A visit to Munich finds a pleasant town of tradition; clean neo-classical buildings, ornate churches and noble parklands animated by people riding bikes, walking dogs and occasionally actually wearing lederhosen.
So it’s striking to turn a corner at the Königsplatz (Kings Square) and see a starkly modern cube of a building quietly defy its stately neighbors.
A brilliant white in the occasional sun, interrupted only by clusters of slender narrow windows, the newest addition to Munich’s Kunstareal museum quarter uses its bright futuristic design to invite you into Munich and Germany’s darkest past.
This is Munich’s brand-new museum of the history of the Nazism, the “Munich Documentation Center for the History of National Socialism,” and this place means serious business.
Opened on May 1st, exactly 70 years after the US liberation of Munich and Hitler’s suicide, at a cost of 28 million euros ($30 million), the mission is, according to its website, “a place of learning and remembrance… the origins, manifestations and consequences of the Nazi dictatorship.”
And that’s exactly what you get.
There is a single door, and a small lobby where your money is politely waved away (“Free until July”). Your audio guide is the size of a 1980’s CD Walkman.
A small elevator takes you to the 4th floor, marked simply “Exhibition,” where the elevator opens on a narrow area and the first exhibit three feet in front of you, which is a clean display panel of words and pictures—then another, then another, punctuated by horizontal table displays of words and pictures, and sparingly some old film footage projected on the walls.
Initially, it all seems small and old-school. Conspicuously absent are artifacts. There are no displays of actual Nazi uniforms, Hitler podiums, flagstaffs or emblems.
Nothing catches the eye and that’s clearly the intent; even the walls and floors are simple concrete grey that leave you no choice but to face the first display and read the words (in German or English, with the audio guide available in many languages).
So let the learning begin, and it’s clear, and it’s fascinating.
The museum goes out of its way to give a neutral, linear perspective on the “how’s” and the “why’s” of Nazism.
Quickly, you realize you will be able to handle it, as the hugeness of the horror is broken down to understandable interlocking pieces: the pain that Germany felt after its defeat in World War I and the society’s flailing in the first year of its aftermath: a revolution against its leadership; an assassination of the new leader; counter-revolution; a zinging between left and right, communists, anarchists, intellectuals, racists, and that’s just 1919.
The audio guide is hosted by a pair of calm voices, one male and one female, punctuated occasionally by brief audio of expert commentary or vintage news coverage.
You can get by without the audio guide but you will miss some intriguing color, like the voice of a then-young eye witness to the 1919 assassination of the Premier Kurt Eisner describing his father trying to stop the assassin.
Don’t expect to move quickly in this museum. The history of atrocity is built on a thousand points of fright, and you are invited to intellectually understand each one.
Exhibit after exhibit guide you through a complex stew of cultural, political, historical and economic turning points and the methodical growth of far right wing sentiment. Both ultimately coalesced behind the German Workers’ Party that became the Nazi party.
One particularly striking photo captures the sheer joy in the faces of early-teen Hitler Youth and we know a thousand kids like them, thrilled to be riding motorbikes with their friends.
As rich the information, it remains conspicuously nagging that there are no artifacts beyond photos and a little film.
I had paid a visit to the then-new Holocaust Museum in Washington DC and vividly remember the train car on display as an example of what would carry victims to concentration camps; of victims’ hair used to stuff mattresses; of piles of victims’ shoes.
And other Munich museums I visited were rich with physical pieces.
Try the Pinakothek der Moderne and its amazing design exhibit featuring 1960’s typewriters and radios, and the painstakingly restored Residenz, the massive former palace of the Bavarian monarchs, which features a room crammed with jewel-encased religious relics. These include a mummified child believed to be from Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents, and what is labeled as John the Baptist’s skull.
So the question is begged, here in the birthplace and capital of Nazism, why so simple a museum?
Reportedly, the curators are painstakingly avoiding sensationalizing Nazism to modern-day sympathizers. The lack of artifacts also reduces the shock and horror of the place, the easier to understand the lessons with an intellectual distance. But it puts a lot on the visitor, to connect with small photographs, particularly the brief biographies of key players.
These mini, but many, exhibits explain the rise of the Nazi party and it’s largely a tale of political strategy, propaganda and fundraising.
Brutal propaganda cards include one depicting a black man as threatening beast. An audio description of an early Hitler rally attended by thugs and unemployed is juxtaposed with a picture of a later Hitler rally attended by a ballroom full of wealthy families as if at a modern charity fundraiser.
Through wins and losses, advances and setbacks, the party grew by popularizing messaging that the pure German was superior, would have won World War I if it wasn’t for bad leadership, and should never have to apologize for World War I, let alone pay reparation costs.
The party stoked racism, homophobia and anti-Semitism and propounded that violence was appropriate (World War I uniquely taught the youth of the era that violence is a legitimate means for settling political disputes), and that Order trumped the Rule of Law.
As you wind your way clockwise down the four levels of the exhibit, more space is dedicated to the “how” and the “why” than the “what” of Nazi rule, but the history lesson does continue through the cold, quick clicks of the Nazi plan unfolding after Hitler assumed dictatorship.
A large concrete wall features large simple text showing three years of rule after rule for Jews (“November 15,1938: Jews are forbidden from attending German schools”; “July 19, 1940: Jews are forbidden from using telephones”; “March 13, 1942: Jews must identify their flats with a black Jewish star on the front door”).
Pictures show Nazi soldiers blocking doors to Jewish businesses and covering storefront shingles with the single word “Jude!” (“Jew!”), young women biking past a checkpoint required to extend their arm in the Nazi salute or suffer consequences, and pictures of Nazi-defined “degenerate art” being hauled away and books burned.
Then the war itself, and Germany’s loss. A particularly striking silent film projected on a wall shows the incredible destruction of Munich from Allied air strikes, including a pile of rubble by the Parliament building easily 100 feet high where today tourists, this one included, cheerily record the Glockenspiel on their iPhones.
It’s here in this “War” phase, when Nazism reaches its singularity and Germany passes its point of no return, that the museum pivots away from its carefully curated neutrality and starts to make its point: that this could all have been stopped, because individuals have that power.
One display titled “Everyday Life: Ignoring, Gawking, Participating” gently shames Munich citizens who looked the other way in exchange for their own good life; a series of pictures show them having tea across the street from the Gestapo headquarters, aware of the torture within.
Another display applauds the courageous individual clergymen and lay people who spoke out, but condemns the Christian and Catholic Church all the way up to the Pope for complicity.
One hallway profiles a dozen significant objectors including a newspaper editor, a lawyer, and a union leader. Great praise is heaped on one Georg Elser as “an example of the remarkable courage of an individual who heeded only the voice of his own conscience,” even though his assassination attempt on Hitler ultimately failed.
The museum issues a stern rebuke to all of Germany on one prominent panel, blaming “the German electorate’s proclivity toward authoritarian attitudes, and especially its willingness to submit to a “strongman” and his promises of salvation in times of crisis”… “the Nazi Party’s path to power was not an inevitable triumphant march… the Weimar Republic failed because people didn’t oppose extremism vigorously enough.”
Today, Germany seems open to the message. On this Tuesday afternoon, the museum was crowded by Germans of all ages.
This era is paying attention, important as those who witnessed first-hand World War II die out, and as the building blocks of extremism so carefully described by the museum are increasingly bubbling up in today’s world, illustrated in a final punch just outside the museum where video screens rise up from the earth juxtaposing modern images with historical phrases.
You walk away from the building exactly as Hitler would have, less than a lifetime ago, for the museum is built on ruins of his Nazi headquarters, Das Braune Haus (Brown House). The Führerbau (Fuhrer building) still stands, just to your right, dingy and fading.
The Nazi parade grounds, where thousands of jack-booted soldiers “Sieg Heil”-ed in clockwork precision, is now a broad, minimally tended stretch of grass and concrete before you.
History is behind you, but it’s all around—the most powerful artifact that the Museum curates is its setting.
Three days later, returning home in a New York City subway car, I see that familiar sign which says “See something, say something.” After my visit to the museum, it strikes an even more profound chord than simply being aware of unattended luggage.
The writer is using a pseudonym