Munich Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism A Place of Learning

Munich Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism
Munich Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism | Photo: Jens Weber

After being called for repeatedly over decades the Munich Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism finally opened in the spring of 2015.

Munich was the seed of National Socialism (NS) after the First World War and was named “The Capital City of the Movement“ by Hitler in 1935. It has taken the city a very long time to face up to its National Socialist past – much longer than Berlin, Hamburg, Cologne or Nuremberg – although there was an exhibition held in 1976 in the Munich Stadtmuseum addressing the topic “Resistance and Persecution 1933-1945“. This first presentation, organised by victims’ associations, was, however, not followed up by the city government, and the subject was not addressed again until the year 2000. The key initiator of the project was architecture historian Winfried Nerdinger, who several times named Munich “The Capital City of Suppression”. And it took another 15 years before the Documentation Centre was finally opened on 30 April 2015, exactly seventy years after Munich was liberated by the US army. 

The building

Königsplatz, Aufmarsch zur Gedenkfeier am 8./9. November 1936 Königsplatz, Aufmarsch zur Gedenkfeier am 8./9. November 1936 | Foto: Bayrische Staatsbibliothek, Bildarchiv The centre has been built on a historically tainted site, where once the Palais Barlow stood. This property was bought by the NSDAP in 1930 and was known as the “Brown House” that served as the party headquarters up until 1944. After seizing power, the National Socialists then systematically turned the Königsplatz and the surrounding area into its party administrative district. The “Führer’s building” and the NSDAP administrative building were erected on the Arcisstrasse, both a squared-off version of neoclassical architecture. Between these buildings two “Temples of honour” were erected, commemorating supporters of the party who had been killed during the attempted coup d’état in November 1923. The two monumental structures survived all the bombing attacks, the “Brown House”, however, was destroyed and the “Temples of Honour” were blown up on the orders of the US military government in 1947.

Königsplatz Munich Königsplatz Munich | Photo: Jens Weber
The City of Munich, the State of Bavaria and the German Federal Government, who equally shared the construction costs, were right in choosing this authentic site, because the new building not only finally rids the location of any remnants of National Socialist ideology, it also represents a counterpoint to the existing NS buildings, starkly differing in design, height and the material used. This striking new building is the work of Berlin architect Georg Scheel Wetzel who won the architecture competition in 2009. The cube is designed in white concrete and features two-storey façade openings structured by vertical concrete slats, making this building so unique. The documentation centre itself is designed in two parts: the cube that houses the presentation areas, the administration and several service areas, and a separate section beneath the forecourt where there is a wood-panelled library, learning forum with computer work desks and seminar rooms, lecture hall and a small café.

The exhibition

Munich Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism, level 4 Munich Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism, level 4 | Photo: Jens Weber The installation of a permanent exhibition in the practically completed cube structure was a particular challenge. However, founding director Winfried Nerdinger and his team managed to turn the circumstances to their own advantage. As the ceilings and cavity floors were not suitable for installations they decided in favour of a two-part, mostly free-standing presentation that starts on the 4th floor and leads down through the building. Large light boxes present relevant information that starts with the end of the First World War and leads up to neo-Nazism of today, displaying photos, documents and short explanatory notes in German and in English.

Munich Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism, level 3/4 Munich Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism, level 3/4 | Photo: Jens Weber These 32 vertical elements are complemented with wide back-lit tables that display additional documents for a more in-depth study. There are also several film installations. In order not to lend NS perpetrators a special aura, there are only facsimiles on display and no originals. The original objects that can be seen are the NS buildings that can be viewed through large window openings. The effect of the two-story voids is particularly striking. To the north, for example, one looks across to the “Führer’s building”, while at the same time, corresponding historical images are projected on the inside of the windows.

Munich Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism, detail Munich Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism, detail | Photo: Jens Weber Since the opening ceremony the Documentation Centre has proved to be a major attraction. There has been an influx of visitors and the guided tours are booked up months in advance. The Documentation Centre, that is purposely called a place of learning and understanding, and not a museum, has already been awarded the “Bavarian State Prize for Architecture 2015”.