Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism A place of historical and political learning for Munich

A documentation centre for the era of National Socialism has long been a subject of debate in Munich. Now the shell of the building is ready for fitting out and plans for the permanent exhibition are well under way. Winfried Nerdinger, university professor und founding director of the Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism talks about the concept of this project that is now taking shape.

Building site NS Documentation Centre Munich Building site NS Documentation Centre Munich | Photo: NS Documentation Centre Munich/Jens Weber Professor Nerdinger, you have backed the idea of a Munich NS Documentation Centre since the nineteen eighties. In cooperation with citizens’ initiatives, and in particular the Community Initiative for a NS Documentation Centre, you have now succeeded in getting this project off the ground. What is the key concern and central aim of a NS Documentation Centre in Munich?

The Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism has a sub-heading “A place of historical and political learning for the future”. The centre therefore has two tasks to perform: on the one hand it addresses this history of National Socialism that originated in Munich. This is to be a place where the citizens of Munich, young people and visitors from all over the world can discover the origin and meaning of National Socialism in Munich – there has not been a place of this kind before; and on the other hand, it is a place of learning, where people can learn to understand how such a movement could develop and the consequences that each of us should draw from it.

The central question that the permanent exhibition explores is “What has this got to do with me?” It is therefore not just intended to recall the sequence of historic events, but also and most importantly to make clear how significant this topic still is today; and to say “Never again!” – so that nothing like this can ever happen again.

Winfried Nerdinger, Founding Director of the NS Documentation Centre in Munich Winfried Nerdinger, Founding Director of the NS Documentation Centre in Munich | Photo: NS Documentation Centre in Munich/Zintel The exhibition area covers approximately 1.200 square metres and takes the visitor along a chronological path that starts at the top of the building and then leads down. What are the most important topic areas of the exhibition?

The permanent exhibition commences on the fourth floor. This area addresses the question: Why and how did National Socialism develop in Munich? The exhibition starts with the “great seminal catastrophe”, World War I. It also picks up the ideological roots from the 19th century to then continue through the period of the Weimar Republic up to the seizure of power in 1933. The next section on the third floor is devoted to the era of National Socialism in Munich from 1933 up until the time when the war reached the city in 1941/42. The visitors then move on to the second floor that concerns the wartime period in Munich from 1942 until 1945; this is directly followed by an investigation into the ways in which Munich faced up to its national socialist past and also how it failed to do so. The question here is how the people and also political figures addressed the issue of Munich being the “Capital City of the Movement”. This theme is continued on the first floor and leads up to the present day.

At the end of the exhibition a map shows the visitors other places in Munich and Bavaria that were linked with National Socialism. The story being told therefore does not end in the Documentation Centre. There is also a large wall displaying all the current topical issues, including, for example, the National Socialist Underground (NSU) processes, so that after taking a walk through history the visitors are forced to take a look at themselves and the present day.

Documents and historical objects have been intentionally left out, this makes the Documentation Centre different from other similar establishments, why is this important?

This is due to the theme and the content of the exhibition - the centre is not a memorial. In a memorial it is important to gain an insight into the victims’ biographies and their background and to unfold their living environment with the help of realia. The Documentation Centre presents a “Täterort”, that means the location associated with the perpetrators, a place where we approach the figures who inflicted the suffering. The aim is not to foster empathy, but to create a deeper understanding. This is not a place that needs objects or uniforms and SS Ehrendolche (presentation daggers), here it is important to focus on the backgrounds, functions, behaviour and biographies.

The task of this centre is quite different to that of a memorial. The Documentation Centre is erected over a “Täterort”. Its concept is also embedded in this site. Already when entering the building the visitors are informed about where they are actually standing: right on the site that was originally the headquarters of the NSDAP, inside the “Brown Haus”; and after taking the elevator to the fifth floor the view opens out over the former Nazi party administrative district at the Königsplatz square. The visitors are faced here with the authentic location.

Design new construction Design new construction | Picture: Georg Scheel Wetzel Architekten/LH München This is a most important part of the concept: the visitor can always see the authentic location at the corresponding places in the exhibition, and it is for this reason that there are practically no virtual reconstructions or electronic media within the permanent exhibition. This is not a place for virtual presentations in a playful fashion, these could otherwise lead to a blurring between the ‘real’ and the ‘virtual’ - particularly in the case of young people, or possibly quite generally with future generations. This place is authentic and for this reason the topographic integration is repeatedly emphasised, such as the view onto the “Führerbau” which is the building where the “Munich Agreement” was signed. This is not a virtual event, it actually happened here.

Besides the permanent exhibition the Documentation Centre is to be an active place of learning, what are the plans in this respect?

Just a little more than half of the floor space in this building can be seen above ground. There are also two basement storeys that extend beyond the boundaries of the cube structure. These areas are for more in-depth study, with areas for pedagogical and didactic presentation. Here there is a database that provides detailed information on everything displayed in the permanent exhibition, and a great deal more.

Design foyer Design foyer | Picture: Georg Scheel Wetzel Architekten/LH München The permanent exhibition area is limited, here we can present perhaps 200 portraits. There are, of course, so many more people who are important, both victims and perpetrators, and visitors will be able to find out more about them in the basement areas. The databases also provide lists of deported persons, concentration camps and industrial sites, for example. Besides this, there are interactive communication means that are being developed within a cooperation and research project with the TU München. Touchscreen tables will visualise locations where events took place. It will, for instance, be possible to see where Jewish citizens used to live, how they were then cramped into so-called “Jew Houses” and later deported. In this in-depth study area it will therefore be possible to visualise individual topics using state-of-the-art technology.

Up until September 2012 Prof. Dr.-Ing. Winfried Nerdinger, architectural historian, was professor of architectural history at the TU München and Director of the TU München Architectural Museum in the art gallery Pinakothek der Moderne. Since October 2012 he has been Founding Director of the NS Documentation Centre in Munich that is due to open at the end of 2014.

The architects Georg Scheel Wetzel from Berlin designed the building. The landscaping is by Weidinger Landschaftsarchitekten, the artwork for the Documentation Centre is by Benjamin und Emanuel Heisenberg.