A Visit to the Bundeswehr Museum, Dresden

A revelation on my recent travels through Saxony was the official Bundeswehr (German Army) Military History museum on the outskirts of Dresden.  Hardly advertised and not appearing on any of the free tourist maps for the city, this could be due to either the newness of the museum (opened end-2011) or that it is simply not an aspect of German history the city is eager to promote.  Indeed, finding this place in the northern suburb of Albertstadt blew the conception I had that Dresden historically had no military installations.  The neighborhood is lined with seemingly endless rows of barracks, an officer training academy, arsenals and parade grounds, mostly dating from the mid-19th century.  That this area was not bombed while the city burned just 3 miles away in February, 1945, is damning physical proof to the claim that allied bombings, towards the end of WW2, were increasingly and specifically targeted at civilian or refugee populations rather than infrastructure.  The name of the central avenue on which the museum is located, Stauffenbergallee, after the instigator of Operation Valkyrie (the 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler), offers a clue to the kind of approach to expect from the museum.

Just some facts and figures here, gleaned from their own brochure:  the building was originally an armory before being made over to a museum in 1897.  It has in the course of its history served as a Saxon, Nazi, Soviet, East German, and now reunified German military museum.  Closed following the fall of the iron curtain, much consideration and discussion went into how to, or even whether to, present Germany’s troubled and turbulent history of warfare and military innovation to the world.  A lot of feathers could be ruffled here, right?  The otherwise austere neo-classical building is shot through by a silver arrow, designed by Daniel Libeskind, which points directly to where the firestorm began and houses an observation deck that offers a panorama of the city.

I had never heard of the museum until the morning of my visit, spotting by chance a small poster in the elevator of the city youth hostel and with curiosity duly piqued.  The desk staff, when I asked, did not know about it nor could provide directions, having to search online for information.  I arrived at about noon and saw perhaps only a dozen other visitors during my four hour stay, half of whom were foreign military (I think Uruguayan) presumably attending the officer’s academy next door.  There were no coaches, no hordes of tourists like in the center of the city.  Incredible, given that this is apparently, according to Wikipedia at least, the largest museum of its sort in Germany.

Since it was such an impromptu visit, I had really not the time to establish any preconceived notions, so was pleasantly surprised by the jarring entrance with the crochet-covered tank and dynamic silver arrow building addition.  Once inside, the chronological exhibition (warfare from ancient to modern times) was as much to be expected of any military history museum of any quarter of the world – swords, guns and armor through the ages.  Any research I have done on the museum since my visit seems to bring up criticism or concern of yet more pandering to national guilt by casting a light on the brutality of warfare.  Well, I think the de-glorification of war is pretty universal today, aside from some totalitarian regimes or the U.S. where soldier worship has aggressively resurfaced in the last twelve years.  The Imperial War Museum in London, let’s say the “victors” for all intents and purposes, are as equally humble and sensitive in displaying the roles of normal people, and illustrating how they were adversely affected.

What the Bundeswehr museum has to offer is a unique Saxon-Prussian perspective of the Napoleonic Wars, the Unification Wars, First World War, rise of Nazism, etc., following the main player through the rollercoaster of European history of the 19th and 20th centuries.  The propaganda, which was imposed upon the German people for each successive disaster, is laid bare here for us to snicker at in retrospect.  The private industrial input is heavily represented, most notably the Krupps dynasty, which lent their innovations willingly and often at no cost to the Prussian military machine.  There is a reverence to history and individual experience, mixed with a somewhat childish wonder for all things big, technical and improbable.  If there was one thing I was disturbed by, it was the paucity of something – the relatively tiny display pertaining to the Holocaust, which seemed inadequate in relation to the rest of the exhibits.  It takes a little effort to force oneself to take a wider view on this – say, if all Germany was a huge museum, how much of it is given over to remembering this brief and horrific period, and is this now out of balance with the rest of the history?  The small collection of shoes of Jewish deportees has a place here, but it’s another, far bigger, subject to be tackled, separately, perhaps.

The resulting balance of sheer fact with artistic interpretation does not talk down to the visitor.  This I can verify in comparison as someone who has visited many of the war memorials and museums in Central Europe and felt duly patronized by the oversimplification of its presentation.  There is an unflinching and unapologetic honesty and this is offered from a very German perspective, and not from policy of an occupying force.  It’s refreshing in this sense.  My own sentiment in this regard is that it is important for Germans to know, to be shown, and not to forget, but for this to be perhaps balanced with a respect to their own freedom from responsibility for the atrocities caused by their ancestors.  The weight and shame of guilt is stifling, emotionally, for many Germans, to the point I sometimes find myself frustrated trying to get around this humility, or self-abasement, when communicating with them on a personal level.  It’s not fair for young Germans to shoulder the blame for the actions and atrocities of their grandparents or great-grandparents…  too much time has passed for that, and perhaps this museum is another small step in the positive direction of healing and understanding.

Let me note that this is a personal view from an afternoon spent at a fascinating location, and each and everyone should be able to draw their own conclusions from their visit there.  I highly recommend it if you visit Saxony.

The Militär Historisches Museum is open daily from 10-6 except Wednesdays when it is closed.  Admission is 5 euro.

Local Dresden citizens were very active in contributing to the museum. Here, a local collective of women knitted a cover for the tank outside, which they found offensive.
Nice crochet cover for the panzer.
The redesign of the buildings is sometimes dizzying and inspiring. Often there are dead ends with nothing there, sometimes gaps in the walls, as if blown through by a cannon, to peek at other visitors to the museum.
A collection of animals used for military purposes, with a human curator looking very bored down the end.
A corridor with a chopper glued to the wall...
A collections of Nazi propaganda movie posters targeting the Irish. Yes, these were all feature films about the Irish struggle against the British, made by Nazis!  Notice in the poster on the bottom left how the Union Jack looks like a creepy-crawly spider with the eyes in the middle!
My kind of bike.
An original poster for Hitlers 1932-1933 election campaign.  The dot over the i is the same shape as his mustache…  what design!
The skull of a German soldier who shot himself in the mouth (after filling it with water, to ensure the bullet would do its job) near the end of WW2.
A propaganda poster for Soviet-East German friendship depicting Germany’s first cosmonaut flying a Mig jet.
Throughout the building there are constant reminders of the bombing of Dresden. 
Main staircase.
Peering down at other visitors from another unlikely angle.
The evolution of Prussian style helmets.
A Viv Westwood military uniform among the exhibits.
A flamboyant Flemish cuirassier, I believe.
More angles to the top viewing stage.
Tanks and such outside.
A safe full of medals for East German troops to be used “in case of emergency” during the Cold War… never had to be used, fortunately.