The new “Topography of Terror” Documentation Centre
The northern end of this grey wasteland is hemmed in by the remains of the Berlin Wall and at the southern end by a copse of Black Locust trees – a forbidding site that used to be home to the National-Socialist terror coordination centre. It was there in the area between Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse (known today as Niederkirchnerstrasse) and Wilhelmstrassethat fates were decided – be it genocide or the persecution of political opponents. Alongside Gestapo Central Headquarters, it was also the location of the main nerve centres of Nazi extermination policy – the Schutzstaffel (the SS) and the RSHA – Reichssicherheitshauptamt (Central Security Office of the Reich). The new “Topography of Terror” Documentation Centre was opened on 6th May 2010, almost 65 years to the day since the end of the Second World War.
The “Topography of Terror” project has officially existed since 1987. Ever since then its permanent exhibition has been displayed in various provisional huts and pavilions in alternating places all over the site. Now at last it has a fixed location – the new documentation centre is a square, two-floor building with an atrium in the middle of it. The lower floor is underground at basement level, therefore it cannot be seen from outside. The sobering, translucent purpose-built structure is on the one hand not supposed to detract from what is on display and yet at the same time is to stand out from the surrounding buildings – ponderous, severe Nazi architecture like the former Aviation Ministry of the Reich, which today houses the Federal Ministry of Finance. From almost any point on the upper floor of the building you can look down on to the 4.5 hectares of this historical site in the heart of Berlin.
Coming to terms with the dark chapters of German history
In 1945 all that remained of the nerve centre was a bomb site that afterwards faded into obscurity. After all the rubble had been removed, it was left as one of those wastelands that were so typical of both post-war Berlin and later of the divided city along the Berlin Wall, which was built in 1961. The site that was part of West Berlin served back then as a landfill for building rubble and was used as an “autodrome” – a place where learner drivers could practice for their driving test. It was not until the end of the 1970s that the historical importance of the site became obvious – within the framework of an international trade fair for the construction industry and due to the critical commitment of various community action groups. An open and critical confrontation with this dark chapter of German history was to once again raise awareness for the victims of the Nazi regime. The site, with its now uncovered remnants of the buildings and the exhibition, was then opened in 1987 on the occasion of the 750th anniversary celebration of the city of Berlin.
In 1992 a foundation was brought into being called “Topography of Terror. International Documentation and Visitors’ Centre” to support, among other things, the construction and maintenance of the site. The executive director is publicist and rabbi, Andreas Nachama. As the construction of the documentation centre that was based on plans by the Swiss architect, Peter Zumthor, unfortunately failed to get off the ground, there had to be a new invitation to tender for the project in 2005. In 2007 construction then began using the prize-winning design that was created by the architect, Ursula Wilms and landscape architect, Prof. Heinz W. Hallmann.
Conceptual renewal and enlargement of the exhibition
The permanent exhibition underwent a complete overhaul and was redesigned anew for the grand reopening in spring 2010. It now offers deep insights into how the Nazis operated their elaborate network and how they carried out their merciless extermination policy against Jews, Sinti and Roma, homosexuals and the mentally ill. Alongside the crimes perpetrated by the National Socialists the focus is also on the careers of high-ranking officials like Reinhard Heydrich, Heinrich Himmler and Rudolf Diels, who from 1933 onwards organised the systematic murder of European Jewry. There is also a brand-new exhibition section devoted to what became of all those perpetrators of war crimes who got away scot-free after 1945.
A walking tour round the site with 15 stops has also been added to the program – the site itself is considered to be the first, and therefore most important, part of the whole exhibition. The tour leads the visitors most of the time along the ruins of the former buildings; information panels displaying photographs and illustrations help the visitors to find their way round and to gain an overview of the site’s history.
Concentrated German-German history
Among other things the foundations of the Gestapo prison are to be found on the site, along with an air-raid shelter and a canteen hut. In the “exhibition trench”, as it is called, the many facets of recent German-German history come alive – the Berlin Wall was built directly along the cellar walls of the former Gestapo headquarters and remnants of the Wall can still be seen. The idea here is for visitors to be generally confronted with the excesses of extreme political beliefs and the dangers they entail for freedom, the rule of law and humanity.
With the total number of visitors exceeding 500,000 every year the “Topography of Terror” has become the most visited memorial site in the capital. Alongside all the exhibits the new centre also has a library with 27,000 media units, archives, seminar rooms and a large hall for special events. The idea behind the centre is not just to stage a permanent exhibition, but also to have various temporary ones. From August onwards an exhibition is to be shown in the exhibition trench about the city of Berlin from the years 1933 until 1945, based on photographs taken by Jewish photographers from the ghetto in Litzmannstadt (Lodz/Poland).
is a cultural correspondent, focusing among other things on recent German history.
Translation: Paul McCarthy
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
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