MUNICH, Germany (AFP) – Munich will open a museum on the former site of the Nazi party headquarters Thursday, in a long overdue reckoning with the German city’s status as the “home of the movement.”
The inauguration coincides with the 70th anniversary of the “liberation” of Munich by US troops at the end of World War II, and of Adolf Hitler’s suicide the same day in a Berlin bunker.
Aging American veterans and Holocaust survivors will join political leaders for a solemn ceremony at the new museum, a modern white cube built among a few surviving neo-classical buildings in what was the Nazis’ organizational nerve center.
Museum director Winfried Nerdinger admitted that it had taken Munich too long to face up to its toxic legacy as the birthplace of Hitler’s party, a fact long shrouded in shameful silence.
“Munich had a harder time with this than all the other cities in Germany because it is also more tainted than any other city,” said Nerdinger, the son of a local resistance member.
“This is where it all began.”
Nerdinger said the aim of the “Documentation Center for the History of National Socialism” was to address how Munich, which prided itself on its thriving arts scene and convivial beer gardens, could see its civic spirit so perverted.
The four-floor exhibition offers explanatory texts in English and German, and period photographs and videos document jackboot marches and the city’s utter destruction by Allied bombing.
A chilling video graphic portrays the city’s Jewish community as points of light, with more and more extinguished as the deportations to the concentration camps gathered pace.
Nerdinger noted that he intentionally avoided displays full of crisp brown uniforms and giant swastika flags, saying he had no desire to showcase the Nazi “aesthetic.”
Instead, visitors find artifacts such as hand-scrawled sonnets found in the pocket of resistance member Albrecht Haushofer, who was executed just before the war’s end. Blood still stains the paper.
Hitler ‘like a magician’
The German Workers’ Party was founded in a Munich beer hall in 1919, and Hitler joined the same year.
In 1920, it became the National Socialist Germans Workers’ Party, the only political force allowed in the country after Hitler’s rise to power.
Following the failed Beer Hall Putsch of 1923, Hitler used his subsequent trial for high treason as a platform to gain a national following.
A thwarted communist revolution and a crippling economic depression helped fuel a backlash that would turn Munich into a “hotbed of reactionary sentiment,” as the novelist Thomas Mann called it in 1926.
Here far-right thugs would find funding and legitimacy from the wide swathes of the upper middle class, which saw in Hitler a savior.
In 1930, the Nazis established their headquarters at the Braunes Haus (Brown House) in an upscale part of the city center, now the site of the museum.
Even after Hitler became German leader on January 30, 1933 in Berlin, it was in Munich that the Nazis duped European powers into signing the fateful agreement decreeing that Czechoslovakia must cede the Sudetenland, and launched the Kristallnacht pogrom.
Munich was also key to the planning of the concentration camp system, beginning with the first major prototype, Dachau, on the city’s outskirts in 1933. Chancellor Angela Merkel will attend a ceremony Sunday marking the camp’s 1945 liberation.
The exhibition also casts a critical eye on the post-war period, with top Nazis seamlessly continuing their political careers and neo-Nazi groups trying to revive widespread xenophobia.
The museum itself was long in coming, with its opening postponed four times amid local infighting and its original director summarily sacked after she criticized Munich authorities.
World Jewish Congress president Ronald S. Lauder said it was “never too late” to own up to the past.
“There’s a whole new generation that must know what happened and why it happened — the fact that people knew what was happening and remained silent,” he told AFP.
“It wasn’t just Austria and Germany — it was all of Europe that was silent to what was happening.”
Edgar Feuchtwanger, a 90-year-old Jewish native of Munich who fled to Britain in 1938, returned for the ceremony and acknowledged the city had a “difficult legacy to come to terms with.”
“People always ask me, ‘What did people think then? How could they have fallen for all that?’ And I have to say to them: Hitler seemed dramatically successful, he seemed like a magician,” he told AFP.
“And then when the rabbit came back out of the hat they didn’t notice or didn’t want to notice.”