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Roads not Taken. Or: Things could have turned out differently

More Story. Or: The story behind the exhibition

The digital offer „More Story” offers additional information about the idea and concept of the exhibition “Roads not Taken. Or: Things could have turned out differently”. Project head Fritz Backhaus talks here with historian Dan Diner about the exhibition’s historic-philosophical approach of describing alternative possibilities to the actual course of history, while not trying to create a counterfactual narrative. Raphael Gross, President of the Deutsches Historisches Museum, points out how the concept fits into the aims and objectives of the museum. And curators Julia Franke and Lili Reyels report on the challenges and the findings they encountered during their work on the exhibition.


Along a string of 14 important dates in German history, “Roads not Taken” takes a look back(wards) at decisive historical events from 1989 to 1848. The turning points that actually happened are then confronted with possible courses of history that did not take place – without attempting to present an alternative or counterfactual narrative of history. Instead, the exhibition, based on an idea by the historian Dan Diner, is about how likely it is that a development inherent to the occurrence could have sent it off in a different direction. The project manager is Fritz Backhaus; the curatorial team consists of Julia Franke, Stefan Paul-Jacobs, and Dr. Lili Reyels.

„It’s not about relating a different version of history or even a so-called ‘counterfactual’ history. Instead, by means of a perspective on an alternative course of history, we are able to take a sharper look at what really happened. In short, the perception of the potential possibility allows us to better understand the real occurrence that took place.“

Dan Diner, Historian and Chairman of the Alfred Landecker Foundation

„It does not eleborate on something fictional, it's not a science fiction exhibition, but it is an exhibition that always comes back to important points in history, and actually does exactly what historians do, they try to put themselves into a historical situation, and ask: Why did it actually come the way it did?“

Raphael Gross, President of the Deutsches Historisches Museum

To achieve this perspective, unusual for a history museum, innovative ideas were developed not only on the level of curated content, but also in the design of the exhibition itself. On 1000 square metres of display surface, the exhibition illustrates the fact that history is not a linear narrative – but rather a series of more or less likely scenarios. This is illustrated in artistically staged “images” in the possibility rooms that offer a look at inherently possible scenarios that might have – but did not – come about. These are contrasted with the actual historical event described in the corresponding “reality room” which led to the decisive tipping point in history.

Visualisation of the exhibition space for the turning point 1989

Visualisation of the exhibition space for the turning point 1989

© chezweitz GmbH

Berlin Wall occupied by people

Berlin Wall occupied by people

Berlin, 1989, Photo: Bundesregierung Klaus Lehnartz

The parade of these caesurae begins in 1989 with the Peaceful Revolution in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and ends in the year 1848, when Germany first dared to attempt a democratic awakening. The exhibition takes a retrospective look at such topics as “Ostpolitik”, the building of the Wall, the Cold War, the assumption of power by the National Socialists, as well as revolution and democratisation at decisive turning points – and illustrates the fact that history did not have to end as it actually turned out. In this way, milestones such as the Stalin Note of 1952, the Korean War in 1950, the Berlin Airlift of 1948/49, the attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler in 1944, the occupation of the Rhineland in 1936, Hitler’s assumption of power in 1933, the deposal of Chancellor Brüning in 1932, the revolution of 1918, the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, or the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, appear in a new light.

Demonstration sign referring to the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing

Demonstration sign referring to the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing

East Berlin, 4 November 1989 © Deutsches Historisches Museum

1989 – Stroke of Luck: Revolution

Most people experienced the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989 as a stroke of luck. The people dancing on the Wall presented an iconic image of a Peaceful Revolution without the exercise of state-inflicted violence. But this outcome was not necessarily expected. The GDR had been the first country to officially state its approval to the violent actions of the Chinese leadership against protesters at the Square of Heavenly Peace in June 1989. A military crackdown against an uprising of the population had also seemed possible in East Germany, and was even believed to be likely.

„With the exhibition we extend the format of historical exhibitions and virtually challenge it.“

Julia Franke, Curator
Tanks at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin 1961

Tanks at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin 1961

Date of recording: 28.10.1961 © picture alliance / dpa / dpa

1961 – Fear: The Berlin Wall goes up

The famous photograph from October 1961, two months after the construction of the Berlin Wall when Soviet and American tanks faced each other at Checkpoint Charlie, is the point of departure for the consideration of this turning point. After the Second World War, the atmosphere was marked by the fear of a war that would be waged with nuclear weapons. When the Berlin Wall was built in August 1961, this danger became ominously acute. Both German states had already begun in the 1950s to prepare for the emergency situation of a nuclear conflict. Although this scenario did not come to pass, the military and the politicians continued to make arrangements in case such a war could break out. Civil defence agencies designed strategies for the population, and it became a civic duty to keep an emergency stock of supplies.

„The historical alternatives, that we're trying to present are based on historical research, on real sources, on other historical facts. Because these dates are so well known, there are, of course, great debates on many of these topics among historians since decades.“

Lili Reyels, Curator
The Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm IV is offered the German imperial crown by the deputation of the Frankfurt National Assembly on 3 April 1849 in the Knights

The Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm IV is offered the German imperial crown by the deputation of the Frankfurt National Assembly on 3 April 1849 in the Knights' Hall of the Royal Palace in Berlin

April 1848, Wood engraving (Reproduction) © bpk

1848/49 – Failure: Revolution

In the year of the Revolution of 1848, the bourgeois classes in Germany demanded democratic freedoms. A pan-German parliament, the National Assembly, was formed in the Frankfurt Paulskirche, where it drew up a constitution. The missing keystone in the structure of the constitution was the designation of Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm IV as emperor of all Germans. On 2 April 1849, a deputation of delegates from the Frankfurt Paulskirche arrived at the royal residence to offer the imperial crown to the King. The exhibition re-enacts the journey that the Frankfurt deputies took to the monarch by ship and railway. On the way, they were greeted for the most part with enthusiastic acclaim, but they did not achieve their political aim. The crown, claimed the King, was tainted with the “sullied smell of revolution”. He therefore refused the honour.