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  • Writer's pictureDr Julien Drouart

German Resistance Memorial: Exhaustiveness for recognition

Resistance is primarily an individual act.

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

A visit to the German Resistance Memorial is optional.

After the Second World War, Germany was held responsible for some of the greatest crimes in history. National Socialism had come to power without a fight, legitimised by a failing, if not complicit, democratic system. The vast majority of the population supported or accommodated the regime. In May 1945, it was difficult to find honourable figures who could embody the reconstruction. The Allied military administration relied on early opponents and exiles. 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 recognition of these heroes served to establish historical continuity with another, more respectable Germany: the legacy of those who said no. As early as 1952, a first memorial was built at the Bendlerblock in the former headquarters of the Reserve Army. The place is highly symbolic because it was here that the July 1944 conspiracy took place. The conspiracy, if successful, was supposed to overthrow Nazi rule, end the war and establish a democratic regime. Today, the German Resistance Memorial is one of the most important 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 standing man 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 put to the sword. The architecture is heavy, the place is austere.

One part of the building houses the memorial's permanent exhibitions on a full floor. Very modern and benefiting from a very refined design, nearly 18 thematic rooms deal with the multiple facets of the German Resistance which turns out to be much more disparate and multiple than one might think. The great national figures are present: Hans and Sophie Scholl and the White Rose in Munich, the failed attempt on the life of Adolf Hitler by Georg Elser, and of course the conspiracy of July 1944 with Claus von Stauffenberg as its central figure. The following exhibition rooms focus on organisations 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 organisations who are remembered here: most of the cases mentioned concern ordinary, unknown individuals who acted lonely.

As a result, the exhibits focus on the biographical element, multiplying names, faces and individual stories. Each thematic room is a mine of information, both written and iconographic. This makes the whole thing difficult to understand, or in any case requires a mastery of chronology and sustained attention.

The German Resistance Memorial is primarily a documentation centre

The German Resistance Memorial presents in detail the broad spectrum of resistance to National Socialism. There are many reasons for this. Firstly, it is an official recognition of the fact of resistance. Political organisations are no longer the only ones to be recognised 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, in order to give a face and an identity to each person. Despite the 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. On the other hand, there is no denial of Hitler's crimes, of the general responsibility of Germany and Germans, or of the fact that the German Resistance was an extremely minority phenomenon with no real influence.

Thus, the memorial should be seen more as a centre for political education. It is not only a place of history. It challenges the visitor on the defence of democratic values, on civic engagement and on individual responsibilities. As such, the memorial is a privileged destination for school and student groups.

Reasons to go

  • 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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