'German Angst': Pinpointing the collective fears of a country

An exhibition in Bonn focuses on the fears of Germans, demonstrating how certain topics such as immigration and surveillance had already been portrayed as threats decades ago.

Angst: The German term has long found its way into the English language, keeping along the way its "typically German" reputation.

For example, last August, the British newspaper The Times titled its analysis of the "ugly protests in Chemnitz" as "German Angst." But is fear really stronger in Germany than elsewhere?

Angst - Ausstellung im Bonner Haus der Geschichte | Judith Kruse

Curator Judith Kruse at the exhibition titled 'Fear: A German State of Mind?'

The exhibition "Fear: A German State of Mind?" held at the German history museum (Haus der Geschichte) in Bonn from October 10, 2018 through May 19, 2019, looks into this question.

"There is a higher emotionality in Germany," the curator of the exhibition, Judith Kruse, said at the show's press presentation. "The Germans have a particular need for security," added Walter Hütter, president of the museum's foundation.

Focusing on four fears

When they started collecting ideas for the exhibition two years ago, the curators identified nearly 30 types of collective fears shared by Germans. "Fear: A German State of Mind?" focuses on four of them: immigration, nuclear war, environmental destruction and surveillance.

Read more: Donald Trump terrifies Germans above all else

Angst. Ausstellung im Bonner Haus der Geschichte

'German Angst' is a beloved motif in the media, both German and English

The show features over 300 exhibits, including films, posters, newspaper clippings, advertisements, letters and other contemporary depictions related to the topic.

For example, one large-scale photo portrays anonymous people whose shaved heads have been covered by a tattoo of a code bar (top picture). The 1983 work warned against a population census West Germany aimed to introduce that would use computers, a novel techincal application for the time. The questions asked in the census were deemed too personal and evoked fears of Orwellian surveillance. After a heated debate and a lawsuit, Germany's Constitutional Court annulled the census and determined it should be revised. 

Read more: German Angst 2.0: Protecting data online

In another installation of the exhibition, visitors can hear a recording of Chancellor Angela Merkel's "Wir schaffen das!" (We can do this), a catchphrase she often repeated in 2015 to reassure the population that Germany could deal with that year's unusual influx of immigrants. The audio loop is accompanied by a sculpture from  Düsseldorf's Carnival parade showing the German chancellor in a boat that's being capsized by a wave labeled "Flüchtlingswelle," or the wave of refugees.

Related Subjects

Read more: Two years since Germany opened its borders to refugees: A chronology

 Angst. Ausstellung im Bonner Haus der Geschichte

Merkel riding the 'wave of refugees'

The exhibition also shows how repeated reports on West Germany's dying forest in the 1980s triggered fears that were as strong as those related to impending nuclear war.

Refugees a reoccuring topic

"Fear has seized the Germans, fear of the stranger," wrote Spiegel magazine in an issue covered with an image of masses of refugees pushing their way into Germany. That was not in 2015, but in 1992, when an influx of refugees from the former Yugoslavia became another source of fear.  

By putting the threats of the past into perspective, the exhibition shows that the current ones aren't necessarily new. Fear of a certain issue can be seen as "a phenomenon coming in waves," said Hütter, adding that the media has often contributed to strengthening these fears instead of sticking to the straight facts.

How exactly does fear turn into a collective feeling? Who profits from it? Why are so many Germans afraid of immigration despite how it contributes to Germany's current economic success? Why are German voters turning their backs on established parties? The exhibition at the Haus der Geschichte doesn't answer these questions, but it definitely opens the discussion.