'German History Isn't Beautiful': Dresden Museum Seeks to Tell Truth about War
Part 2: A Radical Break with the Existing Building
The Defense Ministry commissioned American architect Daniel Libeskind to redesign the museum. Libeskind's parents were Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust in a Soviet labor camp until they were permitted to emigrate to Israel in 1957, from where they later moved to the United States. Now their son is building a war museum for the Germans.
Libeskind has traveled to Dresden on several occasions over the last few years, most recently with his wife, Nina. He says, "A German war museum can't simply be an armory. It must take the country's difficult past into account." This isn't the first time Libeskind has helped the Germans to interpret their history. His design for the Jewish Museum in Berlin, which was completed in 1999, created a central location in the German capital to remember the Shoah.
In Dresden he has driven a 30-meter (100-foot) steel-and-glass wedge through the arsenal's late classicist facade. As a result, the museum looks like the bow of a ship breaking though an iceberg. Although the historical stairwell has been preserved, the wedge slices through the interior space of the old building. Mighty stone pillars and massive vaulted ceilings are contrasted by tilting, seemingly toppling concrete walls, while light rooms are bordered by thick brick facades. A third of the original structure was destroyed.
Many Dresdeners are appalled by the new architecture. When Libeskind first presented his design to the city, local journalists asked why the building couldn't remain as it was. But Libeskind's uncompromising style has rarely seemed more appropriate than in Dresden. His aim was to smash through the original imperial structure, convinced that only a radical break with the existing architecture could fulfill the museum's stated goal of providing a new perspective on war.
Gorch Pieken runs his hand along the tilting walls that appear to be getting in each other's way. "Many people say the old building was beautiful. I say that German history is not. German history isn't beautiful." Least of all that of the German army: It includes Nazi Germany's war of annihilation, the Wehrmacht's involvement in the Holocaust and millions of dead German soldiers. The country has no need for heroism anymore.
The museum is daring from the moment you step inside. Tanks and howitzers used to stand on raised platforms in the entrance hall. They have now been replaced by a bound first edition of "On War" by the famous German military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, together with interpretations of Clausewitz by politicians such as Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière and intellectuals such as the German author Hans Magnus Enzensberger. In the background, British video artist Charles Sandison has projected the words "Liebe" and "Hass" ("love" and "hate") on the walls.
Pieken says he wants the museum to be more an "experience" rather than just "a collection of display cabinets." He has therefore divided the museum into two exhibitions. What remains of the original building contains a chronological representation of "German wars" from the late Middle Ages to Afghanistan, primarily focusing on the 20th century. The exhibits in the new part are divided by theme, including "fashion and the military," "politics and violence." The exhibitions themselves are interwoven. As such, visitors interested in the fuel consumption of Wehrmacht tanks will also learn that some of the gasoline was supplied by hydrogenation plants, including from Auschwitz.
Pieken climbs the historic staircase to the top of the new building. From October, visitors will be able to take an elevator to the top floor. Just like the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the MHM in Dresden will lead visitors from top to bottom. The area immediately under the roof will be dedicated to "war and remembrance." To this end Pieken had the barrack set from the Tom Cruise movie "Operation Valkyrie," which deals with the July 20, 1944 plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, brought to Dresden from the Babelsberg Film Studios near Berlin.
The floor is littered with stones from cities destroyed in World War II: Wielu in Poland, Rotterdam and Dresden. The tip of the Libeskind wedge points toward Ostragehege stadium in the west of the city, where Allied planes dropped target indicators on February 13, 1945 at the start of the aerial bombardment which killed more than 35,000 people.
Given Dresden's history, it is a difficult place to have a war museum -- and therefore the ideal location. The city is a reminder that the German people also view themselves as victims of World War II. Although other German cities were also bombarded from the air, and more people were killed in Hamburg in July 1943 than in Dresden, the memory of the bombardment is more present in Dresden than elsewhere. "In Dresden, the history of World War II is reduced to a single day: It begins and ends on February 13, 1945," says Dresden historian Matthias Neutzner. Every February, neo-Nazis from across Europe travel to Dresden to mark the anniversary of the city's wartime destruction.
But few people know that there were eight satellite concentration camps in the city or that Dresden had always been a stronghold of the Nazi Party, the NSDAP. Its inhabitants prefer to see their home town as a jewel of European high culture, and don't like to hear that foreigners mainly associate Dresden with World War II. The municipal government has therefore gone to great lengths to return Dresden to its prewar glory. The Frauenkirche church has been rebuilt completely, while the Semper Opera House and the Zwinger and Albertinum art museums have been restored.
Gorch Pieken thinks the Military History Museum could help Dresden overcome decades of self-denial about its darker past and recognize the evil of the war as well as the evil that led to the war. "The people of Dresden tend to forget who actually started the war," he says. Pieken has set himself the task of presenting Dresden's twin role as victim and perpetrator through the museum.
- Part 1: Dresden Museum Seeks to Tell Truth about War
- Part 2: A Radical Break with the Existing Building
- Part 3: Visitors Need a Strong Stomach
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