Topography of Terror – Exhibition Review

Topography of Terror

One of the aims of this blog is to provide information about the most popular sites and museums in Berlin. So let’s start off with a museum which is frequently found in top 10 lists of ‘things to do in Berlin’ – the Topography of Terror. I’ve visited a few times, but never for particularly long (not all my friends are such big history fanatics!) so for the purpose of writing this article I took another trip and really took my time going through the exhibition.

Now, the name might be a little scary, however, don’t let that stop you! The museum is right in the middle of the city and with the added bonus that, unlike the majority of museums in Berlin, admission is free.

For me, one of the main attractions of this museum is its location. Close to the centre of the city between Potsdamer Platz and Checkpoint Charlie, it is situated on the site of the former Gestapo and SS headquarters which means you are standing where these historical events and decisions actually took place. The whole surrounding area was host to various other institutions and ministries of the Third Reich, nearly all of which have now been demolished; this is all explained very clearly with some large models inside. The site is also significant as it contains one of the longest remaining stretches of the Berlin Wall although, as this belongs to a different part of Berlin’s history, it is not actually relevant to the Topography of Terror.

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Photo: Stefan Müller, Topography of Terror Foundation

The exhibition has two main sections – inside and outside. Inside is dedicated to telling the story of the rise and fall of the Third Reich as a whole and the consequences for Germany and the rest of the world. The outside portion focuses on life in Berlin during this period and the effects of National Socialism and the Second World War on the city itself. As it was a cold day, I started on the inside.

The building itself is a fairly bleak, very square concrete-and-glass structure with windows all around. This simplicity continues into the exhibition which is made up of large photoboards hung from the ceiling (I like the idea, but in reality the constant swaying makes it difficult to read the texts sometimes). There are a lot of photos with concise text accompaniments all in German and English.

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Photo: Stefan Müller, Topography of Terror Foundation

The exhibition takes an in-depth look at the rise of the Nazi party in Germany, the institutes, methods, propaganda and official bodies that they used to implement their ‘reign of terror’ (they like to use this word a lot). It follows this through right up to the aftermath of the Second World War and the Nuremberg Trials. I found the texts did a great job at explaining the plethora of people and organisations involved as this can sometimes get very confusing and all the photos are excellent for putting names to faces and bringing the history to life.

I learnt a lot here, but oh man, was it tiring on my poor brain! When I say in-depth, I mean in-depth! There is a lot of information and although the display boards are very well thought-out, this is basically the only way they display information so it gets very ‘samey’ after a while and more difficult to absorb the information.

Inside, there is also a space for temporary exhibitions. The current one is titled ‘Wilhelmstraße 1933-1945, The Rise and Fall of the Nazi Government Quarter’ and runs until November 25th 2012. It is made up of panels representing each of the government buildings in the area, you can open the door into each one and get a ‘sneak peek’ inside filled with pictures of the relevant building and information about its purpose, when it was built, what happened to it during the War etc. This includes Hitler’s newly built Reich Chancellery, the epitome of Nazi power and grandeur – his office alone was 400m² and almost entirely decked out in marble. I particularly enjoyed this section as it was a break from the somewhat gloomy mood I was in by the end of the main exhibition. Also, I am particularly interested in the history of Berlin itself so it was great to see what all these historic buildings looked like and what happened afterwards.

I took some time out for coffee and cake to warm up before going outside (they had the windows open in the building, so it wasn’t actually much warmer inside). The outdoor portion of the exhibition is set in the dug out remains of the Secret State Police (Gestapo) Office’s cellars; this is where political prisoners, such as future leader of the GDR’s Socialist Unity Party, Erich Hönecker, were often held for long periods without charge. As the outside exhibition deals with the same topic, but with a focus on Berlin, a lot of information is repeated from inside and by the time I got there it was a bit of information overload for me so I have to admit I mostly just looked at the pictures. This alone is more than enough though as there is plenty to see and think about. It astounds me every time I think about it just how much Berlin has been through in the last hundred years, how many times the city has been rebuilt and how it is constantly changing. This exhibition is an excellent demonstration of this.

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Photo: Stefan Müller, Topography of Terror Foundation

Overall, I found the museum very informative, but also very serious. Obviously, this is a serious, sensitive topic and there is no easy way to deal with it, but a little variety in the way things were presented and some different didactic methods would have been appreciated. I find the location really adds to the atmosphere, just knowing that you are standing on such a historic site creates a very eerie feeling and makes it all very real. The great thing is that it’s free so you do not need to feel obliged to spend hours there to get your money’s worth. If you just want to look at the photos outside and get an impression of how Berlin has changed, then that’s just fine. If you want to learn a lot about the inner workings of the Nazi machine and all the various people and schemes involved then there’s more than enough information for you too! You can spend as much or as little time here as you want and I guarantee you will take something away from it.

I would recommend this museum to anyone interested in the history of the Third Reich or anyone wanting to learn more about the city of Berlin. However, my recommendation comes with the warning that this is not in any way a light-hearted excursion and you will have to confront some of history’s uglier aspects and will probably need some time afterwards to reflect and think about all that has happened in the past. A lot of important things can be learnt by visiting the Topography of Terror, and I don’t just mean about historic dates or famous people.

The museum is open daily from 10am – 8pm. More information can be found on the Topography of Terror website.

Written by Sarah Fisher

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