Pickelhauben, honor crosses and / or Germania? On the differences and similarities between two exhibitions about the First World War currently on show in Berlin

“Our inclination to hopefulness and expectations of a final victory are unabated and yet the long wait does at times begin to worry us.”

The cultural and literary historian Ludwig Geiger, son of the famous reformist rabbi Abraham Geiger, penned these lines to a friend on 5 December 1914. The “long wait” which had started to trouble him four months after the Great War broke out, ultimately dragged on for almost four more years and yet failed to bring the victory so yearned for. Soldiers at the time could barely imagine what massive destruction this first modern war would wreak. The paltry equipment with which they set off for the front is proof enough of that.

Dr Max Litthauer's Pickelhaube (spiked helmet) with camouflage covering, 1914–1918. Donated by Bart Ullstein © Jewish Museum Berlin, Photo: Jens Ziehe.

Dr Max Litthauer’s Pickelhaube (spiked helmet) with camouflage covering, 1914–1918. Donated by Bart Ullstein © Jewish Museum Berlin, photo: Jens Ziehe.

On display both in the exhibition “The First World War in Jewish Memory” at the Jewish Museum Berlin and in the special exhibition “1914–1918. The First World War” at the German Historical Museum (DHM) are Pickelhauben, spiked helmets made of hardened (boiled) leather and with a cloth covering for camouflage—for a metal spike protruding above a trench and catching the sunlight made its wearer a sitting target. On my guided tours of the two exhibitions, I take the Pickelhaube as an opportunity to talk about how much this war differed from previous ones as well as how ill-prepared the military was, initially, for the new weaponry deployed.
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“Dispatch Prohibited on Account of the State of War”

A Letter from the Archive Tells of the Outbreak of War in 1914

A handwritten letter

Letter from Leo Roos to his family (first page), Frankfurt am Main, 31 July1914
Donated by Walter Roos
© Jewish Museum Berlin

“The situation is extremely serious; His Majesty the Emperor declared this afternoon that Germany is now at war.” Exactly one hundred years ago today, eighteen-year-old Leo Roos penned these lines to his parents and siblings back home in the West Palatine village of Brücken. But they were never to receive his letter, as the note on the envelope attests: Dispatch prohibited on account of the state of war. Return to sender.

Roos felt he was witnessing fateful times. He lived in Frankfurt, where he was apprenticed to a bank. He thought himself a city boy, much closer to momentous global events than his family was, off in its isolated village. He described the tense mood:  continue reading


Small, Yet Packs a Punch…

Or: How 300 Artifacts from our Collection Were Turned into a Cabinet Exhibition about the First World War

A spiked helmet in a showcase

Objects from our collections in the exhibition “The First World War in Jewish Memory”
© Jewish Museum Berlin, photo: Mariette Franz

Our exhibition “The First World War in Jewish Memory” opened last week. It is based primarily on collections donated to the Jewish Museum by German-Jewish families and each exhibit tells a very personal story.
In total, 176 exhibits were selected, researched and arranged as a visual narrative by eight curators, six restorers, two exhibition technicians, a translator and a graphic artist. So, even before I mention our numerous willing helpers in the wings, in particular the student assistants and the Museum caretaker, this sounds like a big team for a big exhibition. In fact, our joint endeavor culminated in a small cabinet exhibition relating to the First World War, which can be viewed until 16 November in the Rafael Roth Learning Center.  continue reading