CULTURE: Exploring the impact of greed in Germany

Greedy for money or clicks, a bigger car or shoe collection, power, knowledge or love? A German museum looks into the historical and cultural impact of greed.

Stacks of gold bars
Gold has been at the center of mankind’s greed for centuries

Various English language dictionaries describe greed as a “very strong wish to get more of something, especially food or money,” an “excessive desire for wealth or possessions,” of “more of something than is needed.”

The Catholic Church regards greed as one of the seven deadly sins. But in society today, greed is often seen as a necessary evil, be it at the stock exchange or on the soccer pitch.

An insatiable desire for more money, prosperity and material things may seem objectionable, but greed is also a motor for the dynamics of a market economy. People are greedy for knowledge, development and success. And who doesn’t share a greed for love, recognition and friendship?

Immoral or legitimate?
Indeed, greed is a topic of great ambivalence, as Paula Lutum-Lenger, director of the Stuttgart-based museum Haus der Geschichte Baden-Württemberg (House of History Baden-Wurttemberg), told DW.

The museum picked the subject for the first show in a planned trilogy of exhibitions on greed, hate and love.

The first exhibition showcases 31 stories focusing on the phenomenon of greed. On display are 300 exhibits including documents, objects, photos and videos, dating back over three centuries, from German colonial times to the present. They are also all related in some way to the history of the southwestern German state of Baden-Württemberg, where the museum is located.

When ambition brings food to the population — and mass destruction
Fritz Haber
German Nobel laureate Fritz Haber

For the museum’s director, a story that perfectly exemplifies greed is the case of Fritz Haber.

“The use of his research for both civilian and military purposes shows the ambivalence of his boundless inquisitiveness,” Lutum-Lenger told DW. Haber won the 1918 Chemistry Nobel Prize for developing a method to synthesize ammonia, which made large-scale production of fertilizers possible and secured food production for a large part of the world’s population.

But he also developed poisonous gases during WWI — “and personally supervised the use of this weapon of mass destruction on the front,” the museum director says.

Greed over the centuries

One exhibit shows how greed led the nobility to helped themselves to rich church estates in the early 19th century in Germany, and another focuses on a case dating back to the period when the German Empire was a colonial power in Cameroon from 1884-1919.

First lieutenant Richard Hirtler had used his deployment in the West African country to build his very own arts and crafts collection, including a stool called the “Throne of Garega” that is on show at the Stuttgart exhibition.

The exhibition also deals with the theft of Jewish property under the Nazi regime. Hatred, anti-Semitism, deportation and the extermination of the Jewish population are also linked to Germany’s nationalistic greed, as the museum’s director points out.

Shop until you drop

Today, greed is also embodied by extreme consumerism: “Shopaholic” is not just a word, but has become a lifestyle for some people who can’t seem to get enough of shopping.

In a section called “Buying Frenzy,” the exhibition portrays some of today’s shopping excesses: how people will flock to outlet centers to shop for luxury products that are marked down, buy the umpteenth T-shirt, and even pay a hefty price for collector’s sneakers that’ll never be worn.

Meanwhile, as another section outlines, social media influencers are greedy for something far less tangible: likes and followers.

A wall full of sneakers at Haus der Geschichte Baden-Württemberg
Not a shoe store, but a section in the show that presents a collector’s sneakers

The exhibition also shows how greed can determine production processes. To increase profits, businesses attempt to reduce production costs by all means.

One example is portrayed in the exhibition through a small cow sculpture. It refers to the fact that the EU withdrew milk quotas in 2015, which meant dairy farmers made less per kilo of milk.

But it also outlines how the dairy industry developed over the centuries, obtaining today’s extremely high milk yields through various questionable methods: According to the museum, a cow in 1800 would give about 1,000 kilos of milk per year, a figure that had quadrupled a century later. A cow in 2020 produces up to 10,000 kilos per year.

Photo of exhibition, tests and a small cow sculpture
Milk cows, a valuable asset

Greedy for attention

On April 28, 1983, Germany’s Stern magazine stated that the “history of the Third Reich will partly have to be rewritten,” thinking that they were publishing a major scoop by revealing that Hitler’s diaries had just been found. Little did they know then that, greedy for sensational headlines, Stern had fallen for a hoax — the 62 diaries that had been sold to the magazine were forgeries.

‘Stern’ magazine thought it had made a sensational coup with what turned out to be forgeries

In the world of sports, ambition is another word for the greed to win, to be the best. It is in fact a virtue of sorts. The successful German soccer coach Jürgen Klopp made “being greedy” a popular key to success.

That ambition can however lead to excesses threatening our eco-system. One of the exhibits is the hornless stuffed head of a rhinoceros shot by trophy hunters in the 1920s. At the time, big game hunters were striving for “the Big Five” — the lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and Cape buffalo; but the exhibit also stands for the greed for money, as thieves saw off the animals’ horns to sell them for a huge profit to Asian countries, where rhino horn is used in traditional medicine — or for extravagant gifts.

Head of a rhino in an exhibition case at Haus der Geschichte Baden-Württemberg

A hornless hunter’s trophy

Greed, hate and love are all “forces that drive humans, key emotions in history and present society,” says museum director Lutum-Lenger, which is why they will all be the focus of their own show within the planned trilogy.

“Greed,” part one of the exhibition trilogy, runs until September 19, 2021 at the Haus der Geschichte Baden-Württemberg. The program includes online events.

Part two — “Hate” — is, depending on developments in the coronavirus crisis, scheduled to start on December 17, and “Love” is set to complete the trilogy in the summer of 2022.


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