Haus der Geschichte, Bonn
The main museum about Germany
's rich and intriguing post-war history
. It's a huge state-of-the-art affair and absolutely outstanding. If you have any interest in modern history in general and Germany's in particular, this is the No.1 must-see institution. One of the greatest history museums in the world. Period.
Just think of the main facets that fall into that period: the occupation by the four victorious Allies of WWII and the reconstruction of Germany, all this at the beginning of the Cold War
. The descent of the Iron Curtain
, which ran right through the middle of the now divided Germany
– with the FRG
emerging in the West, with US/Allied support, and the GDR
in the East as one of the Soviet Union
's satellite states of the Eastern Bloc
. The Berlin Wall
symbol of this division.
That is: from a global perspective, Germany was the very pivotal location of that great divide that dominated world politics for nearly five decades. Locally, it means we are actually dealing with two
histories, that of the West and
that of the East, with all their very characteristic differences. One such difference was that between the democratization and social market economy pursued in the West (albeit with many difficulties) vs. the planned socialist
economy based on nationalization and collectivization in the East, together with increasing repression, including the excessive surveillance of the people by the GDR's infamous spying network of the Stasi
In the end Germany was also the crucial locale in the overcoming of that East-West division, with the opening of the Berlin Wall
in 1989, the subsequent reunification into a single German state and the repercussions this had especially in the remainder of the Eastern Bloc
. Parts of the latter had already been in a state of flux anyway (especially Poland
), but the rapid developments in Germany at that time acted like a catalyst for the demise of the remaining communist regimes in countries such as the CSSR
Within West Germany until that period of change, history had also been full of varied facets: the economic miracle and cultural Americanization. The coming to terms with grim legacy of the Third Reich
(or the lack of such facing up to it!). The "rebellious" 1960s (actually only really from 1967), with all its street violence and challenging of old cultural baggage. The phase of left-wing terrorism of the R.A.F.
, culminating in the bombings, assassinations and plane hijackings of the 1970s. The emergence of the Green Party. The anti-nuke and peace movements in the 1980s. The new role of reunified Germany within the EU and NATO
after 1990. And all that's just a brief gloss!
Let's face it, few countries in the world could compete with Germany
in terms of such a varied and tumultuous history over the past ca. three quarters of a century. So proper coverage of that history in the form of a modern museum is more than justified – it's of immense importance.
Of course, getting such huge amounts of history knocked into the shape of a digestible museum exhibition that is both educational and entertaining without being overbearing is a very tall order indeed. In view of that, the job that the Haus der Geschichte in Bonn has made of it is even more commendable. It really is an outstanding museum in virtually every respect.
What there is to see: a lot!!! If you are one of those people who thought there wasn't much to German post-war history, this museum will show you otherwise! And that in a very engrossing and even entertaining way.
The contents of the permanent exhibition are roughly ordered chronologically. Since this museum is only about post
-war history it all begins with the so-called "Stunde Null" ('zero hour'), i.e. immediately after the capitulation of Nazi Germany
and the beginning of the Allied occupation of the country. This is symbolized right at the beginning of the exhibition space by a US army jeep and a destroyed Nazi eagle-and-swastika emblem.
A brief look back in time to what had caused this situation to come about is granted too. There's a small section about WWII
and the crimes of the Nazis
, the Holocaust
in particular. But since that is not the main focus of this museum, the coverage of these things remains rather brief and is more for putting things into a proper context.
The first post-war section proper is about aspects such as: the search for missing/displaced persons, the Allies' taking over of governance and administration (and their destroying or stealing as trophies old Nazi symbols), or the clearing up of all the rubble in the war-devastated cities. The latter is illustrated with some film footage – e.g. from Dresden
. Images of even zoo elephants drafted in to help clear the rubble in Hamburg was something I found especially moving.
The early stages of the division of Germany and the world are a main focus too, and a particularly dramatic episode in this, the Berlin
blockade and airlift (see e.g. Allied Museum
), is given especially rich coverage. Amongst the artefacts on display are a mock walk-through cargo plane of the kind used in the airlift, the sort of planes affectionately known as "Rosinenbomber" (literally 'raisin bombers') or 'candy bombers' in the then US parlance. In one display box there is even a model plane crusted literally with raisins.
An astonishing amount of attention is given to the developments in the East, as the communist
regime installed and supported by the Soviet Union
tightened its grip, while at the same time the rift between the two power blocs became more and more entrenched. To be honest, I wouldn't have expected such a visual representation of socialist glorification in what is essentially a Western museum. Maybe that partly explains why I found these bits so fascinating. Numerous posters, documents and socialist realism
statuary are on display. There is even a full-on Stalin
shrine, complete with paintings and various busts, representing that time until 1953.
In June 1953, shortly after Stalin's death, came one of the most significant events in early post-war German history in the East: the uprising of 17 June – and the brutal crushing of this revolt by the Soviet army. To represent this there is even a (mock?) T-34 tank on display.
Though smaller, the most poignant artefact in this section, however, is most probably the camera that Richard Perlia used to secretly document the uprising and subsequent violence. Through his images the episode became known in the West. He took great personal risks shooting these pictures, that's why he had the camera camouflaged in a hollowed-out book, which is also on display.
Developments in the West are covered too, of course. Here, cultural and economic aspects are the next main focus. The economic miracle, partly thanks to US aid, brought not only quick prosperity but also a hefty degree of Americanization of culture, be it in cinema, music or fashion and design. Independent of that, sports achievements also get a passing mention, such as the first football World Cup victory for Germany
On the political front, the question of atomic weapons
was one focus of the time … the FRG
's first chancellor Konrad Adenauer wanted them for the new German military, but was obviously enough denied this ambition by the Americans. It was also an issue protested against by large parts of the populace. At the same time the Cold War was reaching unprecedented threat levels in a phase of almost unbridled nuclear testing
by both superpowers.
The Cold War
is also amply represented in the museum through coverage of some events outside Germany, especially the Cuban
missile crisis as well as the shooting down of an American U2 spy plane over Russia
, of which a few pieces of wreckage are on display in the exhibition.
At a local and civilian level, the developments of the trade unions in West Germany is covered, as are technological landmarks of the time, such as the Volkswagen "Käfer" ('Beetle').
One of the largest artefact ensembles of the museum is also here: part of the original furniture from the old Bundestag parliament in Bonn (cf. Reichstag
), with its plain black foldable seats. You can actually sit down in them – and through little interactive implements activate selected political debates of the time (probably only of interest to Germans who can recall those times themselves).
Back in the East: the glorious and not so glorious aspects of socialist development in the GDR
are picked up again, such as: increasing collectivization and industrialization. There's even a copy of a genuine five-year plan on display.
A very special moment of glory for the East was also the fact that the first German in space was from the GDR, namely Sigmund Jähn, who took part in a Soviet Soyuz mission in 1978 – his spacesuit is a particular jewel amongst the museum's exhibits. (Another extremely valuable artefact in this space-related section, namely a piece of moon rock from the US Apollo 12 mission, was at the time of my visit not on display, unfortunately, as it was being integrated into a new temporary exhibition in the foyer that hadn't yet opened.)
The nastier sides of the GDR regime are illustrated too: the Stasi
and its methods of spying and repression, the prison system (cf. especially Bautzen
) and, of course, the building of the Wall … not only the Berlin Wall
proper, but the whole border fortification that became the Iron Curtain
's most dramatic and brutal stretch.
In this context, John F. Kennedy's visit to West Berlin
in June 1963 is given a special mention too, in particular his speech in front of a million people during which he uttered that famous line "Ich bin ein Berliner". On display is a facsimile(?) of JFK's hand-written note of this, written in a kind of "phonetic" spelling to help him get the pronunciation halfway right ('ish bin ein Bearleener'). He was later mocked as allegedly having said a line that translates back into English as "I am a jam-filled doughnut". In parts of Germany "Berliner" is indeed the word for such a thing – but not in Berlin, where they are called "Pfannkuchen" (which in the rest of Germany in turn means 'pancake' – so much for German dialectal complications). So JFK was actually quite correct in using this figurative line and there wouldn't really have been any misunderstanding amongst his audience at the time.
Much larger exhibits include a complete GDR
border crossing checkpoint cabin, of the type that was in use e.g. at the so-called Tränenpalast
As a kind of Western equivalent, a part of a police water-cannon truck is on display. This leads into the topic of the rising protest culture of the 1960s and 70s, and the often heavy-handed reaction against demonstrations on the part of the police.
The protest movements had various aims, one was to get rid of the anachronistic traditions in German universities but also in society in general. It had a lot of roots in leftist ideologies, and accordingly many an iconic face of communism
is to be seen here, from Che Guevara to Mao
, from Marx
to Ho Chi Minh
. The latter was of course also an icon of the ongoing Vietnam War
that made the USA
many enemies amongst the protest and civil rights movements of the time.
The 1960s and early 1970s were of course also a period of deep cultural changes. On the lighter side there was the "Flower Power" hippie movement with its very own fashion tendencies that today can look quite amusing. A kind of icon of this time was the VW bus or camper van, and the museum has one on display that is painted in pink and rainbow stripes and inside has the typical sheepskin rugs that were so popular at the time.
The flip side of the cultural shift to the left in that era was left-wing extremism. One faction of this went on to start full-blown terrorist organizations. The most significant of these in Germany was the R.A.F.
, which originally emerged out of the student protest movement but then drifted into the underground and took up organized violence. In particular it targeted, kidnapped or downright assassinated high-ranking figures in politics and commerce seen as representing the capitalist "pig state". ('Schweinestaat' was a common derogatory term to refer to the prevailing political system – and to a degree still is.) In the mid-1970s these terrorists sought ties with Palestinian groups too, who had already made their mark in Germany with the 1972 Olympic Games massacre of Israeli athletes (see under Munich
). The museum has on display an early banner calling for political murder, allegedly made by one of the later R.A.F. terrorists.
The era also brought changes in the economy – including a decline in the traditional mining and heavy-industry of West Germany, represented in the display of miners' clothes and a big mine-shaft wheel. On the other hand there were aspects of progress in medicine, with both positive and negative effects. A definitely positive one was the pill arriving as the most effective means of birth control, which in turn also fostered the sexual revolution of the time. Amongst the negative aspects was in particular the thalidomide scandal, known in Germany under the brand name "Contergan". This was a sleeping pill also taken by pregnant women as a remedy for morning sickness, but which as a side effect caused a flood of birth defects in the early 1960s. By the end of the 1970s the affected children would reach adulthood. The museum has a display cabinet juxtaposing these two pharmaceutical developments.
The 1970s had also seen the first oil crises, when the OPEC countries restricted their exports to the West and/or artificially inflated prices. In Germany that had even led to a ban on driving cars on Sundays for a short while. In the longer run, it boosted the development of nuclear power generation as a perceived "safe" alternative.
The protest movement, however, found a new target and enemy in this. The Chernobyl
disaster only underscored this and in Germany, possibly more than anywhere else, that name, spelt 'Tschernobyl' in German, became the general byword for the threat that more and more people now began to see in the atomic energy industry.
The anti-nukes movement essentially gave rise to the emergence of the Green Party, which today is still such an important political factor in Germany, much more so than in most other countries. Another cause it was integrally involved in was the peace movement of the 1980s. And this brings us back to the Cold War
The peace movement in Germany gained momentum especially in the context of the NATO
Double-Track Decision ("NATO-Doppelbeschluss" in German). As a counterweight to the Soviet Union
's deployment of SS-20 intermediate-range nuclear missiles in the East, the USA
and NATO planned to deploy their own equivalent Pershing II system in West Germany … unless the Soviets removed their missiles. Of course they didn't comply and so the Pershing missiles were deployed and became a symbol of the increased concerns of the Cold War turning hot. That was so especially because the shorter-range rockets so crucially reduced the warning time for a counter-attack, thus increasing the reliance on automatic systems and thus the likelihood of a Third World War
brought about accidentally.
Such a potential nuclear Armageddon is illustrated quite drastically at the museum in the form of a model diorama of what the city of Bonn would have looked like after a nuclear strike. The model is quite lovingly made, in fact. But it serves as a reminder that had it really come to this, then the whole of Germany
would have been more or less completely wiped off the face of the earth, turned into a permanently uninhabitable radioactive desert.
Of course we were fortunately spared that ultimate madness (cf. M.A.D.
). And one of the reasons for the end of the Cold War
came about in Germany. However, it was not so much the achievement of the peace movement in the West, but rather due to political changes in the East. In the course of Gorbachev's Glasnost and Perestroika policies (which also led to disarmament treaties of the superpowers) the Eastern Bloc
's regimes were already beginning to crumble, first in Poland
mainly, but eventually also in the GDR
The peaceful revolution in the GDR in 1989 which led to the fall of the Berlin Wall
and eventually reunification in 1990 is naturally celebrated in this museum. Little wonder. It probably was the phase in post-war German history that also attracted the most attention from the outside world. So I reckon this section will be especially popular with foreign visitors.
The museum has banners used in the protests of 1989, also an unavoidable display of a Trabi car (until then the main GDR-made passenger car and an absolute Eastern icon), a couple of segments of the Berlin Wall
(also predictably) and various other GDR relics. This section can't quite compete with what can be seen in the various museums in the East (cf. Berlin
, etc.) but it's still pretty good.
The post-reunification phase of recent history up to the present day naturally can't quite keep the pace and excitement of the earlier sections. The complications of integration of East and West society and the economic difficulties of the welfare state over the last two decades just don't have the same suspense and "glamour level" as the earlier phases.
An ensemble of exhibits of contemporary poignancy, however, is the one illustrating the current military involvement of Germany in places such as Afghanistan. On display is, amongst other things, a damaged door of an armoured vehicle that in 2009 got caught up in a Taliban ambush (cf. also the military history museum in Dresden
Also towards the end of the main permanent exhibition is a section about the challenges of migration, globalization and of climate change
– but such topics are notoriously resistant to convincing museum commodification, and this exhibition is no exception (but cf. Fjaerland
). So after an otherwise thrilling ride, it all ends with a bit of an anti-climax. But that's not really the museum's fault, only history's, as it were.
Also part of the museum is a section that is somewhat dislocated from the main exhibition and thus potentially rather easy to miss: this is in the underpass leading to the underground metro station and comprises some of the largest exhibits the museum has to offer. One is the special train carriage in which German chancellors travelled in comfort and security to difficult places such as Moscow
(Adenauer in 1955) or the GDR
(Willy Brandt in 1973). Next to the rail carriage stands Adenauer's original gleaming black limousine from the 1950s.
Also separate from the main exhibition is a vast collection of political caricatures – but these I did not get to see, as I had run out of time. I just about managed to get through the main exhibition before closing time. I would presume, however, that such a collection will presuppose a lot of background knowledge about details of German post-war history and the political figures involved, and thus may not be of that much interest to international visitors.
What I did manage to see during my visit in April 2013, because I went to see it before I proceeded to the permanent exhibition, was the special temporary exhibition that was on at that time. This was about the relationship between the USA
and the former's heavy cultural influence on the latter.
There was a certain degree of overlap with the permanent exhibition (e.g. JFK's "Ish bin ein Bearleener" speech comes up here as well with virtually the same displays). But in general I found it a really superb addition to the museum, also richly illustrated and with plenty of artefacts. These also included bits of the debris of the WTC destroyed in the 9/11 attacks
on New York
in 2001 (see Ground Zero
and also Newseum
), including the ID card of a German victim killed in the tragedy.
The often ambivalent relationship between the two countries was not swept under the rug either. Protests against the US Vietnam War,
the invasion of Iraq in 2003 or the increased Cold War
nuclear arms race initiated under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s are also covered, to give but a few examples of the more controversial aspects.
In the foyer of the museum is a huge book and gift shop, and on a mezzanine level there is a large cafe The latter may be especially welcome for those spending a whole day in here. Don't expect culinary flights of fancy, though. And if you're a vegetarian
you may not find much to choose from at all. This, however, is also quite representative of this part of Germany in general.
All in all I must say that even though I had already come with high expectations, these were exceeded to a degree that I find hard to express without risking excessive hyperbole. But I really was mightily impressed. Of course, this will partly have to do with the fact that I am German and lived through a good part of the history that is covered here. This necessarily brings with it emotions of nostalgia but also remembrance of fears (especially of a Third World War) that have since then largely drifted into the backwaters of the mind. I also had it easier to get the full value out of many of the exhibits where these required knowledge of the German language.
The exhibition is of course primarily in German but the general background info texts are also given in English. These are not, however, totally comprehensive translations, much of the labelling of artefacts is not covered in English, nor is the content of so many German-language documents that are on display. So non-German speakers (without an audio-guide) will necessarily lose out on some aspects. Regardless of this, a visit can still only be warmly recommended. Fortunately, so many exhibits speak for themselves anyway.
This is one of the best history museums I have ever encountered anywhere in the world. Indeed, I'm struggling to name specific ones that would be on a par or even better. So do not miss out on this when travelling through this part of Germany
. In fact, the Haus der Geschichte alone would make it worth travelling to Bonn for.
part of the museum quarter ("Museumsmeile") of the Bad Godesberg district of Bonn, a couple of miles (3.5 km) south of the city centre (main train station), in the west of central Germany
Access and costs: quite easy to get to; free.
To get to the museum you can use public transport from the centre of Bonn – and even get direct connections from Cologne
. Especially useful is the metro/tram line 16, which runs between Cologne, Bonn and Bad Godesberg with the Haus der Geschichte. Various other bus and tram options exist (check http://en.swb-busundbahn.de/bus-bahn.html). The stop for the museum is called "Heussallee/Museumsmeile" – there is even a direct underground passage allowing access from the metro stop to the museum without having to step outside.
If you're driving you will most likely have to make use of the central multi-storey parking at the Museum Mile. A fee is charged, but the prices are not excessive. Finding a free-of-charge regular parking space in the vicinity of the museum isn't necessarily easy or worth the effort.
From the car park it is a short walk of 5-10 minutes north, past the modern hulk of the Kunstmuseum (art museum) and a block up the main thoroughfare leading towards the centre of Bonn. The route is fairly well signposted.
Opening times: Tuesday to Friday 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.; at weekends and on public holidays only to 6 p.m.; closed Mondays, Christmas and New Year's Eve as well as on that most infamous unofficial off-day of the Rhine region: "Weiberfastnacht" (that's one of the "highpoints" of the carnival season, at least for those who can handle these things … being a northerner, I rather prefer to give it the widest berth possible.)
Audio-guides are available too (also in English) – an online version (in German) can even be downloaded in its entirety from the museum's website free of charge.
Time required: If you really want to dig in deep you could spend days in here. But it is quite easy to tailor one's visit to specific interests, skim-read or skip sections altogether. The nature of the exhibition is very conducive to such flexibility of approach. Personally, I spent a good three hours there, which flew by like nothing, and were only brought short by the approaching closing time of the museum.
But then again I am quite familiar with my home country's history, so I didn't actually need that much enlightening about its various phases. That way I was able to concentrate much more on the truly remarkable artefacts. If you come here to learn as well as being entertained, then I'd say you should allocate the better part of a whole day to this excellent museum.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
into the history of West Germany
up to the 1990s can follow the so-called "Weg der Demokratie" ('trail' or 'path of democracy'), a long circuit through the former government district of Bonn, taking in various associated buildings. Almost all of them have new functions these days, serving as conference centres, university departments, UN
offices and so on. A set of 18 information panels with texts and photos are designed to bring this recent but bygone era to life. The Haus der Geschichte, which set up this trail, also offers guided tours (90-120 minutes).
The "highlight" (if you can call it that) of the whole former government district is the so-called Kanzlerbungalow ('chancellor's bungalow'), a modernist 1960s single-storey edifice built as the living quarters and representational home for the West German heads of government, even though only a few of them actually lived here throughout their office (only the two successive Helmuts, Schmidt and Kohl, did so – Kohl even beyond his term, as his successor Gerhard Schröder, rather than kicking Kohl out, already looked towards Berlin
, where the government was moving anyway, so Kohl was allowed to stay in the bungalow until 1999). The aesthetics of the architecture may be debatable, but for those into history it is another attraction, as the Haus der Geschichte has set up a separate smaller exhibition in the now otherwise unused building and offers guided tours as well. However, these are very restricted: Sundays only, and you have to pre-register and bring your ID.
Otherwise see under Germany
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
Bonn, the former capital city of the FRG
took over again in reunified Germany), is also home to a number of other great museums. In fact, the Haus der Geschichte is part of a veritable cluster of museums referred to as the "Museumsmeile", literally 'Museum Mile
'. Right next door, for instance, is the Kunstmuseum, a huge repository of art. Then there's the Museum Alexander Koenig, a world-class zoological and ecological museum. And the Deutsches Museum also has a branch here (it's the country's main science and technology museum, which has its main base in Munich
Cultural tourists with an interest in classical music will know that Bonn was the birth place of the composer Ludwig van Beethoven
. OK, he enjoyed the highpoints of his career in Vienna
rather than in his home town, and is hence often even erroneously regarded as an Austrian (in the reverse manner of that of Hitler
, Austrian by birth, being mistakenly regarded as German by origin). Still, his birth house is today a memorial and pilgrimage destination.
Those who find Bonn a little too small and provincial (not an uncommon view) could head towards the larger and more vibrant city of Cologne
, which is only a short distance away, so the two places even have a partly overlapping public transport system (and even a shared airport: Köln-Bonn).
... none! ... What? No photo gallery?!? Indeed I had one intended for this entry as well, as usual. The selected pictures were also really good, I thought. However, the press department of the HdG vetoed the photo gallery – in its entirety! That was a pretty uniquely radical reaction. So here's some more background info on this
But please don't let this disappointingly hostile position of the HdG museum's press department put you off. The museum's exhibitions are outstanding, highly informative (and well balanced) and absolutely worth seeing with your own eyes. Do go! And if you really want to see some images first you can visit the museum's own website at:
... clicking on the entries on the left will open a selection of photos (not many of those described in my text above, but it will give you an impression); the explanatory texts that come with these photos, however, are in German only. They generally don't mesh with the text above nearly as well as my own photos would have, but so what ... it's the best I am allowed to offer. Sorry.