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  • Writer's pictureJan Tattenberg, PhD

A Brief History of the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin

What is the Deutsches Historisches Museum?

The Deutsches Historisches Museum, or German Historical Museum in English, is a museum in Berlin that charts 2,000 years of German history, and is set in the City’s old 18th-century Baroque armoury.


German Historical Museum

Deutsches Historisches Museum History

Since the early 1990s the German Historical Museum has been housed in the city’s old Zeughaus (or ‘Armoury’), completed in 1730. Throughout its history the building has maintained a hoard of various kinds of weaponry, ranging from Prussia’s ceremonial and military guns to weapons captured on the battlefield during its wars. This collection was open to the public from 1831, but in the course of the 1848 revolution the building was looted. At the turn of the 20th century, it was reopened as a Ruhmeshalle (or ‘Hall of Fame’). This pantheon was designed to celebrate the glories of Prussia’s conquests, its commanders, and its fallen soldiers, and steadily expanded to encompass the First World War and, from 1935, housing the death mask of Paul von Hindenburg. One of Imperial Germany’s leading generals, Hindenburg became a military dictator by the end of the war and President of Germany from 1925 to 1934, appointing Hitler as Chancellor. The Nazi regime built on existing exhibits, displaying captured Soviet guns here from March 1943. On the occasion of the opening of this flaunting of war spoils, Rudolf-Christoph von Gersdorff, an officer assigned to guide Hitler through the new displays, had planned to assassinate him by blowing himself up using explosives hidden in his coat pockets. Hitler, however, sped through the exhibit and Gersdorff barely managed to extinguish the already lit fuse in a bathroom shortly before the bombs were set to explode.


Deutsches Historisches Museum modern building

The building was heavily damaged in the final days of the Second World War. The American journalist William L. Shirer wrote that, considering its history, ‘if the Allies have any sense, they will blow up the remains to help the Germans forget it’. But Soviet authorities made reconstruction of the Zeughaus a priority and it reopened in 1952, now styling itself as East Germany’s principal historical museum. Reconstruction was only completed in the late 1960s and in the process the interior was gutted and only the façade restored – a pattern sadly repeated across Berlin. The new museum served to reframe history from the point of view of the Marxist-Leninist state embedding its roots deeply in hundreds of years of German history. Martin Luther, initially dismissed by the East German state as a Fürstenknecht (or ‘lackey of princes’), saw his reputation rehabilitated, depicted as a great social reformer. The German Peasants’ War of the early 16th century was, similarly, reimagined as a proto-revolutionary uprising.


Following reunification, Chancellor Helmut Kohl, without consulting Berlin officials, commissioned the Chinese-American architect I. M. Pei, designer of the Louvre’s famous pyramid, to renovate the building and construct an annex to house temporary exhibitions, which was completed in 2003. The idea of a German Historical Museum in post-nationalist, unified and EU-inclined Germany, stirred controversy. One critic suggested that it amounted to a Geschichtsaufbereitungsanlage – a historical processing plant which established a continuous line of German history reaching back centuries. Such a notion of a continuous historical thread touched nerves because of its evocation of the Sonderweg, a special German path, leading inexorably from Luther to Frederick the Great to Hitler. The decision to construct the museum and endow it with extensive funds to acquire its collections went hand in hand with the move of the capital of reunified Germany from Bonn to Berlin and is inextricable from the Kohl government’s desire to view in a more positive light the trajectory of German history.


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