Thursday, May 19, 2005

Inventing a Tradition and its Discontents (Part I)

For some time I have been meaning to post about the Rhenish Museum and the debate in German cultural politics that it stirred. In 1926 Konrad Adenauer proposed the creation of a museum in Cologne after the success of the millennium exhibition of 1925.

The proposal looked like a matter of course. The original exhibition was the central attraction of the Jahrtausendfeier — the millennium of the attachment of Lothringen (hence the Rhineland) to Germany. The event that was remembered — an obscure treaty that had almost no political relevance, even in the Middle Ages — had been latched onto by nationalists and regionalists alike to express the dedication of Rhinelanders to the Reich. The museum intended to turn the millennium into a permanent institution.

What seemed like a sure thing was instead contentious. First, the mayors of various cities contested the details of the plan: Dusseldorf, Koblenz, and Trier argued that they had better claims to a museum that would encompass Rhenish history, economy, and culture.

Second, the idea at the center of the proposal — the meaning of something called "Rhenish history" — was called into question. The millennium exhibition was carried forward by the emotions of the participants: their desire to show that the Rhine region was not just German, but a leading contributor of German culture overpowered critical judgement and historiography. Plus, the French occupation gave Rhinelanders something to thumb their noses at.

When Adenauer proposed making the exhibition permanent, scholars from various fields chimed in. Critic asserted that the Rhineland was not unified, had never been unified, and could not be presented by a singular institution. Proponents asserted that the decentered nature of the Rhineland does no deny it a history.

The Rhenish Museum is an example of the difficulties of inventing traditions. Eric Hobsbawm describes invented traditions as rituals that give the impression of continuity with the past. In modern times, invented traditions are abstract and ambiguous, integrating individuals into the community (especially the nation).

The Jahrtausendfeier could be described as such a practice. However, it failed when politicians and scholars attempted to turn it into an institution. The continuity of the German Rhineland was in doubt.

I will continue with this in two more parts. In the second part I will look at the Jahrtausendfeier itself. In the third part I will look at the debate in historiography.



At 4:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Come now, you need to be more specific: all traditions are invented and therefore artificial representations of a past and/or present.


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