Roads not Taken. Or: Things could have turned out differently
Frequently asked questions
Starting from a number of key moments in German history, the Deutsches Historisches Museum presents a look back(wards) at 14 decisive historical events between 1989 and 1848. These turning points that actually happened are contrasted with possible courses of history that could have taken place but which, for many different reasons, did not occur – prevented by accidents of fate, averted by resolutions, etc. Hovering above all this – and this accounts for the topicality of the exhibition – is the question of the latitude that individuals have in the way they act. The decisions they make can change the course of history. And not least of all: the exhibition invites the public to pay attention to how we make historical judgements.
After a brief prologue introducing the contents and structure, the exhibition starts in the year 1989 with the Peaceful Revolution in the GDR and ends in the year 1848, when Germany first attempted a democratic awakening. In reverse chronological order, various topics of German history in the 20th and 19th centuries are taken up at their decisive tipping points: “Ostpolitik”, building of the Berlin Wall, Cold War, assumption of power by the National Socialists, revolution and democratisation.
The first part of the full exhibition title “Roads not Taken. Oder: Es hätte auch anders kommen können” was chosen by Dan Diner, the historian who conceived the original idea for the exhibition. Starting with his deliberations, the exhibition attempts to create an image in the minds of visitors that leads to the historical-philosophical aspect of the exhibition, namely: “Which paths were not taken at these historical turning points?” The German part of the full title, translated as “Or: It could have turned out differently”, makes it clear that historical decisions were by no means not without alternatives. There were always options available to contemporaries that could have changed the course of history.
This is not a science fiction exhibition: the courses of history are not told in a fictional form, as if in a novel or film. Rather, it is an exhibition that repeatedly returns to important points in history and looks into the ways the outcome of an event was influenced. This procedure is almost exactly how historians go about their work: they attempt to place themselves in the historical situation and then ask why it happened that way and what alternatives were available in the respective situation. The exhibition points out alternative paths, but only as far as these options can be verified through historical evidence as really having been available. In this point the DHM, as a museum of history, wants to draw a line between what could have happened and what counts as fiction or counter-factual historical narrative. With respect to the unrealised alternatives, we did not want to stray entirely from the path of the possible.
The special character of the exhibition also consists in presenting an argument or premise that propels the well-researched and often recounted events of German history into a pointed, eye-opening, thought-provoking perspective. That this can also provoke contradictory opinions is part of the concept.
These 14 key events have in common that they could have turned out quite differently. Moreover, for us these alternatives had to be historically verifiable – for example, through quotes from contemporaries – and had to have played a role for, or been perceptible to, a broad section of society.
As long as the exhibition is running, we are offering a series of talks under the title “Roads not Taken on …” (a certain date), in the framework of which we have invited notable historians and philosophers to discuss these key turning points and other events that did not find their way into the exhibition.
Under “caesura” we understand a key moment in history when it could have taken a different turn. No matter how that history actually unfolded or could have unfolded: nothing was the same after these key moments – they ushered in a new epoch or period.
While the term caesura is used sparingly in academic historiography, the exhibition deliberately provokes contemplation about these moments. It makes you wonder: What were the well-known, key moments in the history of the 19th and 20th centuries? Which key moments are not included?
The exhibition presents starkly staged artistic “scenes” or “pictures” that represent “possibility rooms”. They provide a look at the historical events that could have happened, but did not come to pass. These are juxtaposed with “reality rooms” showing the actual historical events. They present the courses of history that led to the respective tipping point. The actual turning points are placed face to face with the possible historical courses that did not happen. We did, however, avoid offering an entirely fictional or counter-factual historical narrative.
The colourfully staged possibility spaces are contrasted graphically with the bright and clearly depicted reality spaces. The best perspective on the respective room can be found at fixed “viewpoints” that are marked with tape on the floor opposite the room.
The historian Dan Diner provided the original idea for the exhibition. Fritz Backhaus, director of collections at the Deutsches Historisches Museum, was in charge of the project. The curators were Julia Franke, head of the DHM collection of everyday culture, Dr Lili Reyels, head of the DHM collection for financial and economic history, as well as the historian Stefan Paul-Jacobs.