Photo Gallery: Dresden's New Military Museum

Foto: Matthias Hiekel/ picture alliance / dpa

'German History Isn't Beautiful' Dresden Museum Seeks to Tell Truth about War

A revolutionary German military museum, designed by the star architect Daniel Libeskind, will soon open in Dresden. Although set up by the German armed forces, the Bundeswehr, its curators hope the museum will cast new light on war and the suffering it causes. As such, it is a very German project.

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.

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.

Daring Approach

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.

Difficult Location

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.

Visitors Need a Strong Stomach

He therefore documents both the story of a boy who lost his entire family on February 13, 1945 and the fate of Henny Brenner, a writer who was one of around 200 Jews still living in Dresden in the last year of the war. Just hours before the Allied bombardment of the city, Brenner received news that she was to be taken to a concentration camp. The bombing therefore saved her life.

Pieken takes us down to the third floor. Here his exhibition will try to dissect the relationship between the military and everyday life as reflected in art, fashion, language and photography. The exhibits will include a chain-mail shirt designed by Vivienne Westwood and Hussar uniforms worn by German reggae singer Patrice. There will also be models of abused animals that served as the subjects of military experiments: elephants, cows and dogs.

Last but by no means least, there will be a self-portrait by Felix Nussbaum, a Jewish artist who fled the Nazis to Belgium. (Daniel Libeskind also designed the Felix Nussbaum Haus museum in Osnabrück, which is dedicated to the painter.) Although Nussbaum knew that the smell of his paints and turpentine would eventually give away his hiding place, he never stopped painting. Nussbaum died in Auschwitz. Like so many of the exhibits in the museum, Nussbaum's painting is a moving historical document.

Future visitors to the Military History Museum will need a strong stomach, especially on the second floor, which addresses wartime suffering. There they will be faced with gruesome exhibits such as the skull of a World War I soldier who committed suicide. They will also be treated to the smell of decay that pervaded the trenches, and a video will show the slow, painful death of a cat poisoned by gas. "We want to create as vivid an image of violence as possible," Pieken says. "That's why we need suitably graphic exhibits."

Many of the objects on display are surprising, simply because you'd never expect to find them in a military museum. For instance there are ladders woven from twigs by African refugees in a desperate attempt to climb over the border fence between Morocco and the Spanish enclave of Melilla. Taken as a whole, Dresden's Military History Museum will teach visitors more about society than any anthropological collection.

The Dirty Side of War

Following a visit to various war museums in 1926, the German author Kurt Tucholsky wrote, "This is not correct. This is how it was -- and yet it wasn't. Is this how we are to be remembered? If so, we are going about it in the wrong way. Something is missing. Where is the horror, the weeping, the oppression, the hopelessness, the senselessness, the deadened feelings, the atmosphere of collective insanity?"

Pieken has found room for the dirty side of war in his military museum. Just as good war movies are often antiwar movies because they reveal the true horrors of war, the Bundeswehr's war museum will be an antiwar museum.

It is therefore also a very German project. It's probably the case that a German war museum can not present a simple chronology of military campaigns, just as a German historian can not write a purely descriptive history of World War II.

Nevertheless Pieken does not call for an end to violence. Pacifism is not an innocent position, since the decision not to go to war can be as harmful as going to war. The exhibition shows the suffering that goes hand-in-hand with military action while at the same time explaining that it may sometimes be necessary. Even so, the exhibition is unable to specify rules that would determine when a war is evil and when it is justified. The museum is thus as complex as reality itself.

Gorch Pieken says the exhibition is intended to boost the Bundeswehr's acceptance by society. He has already convinced the people of Kommeno, the Greek village that was attacked by German soldiers. They have promised to give him the Bible that belonged to the brave priest.

Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt
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