Germany is about to open its first war museum since unification. But in a country leery of war – yet steeped in brutality – this project, its architect, Daniel Libeskind, and its forceful design are all stirring strong emotions.
The Museum of Military History will open in October in Dresden, the city whose firebombing in 1945 continues to provoke feelings of victimhood and outrage among Germans. The new institution will show two narratives: one chronological, covering German wars, and the other thematic, including subjects such as “fashion and the military” and “war and remembrance” (with a set from the Tom Cruise movie Valkyrie).
Here are three reasons it is controversial.
It belongs to the Bundeswehr
How do Germany’s Federal Armed Forces – heirs to the armies that helped feed the murderous machine of the Holocaust – acknowledge their own history without whitewashing it? The question is embedded in the very site of the museum. It’s in a former arsenal in the Alberstadt, a military compound overlooking Dresden, that served as a museum for nearly a century. From 1897 to 1989, it displayed the glories of the Royal Saxon Army, the imperial German army, the Nazi Wehrmacht, and then the East German military.
But the new institution, which is taking over the building with a $79-million reconstruction, makes a distinct break from the past. Staffed by both military and civilian curators, it will spotlight some of the grimmest and most shameful truths. The exhibits will follow those in many contemporary war museums – including the Canadian War Museum – by recording and dramatizing the horrors of war. In a room on the First World War, machines will waft out the scent of poison gas, taking visitors’ senses into the trenches. The skull of a soldier who committed suicide will be on show. So will models of elephants, cows and dogs that were abused as part of military experiments. And the scope of the museum is broad: it will include wide-ranging exhibits about the Holocaust, including a rendering of a poem, Dead Shoes, written by a girl who sorted the shoes of the gassed in a concentration camp in German-occupied Poland.
It’s in Dresden
Dresden, more perhaps than any other German city, has a fraught relationship with its Second World War history. The region’s cultural and economic capital – known as “Florence on the Elbe” – was levelled Feb. 13 and 14, 1945, by an Allied firebombing that killed at least 25,000 people. Joseph Goebbels quickly proclaimed the event an atrocity, and wildly inflated the death toll. Though recent histories have concluded that the city did hold war industries. “Since Libeskind is so well known here for his jagged, brutal aesthetic, his design for Dresden will probably not surprise any of them,” says Jan Otakar Fischer, an architect and critic in Berlin. But “Libeskind’s architecture… deploys the same tactics and symbolism over and over again. It is always edgy, abstract, and aggressive, and while these characteristics might have been appropriate for a Jewish Museum in Berlin, they cannot be justified for other sites.” Some observers have made that very point about another of Mr. Libeskind’s designs, the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum, which is apparently inspired by crystals in the museum’s collection.
But does the Dresden design limit the museum’s curatorial efforts? Museologist Ken Gorbey – the director of the Jewish Museum Berlin for its first three years, and a Libeskind collaborator – doesn’t think so. The design “seems very raw,” he says “[and]from my experience that gives the museum an opportunity. There are thousands of same old buildings across Europe. This is an old building, but by God, is it relevant today!”
Ultimately, Mr. Gorbey suggests, the architecture won’t be the defining feature. “The museum has to build on the shell that he has given them… and make the experience inside resonate with that for the audience,” he says. “Buildings evolve. They may last a long time, but only if they continue to change. If not, we’ll tear them down.” Perhaps the museum, too, will become part of Dresden’s treasured past.
Editor's Note: The earlier version of this article should have referred to a concentration camp in German-occupied Poland. This article has been corrected.