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The entrance to Topographie des Terrors

I have my trusty Nikon Coolpix camera on me, I’ve taken a quick photo of the building’s entrance, but once inside the place I haven’t taken a single shot. Not that I can see any “Fotografieren verboten” signs. Just that, in a place such as this, taking photographs seems plain wrong.

I don’t believe in gods or ghosts, but this place has a certain presence about it, and taking tourist snaps would be disrespectful.

Besides, a camera can get in the way of the immediate experience before you (and I’m not a great photographer) (and I don’t have that constant craving of the millennial generation to snap every nanosecond of one’s life and put it through an Instagram filter and stick it on one’s Facebook page).

And why take a few amateur photos when these particular rooms contain thousands more photographs, far more important photographs than any I might take. For some reason this building, though very modern, reminds me of Stephen Poliakoff’s superb drama series Shooting the Past, which is also about a photographic collection in an old library.

I’m in Berlin to do research for the fourth “Moss Reid” novel. I’m in a museum called Topographie des Terrors (Topography of Terror), near Potsdamer Platz, just around the corner from the tourist magnet of Checkpoint Charlie.

Topographie des Terrors, with its tens of thousands of photographs, each of them telling a story.

The following is just one of them.

August Landmesser, circled, in a sea of faces of other dockyard workers

No, I didn’t take it (I found this copy much later, on Wikipedia). It’s by an unknown photographer, taken at the launch of a naval training vessel in Hamburg in June 1936.

One dockyard worker is circled in the photograph. The circle has the clinical ruthlessness of a sniper’s sight. He stands defiant, arms folded, refusing to give the Nazi salute. He is believed to be August Landmesser.

(I learn later from the Rare Historical Photos website that the image “was published for the first time on 22 March 1991 in Die Zeit” and that “the photograph version with the circle is the original copy.” It’s hard to tell whether this means the circle was always in the original of this haunting image – somehow imposed in the darkroom upon a print from the original negative – or whether it was imposed on a copy of another, earlier print.)

There is much more about the photograph and the story behind it in Landmesser’s entry on Wikipedia, which is recommended reading. It seems he was already a doomed man, and it wasn’t this 1936 photograph per se that sealed his fate.

Yet I don’t want to give the impression that the collection on display at Topographie des Terrors is just about the victims of the Third Reich. As the Guardian’s Berlin correspondent Kate Connolly puts it:

What also makes the museum unusual is that it focuses on the Nazi perpetrators rather than their victims. One wall is full of file cards, detailing the identities of some of the former workers who were part of the Nazi killing machine – from state prosecutors to members of the police force, the SS and Gestapo. Typically they were ambitious academics in their 30s who were keen to climb the career ladder.

Prinz-Albrecht-Straße

The Topographie des Terrors is located at Niederkirchnerstraße, formerly Prinz-Albrecht-Straße. At one time it was the most feared address in the whole of German, the place that housed the central cogs of the Nazi terror machine – the SS, the Gestapo, the Reich Security Main Office, the Concentration Camps Inspectorate, the Holocaust planners.

By early 1945 these buildings at Prinz-Albrecht-Straße had been largely destroyed by Allied bombing. After the war most of what remained was demolished. During the Cold War the site became a lost wasteland in the shadow of the Wall.

Then in the early 1980s it was rediscovered. Originally intended to be a one-off exhibition on the site in 1987, “Topographie des Terrors” soon became a permanent museum. The centre now attracts more than a million visitors a year, and also hosts temporary exhibitions, guided tours and a specialised library.

If you go there, allow several hours for your visit. It’s a huge collection, both inside the modern museum and in the grounds. Besides being an indoor exhibition and documentation centre, the site has an outdoor memorial and archaeological dig of the remains of the old headquarters. Much of the site has been excavated to show the physical traces and remains of colonnades, cellars, a prison yard wall.

Outside, too, is one of the last remaining stretches of the Berlin Wall, some 200 metres of it, marking the old border between the districts of Mitte (then in East Berlin) and Kreuzberg (in West Berlin).

Topographie des Terrors is an educational and emotional experience, a constant reminder of the Nazi reign of terror.

Map of central Berlin

Topography of Terror
Niederkirchnerstraße, Berlin
Open daily 10 am to 8 pm; the outdoor grounds close at dusk (but not later than 8 pm)
Admission free.

The museum is wheelchair accessible, but bring your reading glasses for the very small type on some of the exhibits and their captions.

Read more about Berlin locations and history over in my “Moss Reid’s Places” blog.

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