Topography of Terror

Susan Paterson on Berlin’s most chilling museum…

Standing with your back towards Wilhelmstrasse, you might first notice a remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall, running along Niederkirchnerstrasse.

Perhaps you’ll be drawn next to the brick hollows of exposed buildings and underground remains. And then, finally, to a grey steel structure, brutal and unadorned, surrounded by railway gravel. No matter how you encounter this site, you will likely be struck by its atmosphere of infertility and emptiness. This is a place of death and terror, now quiet and stilled.

The landscape belongs to the Topography of Terror (Topographie des Terrors). Consisting of a documentation centre, open-air exhibition trench and excavated buildings, it’s a memorial that occupies the former address of Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse 8, once the site of Nazi SS, Gestapo and Reich Security Main Office headquarters – the most feared address in Berlin, and the hub of Nazi atrocities.

Image by Paul Sullivan

Paradoxically hidden within plain sight in the centre of Berlin, it was here between 1933 and 1945 that orders were made for arrests of political opponents of National Socialism, for the systematic deportation of Jews to forced labour and extermination camps, and for the persecution and murder of Roma, Sinti, homosexuals, artists, writers and any others deemed to be Unmensch (nonhuman) or in opposition to the State. It was here that the Final Solution of the European Jewish Question was planned and instigated.

Pressed up against the former Berlin Wall in what was once West Berlin, the memorial began with just the open-air exhibition trench along Niederkirchnerstrasse, opened as a temporary exhibit to mark the 750th birthday of the city in 1987. Initially intended to remain for a year, the exhibition was extended indefinitely, remaining after the Wall fell, but it wasn’t until 2010 that the current permanent Documentation Center was completed.

In the interim, competitions calling for designs for the site were created by the Senate, won and then discarded – twice – before the design by Ursula Wilms (Heinle, Wischer and Partner) and landscape architect Professor Heinz W Hallman (Aachen) succeeded. The museum and surrounding excavated site is now one of the most visited memorial sites in Berlin; according to the museum’s website, around 900,000 visitors passed through in 2012.

Documentation & exhibition

Image by Paul Sullivan
Image by Paul Sullivan

The rather brutalist museum building is modest, understated and stern. From three sides it looks impenetrable, except there is an element of transparency through the slatted steel structure, especially after the sun has gone down and the interior can be seen lit up from outside. It’s as if to say, ‘We’re not hiding this; come inside.’

Behind the façade, the museum interior reveals charcoal slate tiles and an open space centred around an internal courtyard. It’s unemotional and dispassionate, which fits the style of documentation on display. The exhibit documents – through archival photographs, video, transcripts, lists of arrests and biographies – the terrain and mechanisms of National Socialism: its beginnings, aims, implementation and horrific successes are laid bare here by historical reportage.

The documents speak for themselves; ‘Geheim’ (secret) is stamped on many. The wealth of documentation is overwhelming. The content, describing and accounting for carefully executed crimes against humanity, even more so. This site calls for repeat visits, in the ongoing effort to understand something which for many is still both incomprehensible and unforgettable.

Visiting in summer, it’s easy to overlook the museum itself. The sun is out and you can spend hours in the trench-like exhibition space on a warm afternoon, reading and re-reading history. The remaining piece of the Mauer is very present, immediately above the trench and clogged with tourists.

Winter is a different scene. The outdoor exhibit is gone, and the excavated bones of Gestapo headquarters can be seen beneath the line of the Wall. The destruction and emptiness is poignant. Snow falls. Bones chill. You notice the stone ‘garden’ surrounding the museum, laid with gravel that typically surrounds railway tracks, a reminder of the mode of systematic deportation.

Elsewhere in the grounds, the former Gestapo prison is demarcated by gravel and a steel border, while the remains of bunkers are opened up and icy, laid bare, the insides of a previously secret horror exposed.

Site history: memory & memorial

Image by Paul Sullivan
Image by Paul Sullivan

That there was uncertainty about what to do with this site post-WWII begs little wonder. In the aftermath of Nazi terror, Germany has had to make its way through the difficult terrain of acknowledging crimes from the past while forging a path towards recovery. In the debate about dealing with the remains of terror, there are differing approaches.

Wipe the site clean and build a memorial to the future, or keep the remains of the site as remembrance and build a memorial to the past. As the hub of the Nazi terror system, this site presents a particularly complex problem; building over it would never be simple and, even now, as a visitor, there is a distinct sense of psychic contamination.

After 1945, what remained of the buildings on this site were destroyed and the entire area razed rather than an attempt made at rebuilding. The large expanse eventually became used as an Autodrom, a practice range for those learning to drive. When the Wall went up in 1961, it cut immediately past the site along Niederkirchnerstrasse, and for a time the site was forgotten in the wake of new hardships and separations.

Time passed, during which a necessary healing through distance most likely contributed to a renewed interest and activism at the start of the 1980s among civil rights groups and those who had been persecuted under the former regime.

Grass roots activism was instrumental in the subsequent excavation of the grounds. In 1985, marking the 40th anniversary of the end of WWII, a group of activist volunteers working under the name of the Active Museum of Fascism and Resistance set about digging up the site. What they revealed was the underground structures of Gestapo headquarters. People called for the uncovering of history, and in doing so propelled subsequent decisions to create a lasting memorial.

The decision taken to restore and reopen the adjacent former Museum of Industrial Arts and Crafts as the Martin Gropius Bau museum and gallery perhaps spurred questions about how to treat the neighbouring site, idling and disused. History-making involves choices and decisions about what is worthy of memorialising, and how such events should be represented.

Activism on this site set out a philosophy that even the most awful events have validity and ought to be preserved. We can’t pick and choose what is past. The Topography of Terror has since become one of Berlin’s most successful acknowlegements of national history, even if it’s a history many would rather be able to forget. 

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