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  • Writer's pictureDr Julien Drouart

Topography of Terror: Hitler's Regime in pictures

Updated: Jan 12, 2022

La Topographie de la Terreur évoque les années du 3e Reich.
The permanent exhibition is sober and rich in photographs.

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

A visit to the Topography of Terror is optional.

In 2010, Berlin is soberly opening a documentation centre on the history of the Third Reich. The focus is on the discriminatory policies, the organisation of terror and the mass crimes caused and perpetrated by the Hitler regime.

The location is highly symbolic. The centre is on the site of the former Reich Central Security Office. Under the leadership of Reinhard Heydrich and Ernst Kaltenbrunner, the premises became the nerve centre for the organisation of National Socialist terror in Germany and later for the whole of Europe.

The original buildings no longer exist. Heavily damaged during the war, their ruins were left to fall into disrepair before being razed. Archaeological excavations undertaken in the 1980s by academics led to the rediscovery of the remains of the main building. In particular, the remains of the cells where prisoners were tortured by the Gestapo, the political police of the time, were found. During the Cold War, the demarcation line between East and West passed directly in front of the grounds. This heritage, then located at the end of the world, was simply forgotten or ignored by West Berlin. A long section of the Berlin Wall still overlooks the site.

It would be a shortcut to consider the place as a mere centre for study and research on the Nazi regime and its crimes. Here, Germany is undertaking an enormous amount of introspection. In this way it is pushing for political education and the promotion of the democratic system. The fact that the Topography of Terror was installed in Berlin, the former capital of the Reich and an emblematic city of the Cold War, is part of the process that began with reunification. It marks the will of the Germans not to turn the page once and for all but to face their past.

Clear, comprehensive and excellent museography

The space consists of three complexes with different functions and forms. The new building houses the permanent exhibition in a modern and airy setting. With the help of a rich iconography, the tragic events of the Third Reich from the Nazis' accession to power to the post-war trials are retraced. The museography adopts both a chronological and thematic approach. The focus is on the personal responsibility of the murderer and the criminal, with the emphasis on the perspective of the executioner rather than that of the victim.

At the same time, organisational issues help to draw the lines of a more collective responsibility. The epilogue deals with the ramifications of former Nazis and the historians' quarrel about the regime's motives. All of this allows for a broader perspective and raises questions about the relationship between Germans and their past. One may regret the thinness and some writing facilities concerning the part of the exhibition dealing with the collaborationist regimes in Europe.

A second set is located outside, 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. The specific themes partly follow the dates of the historical calendar (2018: the anti-Semitic pogroms of 1938; 2015: the end of the war in 1945; etc.).

Finally, a large outdoor area makes up the last complex. A long path runs through the centre's grounds. These 'gardens' are covered with ballast of the kind found on railway tracks. A solitary walk through the desolation, interspersed with a few explanatory signs about the original location of the complex's buildings. A moment of personal reflection. At the crossroads, a tree grows out of the ground.

A documentation centre is not a museum

There are parts of history which, because of their scale and repercussions, become universal. Sometimes they even represent a turning point in the evolution of societies. This is the case with the National Socialist experience on which the Western world had to learn to rebuild itself. This history should not remain the prerogative of Germans alone, for it belongs to everyone. It must be studied, taught and maintained. It is a question of helping to educate the citizens of today and tomorrow.

Nevertheless, it is pertinent to warn against cultural and economic monopolisation. The Topography of Terror is not a history museum about National Socialism. It is not intended to be. There are no sights to be captured on film. No objects or artefacts are presented to the public. Moreover, the majority of the photographs on display are available on online sites, in school and history books.

A visit is not essential for those who wish to maximise their holiday or satisfy a somewhat voyeuristic and even clichéd curiosity. The Topography of Terror must not become a place of obscure tourism. It remains a place of study and civic education, as indicated by the presence of a remarkable library in the basement of the building and the equally remarkable presence of school groups.

Consequently, one of the main added values will be provided by the conference guides during a visit that must be booked online. The self-taught visitor, on the other hand, would be well advised to give himself sufficient time to reflect on this past which also belongs to him.

Reasons to go

  • An exhaustive and high quality iconography

  • The symbolism of the sites

  • The issue of the executioners put into perspective

Reasons to avoid

  • Total lack of local contacts

  • Increasingly large numbers of tourists during the holiday season

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