The Power of Emotions. Germany 19 | 19


Ralf Possekel

Emotions are part of what it means to be human – but can they be a starting point for a look back at the past? With more than 2,200 orders for the exhibition from all over the world, it is clearly an approach which resonates.

The exhibition

The exhibition consists of 20 panels that explore manifestations of all the familiar emotions: fear, enthusiasm, disgust, empathy, outrage, a sense of security, hate, hope, love, envy, curiosity, nostalgia, resentment, shame, solidarity, pride, grief, anger, trust and affection.  

Each of these emotions is associated with events from 100 years of German history from 1919 to 2019. A kaleidoscope of German history emerges: pogroms against the Jews in the 1930s, the welcoming of guest workers in 1960, Willy Brandt kneeling in Warsaw, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the arson attack on a Turkish family’s home in 1992, refugees’ selfies with Angela Merkel in 2015, but also moments such as “young people admire Western cars in East Berlin” , “the Ostalgie-Kabinett Museum of the GDR in Langenweddingen”, “Wir sind Papst” and much more. Short videos and interviews with witnesses can be accessed directly via QR codes, making the exhibition a multimedia experience.

Using emotions as an entry point awakens the onlooker’s curiosity. However, rather than being able to impart new knowledge, the exhibition tends to assume that the visitor is already reasonably familiar with German history. Although it addresses both positives and negatives in German history, the choice of emotions is controversial: no mention is made of feelings of superiority or inferiority, guilt or euphoria, for example – emotions which were the driving force in some phases of Germany’s past. And the exhibition only touches indirectly on the fact that “political” sentiments can divide societies – so when some people feel euphoria, for example, others feel fear.  

Were young people involved in producing the exhibition?

Not directly. The exhibition was created by Ute Frevert, one of Germany’s leading cultural historians, and her daughter Bettina Frevert.

Taking emotions as a starting point offers great potential and poses particular challenges. Who has experience in turning the history of emotions into the starting point for memory projects?  

Where is the exhibition on show?

The exhibition is available in German, English, French, Italian, Spanish, Russian and Arabic and can be  ordered here for a small fee. A map on the website shows all the places where the exhibition has been on show to date. The exhibition is sponsored by the Remembrance, Responsibility and Future Foundation (EVZ) and the Federal Foundation for the Study of Communist Dictatorship in East Germany.


Links and Literature:

Exhibition | The Power of Emotions

Further information

The history of emotions

  • Barbara Rosenwein and Riccardo Cristiani, What is the History of Emotions? Cambridge: Polity, 2018

Emotions and transitional justice

Emotions and mass atrocities

  • Thomas Brudholm, Johannes Lang (Eds.) Emotions and Mass Atrocity: Philosophical and Theoretical Explorations,Cambridge University Press, 2018
  • Olaoluwa Olusanya: Emotions, Decision-Making and Mass Atrocities: Through the Lens of the Macro-Micro Integrated Theoretical Model, London 2014
  • Harald Welzer: Täter. Wie aus ganz normalen Menschen Massenmörder werden, Frankfurt 2005.

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Issue: Youth

Those born afterwards bear no direct responsibility. They may choose to ignore history or identify with perpetrators or victims. What can be done to awaken young people’s interest in history and motivate them to engage in building peaceful relations between communities?


Ralf Possekel, Historiker