Museum documenting Nazi terrors finally gets proper home


Tourists now have a place to satisfy their curiosity about the Third Reich, writes DEREK SCALLYin Berlin

BERLIN’S NEWEST museum is an unsettling place and not for the intended reason.

Since 1987 the Topography of Terror has served as Berlin’s most unusual historical exhibition, located in the exposed cellars of a vanished building.

The building, facing on to Berlin’s Wilhelmstrasse, was once the Nazi-era headquarters of the Gestapo secret police and the elite SS “protection squadron” run by Heinrich Himmler.

Demolished after the war, visitors have flocked to the empty site in the last two decades for a double dose of authentic historical repression: the tiled prison cells where the Gestapo tortured and killed prisoners and then, on emerging from the cellar, a long crumbling stretch of the Berlin Wall.

The Topography of Terror was such a hit that the provisional exhibition in the cellars was retained indefinitely, attracting over 100,000 visitors annually.

In recent years over half a million tourists came annually to the site that, until 1987, lay abandoned and forgotten in the shadow of the Berlin Wall. But the effort to give Topography a proper home has been dogged by so many controversies and setbacks over the years that Berliners began to wonder if the site’s contaminated soil had cursed the project.

After six open-air years, a winning museum design was chosen in 1993 and construction began two years later. But after countless rows and legal challenges, building work was halted entirely after an explosion in costs amid complaints that the design overpowered the site.

The half-finished museum stood around for a decade before it was torn down in 2004 and a new pavilion design by architect Ursula Wilm was chosen the following year.

While all this was going on, millions of visitors anxious to learn about Berlin’s Third Reich past were, rain or shine, funnelled through the increasingly tatty provisional underground exhibition.

Through all the setbacks, project director Prof Andreas Nachama says he never doubted that Berlin would come good in the end.

At the very least, the city needed somewhere to house the explosion in visitors to the site. And it was unthinkable he says, that Berlin would leave homeless the documentation centre at the heart of Nazi repression from where, as he puts it, “this cancerous tumour spread across Europe”.

The reason is that the Topography of Terror is a rare thing in Berlin: an authentic site that is also a memorial or museum.

There are dozens of memorials, such as the Holocaust memorial beside the Brandenburg Gate, but few if any on authentic sites.

Likewise, Berlin’s many authentic historical sites such as the Berlin Wall and Hitler’s Bunker have either been erased from the landscape or stripped of authentic trappings – something that doesn’t stop streams of tourists sniffing around each day.

The Topography of Terror has authenticity on all levels thus the most crucial criteria of the design competition was to provide indoor space for exhibitions and archives without upstaging the authentic site itself.

Ursula Wilm’s architectural solution to this problem is, depending on your perspective, either delightfully unobtrusive or annoyingly anodyne. Sitting on a 4.5 acre site, on a carpet of loose grey stones, the squat building wrapped in grey metal grilles exudes an air of not being quite there.

The interior, with a hidden lower level, is a vast space with a grey tiled floor, a handful of white interior walls and a glazed exterior that recalls Mies van der Rohe’s New National Gallery nearby.

Using simple panels to great effect, the exhibition explains in text and images the founding of the SS in 1925 and Himmler’s promise on seizing power that “we will be merciless”.

The SS made good on that promise and its campaigns against the many enemies of the Nazi state are well documented. In a brilliant, shocking stroke, the curators put faces to the Nazi crimes: each department is illustrated with portraits of SS desk perpetrators with cool, intelligent stares.

“People sometimes think the SS were brawlers,” said Prof Nachama, “but they were lawyers and intellectuals who knew exactly what they were doing. They weren’t just coincidentally in the SS.” As the exhibition continues, expanding its focus from the Gestapo and the SS to the Nazis and the Holocaust, a moment of clarity sets in.

No one in official Berlin wants to admit it but the Topography of Terror, for all its artful alliteration and architecture is Berlin’s state-run Nazi museum.

It’s a remarkable – overdue – achievement to try and document systematically all Nazi crimes in the city where they were devised. But it’s questionable whether it’s a good idea to try and squeeze everything into just 800sq m – a Frida Kahlo retrospective next door has been allocated 600sq m.

Stranger still: this question has been ignored entirely, and the controversy surrounding the museum ahead of its opening this week has focused instead on the museum’s architecture.

Admirers say that, with its cool lines and understated aesthetic, the museum is a triumph of form following function that serves rather than dominates its historical site.

The building’s critics have dubbed it a steel-and-glass cop-out. They point to Daniel Liebeskind’s striking Jewish Museum in Berlin, a compelling confusion of zinc-cladded oblique angles, as proof that a bold museum design can add to, not take from the exhibition it houses.

In truth, visitors to the Topography of Terror museum are likely to change their mind half a dozen times during their visit. Though functional in the best sense of the word, its interior is chilly, dated and derivative. The bare concrete walls showed up in countless new government buildings in Berlin a decade ago. Meanwhile, the steel-glass interior and white designer furniture has the feel of a West German bachelor pad circa 1986.

“I preferred this when it was rough and ready because it made an emotional impact,” said Regine Schmidt, a 50 year-old Berliner and early visitor. “Now it’s clean and interpreted to death, but I supposed there’s a need to do that for younger generations.” But regardless of its shortcomings, the museum has huge potential. The growing number of visitors to Berlin now have a central, curated destination to satisfy their insatiable curiosity about the Third Reich. And the museum’s curators preside over a fascinating archive of Nazi material, offering considerable promise for future exhibitions.

Its attempt to tell the story of the Nazis in one, condensed dose is timely and quite well done but, considering the topic and space available, always skirts near the boundaries of superficiality.

Considering the history of the site, perhaps it is only fitting that the new Topography of Terror museum still retains its ability to unsettle.

Topographie des Terrors, Niederkirchnerstr 8, Berlin