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January 06, 2012

Topographies of Terror: Brendan Simms visits two new museums in Berlin memorialising dictatorship and its victims

Posted by Brendan Simms

Brendan Simms - Professor in the History of International Relations at the University of Cambridge - considers how Germany's legacy of terror has been treated by two new museums in Berlin.

Berlin is not short of Museums of contemporary history. The city already has the Wall Museum, the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, the GDR Museum, the Kennedy House, and even a Luftwaffe Museum.

Recently, it acquired two new ones: the revamped Topography of Terror exhibition on the SS security machine and the Palace of Tears at the former east-west border control station just outside Bahnhof Friedrichstrasse.

The opening of the former marks the end of a prolonged palaver involving disputed designs, construction stops and false starts, during which there was a temporary and rather unsatisfactory exhibition in the open air. In the end, the museum has been built as a simple functional box, erected on the site of the old Reichssicherheitshauptamt - the Imperial Security Main Office - which was the principal hub of the National Socialist system of surveillance and terror.

It begins by tracing the growth of the institution as the Reichsfuehrer-SS Heinrich Himmler and his deputy Reinhard Heydrich combined more and more of the various security organisations under their control. The organisations based there included, but was not limited to the Sicherheitsdienst, with its internal and external branches, and the Sicherheitspolizei, the umbrella organisation of the feared Gestapo. Next, we are taken through the mechanisms of internal repression which extinguished most overt opposition to the Nazis. Finally, there is a grim account of how the web of torture and annihilation, culminating in the mass murder of the Jews through shooting and gassing, was spun across occupied Europe from the Prince Albrechtstrasse.

The exhibition falls into two parts. There is an open-air section which takes visitors through much of the complex in and around the dreaded Prinz Albrechtstrasse. The problem with it is that because virtually everything was levelled during and after the war, it requires a real effort of the imagination - and this is true of the whole former Wilhelmsstrasse quarter - to recall that this was once the hub of the whole of occupied Europe.

The covered exhibition in the new building is a straightforward narrative, with the aid of photographs, administrative diagrammes, archive film footage, sound recordings, witness statements and document facsimiles. There are no concessions to modish heritage approaches such as dramatic reconstructions or interactive gimmicks, nor are there any original artefacts, apart from the foundations of the buildings themselves.

If this sometimes makes it difficult to relate at a human level to the enormity of what is being portrayed, then this deficiency has been more than made good by a shattering special exhibition on the deportation and expropriation of the Jews of the South-West German town of Loerrach in late 1940. The forty-odd photographs taken by a participant in the round-up show not so much the hostility of the population as their indifference and complicity: from the curious children who watch as elderly Jews are forced to load their remaining possessions into lorries, to the friendly wave from the drivers to local girls, to the frantic participation in the auction of the household effects left behind by the deportees - the only time when the population come to life.

Just as the Topography of Terror is not just another Third Reich museum, the new exhibition at Friedrichstrasse is not just another GDR or Wall museum. It deals specifically with the topography of another terror, namely the mechanics of legitimate travel across the German-German border, and it is located at the main crossing-point, in a GDR-era building whose associations were so traumatic that it became known as the Palace of Tears. It seeks to capture the "control", not the "border" or GDR experience, and does so very well.

I remember the place from occasional trips before the fall of the wall, and the photos and witness statements brilliantly evoke the labyrinthine nature of the station, while the preserved passport and customs booths, the scenes of daily intrusions and humiliations, still send a chill down the spine. A fascinating side-bar is the whole subculture of shops and eateries which catered for travellers - mainly for those with prized western currency - and were heavily penetrated by the regime's security services. One of the most interesting exhibits is an original restaurant diary in which the Mitropa waiters kept a record of the comings and goings of customers.

The coincidental opening of these two museums on state instruments of oppression within the same year raises questions of comparability. Both regimes were dictatorships and both subscribed to totalising ideologies, but there the parallels end. The RSHA was about the business of mass murder - the comparison might be with Stalinism and the Lubianka in the 1930s - while the Palace of Tears was a place of great sadness, certainly, and often of great brutality, but was never a human abattoir.

Looking back at the Third Reich and its perpetrators, Hannah Arendt famously spoke of the banality of evil. Even now, the ruins of the RSHA are pervaded by an overwhelming sense of evil, whereas the Palace of Tears laves one only with an inescapable aura of banality and crumminess which the GDR has proved unable to shake off.

Dr Brendan Simms is Professor in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.

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