Christoph Stölzl and the Deutsches Historisches Museum

Jürgen Kocka | 5 March 2024

On 10 January 2023, Prof. Dr Christoph Stölzl, founding director of the Deutsches Historisches Museum, died. On 17 February 2024, he would have turned 80 years old. With an “Evening for Christoph Stölzl” we remember an enthusiastic contributor of ideas, cultural historian and motivator who had a lasting influence on our house. The commemorative address that we publish here was held by Prof. em. Dr Dr h.c. mult. Jürgen Kocka.

Jürgen Kocka at the commemorative speech in memory of Christoph Stölzl at the DHM on 17 February 2024, photo: © DHM/Matthias Völzke

Christoph Stölzl was many things at once and one after the other: historian, museum director, features editor, deputy and senator, auctioneer, president of a music academy, all alongside being a constant writer and public intellectual: a man of many callings, roles, interests and talents. In all this he was original and successful. Future Stölzl biographies – and there will be some – will have to discover what inner drive propelled him to his venturesome, imaginative, productive, restless openness to all things new and what sources his strength stemmed from so that he nevertheless remained the controlled, coherent, imposing personality that he was.

But his activity as founder and first director of the DHM from the mid-1980s to the end of the 1990s stands out in his biography. That is what made him a figure in contemporary history, and through that he became an influential, effective actor in cultural politics during the transition from the Bonn to the Berlin Republic.

In the following I will concentrate on Christoph Stölzl and the development of the DHM. It is the period in which I had most to do with him, and it is appropriate for an event in which the house remembers its founder – and thus also the expectations that its founding engendered.

The discussion about a German national museum gained momentum at the beginning of the 1980s, inspired among other things by previous successful historical exhibitions – about the House of Hohenstaufen (1977), the Wittelsbach dynasty (1980), and in 1981 “Prussia – Attempting an Assessment” in Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau. Above all the Prussia exhibition was important and had the effect, for example, of stimulating the debate about the sense, or lack of sense, of establishing a German Historical Museum, or – alternatively – a “Forum for History and the Present” that would be based entirely on exhibitions with alternating topics curated by varying exhibition-makers. The government of the Federal Land of Berlin and its responsible senator, Volker Hassemer, tended to favour the “Forum”.

By contrast, in the government declaration of the newly elected Federal Chancellor Helmut Kohl in 1983 and in his “Report on the State of the Nation” in 1985, the establishment of a German museum of history – a Deutsches Historisches Museum – was proclaimed, lastly as a “birthday present” of the federal government to the city of Berlin on its upcoming 750th jubilee in 1987. The Chancellor saw the DHM in connection with the concurrently planned and instituted “Haus der Geschichte der Bundesrepublik Deutschland” [in Bonn] as part of a “turning point” he hoped to launch after the long years of social-liberal governance. It can be questioned whether such a turning point actually took place. But it brought about certain events of which both museums were a part. They would not have come about without the Chancellor’s decisive commitment.

In Berlin the offer met not only with applause. In fact, criticism of the proposal grew considerably in 1985/86 – parallel to the so-called “Historikerstreit” of 1985/86, a bitterly contested controversy among historians about the place of the Holocaust in German history. The most important objection to the museum rested on the fear that it would foster the “disposal” of German history, marginalise the darker sides, and thus contribute to cancelling the unsettled claims on the recent German past, with the aim of forming a national-politically shaded German identity through a view of history indoctrinated by the government.

In 1985 an Expert Commission was put together consisting of museum practitioners (including Stölzl, then head of the Stadtmuseum in Munich, historians (of which I was one), and others, under the chairmanship of Werner Knopp, President of the Stiftung Prussischer Kulturbesitz. The Commission was charged with developing a concept for the planned museum. It worked very independently, without further content-related provisions from the participating governments. Numerous hearings and several conferences took place, accompanied by critical scrutiny on the part of the media. Seldom had a major museum been conceived under so much public attention. I would now like to summarise three of the commission’s decisions that have stood the test of time.

It was decided to establish a museum, but the idea of a forum, which had been abandoned, was nevertheless absorbed into the museum conception, since the proposal for the museum was based on two pillars: a permanent exhibition on German history followed by the presentation of temporary exhibitions on a variety of historical or current topics in which curators from outside the museum would also participate.

As to the content and aims of the proposed museum, the Commission’s discussions were never in danger of narrowing down the agenda towards a national-historical, let alone nationalistic conception. The mandate formulated by the Commission comprised enlightenment and understanding, cognizance and self-reflection in dealing with “German history in its European context and inner diversity”. Topics that definitely had to be taken into account were outlined, including the questions of what Germans as a nation have in common, the formation of governance and state; freedom and suppression; social inequality and conflicts; economy, labour and the relation to nature; cultural and religious interpretations, knowledge and science. There was a suggestion to deal with German history with a view to the history of civilisation combined with a call neither to suppress nor to overexaggerate the darker sides of this history.[i] The fear that the DHM would become an institution of patriotic armed aggrandisement and simultaneous relativisation of the Nazi past receded – with good reason – entirely.

Within the Commission there was very broad consensus in regard to these fundamental decisions. Other aspects were controversial. Some members stressed the primacy of the display objects and their ability to speak for themselves if one would only “return” their authenticity and aura to them. Others, however, emphasised that the objects – like other historical sources – would first gain a voice through questions. They demanded the formulation of key questions, also with the aim of explaining important relationships. This controversy was connected with the matter of the equitable relationship between thematic-analytical and chronological forms of exhibition. The Commission spent considerable effort in recommending an appropriate combination of these two methods of presentation with the help of different designs of the various display rooms.

The concept which the Commission finally agreed upon was accepted by the government. It formed the basis for the festive event in the Reichstag on 28 October 1987 when the DHM was founded, headed by Christoph Stölzl as “General Director and Professor”.

When founding director Christoph Stölzl moved from Munich to Berlin, he carried with him in his suitcase, as he wrote in retrospect, “experience with major historical exhibitions and the practice of heading a cultural-historical museum that had brought together under one roof all modes of objects and media, ranging from picture gallery to cinematheque.” And he also brought, he added, “a yen for politics.” [ii]

He could put this “yen for politics” to good use in Berlin. Indeed, the implementation of the proposed museum ran into difficulties again and again, including with the newly elected red-green Berlin Senate, with influential sectors of the Berlin public, and in the negotiations with the predominant states of the German federal system.

It was quickly possible – and this was very important – to win over highly qualified staff members and colleagues. These were available on the German job market, particularly in Berlin, given the preceding exhibitions (the latest, “Berlin-Berlin”, marked the 750th anniversary of the city). Under Stölzl’s direction, the quickly recruited core team of mostly young academics and museum specialists immediately launched a comprehensive, worldwide acquisition campaign, because there was almost an entire lack of historical objects in the new historical museum, whereby money was readily available from the federal budget.

Preparations were made for a building to house the museum. In 1988, the Milan architect Aldo Rossi won the international competition with a highly interesting, postmodern design, which was to be realised in the Spreebogen.

Christoph Stölzl at the opening of the exhibition “1.9.39 An attempt to deal with the memory of the Second World War”, 1 September 1989, Windscheidstraße, Berlin © DHM

The new museum opened its first, small, somewhat improvised temporary exhibition on 1 September 1989, a date recalling the German assault on Poland exactly 50 years earlier, with which the Second World War began. It was held in the basement rooms of an industrial location in Berlin-Charlottenburg, where the emerging DHM had found provisional quarters. It was a typical Stölzl idea to open the exhibition entitled “Attempt at how to deal with the memory of the Second World War” at 4:45 in the morning. This played on Hitler’s often quoted radio message on 1 September 1939 that announced in propagandistically twisted words the German bombardment of the Polish ramparts on the Westerplatte peninsula near Danzig: “Since 4:45 [we are] returning the fire.” However, Stölzl was not present at the opening at 4:45 a.m., but arrived about an hour later. A lot of people had already gathered, so the deputy director, Marie-Louise von Plessen, and I as a member of the Expert Commission had the honour of officially opening the first exhibition of the DHM with a few improvised sentences, not, of course, with the rhetorical finesse that Stölzl would have had at his command if he had been there. In later histories of the museum this first DHM exhibition has usually been overlooked, outshined as it was by the illustrious and opulent Bismarck exhibition in the Gropius-Bau a year later. But it was not forgotten altogether.

Suddenly the real course of history overtook the history museum in the form of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the German reunification. The conceptual plan for the museum survived for the most part, but in practice things changed. In the Spreebogen, where the foundation stone for the new museum building had already been laid, was erected – exactly on this spot – the new Federal Chancellery. Rossi’s design, which had been exactly tailored to the museum’s concept, was not realised. Instead, after a few provisional intermediate locations, the DHM moved into the Zeughaus at Unter den Linden 2, and took over the East Berlin “Museum für Deutsche Geschichte” that had resided there until that time – while not, however, adopting its structure and ideology, but rather its treasures, i.e., its objects, depots and a large part of its staff members. The planning had to be adapted to the old building. Much of the original conception that would have been realised in the Rossi building was lost, such as the constructional differentiation between epochal, specialisation and thematic rooms.

Since 2003, a great many highly interesting, sometimes fulminating, consistently audience-appealing temporary exhibitions have taken place in this new building, for the architectural design of which Stölzl had gained the collaboration of the internationally famous architect Ieoh Ming Pei during a visit to New York, doubtless a stroke of luck (or better, a stroke of genius). It was the temporary exhibitions in the next decade and a half that shaped the positive image of the DHM in the public sphere and brought it the high degree of acceptance and recognition that soon distinguished the museum.

More time was needed for the preparation of the chronologically arranged Permanent Exhibition, under the title “German History in Pictures and Objects”, in the main building. After a provisional overview display in the mid-1990s, it was first opened in its permanent form in 2006, long after Stölzl had left the museum, first for the “Welt” newspaper and then for Berlin politics. It was now under the auspices of Stölzl’s successor, Hans Ottomeyer. The Permanent Exhibition was oriented basically on the founding conception from 1987, if not in every respect. The explicit key questions, the analytical specialisations, and the breakpoints serving to provide an overview receded far into the distance.[iii]

Considering how controversial, indeed how contested to project was, above all in the 1980s, we must ask how it nevertheless, seen in toto, came out so smoothly and succeeded so well. There are many explanations:

There was, for example, the very effective engagement of Helmut Kohl in a constellation he understood as an opportunity for a political-cultural turning point, a commitment which he realised with financial generosity and personal perseverance. And Kohl was powerful.

There was the extremely clever approach of the significant decision-makers, which was heavily based on broad consensus. A relatively broad-based, albeit not unlimited, spectrum of persons with various political orientations became involved. This is evident in the composition of the Expert Commission, where historians sat who had taken opposite positions in the so-called “Historikerstreit” and still defended them. And it appears to me that the book publisher Wolf Jobst Siedler, who knew a great many people with connections in many different intellectual circles, played a very important role as adviser and patron of the whole affair.

And then there was the fact that in the non-public, small-format, strictly problem- and object-related discussions among the historians, museum people, politicians and intellectuals – in those last years of the Bonn Republic and the beginning of the Berlin Republic – a much greater degree of implicit consensus came to light than one could have suspected from the impression of the often excited and aggravated debates communicated to the public by the media. On the other hand, these passionate public controversies and the expressions of profound mistrust of the museum’s plans caused the political actors to exercise particular caution and deference, which facilitated the founding of the museum.

Finally, in retrospect we can see that deviations took place in dealing with cultural history that had a positive effect on the museum project. The willingness to accept history as a source of the formation of identity had been growing in many forms and on different levels since the late 1970s, not only in the Federal Republic of Germany. This tendency was also found in the German Democratic Republic when in the 1980s the history of Prussia began to be seen as part of their own history. In this way the competition between the two Germanys for the interpretation of their joint history grew more intense – a further motivation to establish institutions like the DHM. And then the reunification: it brought decisions on the yet unresolved issues of the cohesion and the borders of Germany. It also posed new questions that required historical responses, such as a comparison of the history of the two recent German dictatorships and the place of Germany in Europe. Those who doubted the legitimacy of the question of nation and nation-state and dismissed it as passé were taught otherwise when they objectively observed the impetuous return of the nation-state as a central factor of order in Germany and Europe since the end of the 1980s. All this provided a strong tailwind for a project such as the DHM. It was created and decided in the controversies of the Bonn Republic, but was first formed and realised in the Berlin Republic. One can understand its early history as part of the inner reunification, inspired and dominated by the West, but with a pan-German/European perspective and with certain substantial and institutional adaptations to the new situation.

A further main reason for the success of the DHM becomes clear when we reflect on the person and role of its founding director. Christoph Stölzl, who strongly influenced the development of the DHM for a decade and a half, was a stroke of luck for the emerging museum.

Stölzl had studied history, had himself worked in academia on the history of the Habsburg Empire, the history of Bohemia, in particular that of the Bohemian Jews, with special interest in Franz Kafka. His historical inquisitiveness was deeply rooted and downright critical, unfailing even in his last major project, his collaboration on the planned museum of exile in Berlin. From this fundamental history-savvy position he succeeded, notwithstanding the manifold criticism in detail, in earning the respect of the various specialists who participated in the DHM project – from the often sceptical museum practitioners to the historians, including those on the left side of the academic-political spectrum.

When historians synthesise, they have to deal with many subject areas in which they are not specially trained. In a certain sense they are always also dilettantes. This is true to a great degree of Stölzl, and this was one of his strengths. The very fact that he usually acted as a non-specialist, often did not want to commit himself, left things up in the air, remained vague – this was precisely what made it easier for him in controversial situations to survive the intellectual conflicts and at the same time to strengthen his self-assertiveness.

Stölzl gave up a career in academia, for he wanted to shape things. And he succeeded in this, including in the case of the DHM, in threefold respect. First, in his Munich years – learning by doing – he had acquired the ability to work institutionally, as director of the Stadtmuseum. He also needed this as DHM director – even though he knew how to delegate much of the work.

On the other side, he knew that to establish a museum, as with the organisation of every major exhibition, diplomacy is required. In this he was proficient, was able to win over people and positions, even in very small circles. He gained the trust of Chancellor Kohl and advised him in important cultural-political questions: with the founding of the “Neue Wache”, with regard to the memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe, probably also in the matter of the partial rebuilding of the Stadtschloss. Thus, he had great influence, which gave him a considerable advantage in heading the DHM and for the DHM itself.

Thirdly, Stölzl was a public man. He could speak in public, usually without a manuscript, but his words were “ready-for-print”. He was rhetorically brilliant. His curiosity was contagious, he exuded cheerfulness even in critical situations, and his speeches were usually highly entertaining. Thanks to his educated middle-class background, he was immensely knowledgeable, and he had the details freely, resourcefully and associatively at his fingertips. Kai-Uwe Peter, President of the German Schiller Society, recently put it this way: “Christoph Stölzl could stroll effortlessly from Michelangelo’s Pieta to late industrialisation in the German states, to the pious cult of the Madonna in Bavaria, and on to the labels of the first Munich beer bottles.” Yes, Stölzl loved such strolling, and it is no accident that he was committed to the splendid 2016 exhibition on “Harry Graf Kessler – Flaneur through Modernity” in the Liebermann House. Nevertheless, it would not be right to call Stölzl a “Flaneur”. For that he was too much a person who not only observed, but also decided and shaped things with commitment. But Stölzl would have freely admitted that such a flying change from one topic to the other necessarily goes hand in hand with an occasional lack of precision.

He brought together these three extensions of his practical professional quality – as head of an institution, diplomat and public personality – not least of all through his personal charm. There is no doubt that the DHM also profited from that.

Finally, Stölzl was not a leftist. As far as he was engaged in party politics, it was first in the FDP and later in the Berlin CDU, which he headed for a short time. Many people saw him as a conservative. He was not dismissive of being thus characterised, although he preferred to describe himself as a citizen. And often during his time as DHM founder and director there were decisions and their underlying convictions that could generally be called conservative, both politically and aesthetically. And yet he combined this bearing with a pronounced delight in experimenting and undertaking projects, bubbling over with ideas and risk-taking, with curiosity, trust in the future, and a desire for reform, for which the term conservative does not necessarily suggest itself. His thematic interests as a historian – including Jewish history, anti-Semitism, and exile – do not stand for a marked conservatism. His demeanour, his attire, his habitus appeared urbane, not conservative. Should we perhaps speak of a “progressive conservative” or a liberal-conservative reformer, or even, to quote a well-known lady theatre director, a “conservative anarchist”?

Let’s leave it open.

I remember Christoph Stölzl with great respect and am very sorry that we can no longer congratulate him personally today on his 80th birthday.

[i] Ch. Stölzl (ed.), Deutsches Historisches Museum. Ideen – Kontroversen – Perspektiven, Berlin 1988, pp. 609-636, espec. 611-614.

[ii] Ch. Stölzl, Wie die Idee eines Deutschen Historischen Museums Gestalt annahm, 1985-1999, in: Zwanzig Jahre Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin 2007, pp. 33-42, here 36.

[iii] J. Kocka, Ein chronologischer Bandwurm. Die Dauerausstellung des Deutschen Historischen Museums, in: Geschichte und Gesellschaft 32, 2006, pp. 398-411.