If you’re a museum person, you could easily keep yourself busy in Berlin for weeks. There are all kinds here – history, art, culture, and just plain weird – currywurst museum, anyone? I had a hard time narrowing it down to just two or three for our short four-day trip. The one I knew I couldn’t skip, however, was the Topography of Terror, a museum chronicling the rise of the Third Reich, the Holocaust, and the aftermath of the war through photographs and stories.
The Topography of Terror is an indoor/outdoor museum located on the former site of the headquarters of the SS and the Gestapo. The original buildings were largely destroyed during air raids, but one small piece, the cellar where political prisoners were tortured and executed, remains in the outdoor exhibit. The museum is relatively new and, as I wish all museums were, it’s free.
Laid out chronologically, the Topography of Terror is very organized and well done with all of the information provided in both German and English. Knowing that free usually means bigger crowds, we arrived early which ended up being a good decision. The only thing we did wrong was incorrectly anticipate just how much time we’d want to spend here.
Walking through the Topography of Terror museum is like being unable to put down a really well-written book. The approach here is so honest, so frank – I appreciated that the most. And the photographs, always my favorite thing to pore over in the history books, have been chosen with care and appropriately reflect this time period, even at its ugliest. The images sometimes are so appalling that the second my eyes landed on them I had to look away, and the stories beneath them are so heart-wrenching that I felt compelled to read each and every one, lest someone’s story be forgotten.
The following are a few of my – I hesitate to say favorite photographs, considering the subject – but these are a few of the images that I felt captured the essence and the horror so fully that I haven’t been able to get them out of my head, even months after seeing them. (Warning: No bodies are depicted below, but one of the photos could be considered disturbing, so if you feel it necessary, it might be best to skip this section and head straight to the end.) Also, this probably goes without saying, but the images below are photos I took of photos at the exhibition and edited for exposure. I, in no way, am claiming to be the original photographer.
Young women reach out to shake hands with Adolf Hitler at the German Singing Federation Festival.
Breslau, 3 August 1937.
A man, identified as August Landmesser, refuses to salute with other workers at the launch of the German navy training ship, the Horst Wessel.
Hamburg, 13 June 1936.
Young boy surrenders as Polish Jews are arrested by SS troops during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.
Warsaw, April 1943.
A Jewish-Soviet prisoner of war captured by the German army and marked with a yellow star.
German task forces execute Lithuanian Jews on the outskirts of the Kovno Ghetto.
Kaunas, November 1942.
American 7th Army troops wave flags of victory atop what was once Hitler’s rostrum at the Luitpold Arena.
Nuremberg, 8 May 1945.
Allied soldier trains his gun on members of the Nazi party awaiting trial.
Unknown Date & Location.
I cried at least half a dozen times through this exhibition, but so did many other people. The photo that disturbed me the most was the one above from an execution in Lithuania. I looked at the man closest to the photographer – Was he pleading for his life? Praying? Singing? – but the most horrifying thing about this photo is the look of glee on the man behind him. I can barely even look at him. This was definitely the most sobering museum I’ve ever visited.
Two hours after we entered the museum, we reached the end of the main exhibition, pretty emotionally exhausted. We skimmed over the special exhibition that was also inside featuring the work of Hans Bayer, a war correspondent during WWII and then headed outdoors. The area had gotten much more crowded during those two hours, so we decided to skip most of the outdoor exhibition and just stopped by the remains of the original cellar in the Gestapo headquarters instead.
Also outside is the longest remaining portion of the outer wall of the Berlin Wall. The wall here marked the border between Mitte (East Berlin) and Kreuzberg (West Berlin). Except for the destruction that occurred during the transitional period after the wall began to fall (a few holes and gaps), the wall has been preserved as it was before the reunification of Berlin. The other longest stretch of the wall still standing in Berlin is the East Side Gallery, a colorful portion of the inner wall in Friedrichshain.
It took awhile after we left the Topography of Terror for me to get my usual travel spirit back. Instead of jumping straight into more sight-seeing, which felt sort of inappropriate to tell you the truth, we took a quiet walk through the Tiergarten that ended up being a pretty good way to transition back into the day. I could have bought and read any number of books containing the same images and information we saw at the museum, but I wanted to take it all in in the place where it happened, surrounded by others wanting to do the same. I doubt a book could ever have affected me in the same way this museum did.
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