Dan Diner’s Speech at the Opening of the Exhibition “Roads not Taken”

Dan Diner | 18. Januar 2023

We’re publishing the speech by Dan Diner, historian and board member of the Alfred Landecker Foundation, delivered at the opening of the exhibition “Roads not Taken. Oder: Es hätte auch anders kommen können” on 8 December 2022.

I would like to begin my remarks with an apodictic statement:

This is a historical exhibition. And an exhibition is not a history book. Instead, it is a staged event. But what is staged in this exhibition? A drama, a conflict? A scandal?

It is neither one nor the other. But rather something highly unusual: it is the exhibition of an argument, an argumentation; to be precise: it is a historical-philosophical category, the category of contingency. This is why the exhibition is called “Roads not Taken” – it deals with paths of history that were not undertaken, and it does this with the proviso that everything could have turned out differently from the way it actually occurred. The aim of the exhibition is to visualise this tension between reality and possibility.

In everyday language, contingency could be described as happenstance, a turning point, a watershed, or an incision: a manifested or even palpable turning point, at least one that contemporaries acknowledged as possible – an incision that manifests itself in both the private and public spheres as a rupture, a cleft in the planning of people’s lives. People invoke these incisions in the stories of their lives, their descendants know about them. The relevant caesura bears their signs, symbols and names. We are all somehow familiar with it.

All this also finds expression in historiography, in written history. At the same time, this history tends to impose a coherence on these events, to engender a meaning – and this meaning tends to attribute a certain necessity to the events. The many unconnected points seem in retrospect to form an unbroken line. The history that came about and was thus written down appears to us to be inevitable. This can be described as a counter-term to contingency – namely, teleology. The seemingly inevitable line connected with the event insinuates that what happened had to happen. So as if the history had been instilled with a particular direction, an aim, in other words, a telos. Historiography, merely due to the narrative flow, tends to be inherently teleological.

This exhibition aims to break with the teleological perception in that it not only focuses on the contingency, but also takes account of the events, happenings and tendencies that did not actually happen.

To do this, it is necessary to jolt the predefined view that is fixed in the historical memory, to alienate it, as it were. This is why we reversed the usual course of history leading from past to present. Instead, the exhibition begins with the historical “present”, with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and works backwards to the “end point”, the chronological “beginning” in the revolutionary years of 1848/49. The inversion of the movement of time in history therefore aims to alienate the familiar images and thus to generate a greater amount of awareness for what is considered well-known.

This reversal of the historical timeline should contribute among other things to an amelioration of the relatively rigid structure of German historical interpretation, and furthermore to focus the view on the contingency and thus on other possibilities in the course of history that really existed, but did not come about. This does not mean, however, that the historical reality is thus reinterpreted. On the contrary. We are merely shining a light on the possibilities that offered themselves at the time.

It is necessary to stress that the exhibition never leaves the basis of actual reality. Thus, it does not present a so-called counter-factual history. It simply peers over the shoulder of the actual reality in order to see what was developing at the time. This is the view the exhibition takes and also the question it poses.

The exhibition focuses on selected caesurae in history that are contrasted with possible turning points in this history: fourteen scenes in which reality and possibility are spatially confronted with one another, leading to a tension. The argument must be displayed in such a manner that the public inevitably poses the question: Did it have to turn out as it did?

Such, for example, is the scene of the dismissal of Reich Chancellor Heinrich Brüning in May 1932. He requested from Reich President Hindenburg a further emergency decree – by now, the fifth – which was not granted. Brüning laid down the chancellorship with a speech in which he claimed to have been stopped at the last “100 metres before the finish”. Alongside his efforts to get Germany’s reparation payments reduced, he seems to be referring to his intention to guide the country out of the economic crisis and thus to stay in office until the next Reichstag elections, which were scheduled for fall 1934. In fact, in the autumn of 1932, economists already believed that the bottom of the recession had been reached, and people were beginning to get their hopes up again. But it was Hitler, not Brüning, who got the benefit of the boom. Hitler’s appointment as Reich Chancellor on the meanwhile iconic date of 30 January 1933 had not been expected at the time. In the Reichstag elections in November 1932, the NSDAP had incurred a loss of 2 million votes. It was rocked by internal conflicts. Hitler, who pursued a strategy of “all or nothing”, even threatened his adherents with suicide. When he was appointed Reich Chancellor on 30 January 1933, the Nazi press spoke of a “miracle”, while the social democratic “Vorwärts” was still calling him a “carnival chancellor” on 28 January.

Or in March 1936, when Hitler undertook a militarisation of the Rhineland and considered this a great risk – in the face of neighbouring France, which had the strongest army of continental Europe at its disposal. If Paris had responded with the threat of a military action, the Wehrmacht would have immediately withdrawn – and Hitler’s authority in the Reich would have suffered a blow, including from the Wehrmacht itself.

What would have happened if the conspirators had succeeded on 20 July 1944 in their assassination attempt on Hitler? Considering the high degree of probability that Hitler would have been killed in the attempt, the failure almost seemed like an accident of fate, which the Nazis elevated in their pseudo-religious terminology to an “act of providence”.

The exhibition examines such tendencies towards possibilities under the microscope in order to question them as to their potential realisability. In retrospect, the post-war period of the Federal Republic of Germany turned out to be a highly stable, perhaps even “golden” time in the recent history of Germany. It was a time when the continuity of stability was guaranteed, even if it came from abroad. It was the Cold War as a system and a measure of security and prosperity that guaranteed this stability, accompanied by the danger and fear of a nuclear apocalypse.

The year 1952 also proved to be a potential turning point, at least as far as the options are concerned. The so-called “Stalin Notes” presented the offer of a united, albeit neutralistic Germany. The history that occurred took a different path: instead of following the lure of nationalism offered by the East, Bonn sought integration with the West, or more precisely, with Europe – the European Coal and Steel Community, efforts to form a European defence union, a sharing of burden within the community, making amends with Israel in foreign policy. For the young Federal Republic, the year 1952 is no less significant than the formal founding year of 1949.

The exhibition seeks to provide historical enlightenment as well as a strengthening of historical judgement. It hopes to contribute to shaping a view of historical differences and differentiations. It wants to help spread democratic awareness. In this respect, it is a highly political exhibition.

Based on the history of its development, the Alfred Landecker Foundation stands for learning from history – learning lessons for the protection of democracy. And we are convinced that democratic values can best be guaranteed through the safeguarding and support of democratic institutions.

The reality of the present day can also serve to strengthen judgement and the ability to take a differentiated view of history. For many visitors, the present Russian war in and against the Ukraine lays itself over this display of the past like a foil. This is an outflux of the historical “turning point in time” that represents a veritable contingency in view of our historical expectations. In this way, the present inserts itself into an exhibition about the past and thus clearly spells out what its inherent subject matter really is: the incursion of the unexpected into a hitherto valid reality of life.