A revolutionary German military museum — designed by architect Daniel Libeskind — is about to open in Dresden. Although established by the German armed forces, the Bundeswehr, the museum’s curators intend that the museum will cast new light on war and the suffering it causes.
Heretofore, most military museums — like the Imperial War Museum in London and the Musée de l’Armée in Paris — seemed as shrines to the glories of warfare rather than places for reflection. Most other war museums showcase weapons, polished machinery and pressed uniforms, celebrate great battles, and recall the heroic deeds of brave soldiers patriotically fighting against the odds and sacrificing their lives for their country.
Dresden: the bombers of the Royal Air Force and the U.S. Army Air Force rained destruction on the Saxon capital, reducing most of the city to piles of rubble, and killing tens of thousands of women and children in the process. One of the few buildings to survive the cataclysmic and morally questioned bombing campaign was the old garrison arsenal, which after the war was turned into a military museum.
Provocative and controversial architect Daniel Libeskind has driven a 30-meter (100-foot) steel-and-glass wedge through the arsenal’s late classicist facade. As a result, the museum looks like the bow of a ship breaking though an iceberg, pointing in the direction from which the British and American bombers came to attack the city.
“It is something like a lantern, a signal, a beacon that evokes the city itself,” Libeskind told the press. “It creates a question mark about the continuity of history and what it means. It gives people a point of reflection.”
The exhibitions are still in the process of being set up.
Part of the museum will try to dissect the relationship between the military and everyday life as reflected in art, fashion, language and photography.
Many of the objects on display are surprising, simply because you’d never expect to find them in a military museum — for instance, models of abused animals that served as the subjects of military experiments, including elephants, cows and dogs.
Just like the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Military History Museum in Dresden will lead visitors from top to bottom.
Gorch Pieken, the museum’s scientific director, thinks the Military History Museum could help Dresden overcome decades of noted self-denial about its darker past and recognize the evil of the war as well as the evil that led to the war. “The people of Dresden tend to forget who actually started the war,” he says.
In August 1943, German soldiers attacked the village of Kommeno in western Greece. They burnt down homes and drove the villagers’ cattle away. They raped the women and tortured the men. They stuffed gasoline-soaked cotton wool into babies’ mouths and lit it. At dawn, a priest with a Bible under his arm confronted the soldiers. He died in a hail of bullets. The Bible fell to the ground.
Historian Gorch Pieken says he tells this story whenever people ask him why he is opening a war museum, and in Dresden of all places. He tells it again as he wanders through the as yet unfinished exhibition, through dark, empty rooms and past oppressive, angular walls designed by architect Daniel Libeskind.
Pieken, 49, reconstructed the attack on Kommeno for the museum. He discovered that the brave priest’s Bible was kept in the village church. Pieken now wants to display the yellowed and bloodstained Bible alongside the other 7,000 objects at the Bundeswehr’s Military History Museum in Dresden, the first war museum of the reunited Germany.
They want to tell the history of war — of all wars — from an entirely new perspective. “We expect to trigger a heated debate,” Pieken says.
Many Dresdeners are appalled by the new architecture, but Libeskind’s uncompromising style has rarely seemed more appropriate than in Dresden.
Dresden had become known for its commendable/reprehensible “progress” in rebuilding the historic structures destroyed during the war and left as rubble during the Communist period. The completion of the Frauenkirche (above, the Lutheran Church of Our Lady) has been particularly applauded almost universally, even while the balance of the historic city center rebuild is duly mocked as a Disney-like romanticized reconstruction in pursuit of forgetting history as bad memory.
Libeskind attacks this faux progress, claiming that “sentimentality is not a foundation on which you can build a new city.”
Libeskind’s aim was to smash through the original imperial structure, convinced that only a radical break with the existing architecture could fulfill the museum’s stated goal of providing a new perspective on war.
The museum addresses the big questions in human history: From where does violence stem? Is humanity evil? Is there such a thing as a just war?
These are the kinds of questions that are being asked in Germany right now as German soldiers are dying in Afghanistan, NATO is bombarding Libya, and a dictator in Syria is having his own people shot and killed.
As the saying goes, the first casualty of war is truth. Certain events are deliberately not talked about, and the negative aspects of narratives are glossed over. Anyone who, like the curators in Dresden, claims to provide the true picture of war, risks sounding presumptuous and at worst naïve.
The only presumptuous and naïve are those who deny the evils of war and seek to avoid truth. The museum aims to stimulate thought so that we may properly balance decisions before going to war again… perhaps then we may have created new solutions to the wars of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya…
Thanks to the thinkers, the creators, the architects, the artists, the historians, the poets, the playwrights who help us to review and rethink with new perspective.