Britain’s view of its history ‘dangerous’, says former museum director

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Neil MacGregor, before the opening of the British View: Germany – Memories of a Nation at the Martin Gropius Bau exhibition hall. Photograph: Adam Berry/AFP/Getty

Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum, has bemoaned Britain’s narrow view of its own history, calling it “dangerous and regrettable” for focusing almost exclusively on the “sunny side”.

Speaking ahead of the Berlin opening of his highly popular exhibition Germany – Memories of a Nation, MacGregor expressed his admiration for Germany’s rigorous appraisal of its history which he said could not be more different to that of Britain.

“In Britain we use our history in order to comfort us to make us feel stronger, to remind ourselves that we were always, always deep down, good people,” he said. “Maybe we mention a little bit of slave trade here and there, a few wars here and there, but the chapters we insist on are the sunny ones,” he said.

MacGregor warned: “This sort of handling of history is dangerous as well as regrettable”.

Germany’s approach towards accounting for its Nazi past had been in contrast “rigorous and courageous”, and had earned it admiration around the world, he said, speaking in fluent German.

He said Germans had given expression to their the worst chapter of their history in extensive memorials and Mahnmale (‘monuments to national shame’). “It’s telling that in English we don’t even have a word like ‘Mahnmal’,” he said. “The term is just too alien to us.”

MacGregor said that an example of how Britain was selective with the truth was the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte at the Battle of Waterloo. “We learn in school that it was the Britons who finally, finally beat Bonaparte in Waterloo and got rid of him,” he said. But it was often forgotten that it had been an Anglo-Prussian alliance that defeated him. “As Wellington himself said, without Blücher, (the commander of the Prussian army, Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher) we wouldn’t have managed to defeat him … This was joint German-British effort, but we don’t learn it that way”.

Gereon Sievernich, director of the Martin Gropius Bau where the exhibition is due to open on Saturday, thanked MacGregor and the exhibition’s curator, Barrie Cook, for having “given the Britons another view of Germany, and for giving the Germans their Germany back.”

Memories of a Nation, which showed at the British Museum and was accompanied by a BBC Radio series, explores the memories of a united Germany through 200 diverse objects, including the first motor car, from the 1880s, the entry gate to the Buchenwald concentration camp, and a wet suit used by someone trying to escape communist East Germany via the Baltic Sea.

MacGregor said the exhibition was conceived some time before the Brexit referendum. But he said the exhibition’s glimpse at Germany’s long tradition of decentralisation of power – for hundreds of years it consisted of many kingdoms each with their own currency – highlighted one of the major differences between Britain and Germany. “If you’re looking for reasons for Brexit, just the idea there were no hard and fast borders in Germany explains … how Europe is shaped today, but makes an island folk like ours panic,” he said.

MacGregor, who is also involved in creating the Humboldt Forum in Berlin, a new German equivalent to the British Museum, said he was curious to see how the British view of German history would be received by the public in Berlin, following the success of its London run. He said he would welcome a similar exhibition about British history from a German perspective, “precisely because it be helpful for us to have our own history explained to us from an outside perspective,” he said.