A Volkswagen Beetle, a replica of a concentration camp iron gate and one of Europe’s first printed books are some of the key artefacts at an exhibition exploring German history.
With the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall fast approaching, London’s British Museum is reconsidering the country’s rich history through a selection of unique objects.
Rolling into central London, a Volkswagen Beetle Type 1 from 1953.
It’s one of the most familiar cars in the world and has become a symbol of Germany’s post-war economic recovery.
According to the British Museum, with over 21 million produced, the Beetle became the longest running and most manufactured car of a single design worldwide, before being discontinued in 2003.
Now the Beetle – along with almost 200 other objects – is taking pride of a place at new exhibition which explores the narrative which shaped modern day Germany as we see it today.
With the Berlin Wall falling almost 25 years ago (9 November 1989), the exhibition takes that as its end point, reaching far back over 600 years into the past into the 15th century.
It features some of Germany’s most famous and iconic artworks including this huge portrait of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein.
Goethe was the first German author to gain widespread international fame.
It also explores areas of land once linked with Germany, this portrait shows the scholar Erasmus when he was based in Basel, at the time a German city shifting to a Swiss identity.
“It looks at Germany history through its memories, through the things that have a legacy today in Germany and perhaps the things that the British might not quite understand in the same way because our legacy, our historic memory is so different,” says the exhibition’s lead curator, Barrie Cook.
“So we look at such things as the fact that there have been huge areas of what was once Germany but not German at all, but are fundamentally part of German history.”
Perhaps the exhibition’s most standout artefact is the Gutenberg Bible from 1455.
It was one of Europe’s first printed books and took two and a half years to complete.
This is one of 48 surviving copies which Johannes Gutenberg produced.
The Gutenberg Bible was the first major book printed in Europe – China had been printing books since the 9th Century.
It marked the start of the age of the printed book, and the “Gutenberg Revolution.”
“We look at the great German reputation for technical skill which still survives today,” says Cook.
“Beginning with the earliest object in the exhibition which is Gutenberg’s Bible, a first time a German changed the whole world, we are still living in Gutenberg’s world.”
The exhibition also explores the country’s great technical skills.
There’s this ‘Strasbourg Clock’ – a glistening example of German clock-making and metal-engraving – made by Isaac Habrecht in 1589.
There’s also numerous examples of work by the Bauhaus movement, an influential modernist art school founded in 1919 which sought to merge traditional craft forms with artistic vision and modern industrial design.
A print of a strange-looking rhinoceros and a porcelain model show two technological and artistic achievements by the German world.
The invention of modern print-making in the mid-1400s allowed artist Albrecht Durer to mass-produce his own work.
The reinvention of porcelain by scientists in Dresden in the early 1700s allowed Europeans for the first time to equal China.
The exhibition doesn’t ignore the events of the first half of the twentieth century which have shaped modern perceptions of German history and culture.
It features a children’s cut-out sheet with German soldiers and also hyperinflation bank notes used during the 1920s.

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