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  • Writer's pictureDr Julien Drouart

German Resistance Memorial: Looking for Recognition

Updated: Jun 21, 2023

The German Resistance Memorial is located in the former nerve center of the German Armed Forces in Berlin. It is a thoughtful reminder of the forms of opposition to National Socialism during the era of Hitler's Germany.

A Visit is Optional

After World War II, Germany was held accountable for some of the most significant crimes in history. National Socialism had ascended to power without opposition, legitimized by a failing, if not complicit, democratic system. The vast majority of the population either supported or acquiesced to the regime. In May 1945, it was challenging to find honorable figures who could embody the reconstruction. The Allied military administration relied on early opponents and exiles. Notable examples include Konrad Schumann and Willy Brandt, two future West German chancellors.

With the founding of the FRG, German democracy also needed symbolic figures rooted in resistance. The acknowledgment of these heroes helped to establish historical continuity with another, more respectable Germany: the legacy of those who said no. As early as 1952, the first memorial was built at the Bendlerblock in the former headquarters of the Reserve Army. The location is highly symbolic because it was here that the July 1944 conspiracy occurred. The conspiracy, if successful, was intended to overthrow Nazi rule, end the war, and establish a democratic regime. Today, the German Resistance Memorial is one of the most significant in Berlin.

When Exhaustiveness Makes Information Less Intelligible

Access to the memorial is through an inner courtyard of the main building. The statue of a naked man standing tall calls out to the visitor. Resistance is a struggle against opposing forces but also against oneself. This first impression makes sense, knowing that it was in this very courtyard that the conspirators of July 1944 were executed. The architecture is imposing, the place is austere.

One part of the building houses the memorial's permanent exhibitions on an entire floor. Very modern and benefiting from a refined design, nearly 18 thematic rooms address the various aspects of the German Resistance which turn out to be far more diverse and multifaceted than one might think. The great national figures are present: Hans and Sophie Scholl and the White Rose in Munich, the failed assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler by Georg Elser, and of course, the conspiracy of July 1944 with Claus von Stauffenberg as its central figure. The subsequent exhibition rooms focus on organizations and individuals who at one time or another and for their own reasons rejected Hitler's regime. Thus, it is not only the members of political organizations who are commemorated here: most of the cases mentioned concern ordinary, unknown individuals who acted alone.

As a result, the exhibits focus on the biographical element, multiplying names, faces, and individual stories. Each thematic room is a treasure trove of information, both written and iconographic. This makes the entire exhibition challenging to understand, or at least, requires a firm grasp of the chronology and sustained attention.

The German Resistance Memorial is Primarily a Documentation Center

The German Resistance Memorial presents in detail the broad spectrum of resistance to National Socialism. There are many reasons for this. First, it is an official acknowledgment of the fact of resistance. Political organizations are no longer the only ones recognized as resistance fighters: isolated individuals may have acted on their own, and it is right to give them recognition, despite the fact that their actions may appear futile or anecdotal to contemporaries. Hence the importance of the biographical fact, to give a face and an identity to each person. Despite the information overload, there can be no shortcuts.

Secondly, the memorial validates the purpose of the current democratic regime by showing that another Germany existed at the time of National Socialism. However, it does not deny Hitler's crimes, Germany's overall responsibility, and the German people's culpability, or the fact that the German Resistance was an extremely minority phenomenon with no real influence.

Thus, the memorial should be seen more as a center for political education. It is not only a historical site. It challenges the visitor on the defense of democratic values, civic engagement, and individual responsibilities. As such, the memorial is a favored destination for school and student groups.

Reasons to Visit

  • Excellent research work on the biographies

  • Beautiful photographs

  • The layout of the rooms allows for a certain amount of privacy

Reasons to Avoid

  • Uneven thematic division

  • Different treatment according to political issues

  • The isolation of the memorial in the consular district

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