Military History Museum, Dresden
A new museum in Dresden
that has to be regarded as the boldest military museum ever attempted! Unlike your usual army museum with its typical glorifying slant and focus on the technological side of warfare, this museum aims at casting its net infinitely wider – and in the process does not omit the truly nasty sides of war.
This approach is all the more remarkable as this is the 'official' museum of Germany
's armed forces, the Bundeswehr. Truly exceptional and not to be missed when in Dresden.
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info:
The military museum in Dresden
has had a long and chequered history (almost as chequered as the military history of Germany
itself – although that's probably an exaggeration …). In its first inception it was simply the display of collections of weapons that formed part of the purpose-built barracks and arsenal complex in Dresden's Albertstadt suburb, then (1876) the largest such military building ensemble in the world. Initially, the exhibition of weapons was for the Saxon military itself. It was only in 1897 that it was opened to the general public.
As you would expect, the approach and purpose of that exhibition was one of glorification of victories … not least to advertise military service but also to consolidate the perception of the monarchy as the rightful masters.
With both the monarchy and the "glory" of war gone at the end of World War One
, the museum's former purpose also seemed redundant and void. That of course changed again with the general militarization in the Third Reich
, when the museum was revamped and incorporated into the new Wehrmacht administration system.
As in other places, the Nazis
also made sure that valuable exhibits were hidden away during WWII
). They needn't have bothered: while the old town of Dresden
was more or less completely incinerated in the night-time bombing raids of February 1945, the Albertstadt and the Army Museum got away unscathed.
Following WWII, Dresden and Saxony became part of the Soviet occupied zone. At first the museum's future was again quite uncertain. Many exhibits had been taken away by the Soviets, others were scattered around various locations – and most importantly, the Allies had outlawed any further exhibitions of a military character in occupied Germany
As the GDR
developed as a socialist one-party state and became militarized again under the aegis of the Warsaw Pact
and the big "brother state" that was the USSR
, this slowly changed yet again. It took some time for the museum to be recreated but when it did reopen in 1971 it was apparently a very modern one for its time, and had a lot to show for it. However, the general approach had to be guided, of course, by the given communist
leitmotifs of "revolutionary glory" and "destiny" as well as a celebration of the "anti-fascist struggle" that so often dominated GDR memorial museums (see e.g. Buchenwald
, Münchner Platz
). Further particular emphasis had to be given to the role of East Germany's NVA ("Nationale Volksarmee" or 'national people's army') as a beacon in the stand against the menace that the capitalist imperialist West was seen to pose for the East.
As we all know this role and its political context were not to last either. After the collapse of the Eastern Bloc
and the dissolution of the GDR
and its military, the museum's future was yet again hanging in the balance. It soon became clear that the West German military would have to have a say in this as not only the countries' societies and political make-up were to "merge" with reunification (with a decidedly Western lead role in all this) but also its militaries. The Bundeswehr, i.e. the FRG's military, already had a museum in the west, namely in Rastatt (near the border with France
, i.e. far
west), which it had planned to expand anyway. Now the ex-GDR's equivalent was falling into their lap (being state-owned), it created an exceptional chance to really come up with something big. Indeed, it was already decided in 1991, by the then defence minister (a historian!) to turn the Dresden site into the new central national museum of military history.
The next decade or so was spent devising an all-new concept of what the museum was to be and how it was to be implemented. In 2001, a competition for designs of the architectural side of the reconstruction of the museum was held, and the submission by the famous US architect Daniel Libeskind was chosen. Actual construction started in 2004, and after various delays, was finished in 2011.
The new museum opened in October 2011. I remember well that it was given a special report in Germany's main TV news and how praise was heaped on the museum's unusual and daring approach. I instantly decided that it had to be incorporated into this website and that I had to go and see it. In March 2013 I finally managed to do so. I had come with high expectations, and they were certainly fulfilled. It's engrossing, challenging and thought-provoking, more so than any other military museum I've ever encountered anywhere else in the world.
The museum's overall approach does indeed constitute a radical departure from what military exhibitions have traditionally always been like. Not only does it not glorify Germany
's particularly dark contributions to the history of war and militarization (namely in WWI
and the Nazi
era). That much was to be expected. But the museum does not glorify any military or war per se, in fact it is at times almost brutally frank about the very nasty sides of all this for the people
involved, i.e. about the pain, suffering and death that forms such an integral part of any warfare and in particular in the modern day and age. It really does challenge the traditional "institutionalized" outlook on the whole subject matter.
Given that the museum is actually run under the auspices of the Bundeswehr, and given the fact that the museum now constitutes the Bundeswehr's main outreach to the general public through such an institution, this modern approach can only be regarded as remarkably daring. I couldn't help but wondering as I went through the museum and saw various young men in uniform or combat fatigues, how many of the young recruits experiencing this museum quietly think to themselves "shit, what have I let myself in for?!"
That's what I meant when I said that this must be the boldest military museum ever attempted. Maybe it could only have happened in Germany
. It would be pretty much unthinkable in countries such as Japan
or the USA
. The Bundeswehr has always tried to portray itself as a modern army also in the sense of its mindset and openness to contemporary society. In the past this has very often looked rather feeble to me, even painfully "put on" at times. But this museum is something different altogether. I stand corrected and mightily impressed. Hats off.
From the particular perspective of dark tourism, too, you could hardly wish for a better military museum. Especially its coverage of contemporary aspects is exceptional. This is not about revelling in old glories, far from it, but rather about putting the finger in where it hurts, and not shying away from very current difficult issues either. Outstanding.
What there is to see: To make it absolutely clear from the start yet again: this is an unusual military museum. If you're after the typical glorification of war and military life, then you might be disturbed by this museum's approach. It does have displays of big tanks and such hardware, but for the most part the focus is very different and often challenging.
Before you even get inside, the museum's ostentatious "break" with tradition, which is also seen in its logo, most visually manifests itself in the architecture that greets you as you approach the building: the classicist style of the old Royal Arsenal is drastically "deconstructed" (as they call it) by the massive metal "wedge" designed by Daniel Libeskind. This seems to literally slice the old building in two. The gleaming silver metal lattice structure that soars higher than the rest of the building to the left of the main portal is definitely the new point of focus. It really is quite stunning to behold.
Also outside, just below the silver "wedge" en route to the entrance stands a tank that is completely covered in colourful knitwear … knitting for peace, is the obvious enough message here. If you find this a bit shallow, don't worry, it gets infinitely better in the museum as such.
Inside, the permanent exhibition is really two museums in one. The old parts of the former arsenal building contain the somewhat more traditional exhibitions that are ordered chronologically, as is customary for military history museums elsewhere. The modern extension in the Daniel Libeskind "wedge" part of the museum, on the other hand, breaks with all traditions of museum-commodification of war and military. Here, instead of simple chronologies of wars, battle dioramas and stories of heroism, a particular "thematic" approach is pursued, i.e. a number of "war and X" angles are picked out, each shedding a different light on the topic of war and military history.
As this modern part is definitely the more significant half, let's begin with this, from the top, literally, as you are instructed to first take the lift to the fourth floor and then work your way down.
It all begins inside that big wedge. You're in a more or less triangular space at the far end of which a walkway leads through the wedge to its outermost point. Through the metal mesh that the outer skin is made of you get views over the surrounding environs and Dresden
's old town skyline in the distance. (Owing to the wintry weather at the time of my visit in March 2013, the outer walkway into the wedge was temporarily closed, though.)
The indoor part of the fourth floor has three parts: one is a section of firestorm-damaged pavement from Dresden, the others pick out two other places that were severely damaged by air raids before Dresden, and by German bombs: Rotterdam in the Netherlands
and Wieluń in Poland
. The latter was the very first place to suffer that fate, as it was the first target of the German Luftwaffe as Germany
invaded Poland on 1 September 1939. In a sense, then, it was the starting gun of WWII
After this symbolism-heavy intro you make your way down the first flight of stairs. What follows are eleven "themes": war and memory, politics and the use of force, music and the military, fashion and the military, language and the military, war and play, animals in the military, war and suffering, the formation of bodies, technology and the military, and protection and destruction. The titles alone make it clear that some of these angles are quite unconventional.
It's impossible to cover all this in detail, so instead I will just pick out certain highlights that I found especially noteworthy and interesting. For starters there is the whole unusual space. It's typical Daniel Libeskind: few right angles, small spaces contrasting with huge ones, broken lines, lots of zig-zagging, and at times it's all a bit disorienting (cf. also the Jewish Museum
The design of the exhibition as such is also at times very unusual. Especially in the sections 'war and memory' and 'music and the military', the display cases, tall as wardrobes, are placed so close together that the narrow space between the two sides is barely wide enough for two or more people at the same time. It can create a certain oppressive atmosphere when confronting the displays and exhibits inside – and that too is no doubt deliberate.
Amongst the eleven themes, the ones of music and fashion are perhaps the most unexpected, especially as this does not only extend to a view from within the military (i.e. military marches and uniforms), but also how themes of war and military were taken up outside their actual locus, e.g. in pop music and modern fashion designs such as those of Vivienne Westwood.
The section on 'war and play' is particularly rich in remarkable artefacts and has some stunning war toys on display, including several of decidedly dubious taste. An exceptionally poignant piece in this context is a partly melted toy tank found in the rubble of Dresden
after the firestorms of February 1945. Play and reality could hardly collide more harshly.
The darkest and most challenging sections are naturally those that are about the pain and suffering – and death! – caused by warfare. Here a few deformed objects from the A-bombed
city of Hiroshima
stand out, as does the broken skull of a soldier who had decided to take his own life by shooting himself through the mouth. Somewhat less lethal but still ugly medical aspects such as prosthetic limbs or shrapnel embedded in bones are also to be seen here.
There are some big exhibits too, including, unavoidably, large weaponry, such as guns, shells, bombs and missiles. Particularly arty and impressive is the ensemble of such weapons suspended on wires in such a way that it looks like they're in mid-trajectory. You see this from different angles, from balconies on the various upper levels of the exhibition, and from directly below on the ground floor.
The very largest object in this part of the museum is a complete V2
rocket. It stands upright on the ground floor and "pokes" through the next three floors so that you can see the tip from the third floor and the base when you arrive at the bottom.
Behind the V2 an object is hanging from the ceiling that is possibly the most famous and historically most valuable single artefact in the museum: the Soyuz-29 capsule in which Germany's first man in space, GDR
cosmonaut Sigmund Jähn, returned from his mission in 1978 (incidentally: the Haus der Geschichte in Bonn
has his spacesuit).
The chronologically organized second half of the museum is split into three main parts: 1914-1945 with the two World Wars and 1945 to the present day on the 1st floor, and a section labelled 1300-1914 on the ground floor. The latter I gave a miss altogether. For one thing I was already running out of time and still wanted to see the special temporary exhibition (see below), and secondly I reckoned that it would have little of relevance to the modern concept of dark tourism
as something mainly concerned with 20th century and contemporary history. Having read up on this section afterwards I think the only relevant bit that I really did miss out on was that about the German Imperial Army's brutal crushing of the Herero uprising in South-West Africa (today's Namibia) – which is often regarded as the first genocide
of the 20th century.
The World War One
sections at first look more conventional, with their displays of big guns and uniforms and the like. However, even here, the different approaches of this museum come through, especially in some bizarre installation such as the cavalry rider sans horse, suspended in a red-lit glass cabinet (see photos
The story of the two World Wars is probably familiar enough to most readers and visitors of the museum, so we can keep it brief here. The exhibition also covers the societal and political backgrounds, and in particular of course the Nazi
era. Not only its aggression that led to WWII
, also the Holocaust
is a topic here. The latter is, amongst other things, represented by an installation made from concentration camp
victims' shoes (namely from Majdanek
). The war part is illustrated with some large artefacts too, including pieces of plane wreckage and a V2 engine.
Good as that section doubtlessly is, the really fascinating section is the one concerning the period after 1945 to the present day. Here, the story slips into two strands at first, that of the West and that of the East, as the Cold War
division of the world into two blocs became the dominating theme of that time.
The East German side has coverage of the formation of the NVA, various items of socialist realism
and propaganda, and also accounts of the Berlin Wall
and the border security forces of the GDR
. A segment of the Wall is on display too.
For the West German part, its integration into NATO
plays a prominent role, but also the Bundeswehr's role in society at large and its efforts to portray itself as a protector of democracy and freedom. Co-operation with the USA
is illustrated, including German personnel serving in reconnaissance operations … a complete AWACS operator's console is on display here.
More problematic aspects get a mention too, e.g. the highly controversial acquisition of hundreds of Lockheed F-104 Starfighter jets in the 1960s. It was controversial on the political level because the manufacturer apparently resorted to bribing the relevant politicians in Europe (a similar scandal engulfed the Netherlands
in the 1970s, Japan
were also involved). Politics aside, the Starfighter was also a particularly problematic plane in practical terms: it was so accident-prone that it was given the nickname "Witwenmacher" or 'widow-maker'. Almost 30% of all German Starfighters were lost in crashes. The museum has an ejector seat from such a plane on display.
The Cold War
era naturally includes a section about the issues of deterrence and nuclear warfare, also covering the controversy this caused in German society and elsewhere, especially in the 1980s peace movement. Amongst the displays in this section is a practice grenade for the 203mm calibre tactical nuclear weapon that the USA
would have delivered to the Bundeswehr only in a crisis situation. Germany
never had any atomic bombs
of its own.
The most interesting section I found to be the ones concerning the post-Cold War era and the new challenges it posed. Obviously, the themes of international participation of the Bundeswehr e.g. in Afghanistan and the whole issue of terrorism are key elements in this section.
One artefact in the latter area that stands out is a suicide bomber's "training belt"! I had never even imagined that practising/tuition in such crude suicide missions was even undertaken. It made my jaw drop.
The effects of bombings are most drastically illustrated by the display of a German ISAF jeep that fell victim to an ambush in Kunduz in 2004. You can see the holes torn by the shrapnel. The three German soldiers in the jeep were severely injured. It is certainly one of the museum's most poignant exhibits – in particular as it concerns issues that are so contemporary. It is here that history really meets the present day.
As will have become clear from the descriptions above, the museum is very rich in the display of authentic artefacts, but it also uses imagery, works of art and various documents – all accompanied by explanatory texts, which are never too overbearingly long. But there are also touchscreen-operated multimedia stations where visitors can probe deeper. That way you can tailor the amount of information you want to take in to your own personal preferences. A good balance!
The explanatory texts and labels in the permanent exhibition are all bilingual, German and English, and the interactive computer stations offer a choice of languages too. In addition, visitors can hire audio-guides at the reception desk. So foreigners are fairly well catered for too. This quality of service too is thus fully up to the highest contemporary standards.
Complementing the museum's permanent exhibitions were also two temporary exhibitions at the time of my visit (March 2013) – one was incorporated into the main modern part of the museum and consisted of one large room filled with text panels telling the stories of various people involved in Germany
's current problem with resurgent right-wing extremism. Especially gripping were the accounts of perpetrators from that scene who managed to get out of the clutches of these neo-Nazi networks and now help in educating the young so that they can avoid being sucked into this vortex. This exhibition was in German only.
The other, bigger, temporary exhibition had the topic of Stalingrad (see Volgograd
), and an extra admission fee was charged (see details below
). I must say that this part impressed me far less than the rest of the museum. Maybe it was just because I was already getting museum-ed out, as it were, as it had been a very long day and it was getting quite late in the evening. But it could also be that the necessarily narrower focus made this exhibition much less captivating than the main one. The Stalingrad exhibition was split into two parts as well, the main one on the ground floor of the museum building had the smaller artefacts and relied much more on documents (e.g. soldiers' photo albums), photos and texts. The second half was in a separate side building and contained the really large objects, mainly tanks, guns and planes. Fans of such big war gear would probably find it cool, to me it was rather a pretty boring anticlimax to what otherwise had been a superb museum experience.
One final word about the outdoor parts of the museum. When I visited (March 2013) it was already dark by the time I had finished indoors, so I didn't really get to see these larger exhibits – I only caught a glimpse of them out of a window of the main exhibition at dusk. But then again I have few regrets about this, as to me all tanks more or less look the same anyway.
Overall: the thematic exhibition part in the new Libeskind annexe alone makes this museum worth travelling for. It is truly outstanding. The more traditional chronologically organized museum parts are quite good too, but here it is mainly the very recent and contemporary issues that fascinate more than the older parts, although some of the WWII and Cold War parts are quite engrossing too. As military museums go, this is without any doubt top-notch, and that in a very unusual and challenging way.
It's not an "easy" museum, though. While so many military museums in the world squarely aim at the entertainment value of and fascination with military technology, here this aspect plays at best a minor role. There is a certain entertainment value to be derived from it here too, OK, but this is frequently disrupted, quite deliberately, by thought-provoking and at times hard-going coverage of the darker and nastier sides of war and military, its relationships with civilian society at large and the vulnerability of the individual. For that daring approach alone the museum deserves the highest praise. Highly recommended.
in the north of Dresden
, on Olbrichtplatz 2, between Stauffenbergallee and Königsbrücker Straße.
Access and costs: some way out of the city centre but fairly easy to reach by public transport; excellent value for money.
Details: The location of the museum north of Dresden Neustadt may just about be walkable from the city centre; it's about 2-3 miles (4 km). But for many people that distance will require public transport. Fortunately that's not a problem at all, as two tram lines, No 7 and 8, go past quite near it. Bus No 64 goes there as well. The stop to get out at is Stauffenbergallee. Then walk eastwards on that street until you come to the access road that leads north to the museum.
The museum does not recommended getting there by car, as parking is limited. When I was there (on foot) I did see plenty of spaces available, though. Decide for yourself if you want to take your chances or not …
to the museum now costs 5 EUR, or 7 EUR for a combination ticket that also gives you entry to the temporary exhibition space on the ground floor (and sometimes ancillary buildings – there is no separate ticket for just the temporary exhibition). It used to be free of charge when the museum first opened its doors, but given what superb value for money you get you can't really argue with the level of the admission fee now introduced. There are various concessions (students, recipients of benefits, etc., who pay only 3 EUR); and under-18-year-olds, disabled persons as well as members of any NATO
military get in for free.
Opening times: daily except Wednesdays (!) from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; open late on Mondays: to 9 p.m. (that's unusual – normally Monday is the typical day off for most museums).
Time required: a lot! I went in the afternoon on a Monday when the museum is open late (to 9 p.m.) and barely managed to get through it before closing time. So that was about five hours. But I felt that I had rushed it. So this museum is really one for an entire long day if you really want to do it justice, better still spread it over two days if you intend to really get to the bottom of it. If you don't have that much time (or the prerequisite "museum stamina"), then do plan ahead which bits you want to see and which you think you can skip altogether – and then keep an eye on the clock. It is that demanding.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
see under Dresden
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
see under Dresden
- MHM 01 - facade with daring modern addition
- MHM 02 - Daniel Libeskind wedge and tank covered in knitware
- MHM 03 - even the sign indicates the different approach
- MHM 04 - inside the wedge
- MHM 05 - top floor
- MHM 06 - modern
- MHM 07 - the themes of the modern section
- MHM 08 - war and music
- MHM 09 - a variant of dark tourism
- MHM 10 - war and fashion
- MHM 11 - war and animals
- MHM 12 - war and suffering
- MHM 13 - war toy
- MHM 14 - war game of dubious taste
- MHM 14b - toy tank destroyed in the Dresden firestorm
- MHM 15 - genuine Hiroshima relic
- MHM 16 - drastic exhibit
- MHM 17 - missile shower
- MHM 18 - on target
- MHM 19 - shadows of war
- MHM 20 - V2 and Soyuz
- MHM 21 - Soyuz capsule
- MHM 22 - horseless soldier
- MHM 23 - Majdanek shoes
- MHM 24 - more traditional war gear exhibits
- MHM 25 - plane wreck bits and V2 engine
- MHM 26 - GDR era
- MHM 27 - NATO
- MHM 28 - AWACS operator station
- MHM 29 - scary Eddie version
- MHM 30 - scary modern weapon
- MHM 31 - bomb disposal robot
- MHM 32 - practise belt for suicide bombers
- MHM 33 - modern missions
- MHM 34 - ambush-destroyed ISAF jeep
- MHM 35 - limited protection
- MHM 36 - apparently Obelix was here too
- MHM 37 - big exhibits outside
- MHM 38 - and more in a separate hangar
- MHM 39 - the facade by night