapiens is new. It’s basically now. The fourth leap would be to produce symbols that encompass, simply, ever more complex ideas within our ever-developing myth. This has been part of our world for the last, say, 45,000 years.
For example; abstract figures carved into Neolithic stone stele are simple in design and meaningful to those who gathered there (but practically unknowable to us). These symbols have a lot in common with the words I type on this keyboard ‘just’ 12,000 years later.
They are both sets of external (exogenous) symbols, depicting myth data intelligible to the group sharing my cultural mythology. Those on the same team. This development is causing humankind problems today.
The idea of a myth & symbol creating our team-world is perhaps hard to digest. So, imagine this, it might be familiar:
Take this picture, add in the removed swastika symbol, and imagine trying to explain the full myth meaning of this, broadly known as ‘The Third Reich’, to someone who has little or no idea what it signifies. Perhaps an alien, or the average teenager. Many understand what it basically represents quickly and silently – but to explain it reinforces its depth, detail, and its true power as a symbol, and how much myth data one needs to grasp it fully, not just superficially.
Maybe you could conclude this lesson with a reference to the fact that the eagle is still the symbol of Germany, using pictures to reinforce a comparison between eagles – how they changed along with the history that connected them. Use the picture below from today’s Reichstag Parliament.
This is why our job as guides is important. We can do this. There are few who can deconstruct and add meaning to a symbol like this. We can build the picture, connect it to the very ground where it happened, and link it to the present. No mean skill. We remember the details. We are ‘mobile myth merchants‘, and as we shall see, important at a time of historical change.
Past Myth Takes.
Our world today is still set in frameworks of our myth history.
Think of the number of World War II references made publicly today in the UK. Recently a government minister compared ignoring Covid social distancing rules to abuses of the ‘black-out’ during the Blitz bombing of the UK in 1940/41. This period is deeply infused in many a UK identity, elements were a just, fine, and memorable hour. It is a significant part of the founding myth of contemporary ‘England’.
But this myth is crumbling and has lost relevance. A recent survey of UK students showed that when asked who Winston Churchill was, many thought he was the first man on the moon. And that was those who knew the name.
So, a crunch might come when populations become ignorant of the basic details of their myths and, when put under pressure, they fail to understand the world. When presented with an alternative future version, they lack the context to navigate misinformation masquerading as knowledge wisely.
Myth without detail is easy to absorb – like Klemperer’s above reference to ‘fanatical will’- believing without understanding.
Imagine a certain segment of rural, uneducated, blue collar US voters and how they feel, and what they think now, today, as you are reading this. Or Brexiteers (interesting – MS Word doesn’t approve of this one), or indeed pensioners from former East Germany.
Let’s examine cultural myth re-forming as a process as one world dies and another begins. It could be argued we are in such a phase now.
A myth replacement process is how broad historical change takes place. Evidence of this process can be seen in the Brandenburg an der Havel museum.
Around the beginning of the 3rd millennium BCE, from the metal-bearing regions of southwest Europe – Portugal and Spain – spread a cultural package that covered nearly all of what is now the EU.
A set of artefacts – distinctive ceramic types, jewellery, stone axes – becomes prevalent over a vast area. Most significantly, cremation replaces burial of the dead, an enormous spiritual and ritual change. Groups have adopted a new myth and the package that goes with it. There is a new union, all over.
Until the 1960s, this cultural spread was thought to have been the result of migrations, of ‘peoples’ moving and spreading this culture, from Spain to Ukraine, from Italy to Ireland. Though some modern DNA evidence does support perhaps small groups of men (perhaps travelling groups of skilled metal workers) moving through the regions, it seems it was more likely a post-contact adoption of what must have been an attractive, powerful, new cultural and economic package. The ‘myth’ is responsible for the spread and adoption of these materials and beliefs.
If today you sport a fake Louis Vuitton man-bag, or even wears jeans, you are participating in a similar process.
History shows us that this process can lead to violence. Deviation today from accepted myth norms provokes anger and conflict in its attempt to ‘correct’ ((Berlin, where riding your bike the wrong way or crossing the road against the lights could often can lead to verbal abuse from grumpy strangers, is a prime spot to experience trivial examples of this first hand). A more serious example might be some EU populations’ reaction to the refugee crisis of recent years.
The driver for a violent myth shift is often economic based (sometimes a result of innovation, perhaps positive in the long term) and environmental stress.
The collapse of late 2nd millennium BCE cultures over the entire Mediterranean zone in a couple of centuries is a significant example.
In two centuries, from ca.1250 BCE, the long-established Bronze Age Mediterranean states disintegrated. This catastrophe seems to have been the result of a combination of drought and a series of earthquakes, leading to a famine that precipitated huge social strife and system breakdowns in the western Mediterranean, and unleashed mass movements of people eastwards, destroying the old and forming a profoundly new world.
And economics. Bronze, or combined copper and tin, was the ‘oil’ of the 2nd millennium BCE economy. Control of its sources, processing, and distribution had underpinned the sophisticated Bronze Age state’s trade, diplomacy, and stability. Now it was slowly replaced by Iron.
If you can make a product of value from material that’s found easily, everywhere, and it’s transportable and tradable by a few folks below the radar of the governing elite’s control – then it’s over: Goodbye forever Hittites, farewell new kingdom Egypt, ciao for now Canaanites.
And new forceful myth makers arrive: say hello to Assyria, Babylon, Phoenicia, Israel, Judah, Philistines and proto-democratic Greece.
And even ‘us’. Chunks of the Old Testament, the Iliad, and the golden age of Greece, Rome and the New Testament have their roots here, and are ultimately still in our myth world (especially our language and value system) today.
A terrifying contemporary version of this episode is/will be climate change-induced systems collapse, resource conflict and mass migration, green energy economies reducing demand for petroleum products, a healthcare improvement induced shift in the working/retirement age demographic balance, inflation, and unemployment caused by the spread of automation and AI (or as alternative myth makers might say today ‘foreigners taking our jobs’). This is already causing the collapse of our myth world.
So, if we recognise all this, then what to do? Can one create a new successful myth out of necessity? How can we ensure the inevitable birth of a new myth is healthy, painless and benign?
Of essential importance is the integrity of the pushers of a new myth. Merkel’s replacements will assume powerful positions within cultural norms and probably do so without resorting to violence and ‘big’ lies.
Sometimes the new group is less scrupulous. Like the Nazis. This brings us to the example of the twelve years of the Third Reich.
In 27 years Germany experienced:
- The collapse of one old, familiar world, revolution, and the beginning of another interim world (1919 – 33)
- The perceived failure of the interim world, replaced by a seductive, simple and powerful myth, full of lies and presented violently (1923 – 33)
- The purveyors of this myth using violence to reinforce it (1920 – 45)
- Large scale popular adoption of its tenets (1932 – 45)
- Myth failure and termination (1943 – 45)
Denazification was an attempt to remove reminders of an old regime and construct a new and better world. In Berlin and Germany, the myth framework was deliberately overhauled and replaced, eventually creating a successful contemporary Germany. But is that really what happened?
Even today, this process is often still held up as a success. Take, for example, the second Gulf War. Regime change in Iraq can have a positive outlook, we were told, look at what was done in Germany after World War II.
Opponents of today’s modern ‘cancel culture’ movements advocating the removal of statues of slave owners etc. say it’s tantamount to ‘removing history’, and that’s bad. The response often refers to the denazification of Germany and how the removal of reminders of the Nazis leads to a peaceful myth re-launch creating today’s Germany.
So, is removal good or counter-productive? Can a new myth – in this case democracy and a law-based state structure be imposed for the greater good? Is this what happened during the denazification process?
Up to a point.
Broadly, the process of denazification was haphazard and badly organized from the start. Millions of Germans and their autobiographical interviews and paperwork had to be processed, in a language spoken by few of the disinterested folks in charge.
During the initial post-war years, with subsequent major policy shifts in 1951, the main thrust of the victors was to shun, shame, strip, and punish Germany. There was a ban on fraternization between occupiers and locals, for which hundreds of occupying troops were punished.
Those as yet unprocessed were refused employment. Factories were dismantled. Millions of Germans, basically indifferent to the Nazi regime, who could have helped in a relaunch of Germany (at least the western sectors), remained idle. There was a ban on the sharing of materials, from food to machinery. There was no money.
But didn’t denazification fund, rebuild, and re-educate the West German population, thereby helping to form today’s Germany?
As the realisation dawned that policies of punishment were failing, and minds shifted to containment of Soviet expansion, there was the introduction of a new currency in 1947/8. The Marshall Plan meant the investment a huge amount of money, but there was a whole free world for it to support – perhaps we forget that France, Britain, and others received Marshall Plan funding too. West Germans got 24 bucks a head.
It helped, but perhaps what helped more was the abandonment of the policy of funding the occupation through property seizures, the requisition of raw material, and punitive industrial shutdowns.
So, did denazification at least produce a new, future myth foundation upon which today’s democratic Germany was built? The Nazi regime had ‘educated’ a generation of Germans. Did they fully absorb the myth, and carry it for the rest of their lives?
Surveys carried out in the initial post-war years did show some tricky results. In 1945, 42% of German youth thought a ‘strong leader’ would be the best option to organize the future beyond defeat. In 1946 over 30% of Germans thought Holocaust killing had been ‘necessary’ for the security of the country.
By the 1960/70s these opinions had changed for the better. So, the new education efforts, economic programs, and provision of material benefits worked?
Educational literature from the Nazi period was withdrawn and banned, publications pulped. Pre-war textbooks were reintroduced. But those rebuilding the ‘new’ post-war German myth weren’t at school. The new generations who benefitted from a balanced education did so under their own leadership. It was later myth makers, younger generations, that examined, questioned, disagreed with, condemned, and recast elements of the ‘German’ myth in the 1960s.
By 1951 denazification had been broadly abandoned as unproductive. West Germany had its own democratic government in place. The policy was recognised as being counterproductive on many levels, and produced a feeling of persecution. This would unfortunately cheapen the official position on those who had worked in an official capacity during the Nazi period.
Those responsible for Nazi crimes would be prosecuted, but ‘followers’ and ‘lesser offenders’, categories 4 and 3 on the denazification forms (the worst being 1), now had their rights restored, and played a post-war role in all capacities.
So, by what process did the new German myth emerge? Did denazification make Germany ‘ready for democracy’? No. Germany was already ready. They had a pre-WWII tradition of peaceful politics. They had retained the myth details.
Was it hard to convince adults that the twelve years of the Nazi period had been disastrous, that they had committed unspeakable crimes, had left millions dead and reduced their country to physical rubble and political insignificance?
No, one had just to look around Berlin, anywhere in Berlin. Of course, the post-war removal of swastikas and other symbols didn’t hurt, but it was the obvious evidence of disaster in Berlin after the war that would help convince folks of the failure and destructiveness of the Nazi regime, too.
The party with the longest hold on power in West Germany (CDU) was re-formed and had already produced a party program a couple of weeks before Allied troops had conquered Germany. What denazification did achieve was to focus on how far the Nazis had strayed from civilised behaviour and to help inform the main points of the German constitution, the Basic Law, still in force today. It also reinforced the study of the period as a mainstay of educational curricula, and the ongoing nationwide construction of memorials. This dialog was crucial.
The wholesale abandonment of elements of one, albeit short-lived myth and the adoption, or re-adoption, of a familiar other happened organically and domestically. They just remembered an earlier myth framework, and then struggled with the guilt and shame of having done what they knew to be wrong, under the pressure of the myth lords that took responsibility for them. Those that remembered the pre-Nazi period, and other untainted experts were consulted. This is important.
This piece began with the premise that cognitive evolution produced first episodic, then mimetic, and finally mythic hominid minds, which combined and wove memory into ‘culture’ and that culture’s data into ‘history’. Our three main cognitive capabilities are still with us:
When we are just ‘daydreaming’ today we still experience an ‘episodic’ world – it just is, and we are in it, we know that, and when it is so, this mind type is dominant.
When we participate in a mass gathering, a demonstration, or a religious or political event, the mimetic mind is dominant, pulling together memories and connecting them with a pale comprehension, like an individual cheering in a crowd. This can be dangerous.
But a debate, a conversation, or discussion adds a complex language component and the mythic mind is dominant for that period, connecting all three minds together.
We saw how major ancient historical and cultural change was created by myth adoption, re-working, and abandonment, and how, during later period examples, the behaviour and integrity of those offering attractive new myths was crucial.
Because great change is often precipitated in times of economic and environmental stress, and that stress can unleash horror if the new myth makers use violence, including simply violent language.
There always comes a time when people start to doubt their myth or lack the knowledge necessary to plot a path forward. Today is not the first-time folks have seen the same events or data and doubted, or disagreed about, what they have just witnessed. But now, with new media to broadcast their ideas, perhaps the individual has never had as much power, or as loud a voice to change the world.
Is this good?
The answer is, again, not really.
The new world today is increasingly generated and presented by external data and symbol stores (once a carved symbol on stone – now TVs, computers, your phone, books). This is a continuation of Neolithic period symbol development as an aid to myth expression. But it’s now utterly dominant. The pace of the presented world is dictated often by the machine. This means: If you are born into this world, and have this exposure all your life, it’s likely your ability to shift amongst and combine our three ‘worlds of consciousness’ might go unrecognised.
This is a problem.
Why? Because the coherence of our myth world is challenged by today’s unlimited corpus of external symbol data. This process provides new and unlimited imagined options. These might even spark inspiration for future real world developments of humankind – for example movie based realistic depictions of space travel – but it also provides each of us with boundless myth data alternatives to choose from.
Our ability to absorb myths binding us together and give our lives meaning is replaced by fragmented options for each individual, and their significance to bind the group and provide a structure of belonging and traditions that govern the collective is lost. Today’s unlimited options might give an impression of greater choice but this also contributes to feelings of disorientation.
A good example of how to combat this is the experience of a tour. The tour combines a narrative ( myth or ‘history’) with symbols to illustrate it – pointing out surviving Third Reich eagles or using photos for example. Through this process the guide and the guest must harness together all 3 of our cognitive capabilities to participate and establish a narrative they understand and feel part of.
This is basically the process Germany went through post World War II. But that, as they say, was ‘a long time ago’.
So, another perhaps more relevant contributor to our feelings of a ‘new world’ in Berlin and Europe today was the seismic shift of fall of the Berlin Wall and Revolution ’89.
The experience of denazification and its perceived success was held up again as a forerunner of what was also considered to be a bumpy but achievable path to German unification in the 1990s.
But it didn’t work out like that. The resulting societal fractures in former East Germany, even now, contribute to a sceptical approach to the State with real world consequences.
Disengagement, conspiracy, anger & violence, the shifting of regional mass political support to young political movements with a ‘new’ message, reminiscent as echoes from some of the dark ‘myths’ of the recent German past, perhaps stem from a miscalculation in the process of ‘de-East Germanification’.
What was the difference between denazification and the mechanics of 1990s unification? Was the presentation of a rosy new future, the re-education process, the start-up money etc. not similar? Yes, but there was a crucial difference, and again, it revolved around the German eagle symbol.
During the 1989 demonstrations in east Germany the protesters chanted ‘we are the people’. They still shared a common myth. They were a team. Then the chant changed to ‘we are one people’, a reference to a future unification. This came to pass. Flags were waved, tears were shed, the national community – the two peoples – were one.
And that was the mistake.
One of those two teams – East Germans – dissolved. Unification was ultimately the goal and what they desired, but what didn’t survive the transition was their myth world. None of it was recognised, discussed and/or absorbed into the new German framework. As the new world dawned in the ‘90s, former east Germans found themselves adrift, members of the national community, but with no digestible myth to support and to give them a sense of place in their new country.
In their haste, West Germany had not wanted to dissect East German life and absorb the bits half the country liked or that might be still viable. They just waved the flag. Success! We are all under the protective wings of the eagle once more. They forgot the details and the debate that connect our 3 minds together. This was the opposite of the post-war West German experience, they had nothing but the details to work with. Generations of Easterners will feel the resulting void for the rest of their lives.
Again, this example reinforces the importance of our guiding job. We curate the past, we bring it into a world of language and discussion, activating memories to give it meaning.
A visit to any major city may take in an historical tour or visit a museum. The latter are mechanisms whereby a ‘state’ preserves memory, its culture and history. Seeing ‘things’ is a powerful cue for memory. The memories that fill museums are conceptual, bringing home the meaning of the collection, the myth.
Our tours in Berlin generally include memorials that attempt to function in roughly the same way. Our tours themselves are more personal and semantic in content, and play an important role, too. This is the detail behind the myth, exactly the process the individual needs to comprehend a world produced by external data and symbol generators.
For this we need surviving relics of the past. Our job cannot be done as easily if they are ‘cancelled’, or what will we mobile myth merchants do?
To conclude – the idea of myth world change is not new, nor is it inherently bad. German women no longer need their husband’s permission to work, we wear car seat belts, children with the flu are not dosed with Heroin. But the danger is there. The exploitation of the uninformed by the powerful using broad emotive symbols and myth without memory and detail, particularly in times of stress, can lead to a rhyming today with the dark poetry of the past, and the clock striking 13.
Acknowledging the workings of our ‘mythic minds’ and making use of the work we do as tour guides can help defend against this.
This piece was contributed by Berlin Guides Association member, Nick Jackson. A professional archaeologist with experience in the Near East, Nick divides his time between book research, Berlin touring, Nazi bunkers, travel journalism, lecturing on WWII Europe and the archaeology of the Eastern Mediterranean and some TV documentaries. Visit Nick’s profile to get in touch with him, or visit www.jacksonsberlintours.com for more information.
Read Nick’s other Berlin Long Read: Visions of Germania.