A super-modern memorial museum/multimedia "experience" located in the heart of the Alsace region of France
. This region, together with parts of Germany
across the present border, changed hands between the two countries several times over the last century and a half causing all sorts of associated hardships for the people. A main focus in the museum is on the period under Nazi
German occupation/annexation between 1940 and 1945.
What there is to see: The building as such is one of the most remarkable aspects of this site: it's a flamboyant piece of ultra-modern architecture, the main feature of which includes a viewing platform with a monstrous, wedge-like "roof" jutting out horizontally into empty space for 20 metres – seemingly hovering over the valley below.
At the bottom of the hillside, next to a pond that is home to some beaver-like river rats, stand a couple of reconstructed timber and earth barracks modelled on the ones deported POW
s had to endure in the gulag
of Tambov in the Soviet Union
. These full-scale outdoor exhibits were constructed for a special additional exhibition about Tambov. This has long since finished, but the huts were left in place.
When you've made your way up the hillside to the memorial museum as such and parted with your money for an admission ticket, you are handed an audio-guide … at least if you are a foreign visitor. If your French is up to it you could also opt for doing without the guide and make do with reading the panels/documents and listening to the audio-visual material within the exhibition, all of which are in French only (except of course for obvious WWII bits that are in German).
The audio-guide will talk you through the exhibition at some length, although still not covering everything that is there in the written form. The quality of the English is impeccable and read by a pleasant native speaker voice, so it's easy to follow. It does get quite overly detailed at some points, though. Fortunately this modern-type of guide is sensor-controlled, i.e. you just switch it on and the little machine picks the relevant sound track according to which section of the museum you are in. So if you get bored in one part, simply walk on, the audio-guide will automatically skip to the next section as you approach it. There were a few glitches, however, when the guide either failed to play a section at all or started switching back and forth when you lingered at certain points that were obviously within reach of two adjacent sections' signals. Overall, though, I found it a usefully modern piece of museum machinery. It also plays voice-over translations of the various videos that are dotted around the exhibition.
It is a walk-through type of "experience" exhibition, i.e. you mostly have to follow a pre-given circuit. Many stretches are full-size props, like stage or film sets, some of quite dramatic realism, others a bit less convincing.
Thematically, the exhibition is roughly chronological, but with topical themes separated and elaborated on in various places. The earlier parts of the history of the Alsace-Moselle region are probably less fascinating to the average dark tourist who may thus want to speed things up a bit and proceed towards the more interesting bits as we head for WWII
and the Nazi
The political repression of the region is well covered and there's quite a bit to learn if you're not yet overly familiar with this aspect of those dark years. Obviously, it's all told from a contemporary French perspective. Back then, however, the population was initially much more torn between French and German nationhood, many actually welcomed the Third Reich's annexation of the region. But with the Nazi regime's repressive approach this changed and eventually consolidated a large majority's allegiance with France
The middle parts of the exhibition move from the educational towards the more visually dramatic. This is especially so in a section that is basically a reconstruction of the inside of a bunker within the 1930s Maginot Line fortifications. With these the French had hoped to hold back any military onslaught by their old arch-enemy Germany
. However, by the time it did come, the Maginot Line was hopelessly outdated in an era where Blitzkrieg mobility had taken over and the Line played virtually no role in the overall rather feeble defence against the German Wehrmacht.
Then it gets really grim – with lots of graphic examples of Nazi propaganda and manifestations of the associated ideology and repressive bureaucracy. There are swastikas and Hitler
portraits galore. A bit heavy-handed for my taste at times.
There are also sections about the POW
and concentration camps
within the region (cf. Natzweiler-Struthof
), as well as coverage of the Resistance. The largest hall by far is a noisy light-and-sound-effect affair about the "total war". You proceed through this on zigzagging wooden walkways, with war scenes mock-raging on both sides – complete with tank mock-ups and mock explosion effects – as well as familiar excerpts of Josef Goebbels delivering his infamous "Wollt ihr den totalen Krieg" speech at the Berlin
Sportpalast. At some points the din from all sides makes it a bit tricky to follow the narration on the audio-guide.
It gets quieter again in the following sections about the approaching end of the war. There was one separate special section I found particularly captivating here: it's about the destruction of Oradour-sur-Glane
and its aftermath. This is picked out here because some soldiers from Alsace were involved in the atrocity. One was a volunteer but the others were drafted into the German Wehrmacht against their will and their participation was probably on orders rather than out of their own volition. Nevertheless, the fact that Alsatian soldiers had taken part in the massacres and the destruction of the village created a deep rift between the regions of Limousin and Alsace. The special section in this exhibition chronicles the development of that division, especially during the court trial and later acquittal of the drafted soldiers up to much more recent reconciliation efforts.
In contrast to this narrowly targeted topical section, the final one casts the net especially wide, namely across the territory of the EU and the role of Franco-German relations within it.
Overall, I found the special effects and multimedia overload a bit much. At the same time some of the mock-up rooms and scenes were not all that convincing after all. But those with a liking for such theatrical and film-set-like walk-though approaches will probably be in their element. It's not as much a "fun" experience as it may sound, though. Content-wise most of the exhibition is quite grim and not easy to "consume". So despite all the life-size show-effect side, it will not be something to keep impatient kids entertained. It's primarily still a dark museum exhibition.
I visited it because it was conveniently on the way between Natzweiler and Strasbourg, and because a combination ticket was available at the former. For most tourists, however, I don't think that this new attraction in Schirmeck would be worth travelling for in its own right. As an add-on when in the region it is a fine enough activity to take in, but for the dark tourist in general it's only of marginal importance.
just outside the town of Schirmeck in the Alsace region of eastern France
, some 30 miles (50 km) west of Strasbourg. The memorial is ca. half a mile north-east of the town's main train station. In French the site is called Memorial de l'Alsace Moselle.
Google maps locator: [48.487,7.222
Access and costs: not too difficult to find, fairly expensive.
Details: You can see the extravagant structure from miles away on its hillside location when driving along the expressway between Schirmeck and Strasbourg. Direct access to the memorial building is a bit restricted for cars. Only visitors with mobility problems (and tour buses) are allowed to use the small car park directly adjacent to the museum. All others must use the car park down in the valley, a couple of hundred yard to the east. From there it is a ca. 10-15 minutes walk, as you have to ascend on a series of switchback footpaths that climb up the steep hillside.
To get to the general car park follow the signs to the Memorial from the main expressway at the exit just east of Schirmeck and after two roundabouts drive westwards on D392 (Route de Strasbourg) and then turn right, through the narrow underpass under the railway line.
When coming by train to Schirmeck, the memorial is also within a 15-20 minutes walk from the station, heading north and then along Rue de Chaffour.
Opening times: daily except Mondays between 10 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. – but last admission is already at 5 p.m.; closed altogether in January and over Christmas.
a fairly steep 10 EUR for a stand-alone ticket. But you can save a decent 5 EUR if you also want to visit Natzweiler-Struthof:
combination tickets for both ("billet duo") are available for just 11 EUR.
Time required: nominally two hours – that is if you listen to every bit of the audio-guide and/or read everything that's available for study. I sped things up in some sections and got through the exhibition in about half that time … without feeling I missed an awful lot.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
The combination with a visit to the Natzweiler-Struthof
former concentration camp
does not only suggest itself thematically as well as from a geographical proximity point of view, it is actively promoted, namely through the combination tickets offered for both sites, called "billet duo". These are priced (as of April 2013) at 11 EUR, as opposed to 16 if you bought the tickets individually. So it makes sense. You don't have to go to both places on the same day either, in fact unused ticket halves remain valid for a whole year!
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
The Alsace region in eastern France
is famed for its scenery of lush forested hills as well as for its culinary delights. The latter include some of the best wines in the country; food, however, tends to be a little on the "Germanic" side, with sauerkraut and big hunks of pork knuckles, sausages and the like forming the mainstay of the cuisine.
The most obviously combinable tourist draw in the area is naturally the splendid city of Strasbourg with its half-timbered houses, giant cathedral and numerous gourmet temples vying for attention.