'Topography of Terror'

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This is the site, right in the middle of central Berlin, where the very nerve centre of the Third Reich's Nazi reign of terror had its principal seat. This partly explains the somewhat enigmatic name of today's memorial site. Of the Nazi era's actual administrative buildings very little remains beyond a few foundations. But a modern documentation centre added to the site a few years ago chronicles the history of the location in much detail.

The most significant physical ruin still present at the site today, however, is unrelated to Nazi history, namely a stretch of the old Berlin Wall  

>More background info

>What there is to see


>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations


More background info: This is the physical area (hence "topography") which during the Third Reich functioned as one of the main nerve centres of the Nazis' reign of terror. Right in the middle of Berlin, in the government quarter of the "Reichshauptstadt" ('imperial capital').
It's a roughly trapezoid shape between Wilhelmstraße to the east, Anhalter Straße to the south and what today are Stresemannstraße and Niederkirchnerstraße (back then called Prinz-Albrecht-Straße). The former Hotel Prinz Albrecht became the seat of the "Reichsführung SS" while the Gestapo converted part of their HQ next door into their own "Hausgefängnis" (literally 'house prison').  In addition to the Gestapo and the SS, other Nazi institutions (such as the SD) had their headquarters here too.
So it was from here that Himmler, Heydrich et al orchestrated and directed the persecution of political opponents and other "undesirables". It wasn't so much the actual site of those atrocities themselves, but it's where they originated "intellectually" (I'm using that word reluctantly in this context). However, the Gestapo also had prison cells and conducted interrogations, which regularly involved torture, in its HQ building. Some 15,000 political prisoners are assumed to have gone through this between 1933 and 1945, including for example Georg Elser (cf. Munich) and members of the "Kreisauer Kreis" resistance group (cf. German Resistance Memorial Centre). 

The whole area, like much of Berlin in general, was mostly bombed flat by the end of WWII, and what was left standing was mostly razed to the ground after the war, so very little of the original buildings remains. But the shadows of history weigh heavy here all the same.

During the Cold War division of Germany, the inner-German border, i.e. since 1961 the Berlin Wall ran right past/through the site, so it remained largely out of bounds for archaeologists on either side. On the Western side, however, early attempts at excavation and documentation already started in 1987. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the site has been accessible from both sides and has been much developed in the interim.

Remarkably, it is also here that a fairly longish stretch of the original border Wall remained – though heavily damaged by "wall peckers" (see Berlin Wall today), the segment of wall along Niederkirchnerstraße at the northern edge of the Topography of Terror site still gives one of the best impressions left in Berlin of what the old border looked like.    

From 1987, excavations revealed some of the foundations of the former Nazi buildings. At the location of one of these foundations (which was a former SS canteen) a first exhibition pavilion was erected. In 1997 this was removed and a provisional exhibition was set up right by the foundations of the former Prinz-Albrecht-Straße buildings in a kind of "trench" running parallel to the former Berlin Wall. When I first saw this, in the year 2000, it was still rather "crude" and only minimally protected by wooden roofs. Commodification consisted mainly of a few information panels, while large parts of the area to the south remained undeveloped.  

Since then there has been a long struggle to establish a proper memorial museum at the site. It was a difficult process, much delayed and fraught with financial troubles along the way, but eventually proved a great success. An initial plan for a documentation centre drawn up as early as 1993 was eventually abandoned in 2004 and a whole new concept devised in 2005, which received government funding. Finally, in May 2010, the new documentation centre opened to the public. And the remains of foundations along the Wall have also been upgraded with proper steel-and-glass roofs and further information panels have been put in place.  

The all-new Topography of Terror commodification closes an important gap. There are many other historical sites and museums/exhibitions about various aspects of Berlin's/Germany's dark chapters in history, and usually the emphasis is on the various groups of victims. The sites associated with the perpetrators, on the other hand, have traditionally been only reluctantly tackled, if at all, probably because they were regarded as too painful and/or too difficult to integrate into the city's commemoration framework. Yet these aspects do form a crucial part of that history as well. And that careful commemoration of them does NOT have to mean playing them down or opening a Pandora's box of ill-placed revisionism or even neo-Nazism, nor catering for cheap sensationalism, was already well proven by the highly challenging Nazi party rallies documentation centre in Nuremberg. (Or see also Obersalzberg!)

Berlin's Topography of Terror falls into the same category, even though its authentic relics are sparse and the site thus rather more abstract, but it is a crucial addition to Berlin's portfolio of memorials. The popularity of the site with tourists is further proof that it addresses a very real demand (latest figures given stated 800,000 visitors per year, expected to hit the 1 million mark before long!).
What there is to see: There are two distinct sides to the site, both thematically and physically. What is immediately most striking is the preserved stretch of Berlin Wall along Niederkirchnerstraße on the northern rim of the site. This is indeed the longest stretch of outer Berlin Wall still standing in Berlin. The even longer stretch of wall at the East Side Gallery formed part of the inner Wall and has also been transformed into a work of art that bears only a remote resemblance to the real Wall. Other longer stretches of Berlin-Wall-type GDR border fortifications can be found outside Berlin along the former FRG-GDR border, especially at Hötensleben.

The Wall is badly battered, however, as here too, people chiselled away at it in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Wall and the GDR's demise. In a few places it even has holes and you can see right through. But now the Wall remains are at least protected – even the trees that used to grow right beside the Wall on the Western side (i.e. south of it in this place) have been cut down. Railings make it difficult, though not impossible, for today's visitors to reach out and touch the Wall. On the other side, by the street, a higher, proper fence prevents any physical access to the Wall.

The higher parts of the Wall still bear graffiti – including some notable words such as "madness" or "fuck" ("off"?) or "herzlichen Glückwunsch" ('congratulations'), and there are indications of US flag colours, etc. – although it is somewhat unclear how much of it may be original, i.e. pre-November 1989, or the result of later additions.

Striking as this stretch of Wall is, the main point of the Topography of Terror is largely unrelated to it or any GDR history, but goes back further, to the Nazi history of the area, when it was part of the Berlin nerve centre of the Third Reich (see above).

Of the Gestapo and SS buildings that stood here, only a few unearthed foundations remain (the houses were badly damaged in WWII and the above-ground remains later demolished altogether). A few information panels point out the significance of the foundations, placed along two paths running parallel to the Wall – one at street level, one in the "trench" at basement level. A new perspex glass roof protects the foundation remains from the elements.

The heart of the site is the large new documentation centre, housed in a striking low square silver building. Inside is a spacious permanent exhibition that provides extensive historical background information.

Thematically, the exhibition is subdivided into a number of main blocks: the Nazis' rise to power, with particular emphasis on the role of the Gestapo; the Nazis' institutions of terror, not just the SS, but with special emphasis on the role of Heinrich Himmler as head of the SS. The various groups of victims within the Third Reich are covered in the most comprehensive thematic block: political prisoners, Jews, Sinti and Roma, homosexuals, "asocial elements", the disabled, POWs/forced labourers. Next is the Nazi terror in Poland, the Soviet Union and other occupied territories. Finally we come to the end of WWII and its aftermath – with a special emphasis on the lack of prosecution of perpetrators (other than some of those of the very highest ranks). Many were "reintegrated" into post-war society instead. An "epilogue" adds some coverage of the post-1945 history/archaeology of the site as such.

The exhibition is largely text, document and photo-based, but is also augmented by means of a set of multimedia elements: audio stations, audio-visual stations (so-called projection boxes) as well as four double computer workstations for further in-depth study. Everything is bilingual in German and English, and the level of translation quality is generally high.

In addition to the main permanent exhibition there is also space for temporary ones – at the time of my last visit (November 2011) it was a German-only, photo-based special exhibition about the fact that deportations and violence against the Nazis' victims often occurred in broad daylight – i.e. before the eyes of the general public. This has of course long been replaced by a succession of different special exhibitions on other sub-topics (e.g. in late 2013 one entitled "Es Brennt" – 'Fire', commemorating the 75th anniversary of the pogroms of November 1938). To see what is currently on check the Topography's own website (topographie.de/en/exhibitions).

The basement level of the documentation centre also has a library, seminar rooms and various offices.

At the documentation centre you can hire audio-guides to take round the open-air part of the site (also available in an English version). For German and English speakers, however, the circuit is sufficiently accompanied by text panels at 15 "stations" providing the relevant historical information. 

Of these stations, a number are located along the main front of the site, parallel to the stretch of the Berlin Wall on Niederkirchnerstraße, but more are dotted around the back of the area. This whole area is now completely fenced in, so you will always have to return to the northern entrances/exits. In addition to more ex-sites of buildings that once formed part of the complex, there are also a few further original remains, most notably some basement rooms/foundations of a former SS canteen, as well as remains of an air-raid bunker.

Much of the south-eastern part of the site is still overgrown and undeveloped. Just beyond the western edge of the site a modern-looking cube of a building is in fact another pre-war structure, the so-called Europe House – now home of the Federal Ministry for Economic Co-operation and Development.

All in all, the recent upgrades and the integration of the Topography of Terror into Berlin's portfolio of memorials have to be applauded. It is a bit on the abstract side (except for the well-preserved stretch of Berlin Wall), but a visit here is very much worth any dark tourist's time when in Berlin. In fact, the site has arguably joined the ranks of the most significant dark sites in the centre of the German capital. It also complements the documentation centre of the nearby Holocaust Memorial especially well.
Location: right in the centre of Berlin, between Niederkirchnerstraße to the north (with the Berlin Wall remains), Wilhelmstraße to the east and Anhalter Straße to the south.
Google maps locator:  [52.507,13.384]
Access and costs: quite easy, free.
Details: walkable from some of central Berlin's main sights, such as the Brandenburg Gate or the central boulevard Unter den Linden. Checkpoint Charlie is just round the corner. The nearest public transport is Kochstraße metro station (U6) a block to the east, the regional metro train station Anhalter Bahnhof (S1/S2/S25) just to the south, and the hub of Potsdamer Platz (various lines) to the north-west. Bus M29 goes straight to the site (get out at the  Wilhelmstraße/Kochstraße stop).

The official address of the site is Niederkirchnerstraße No. 8. There are two entrances, though, one on the corner of Wilhelmstraße, and another in between the western end of the preserved stretch of Berlin Wall and the neighbouring Martin-Gropius-Bau.

Admission free.

Opening hours: daily from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Free guided tours of one hour duration are also offered. For individual visitors, English-language tours take place on Sundays at 3:30 p.m. (and in German at 2 p.m.); participant numbers are limited so you have to sign up at least half an hour in advance (but no advance reservations e.g. by telephone are possible). 
Group tours can also be arranged at other times and in a range of languages. These, however, are not free (except for certified educational institutions) but cost a flat fee of 70 EUR to be shared amongst the group whatever its size (but note that the minimum number of participants is seven!). You can choose between tours of the open-air site or of the indoor exhibition. Group tours have to be arranged in advance (which can be done online through the Topography's website).
Time required: this can evidently vary considerably, depending on the depth of interest in the topics covered and previous knowledge. I've heard from friends that they spent over four hours in the documentation centre alone and said they could have stayed even longer. Myself, I spent less than one hour in the main exhibition, but I only skimmed certain parts and skipped a lot, as so much of the exhibition's material was already sufficiently familiar to me (I had even seen quite a proportion of the photographic images in other exhibitions before). If, however, you really want to go through everything that's there in the form of texts to read and video/computer material to view, then I can well believe you might need a whole day. And a tough one that would be! I presume most visitors will rather try to find some degree of a compromise.
Combinations with other dark destinations: Plenty!! Several of Berlin's most important other dark sites are very near by. The topic of the Berlin Wall and Germany's post-WWII division is explored in much detail at the (extremely popular) Checkpoint Charlie Museum just down the road on the corner of Friedrichstraße and Zimmerstraße.

Just north of the Topography of Terror is one of the surviving buildings from the Nazi era: the huge complex that used to be Herman Göring's Ministry of Aviation (Luftfahrtministerium), originally constructed in 1935/36, now housing the German Federal Finance Ministry (and as such not publicly accessible inside); walk up north along Wilhelmstraße and you'll pass the large entrance area in the typical architectural style of the time.

On the northern corner of the building, at the intersection with Leipziger Straße you can, again, find a significant site associated with the GDR history of the area: the memorial to the 17 June uprising of 1953. In addition, behind the colonnades of the Ministry you can find one of the finest surviving GDR-era socialist realist murals, a fantastically OTT celebration of communism, hilarious in its insular location today (for a photo see Berlin). Interestingly, it covers up earlier Nazi symbolism that the GDR did away with through the present mural. Unusually, the GDR mural did not suffer the same fate of revisionist removal – as in so many other instances, most notably the Palace of the Republic.  

Walk up further along Wilhelmstraße (past the fantastically ugly hulk of the Czech embassy and an intriguing derelict building complex opposite) and you get to the former site of Hitler's Reich Chancellery. Nothing remains of it on site, but the red marble you find cladding the walls in the metro station Mohrenstraße just opposite was taken from the Chancellery (by the Soviets – who also used some of it at their War memorial in Treptower Park).

Possibly Berlin's most infamous site, that of Hitler's Führerbunker (the place where he committed suicide), used to be located a bit further north still, beyond what is today the street An der Kolonnade. You'd never guess the historic gravity of the place – it's just a boring late-GDR-era housing complex and a car park. That's why the Führerbunker has been dubbed "the world's most famous non-site" (by Williams 2007, p.86). However, an information panel, put up as late as 2006 by the car park entrance on Gertrud-Kolmar-Straße, now at least marks the spot and provides some basic historical background (it's the work of the Berliner Unterwelten, by the way). The roller-coaster ride of historical contrasts continues yet further north-west – with the vast Holocaust Memorial on Hannah-Arendt-Straße, whose documentation centre further explores the very darkest part of the dark Nazi history, namely the "final solution" in the Holocaust

If you walk south down Wilhelmstraße from the eastern entrance to the Topography of Terror and then turn right and walk down Anhalter Straße westwards you get to the Anhalter Bahnhof station ruins (themselves a monument of WWII commemoration) and the nearby bunker – in its exhibition about the whole topic of Nazi-era bunkers and air-raid shelters in general there's also a special section about the Führerbunker and its demolition.

All along Wilhelmstraße there are various perspex information panels (German and English) that point out what buildings (many Nazi-government-related) used to stand at the various spots, together with brief historical notes.

For yet more see under Berlin in general.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Right next door to the west of the Topography of Terror site is the Martin-Gropius-Bau, a fine late 19th century edifice, which hosts various temporary art exhibitions. Further westwards, Stresemannstraße takes you to Potsdamer Platz with its extraordinary modern architecture. Other highlights of central Berlin that are within walking distance include the Gendarmenmarkt to the north-east (with its concert hall and symmetric pair of churches), and the main central boulevard Unter den Linden further north still.

In general see under Berlin.
  • ToT 01 - Topography of Terror with Berlin Wall remainsToT 01 - Topography of Terror with Berlin Wall remains
  • ToT 02 - Berlin WallToT 02 - Berlin Wall
  • ToT 03 - with graffitiToT 03 - with graffiti
  • ToT 04 - wall and foundationsToT 04 - wall and foundations
  • ToT 05 - Gestapo basement remains and WallToT 05 - Gestapo basement remains and Wall
  • ToT 06 - new documentation centreToT 06 - new documentation centre
  • ToT 07 - inside the documentation centreToT 07 - inside the documentation centre
  • ToT 08 - model of the surrounding area as it was in 1939ToT 08 - model of the surrounding area as it was in 1939
  • ToT 09 - mostly text and photosToT 09 - mostly text and photos
  • ToT 10 - but also a mix of mediaToT 10 - but also a mix of media
  • ToT 11 - computer workstationToT 11 - computer workstation
  • ToT 13 - temporary exhibition of a few years agoToT 13 - temporary exhibition of a few years ago
  • ToT 14 - main desk with audio-guidesToT 14 - main desk with audio-guides
  • ToT 15 - back outside in the open-air topographyToT 15 - back outside in the open-air topography
  • ToT 16 - open-air information panelToT 16 - open-air information panel
  • ToT 17 - basement remains of an SS supply barrack discovered in 1987ToT 17 - basement remains of an SS supply barrack discovered in 1987
  • ToT 18 - overgrown part and more rubbleToT 18 - overgrown part and more rubble
  • ToT 19 - sunset over the Topography of Terror in BerlinToT 19 - sunset over the Topography of Terror in Berlin

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