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Munich Evokes the Past in Future Museum

Mention “Munich” today, and people automatically think of Steven Spielberg’s controversial Oscar-nominated film. But if the city currently evokes disturbing images of international terrorism, it will soon also remind people of the sordid history of National Socialism.

Change is afoot in Munich. In the heart of the city, behind a cheap chain-link fence a stone’s throw from the historic Königsplatz, lies one of Munich’s last undeveloped and most historically burdened plots of land. Inconspicuous to the average pedestrian, the small patch of grass is the former site of the Brown House, the Nazi movement’s original party headquarters, whose war ravaged ruins were cleared away in 1947.

For years the spot symbolized the shadows of the past, but recently it has come to express the promise of the future: Two months ago, Bavarian state authorities announced that the site would soon become the home of the future NS-Dokumentationszentrum (Documentation Center for the History of National Socialism).

On the face of it, the prospect of a major new museum devoted to exploring Munich’s deep links to National Socialism represents a significant milestone in the city’s ongoing effort to come to terms with its Nazi past. But it remains to be seen how significant the announcement really is. The effort to create such a documentation center is hardly a new idea, after all. Indeed, for nearly 20 years, supporters of such a museum have struggled mightily to build it, only to have their efforts consistently stymied and their hopes dashed.

The reasons for Munich’s inability to establish this type of center are numerous, but they largely reflect the city’s reluctance to fully own up to its ignominious history as the birthplace of Nazism and the official Nazi “capital of the movement” during the Third Reich.

This evasive tendency has long been visible in the city’s very urban fabric. In the years after 1945, Munich erased the signs of the wartime bombings through one of Germany’s most conservative reconstruction programs. It further worked to obscure the historical origins of the many buildings erected by, or associated with, the Nazi regime by functionally normalizing them or demolishing them outright.

Fittingly, the most controversial example of the tendency to evade the past by eliminating its physical traces was the one that ended up sparking the call to build the Documentation Center in the first place: the 1988 demolition of Hitler’s granite-paved marching grounds at the Königsplatz. The decision to remove the 25,000 square meters of granite slabs (known as the “Plattensee,” or “flagstone sea”) had been a priority for Munich city and Bavarian state officials ever since the 1960s, but when it was finally completed in the late 1980s it paved the way for substantial controversy.

Coming at a time in which conservative Germans such as Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Bavarian Governor Franz Josef Strauss were trying to re-nationalize German identity by normalizing the place of the Nazi era in German history, the de-Nazification of the Königsplatz was perceived by critics as an attempt to whitewash Munich’s Nazi past. Certain members of Munich’s left-leaning city council were particularly opposed to this trend and, hoping to resist it, proposed a bill in 1987 to create a documentation center at the former site of the Brown House as a means of establishing a more honest relationship toward the city’s Nazi legacy.

The call for a museum, however, quickly put city officials on a collision course with conservative Bavarian state authorities who retained administrative control over the former site of the Brown House. State officials responded to the city council’s effort to confront the past by further attempting to suppress it — announcing an architectural competition in 1989 for the construction of two new art museums in place of the remnants of the twin Nazi “temples of honor” (built next to the Brown House by Hitler in 1935 as tombs for the 16 “martyrs” of the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch), whose two surviving 6-foot-high granite foundations were to be demolished.

This new effort to eradicate the traces of the Nazi regime from the Königsplatz backfired, however, as it prompted the formation of a grass-roots movement of local journalists, scholars, intellectuals and progressive city politicians to document the Nazi regime’s substantial presence at the site. Over the course of the 1990s — aided by the surging interest in the Nazi era promoted by the 50th anniversary commemorations of the Second World War — a series of art installations, exhibitions and conferences increased local awareness of the Nazi past of the Königsplatz and built up political support for the idea of a documentation center. However, Bavarian state officials, who responded with a general policy of foot-dragging, rebuffed every bill that was subsequently submitted in support of the idea.

Only in March of 2002 did the Bavarian Parliament grudgingly give its approval to the concept of a museum. By this point, the state’s resistance to the project had begun to generate negative press in the local and national media and to create a public relations nightmare. Most of the press coverage focused on how Munich had fallen embarrassingly behind other German cities in publicly commemorating the Nazi period. In fact, other German cities around the turn of the millennium had begun to receive considerable international acclaim for commemorating the Nazi past in a wide range of museums and memorials. Berlin, for example, was widely hailed for commissioning Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum and Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, while Nuremberg was credited for establishing its Documentation Center at the former Reich Party Rally Grounds. By contrast, Munich, the former capital of the movement, appeared content to remain what one journalist called the “capital of repression.”

However, the Bavarian state’s effort to deflect such criticism by agreeing to the museum project in 2002 hardly brought an end to the controversy. At two major symposia held in late 2002 and early 2003 to discuss concrete details of the project (at which the present author delivered a position paper), new outrage erupted when the news leaked out that the Bavarian Ministry of Culture had already given its approval to a vision of the museum vastly at odds with the vision maintained by its supporters. Instead of a prominent, centralized museum at the site of the Brown House, the Bavarian state — citing tight budgets — recommended a more “decentralized” approach based on the idea of placing informational plaques adjacent to some 36 existing Nazi sites throughout the city and integrating them into a kind of “self-guided walking tour” of Munich’s Nazi past.

Opponents of the Bavarian state’s plan were outraged and condemned it as a “shameful” attempt to confront the Nazi past on the cheap. But the plan was only superficially motivated by financial considerations. On a deeper level, the disagreement between the city and state over what kind of museum to create reflected politically rooted differences about how to deal with the Nazi past. While left-leaning city officials could look back to a history of persecution and resistance under the Nazis, the conservative state establishment had the more awkward task of explaining away the role of its own conservative political traditions in helping to give rise to the Nazi movement in the first place. The state’s opposition to a centralized museum (where such connections would invariably be explored in great detail) was thus a method of tailoring its broader historical narrative to its own political needs.

Before long, however, the state — seeking to halt the negative publicity — backed down and agreed to revise its plans for the museum. Still, controversy persisted. Just when a breakthrough appeared to have been made with the city council’s approval of a final museum concept in April 2004, the state caused delays again by refusing to surrender ownership of the Brown House site desired by the Documentation Center’s supporters. More than a year would be wasted seeking alternate sites for the museum, none of which ended up being viable.

Since the Bavarian state’s freeing up of the Brown House site two months ago, the project may well be back on track. But as the decision remains conditional on the willingness of the financially strapped federal government to assume one-third of the project’s construction costs, uncertainty remains as well.

The main lesson of Munich’s museum saga is clear: Given the nearly two-decade struggle to build a Documentation Center for the History of National Socialism thus far, it is more than likely that the project will continue to be plagued by further problems and delays. At present, it is anybody’s guess when it will finally be completed. One thing, though, is certain: The longer the plans for the museum drag on without tangible results, the longer Munich’s reputation for evading the Nazi past will persist.

Gavriel Rosenfeld is associate professor of history at Fairfield University and author of “Munich and Memory: Architecture, Monuments, and the Legacy of the Third Reich” (University of California Press, 2000).

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