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  • Writer's pictureDr Julien Drouart

Topography of Terror: Hitler's Regime in Pictures

Updated: Jun 21, 2023


La Topographie de la Terreur évoque les années du 3e Reich.

The Topography of Terror is a documentation centre on the history of Nazi Germany. Essentially informative, a visit requires attention.


A Visit is Optional


In 2010, Berlin somberly opened a documentation centre chronicling the history of the Third Reich. It focuses on discriminatory policies, the organization of terror, and the mass crimes instigated and committed by Hitler's regime.


The location holds great symbolic significance. The centre stands on the site of the former Reich Central Security Office. Under the leadership of Reinhard Heydrich and Ernst Kaltenbrunner, these premises became the nerve centre for the organization of National Socialist terror in Germany and eventually, throughout Europe.


The original buildings no longer stand. Heavily damaged during the war, their ruins were neglected and eventually razed. Archaeological excavations in the 1980s led academics to rediscover the remains of the main building. In particular, they found the remnants of cells where the Gestapo, the political police of the era, tortured prisoners. During the Cold War, the boundary line between East and West ran directly in front of these grounds. This heritage, situated at the edge of the world, was largely forgotten or ignored by West Berlin. A substantial section of the Berlin Wall still towers over the site.


To regard this place as merely a study and research centre for the Nazi regime and its crimes would be an oversimplification. Here, Germany is conducting considerable introspection, encouraging political education, and promoting the democratic system. The installation of the Topography of Terror in Berlin, the former capital of the Reich and an iconic city of the Cold War, is part of the process that began with reunification. It signals Germans' determination to confront, not evade, their past.


Clear, Comprehensive, and Excellent Museography


The space comprises three complexes with distinct functions and forms. The new building houses the permanent exhibition in a modern, open setting. With the aid of an extensive iconography, it retraces the tragic events of the Third Reich, from the Nazis' rise to power to the post-war trials. The museography employs both chronological and thematic approaches, focusing on individual responsibility for murder and criminal acts. It emphasizes the perspective of the executioner over that of the victim.


Concurrent discussions on organizational issues help outline a more collective responsibility. The epilogue addresses the incorporation of former Nazis and debates among historians about the regime's motives. All of this provides a broader context and provokes questions about Germans' relationship with their past. The part of the exhibition dealing with collaborating regimes in Europe may seem lacking in depth and detail.


A second section is located outdoors, at the level of the archaeological remains. A sunken walkway leads past the former torture cells. Every year, temporary exhibitions are presented to the public. These specific themes often coincide with significant historical anniversaries (2018: the anti-Semitic pogroms of 1938; 2015: the end of the war in 1945, etc.).


Lastly, a large outdoor area forms the final complex. A long path meanders through the centre's grounds. These 'gardens' are covered with railway ballast-like rocks, offering a solitary walk amidst desolation, punctuated by a few explanatory signs about the original location of the buildings. At a crossroads, a lone tree grows from the ground.


A Documentation Centre is Not a Museum


Parts of history, due to their scale and repercussions, become universal, marking turning points in societal evolution. This holds true for the National Socialist era, which forced the Western world to rebuild itself. This history should not remain exclusively German—it belongs to all. It must be studied, taught, and preserved to educate present and future citizens.


However, it's essential to guard against cultural and economic monopolization. The Topography of Terror is not a history museum about National Socialism. It doesn't aspire to be. There are no sights to capture on film. No objects or artifacts are on display. Furthermore, the majority of the photographs exhibited can be found on online platforms, in school textbooks, or history books.


A visit is not obligatory for those who wish to maximize their holiday or satisfy a somewhat voyeuristic or clichéd curiosity. The Topography of Terror should not become a dark tourism site. It remains a place of study and civic education, as evidenced by the presence of an impressive library in the basement and frequent visits by school groups.


As a result, one of the main added values is provided by the tour guides during a visit that must be booked online. Self-guided visitors are advised to allocate sufficient time for reflection on this past, which is also part of their history.


Reasons to Visit

  • Exhaustive and high-quality iconography

  • Symbolic significance of the site

  • Balanced focus on the executioners

Reasons to Skip

  • Complete absence of local contacts

  • Crowded with tourists during the holiday season

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