W. Berlin comes to grips with its Prussian past
West Berlin — ''I find it super,'' says one of the notes pinned onto the huge bulletin board in the Prussian exhibition. ''Just great!'' agrees another visitor.
''Unfortunately,'' demurs a third, ''in the entire exhibit you can feel a basic attitude regarding the Prussians as enemies.''
''What a shame!'' retorts a fourth in a sarcastic rejoinder scrawled onto the note of the third.
This lively, epochal exhibition invites just such controversy.
It is imaginative. (There's an animated film of the Prussian military drill made from drawings in old Army manuals.)
It is amusing. (Pompous military portraits are deflated by displaying in one row all the identical left-facing chests by an itinerant fill-in-the-face painter of generals, in a companion row all the identical right-facing chests.)
It is down-to-earth. (Eighteenth-century fines were one to two talers for disturbing the Sunday peace, five talers for entering the house through the garden after 10 p.m., 10 talers each for disobedience to the master or making music other than at baptisms or weddings.)
And it poses all the central questions of how a model of the Enlightenment could have evolved into a military automaton. For example, it confronts an aristocrat's beech and silk chairs with rough-hewn peasant chairs of the same vintage - and the sumptuary edicts keeping the lower classes in their place.
West Berlin's first exhibition honoring its ancestor Prussians since the victors of World War II abolished Prussia 30 years ago is a sardonic rehabilitation indeed.
It has provoked the conservative daily Die Welt to blast the show as a field day for ''Brandenburg's enemies, communists, (and) socialists.'' It has, simultaneously, provoked angry ''artists for peace'' to accuse the exhibition sponsors of reviving ''Prussian-German militarism'' and making it respectable again.
Neither charge is justified, the organizers of this Gargantuan retrospective would argue. This is no nostalgic evocation of the house of Hohenzollern like Baden-Wurttemberg's recent expositions of Wittelsbach and Staufer. Nor is it a final judgment condemning the Prussian militarism, discipline, and obedience that led inevitably - the victorious Allies thought - to Hitler and catastrophe.
It is instead, the project title says, an ''attempt at balance.'' Thirty separate exhibits worth of an attempt, with five catalogs, 150 performances, and thousands of display items, all integrated with the annual Berlin Festival Weeks for an orgy of Prussia from Aug. 15 to Nov. 15.
The centerpiece of this Prussian memorial is the almost restored Gropius Arts and Crafts Museum (designed not by nephew Walter but by uncle Martin.) And the centerpiece of the Gropius Museum is the Prussian contribution to the 1867 Paris Exposition displayed in the building's interior courtyard. Here the visitor sees how the Prussians chose to view themselves at the height of self-confidence.
The equestrian Wilhelm I dominates the courtyard, commanding a mighty array of a Krupp cannon, a steam engine, a Bessemer furnace, and weaving and spinning machines. Krupp advertises itself in a panoramic photo of foundry and chimneys. Prussia advertises itself as a technological giant.
The other rooms are more intimate, less overwhelming. Each is devoted to a particular locale or period or topic. One portrays salon society, another the trade union struggle for an eight-hour day, a third the deliberate Nazi prostitution of the traditional Prussian virtues.
As a kind of surrealistic finale at the back of the building appears the Berlin Wall, itself a belated heritage of Prussia, erected by the East German state that took over the Prussian lands and goose step.
But not everything is negative.
Musical offerings include Frederick the Great's flute sonatas and the opera ''Montezuma,'' for which he wrote the libretto, as well as Bach's ''Brandenburg'' Concertos, Mendelssohn's ''Reformation'' Symphony, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and conductor Herbert von Karajan.
Personalities portrayed range from the Red Rosa Luxemburg (in an intense photo) to the great Kurfurst von Schluter (in monument) to Talmudic scholar Moses Mendelssohn.
Other displays show the estate system, the Tiergarten in paintings from 1860 to the present, a 19th-century alms kitchen, everyday provincial life, and everyday life in a Berlin school for workers' children (including a strike).
There are fairy tales, satire, ''songs of expulsion from citizenship,'' the history of the potato in Prussia, silver sugarbowls, Army uniforms, warming stones for cold rides in coaches, documentary films, a ''lyre piano,'' a tuba, the first Berlin address book (1704), and stereopticon peep shows from 1883 (featuring Hamburg, Samoa, Nagasaki, and San Francisco).
There are walking tours, with or without guide. There is Bert Brecht and street theater. There are readings of Thomas Mann, Heinrich von Kleist, Theodor Fontane. There is the shooting-down of the failed democratic revolutionaries in 1848. There is the Empress's triumphant photo album of the ruins of 19th-century Strassburg after it was ''liberated'' by the Prussians.
There is the reminder that Hitler committed suicide in his Berlin bunker with the portrait of Frederic the Great on the wall. There is a copy of Law No. 46 of 1947 reading, ''The state of Prussia, which has always been a center of militarism and reaction in Germany, no longer exists in reality.''
The whole gigantic project traces the growth of the 15th-century Mark Brandenburg into the Prussia of the Teutonic knights into the Prussia that dominated the unified German state. It looks at the dazzling reign of Frederick the Great. It observes the Industrial Revolution and the Iron Chancellor, Bismarck.
It asks how the famous tolerance of the Huguenots, Bohemians, and Jews could have turned into the persecution of the Poles, liberals, socialists, and Catholics. It wonders why the model Constitution of 1850 (with a Bill of Rights strong enough to be included almost verbatim in West German's current Constitution) could not withstand the undemocratic pressures of industrialization and, eventually, the megalomania of the Nazis.
Above all, it prods the German of 1981 - who has made a virtue of turning away from pre-1945 history - to confront the Prussian taboo and declare just how much he wishes to claim of that heritage that did so much to shape German identity.
So what is the final balance of the ''contrapuntal'' attempt, as exhibition director Ulrich Eckhardt calls it, to fulfill the ''tricky, honorable, risk-prone duty'' of evaluating the Prussians?
Dietrich Stobbe, former Social Democratic mayor of West Berlin, who conceived the idea of the exhibition four years ago, speculated, ''Only when we really understand why things happened as they did, when we as a nation have studied Prussia and its history, will we win the freedom which Prussia never knew.''
For their part, the West German Social Democratic and Liberal ministers and Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and even the conservative President Karl Carstens took advantage of the vacation-time opening to stay well away from the Prussian exhibition, in order, perhaps, not to declare themselves on this still controversial subject.
In short, the final balance of the exhibition follows the good old Prussian motto: ''To each his own.''