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  • Writer's pictureHester Vaizey, PhD

A Brief History of the Topography of Terror in Berlin

What is the Topography of Terror?

The Topography of Terror is an exhibition documenting the principal institutions of Nazi persecution located at the former headquarters of the Gestapo, the SS, and the Reich Security Main Office.


Topography of Terror

Ank Kumar, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons


Topography of Terror History

The Nazi seizure of power in January 1933 marked the start of twelve years of fascist dictatorship and personal, totalitarian rule by Adolf Hitler. German society began to mutate, its more authoritarian norms cementing themselves as the newer values of democracy and pluralism faded from view. Hitler was on a mission to establish a thousand year Nazi empire, which he hoped would restore Germany to what he saw as its rightful position as a world superpower. Like many Germans, Hitler nursed rage at the embarrassment and shame of defeat in the First World War. Germans who had other ideas about the country’s future were a threat to Nazi plans. Hitler therefore developed a wide-reaching apparatus to root out the people who might stand in the way of his vision. The Gestapo, the Nazi’s secret police force, arrested and imprisoned thousands of opponents. The very act of these arrests served to intimidate others who might have considered resisting the regime’s rules. In reality, the Gestapo weren’t literally everywhere, but embedded and present enough to convince people they were. This, in turn, smoothed the path for the Nazis to establish control of all walks of life, from elections to the media, from freedom of speech to cultural expression.


One of the most popular tourist attractions in Berlin, the Topography of Terror provides an exhibition which seamlessly combines the indoors and outdoors, and which documents the key institutions of Nazi persecution. Located at the former headquarters of the Gestapo, the SS (or Schutzstaffel) – a Nazi paramilitary organization – and the Reich Security Main Office, it’s a warning from history, documenting with ruthless thoroughness the crimes against humanity committed by the Nazis throughout Europe, and emphasizing the perils of totalitarian rule.


Here you’ll learn about the apparatus of these terrible acts, how they were organised and perpetrated. Photographs and documents tell the story from the Nazi seizure of power to the end of the Second World War. Outdoors, along Niederkirchnerstrasse by the excavated cellar of the Gestapo headquarters, an exhibition portrays the desperate fates of numberless political prisoners whom the Nazis tortured and murdered. The original buildings were mostly destroyed by Allied bombing in early 1945, and their remains were then demolished for fear of becoming a memorial to the Nazi leadership. This outdoor exhibition focuses on the history of Berlin in its transition from the Weimar Republic to Nazi rule, and finally the fractured city which emerged after Nazism was defeated. Through glass panels, you can look into the excavations of the site.


The new Documentation Centre, based on a prize-winning design by the architect Ursula Wilms from the Berlin firm Heinle, Wischer und Partner and the landscape architect Professor Heinz W. Hallmann from Aachen, was added to the site in 2010 to mark the 65th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. With maps and other artefacts, film and audio recordings, it really shines the light on the murky operations at the top of the Nazi leadership.

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