One look at Daniel Libeskind’s latest project in Dresden is enough to jolt you into realizing that this is no ordinary museum.
Libeskind, the U.S. architect best known for the Jewish Museum in Berlin and New York’s One World Trade Center, plunged a wedge of steel, glass and concrete clean through the facade of the German Military History Museum. Before his intervention, the building, which has exhibited military equipment since 1879, was severe, even charmless in its conventionalism.
No more. The sharp tip of Libeskind’s v-shaped arrow protrudes above the roof, a shocking attack on the symmetry of the historic building. The bold concept is echoed in the display inside, where exhibits include a gun made out of a waffle, a broken skull, a doll’s house and a wrecked jeep.
The museum, owned and managed by Germany’s armed forces, throws up a challenge to traditional portrayals of military history. Battle heroes, patriotism and ideology are absent; even gadget fetishism is restrained.
The contradictions of the design are echoed in the duality of the displays: Parallel biographies throughout remind us that war entails both victims and perpetrators and that suffering is integral to conflict.
The Bundeswehr, the collective name for the armed services, has recognized that German history and the population’s overwhelmingly pacifist stance force a broad, distanced perspective on the military.
The Dresden museum has, after all, served the armies of five different regimes -- including the Nazis -- and was, until 1990, the ideological home of the National People’s Army under East Germany’s communist dictatorship.
Given the turbulence of the past, the German people would probably vote against a museum for military history, according to Gorch Pieken, chief historian on the project. So it was up to the Bundeswehr and its advisers to come up with good arguments for spending 62 million euros ($85 million) -- and this they have achieved with the startling new design.
The wings of the old museum take a chronological approach to German military history from 1300 to the present day, covering conflicts from the 1525 German Peasants’ Revolt to the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. A whole floor of one wing is devoted to World War I and II.
Libeskind’s arrow forms the core of the building. With its slanting walls and vertical shafts offering unexpected glimpses of exhibits from surprising angles, it is used to address the universal aspects of war. The exhibitions here take as their starting point the violence inherent in mankind. The military is the political, institutional expression of that brutality.
Exhibits include a gun fashioned out of a waffle by a boy whose parents have never allowed him to have toy weapons. A section on the suffering of war shows the blown-out skull of a World War II soldier who committed suicide and desperate letters pleading for news addressed to sons at the front.
A V-2 rocket, the weapon Adolf Hitler hoped in vain would turn Germany’s fortunes toward the end of World War II, is exhibited together with a dollhouse -- complete with doll-sized gas masks -- that belonged to a little girl in London during the Nazi bombing. A hail of World War II missiles, suspended as though in mid-flight, point down through one of Libeskind’s vertical shafts, targeting one-man bunkers below.
A viewing platform at the top of the new building offers a stunning view of the Dresden skyline, one of the most spectacularly scarred victims of World War II. In a display up here, we are reminded that the bombing saved the life of Henny Brenner who was due to be deported because of her Jewish mother days after the devastation began.
More recent exhibits include a German army jeep damaged in an explosion in Kunduz, Afghanistan. Three army personnel were injured in the attack, raising public doubts about the need for Germany’s engagement in Afghanistan.
An interesting comment on modern conflict comes toward the end of the show. The curators asked Frankfurt airport security staff to give them everything they had confiscated from passengers in just one day.
The huge pile of pen-knives, bottle-openers, nail files, scissors -- even a spray to repel vicious dogs -- reminds us that some of the most lethal weapons of our time are extraordinarily primitive.
The German Military History Museum reopens tomorrow. Admission is free through the end of the year. For more information, go to http://www.mhmbw.de/
(Catherine Hickley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)