In August 1943, German soldiers attacked the village of Kommeno in western Greece. They burnt down homes and drove the villagers' cattle away. They raped the women and tortured the men. They stuffed gasoline-soaked cotton wool into babies' mouths and lit it. At dawn, a priest with a Bible under his arm confronted the soldiers. He died in a hail of bullets. The Bible fell to the ground.
Historian Gorch Pieken says he tells this story whenever people ask him why he is opening a war museum, and in Dresden of all places. He tells it again as he wanders through the as yet unfinished exhibition, through dark, empty rooms and past oppressive, angular walls designed by architect Daniel Libeskind.
Pieken, 49, reconstructed the attack on Kommeno for the museum. He discovered that the brave priest's Bible was kept in the village church. Pieken now wants to display the yellowed and bloodstained Bible alongside the other 7,000 objects at the Bundeswehr's Military History Museum in Dresden, the first war museum of the reunited Germany.
A team of young historians has set itself an ambitious target for the exhibition, which opens on October 14: They want to tell the history of war -- of all wars -- from an entirely new perspective. "We expect to trigger a heated debate," Pieken says.
Up to now, most military museums -- like the Imperial War Museum in London and the Musée de l'Armée in Paris -- have been more akin to an homage to warfare than places for reflection. They present weapons, shining machinery and pressed uniforms, celebrate great battles, and recall the heroic deeds of brave soldiers patriotically fighting against the odds and often enough sacrificing their lives for their country.
Addressing the Big Questions
The new military museum in Dresden wants to do away with this tradition. Although there will also be plenty of guns and cannons on display, and the chronology of military campaigns will be recounted, the historians have a far loftier goal in mind. They want to examine the topic of violence from the perspective of cultural history.
The museum will address the big questions in human history: Where does violence stem from? Is humanity evil? Is there such a thing as a just war? These are the kinds of questions that are being asked in Germany right now as German soldiers are dying in Afghanistan, NATO is bombarding Libya, and a dictator in Syria is having his own people shot and killed.
As the saying goes, the first casualty of war is truth. Certain events are deliberately not talked about, and the negative aspects of narratives are glossed over. Anyone who, like the curators in Dresden, claims to provide the true picture of war, risks sounding at best presumptuous and at worst naïve. Ever since the time of the Nazis, Germans have had problems dealing with pathos -- especially with regard to war. There have been heated debates about whether Chancellor Angela Merkel should be allowed to award soldiers a medal of bravery or whether politicians should even use the term "fallen" to describe dead soldiers. But can war be described without the use of pathos?
What's more, if the curators present war in all its gory detail, wouldn't they be forced to conclude that all military action is irresponsible and that there are no grounds for violence? And wouldn't that in turn lead to the logical conclusion that German troops shouldn't be in Afghanistan? To put the question another way: How self-critical can Germany's military, the Bundeswehr, really be?
'War Is Only the Tip of the Iceberg'
Gorch Pieken stands in the entrance hall of the museum. He's wearing tinted glasses, the top two buttons on his shirt are undone and his blond hair is tied back in a ponytail. "War is only the tip of the iceberg," he says. "We're interested in what's below the waterline." Pieken studied in Cologne, and then worked for the German Historical Museum in Berlin for 10 years. When the Defense Ministry asked him to become the museum's scientific director, he jumped at the chance.
Over the years, he has managed to amass a wealth of exhibits that are surprising because they tell stories that have never been told. Stories like that of the nameless girl who sorted the shoes of the deceased in a concentration camp in Lublin, Poland. Shortly after writing a poem entitled "Dead Shoes," she too was sent to the gas chamber. But her poem survived, and fellow prisoners learnt it off by heart. When the museum opens in October, the poem will be displayed alongside the shoes of concentration camp prisoners. Although the museum is still under construction and many of its exhibits are still in storage, its emotive power is already becoming apparent.
The official opening is more than three months away. Builders cart rubble out of the museum. The sound of drilling echoes around the building. Workers are sanding floors and laying electrical cabling. The former Albertstadt barracks has changed more in the last five years than in the previous 140. Numerous armies have used it since the 19th century. Its arsenal has housed the military museums of the Royal Saxon Army, the Imperial German Army, the Nazi Wehrmacht and the East German National People's Army, the NVA. After reunification, the German government decided to expand the arsenal and transform it into an exemplary museum for the Bundeswehr.
The expansion will cost 57 million ($80 million). Lieutenant Colonel Matthias Rogg, who was appointed the director of the Military History Museum last year, says the project was unanimously approved within the armed forces. The Bundeswehr wants the museum to be a modern institution that reflects its parent organization.