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Why Munich needs a new Nazi documentation center

With right-wing extremism rearing its head in Germany, reflecting on the country's Nazi past is more relevant than ever. A new documentation center opens at a symbolic location in Munich 70 years after the end of WWII.

It was at Munich's Königsplatz square that the Nazis famously burned books that contradicted their racist ideology on May 10, 1933. And it was here against the cityscape of imposing neo-classical architecture that the Third Reich built its headquarters.

Next to a parade ground, the Ehrentempel (honor temples) and the Führer Building, there was the so-called Brown House, the national headquarters of the National Socialist Party. After the complex was destroyed during World War II, it took almost 70 years of discussion, planning, altercations, and mishaps for the local authorities to erect a white cube over its former outline: the new Munich Documentation Center for the History of National Socialism.

"Here is where the NSDAP [Eds: the Nazi party] was founded in 1919-1920, and where the headquarters of the party resided from the beginning to the end. In addition, Munich functioned as an essential art metropolis for the Third Reich," Hans Günter Hockerts, a former historian at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich, told DW, explaining the site's historical significance to the city.

The Documentation Center will be ceremoniously opened on Thursday evening, April 30. Its permanent exhibition, entitled "Munich and the National Socialism," covers about 1,000 square meters and poses the question of why the Nazis focused on the southern German metropolis.

Nazi Documentation Center in Munich, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/Sven Hoppe

The unique windows give the cube a distinctive look

The exhibition, which is expected to draw some 250,000 visitors per year, spans from the rise of the Nazi party to the atrocities committed during the Holocaust by Munich residents and even to the current NSU murder trial involving right-wing extremists.

Reflecting on current right-wing tendencies

For Hockerts, it is crucial that, even 70 years after the end of the Holocaust, people continue to reflect on what can happen when our human and civil rights are suspended. "The threshold of humanitarian inhibitions can sink rapidly," he said. "A highly developed society can transform into a radical society of exclusion within a few years."

Benjamin Heisenberg, an award-winning director and visual artists, has a similar view. Together with his brother Emanuel Heisenberg and artist Elisophie Eulenburg, he has created a film collage that offers a fresh, non-academic approach and can be viewed on monitors just outside the Documentation Center.

Heisenberg points out that it's important to consider what's going on right now in Germany, from the radicalization of the youth to the ongoing right-wing PEGIDA movement. "The question is: Am I actually doing something for the proper development of society? Am I taking personal responsibility for how I am treating others?" said Heisenberg.

The film collage juxtaposes a series of historical as well as contemporary images and words, forming combinations that evoke unusual multi-semantic connections, which also cater to a younger audience.

Engaging the next generation

Besides the work of Heisenberg and his colleagues, the center itself tries to attract people by dedicating an entire floor to interactive multimedia exhibits, ranging from thematic history trails to audio guides created by students at local schools.

Charlotte Knobloch, the former vice president of the Jewish Congress and ex-president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, says she is convinced that the 28 million euros (about $30 million) invested in the center are well spent if it succeeds in sensitizing youth in particular to the fragility of freedom and democracy.

View out the window of the Nazi Documentation Center in Munich, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/Sven Hoppe

From the center, visitors can look over the square where the Nazis held parades

"It is crucial not only to keep the memory for the past alive, but to point out the current drawbacks in our society and the world," Knobloch told DW. As a survivor of the Third Reich, she is well known for being critical when it comes to dealing with Germany's Nazi history. However, she expressed approval of the Munich project "in every sense."

"Adolescents often and rightfully ask what the distant Nazi past has to do with their lives," said Hockerts. For him, it's not only the parallels with the present that are relevant, but also the basic differences between the Hitler era and present-day Germany.

Architects Georg Scheel Wetzel, who designed the white cube housing the Documentation Center, intentionally created a "fundamental break with the history of the location." According to them, the modern structure made from exposed concrete and shaped by two-story lamella windows, replaces the stamp that the National Socialists had put on the Munich site with their pompous buildings.

Munich's history, it seems, is once again set in new stone.

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