He is a historian, a teacher, a scholar, a consummate communicator, a thoroughly entertaining and infectious guide and, quite possibly, the bravest man in Britain. Because Neil MacGregor wants us to love Germany. In terms of aiming high, it’s right up there with selling the Second Coming to Richard Dawkins.
Yet if anyone can teach us to move on from the Tommy and Jerry narrative of two world wars and one World Cup, it’s the director of the British Museum. He certainly loves a challenge. Having brought us A History of the World in 100 Objects on Radio 4, his latest radio marathon sees him present a history of Germany in 30 episodes and 70 objects – from bratwurst to Volkswagen, with the Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate sandwiched between. He will also throw open the museum’s doors to an accompanying exhibition from mid-October.
“I don’t know what level of public curiosity there is. I’ve simply no idea whether people will want to come. I just know this is history we should be presenting,” says the man whose popular touch not only brings millions to his museum – it’s the UK’s number-one visitor attraction – but whose twinning of celebrities with artefacts for his History of the World put Boris Johnson and the emperor Augustus on the cover of RT. This time there will be no well-known faces used as window dressing. The artefacts and MacGregor will speak for themselves.
“The point of the series is not so much to put the history of the 20th century in a bigger context, but it’s also saying, ‘What has Germany done since 1990?’ This is a new country, and a new country needs a new history.”
But will it mark the beginning of a new chapter in Anglo-German relations? “I don’t… I don’t…” he stutters, before resistance dissolves into laughter. “I know I have enthusiasm, but I’m not delusional!”
The thing is, says MacGregor, we are the deluded ones. Because the Germans want to be our friends. “Germany wants allies. One of the things they’ve learnt from the past is not only that power is dangerous, but acting alone is also dangerous. So they want counsel and friends and they would be very happy for Britain to play that role. Whether Britain wants to play that role, and whether Britain sees itself as wanting to be Germany’s friend, I don’t know. Historically we are in a far better position to be Germany’s friend than France. Far better.”
So what do the Germans – the engine room of the new Europe, with an economy that bankrolls the euro and a chancellor who calls the shots from the Atlantic to the Baltic – make of us? A Britain that struggles to hang on to even its constituent parts and whose relationship with the rest of Europe can best be described as semi-detached? “They have huge admiration for the political traditions, the political stability, huge admiration for the way Britain fought the Second World War, fascinated and delighted by the sport… But very dismayed that when they come to Britain, they’re greeted with Nazi salutes! Bewildered that Britain doesn’t want to appear to know about Germany now, but wants to freeze the relationship as it was 70 years ago.
“The terrifically pro-British sentiment in Germany is everywhere. Every educated German will know all about Britain – they all speak English, for one thing – and they’ll watch British television. The BBC is a god in Germany: the model, the dream. They have great admiration for the way things just evolve and the decency of the whole system. And are totally bewildered by this desire to cling to a moment that was a long time ago and blocks a proper relationship with Germany now.”
There, as Basil Fawlty would have it – he started it! He mentioned the war. When it comes to the British view of German history, there is no avoiding it.
Standing beneath the Brandenburg Gate with MacGregor, the tourists swirling around us before being washed through its Doric columns like an eddy under a bridge, the babble rises across Pariser Platz. English, French, Dutch, Russian…
It’s hard to look at the Brandenburg Gate – originally built as a peace arch by the Prussians, before being pressed into service by Bismarck as a symbol of the new German unity in 1871 – with British eyes without seeing the black-and-white images of wartime photographs, flags draped between the columns, swastikas billowing in the breeze. And that from someone like me, a member of a generation who came of age with the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the birth of modern Germany. As the world wars recede, it seems the popular imagination doesn’t.
“It’s constantly reinforced in a way that it isn’t in other countries – not in France, not in the Netherlands or Denmark, which have far more reason to be obsessed with German evil, having been occupied. It doesn’t happen there at all.”
Watching him take up his position in front of the gate, a lone figure mugging for our camera as the hordes follow the guides elsewhere, you wonder how long it will take for his message to get through. “It’s one of the tragic things of the 20th century that 100 years ago everybody like us would have known so much about German culture and history. We’d all have read German at school or university, we’d expect people to read German, we would know about Germany – and all that stopped after 1945.”
Are his series and his exhibition an attempt to make good that deficit? “In a way. It’s what the museum is for – to enable people to explore the history they need to understand now. And we don’t learn that history at school any longer, and most of us don’t learn it at university either. For most people Germany is the Germany you study at school, which is 12 years of tyranny, with a four-year prelude of horror in the First World War, and that’s not enough to understand what Germany is becoming.”
The more he speaks, the more it sounds like a personal mission for the 68-year-old art historian from Glasgow, with an Alan Bennett haircut and something of his dry wit: “I read German at University.” Did he visit? “Oh no! Not at Oxford. You didn’t go to ancient Greece, after all. No, there was no requirement to actually visit the country!”
After school – including a spell in West Germany – he went to the Sorbonne in Paris in 1968, where he manned the barricades, chain-smoked Gitanes and dreamt of being a French philosopher. After flirting with the law and training at the Courtauld Institute, he renewed his love affair with Germany when his job as director of the National Gallery in the 1990s regularly took him to Berlin, Munich and Dresden. He discovered a country reborn and a past that, once buried, was now talked about.
“I was at school in Hamburg [which was heavily bombed by the Allies] in 1961 and some of the fathers of people I was with had been killed in the war. Every one of them, the parents and grandparents, had been made homeless. None of the parents would talk about it. I came from Britain where people bored on about the Blitz, which by contrast was so limited.
“Most countries construct a history they’re comfortable with. What is unique about Germany is that is has decided that what happened was so wrong that it must construct a history that is a constant, painful reminder of what happens if you don’t behave well.
“All German monuments, all German history, has this forward dimension to it. It’s asking the fundamental question: ‘How are we going to get it better next time?’ That’s not the way we think about history. I mean there is a vague ‘never again’, but what the Germans do is ask, ‘What did we do wrong that we must not do again?’”
MacGregor’s series falls neatly between the centenary of Britain’s entry into the First World War and Armistice Day in November. Is that deliberate? “It is quite convenient,” he admits. “Radio 4 was very keen to have some kind of counterbalance to the war coverage, something about another Germany, looking forward.”
What does he make of our war commemorations, including the programming planned by the BBC? He thinks the 2,500 hours of coverage is “astonishing” and worries that they’ve missed the point. “I’ve heard very little of people asking: what were the lessons? What does this mean for what we do in the Middle East now, for instance? The Germans had to acknowledge that those deaths in the First World War were pointless. There was no rhetoric of preserved freedom… They had to live with more deaths in Germany than the entire British empire. There was no solace of being able to say this was worth it. And even less in the Second World War. Two succeeding generations had to confront these enormous losses of life with absolutely no consolation or comfort that this was in any sense worth it. Which changes the way you think about war.
“Which is why putting something like the Holocaust Memorial right in the middle of your capital… I mean, it was a unique act of evil, but many countries have committed great acts of evil. No other country has a monument to its own shame in the heart of its capital.”
What would be the British equivalent? “A monument to those Indians killed by British troops in the Indian Mutiny. In Whitehall. Or a monument to the millions who died as a result of the slave trade. So that every day, government has to pass a reminder of what that particular commercial imperative allowed to happen.”
So how will we learn to love the Germans again? “Well, the Germans don’t help themselves. Because of the fear of power, they have always refused to have a proper minister of culture. At no point in the past 50 years has anybody really set out to tell the world why Germany is so important. Why it matters, what it’s done, why it’s so admirable… Because they’re terrified. We don’t know about Germany because the Germans have been too reticent to tell us.”
I tell him that earlier I walked past a tiny stall selling Germany football shirts. “I would like to buy one of those if they’ve got any left. That memorabilia is so rare to have. Britain is completely unembarrassed about promoting itself, the Germans are far too modest. Bescheidenheit – modesty – is a real German virtue. It’s what used to be the equivalent of understatement. We no longer value understatement. It was a great shared virtue.”
He tells me that the first time Germany was used as a brand was when it staged the 2010 World Cup. “Before that nobody ever used the German flag. And then they put the flag away again. Because they know the danger of flags and they know the danger of nationalism.”
Fortunate, then, that they can rely on a powerfully persuasive Scots Teutonophile, with the BBC and the British Museum at his disposal, to wave their flag instead.
Germany: Memories of a Nation begins on BBC Radio 4 on Monday 29 September at 9:45am/7:45pm