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Bringing the past to life

Bringing the past to life FI

Here is a tale of two exhibitions; one permanent, one temporary, one vast in scope and the other small but beautiful – or as the Germans would say ‘klein aber fein’. The first is the ‘Deutschlandmuseum’ which takes you on a roller coaster journey through 2,000 years of German history and the second is the story of the ‘Romanisches Café’, the legendary haunt for artists and intellectuals in 1920s Berlin. Both of them attempt to bring the past to life but in very different ways.

The cobblestones in front of the Deutschlandmuseum mark the path of the Berlin Wall.

The Deutschlandmuseum bills itself as ‘a unique blend of history museum and amusement park’. Its location on Leipziger Platz boasts two other inter-active museums, the popular Spy Museum and the new Berlin Wall exhibition. This area of Berlin, all reconstructed since the 1990s, has become a Mecca for fans of multi-media history shows.  I wouldn’t normally count myself among their number, but I must admit that there was something quite exhilarating about walking through 2,000 years of German history in less than an hour. My only mistake was to go there on a Saturday when it was full of tourists and children.

In the depths of the Teutoburg Forest, where the Romans were defeated by an army of Germanic tribes in AD 9

Each of the twelve rooms features a pivotal moment from a defining era of German history and contains life-size sets, interactive media and unique artefacts as well as concise information boards in both German and English. There is really no need for any prior knowledge of German history, so this museum is perfect for anyone wanting a clear overview. You get to touch, smell, see and hear history rather than read about it on a page. If  you are inspired to find out more about German history, then I would highly recommend reading ‘The Shortest History of Germany’ by James Hawes.

A diorama of a medieval jousting scene

It would be hard to pick out a favourite room in this exhibition as they all command attention. I enjoyed walking through ancient forests and medieval villages and was particularly fascinated by the displays associated with the world’s first printing press, invented by Johannes Gutenberg in 1436. I also liked the visual impact of the room containing a huge supine head of Frederick the Great and busts of the writers and philosophers of the Enlightenment. The Revolution of 1848 gets good coverage, followed by the unification of Germany under Bismarck. It’s always surprising to think that the State of Germany has only existed for just over 150 years.

A room devoted to the history of the first printing press

The use of digital screens within dioramas is very clever with great attention to detail, for example in the scene of the World War I trenches. But simple artefacts hit home too, like the piano with keys damaged in the bombing of World War II. In the last room, the exhibition brings visitors right up to present-day Germany with film footage of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Reunification and the flood of immigrants who arrived in 2015, all cleverly displayed in the windows of a train carriage.  

Scenes from reunified Germany

If you want to find out more about the Deutschlandmuseum, I recommend checking out their website at It also gives useful information on buying tickets online in advance, which works out cheaper. I have deliberately used the word ‘exhibition’ to describe the Deutschlandmuseum as I would find it hard to refer to it as a museum.  It is certainly a learning experience, but there are no culturally significant objects on display here.

In contrast, the exhibition ‘Das Romanische Café’ is contained in just one room, entrance is free and it focuses on less than a decade in history.  “All roads lead back to Berlin. And to the Romanisches”, pronounced Kurt Tucholsky, satirist, journalist and cabaret songwriter of Weimar Germany. Indeed, in the 1920s, the Romanisches Café became the legendary haunt for many famous Berlin artists and intellectuals of that time.  It originally opened in 1916 when the Café des Westens was still Berlin’s answer to the Café de Flore in Paris or the Café Central in Vienna. But after the First World War the ‘in-crowd’ moved just a few hundred metres to the ‘Romanisches’ on the other side of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, in the trendy New West of Berlin of those heady ‘Golden Twenties.’

On the terrace of the Romanische Café

The café’s name alludes to the Romanesque style of the building, designed by the same architect who built the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. The ceilings were vaulted and the space was light and airy with a large outside terrace, but it was not deemed particularly beautiful and often likened to a railway station waiting room. The Yiddish-language writers who frequented the café nicknamed it Rachmonische (“Mercy” or “Pity”) on account of its shabby conditions and food. But the Romanisches Café survived as Berlin’s meeting place for the intelligentsia and the wannabe artists until the rise of the Nazis in the late 1920s. Then in 1943 it was destroyed in a bombing raid.

Marble-topped table and chairs in the entrance area of the exhibition

This exhibition is housed on the actual site of the Romanisches Café, now on the ground floor of the Europa Center shopping complex. A terrace scene has been created in the entrance area where visitors can sit at a small round coffee table on original chairs. The backdrop is a huge photo of the interior of the café, making it seem as if you are taking a journey back through time, accompanied by the 1920s song “On the terrace of the Romanisches Café”. You can catch the atmosphere by watching this short video. In the middle area of the room there are glass-topped tables displaying objects associated with café life in the 1920s and all around the exhibition walls are scores of beautifully illustrated information boards detailing all the facts about the café, its clientele and its historical context.

Original artefacts from the 1920s

I particularly enjoyed sitting at one of the tables and reading short biographies of Berlin luminaries such as Erich Kästner, Billy Wilder, Georg Grosz, Max Liebermann, Bertolt Brecht and Albert Einstein. They were all regular visitors to the Romanisches Café who achieved international fame. In 1926, journalist Pem (Paul Markus) described the scene thus: “Here they sit at the small, round marble tables, read countless newspapers and discuss everything from Lao-tse to modern theatre to the latest traffic ordinance, tread softly over literary gossip and, despite their worries, still feel like something special.” The café was certainly not a male preserve though – “The women at the Romanisches were all emancipated, without having to emphasize it particularly” (Géza von Cziffra, 1981).

Women at the Romanisches Café

A highlight of the exhibition is the 3D model of the café interior which can be viewed digitally.  There is also a mini cinema at the back of the exhibition where you can watch original film clips from the 1920s and early 1930s and appreciate how lively the New West of Berlin was in this era.  It is alarming to realise how quickly this liberal social scene collapsed after the Nazis came to power.

Film shot in 1931, starring Gitta Alpar

The Romanisches Café exhibition is open daily except Tuesdays from 12.00 until 18.00. It has been so meticulously curated that I hope it may become a permanent feature of the Europa Center or even pop-up somewhere else.


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