Last weekend, I took some time by myself to visit the NS-Dokumentationszentrum, a museum documenting the history of right-wing extremism in Germany. The rigid, box-shaped building made of striking white stone stands just meters away from the building where Adolf Hitler signed the Munich Agreement, which annexed portions of former Czechoslovakia. With candor and detail, the museum chronicles the ways in which extremism has and does infiltrate all layers of society, but also the ways in which civilian resistance has manifested itself. Starting with the reign of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (also known as the Nazi Party), the museum works its way through four floors of history and ends with modern-day events that we hear about too often on the news today, like the increasing popularity of the right-wing Alternative for Germany Party.
Germany’s history is marked by shame and suffering, and the museum does not shy away from these topics. Despite the countless number of times I’ve discussed the tragedies of World War II in school or elsewhere, it can be quite hard to comprehend that the war took place just mere decades ago, when Munich today feels so modern and accepting. As I walked from panel to panel in the museum, a video of Munich post-World War II playing on a small projector in the corner caught my eye. The camera slowly navigated through streets piled with rubble, panned in on buildings hardly standing, and solemnly showcased destroyed treasures, like the Frauenkirche and Siegestor. The 10-minute video completely captivated me. These are places I know. Places I walk by to get to work. Yet I could hardly recognize the empty shell of the city that I saw on the screen.
For a tourist hastily moving through Munich, eager to see all the sights the city has to offer, it might be easy to forget that this was once a place of suffering, death, and Nazism. The city’s main sights, like Marienplatz and Alte Pinakothek, have such breathtaking facades and don’t offer any overt or obvious indication of what they have witnessed. But since my arrival over a month ago, I’ve become more acquainted with the town, including some of its concealed references to the past.
One of the main ways I’ve noticed Munich pays homage to those who suffered in this city is through architecture. Given that Munich was nearly obliterated during the war, reconstruction was inevitable. The question, though, was to what extent. On the northern end of town, right near the university, lies the 21-meter-tall Siegestor, or the Victory Gate. Originally built in the 1850s to honor the Bavarian army, the gate was rebuilt in 1945, but this time with an intentionally incomplete back side and inscription that reads: “Dem Sieg geweiht, vom Krieg zerstört, zum Frieden mahnend" (“Dedicated to victory, destroyed by war, urging peace”). Just a few blocks down the road is Odeonsplatz, where there is another monument that was dedicated to the Bavarian Army in the 1840s. If you walk along the side of Feldherrnhalle in Odeonsplatz, or even along some buildings on the university campus, you can still see the bullet holes that were left there decades ago. They have not been filled or covered after all these years. Even the NS-Dokumentationszentrum where I was last week stands on the former grounds of the Nazi Party’s headquarters. These subtle architectural characteristics serve as a reminder.
But Germany’s remembrance of World War II goes beyond just the bones of the city. Seventy-five years ago on February 18, 1943, six students and one professor were arrested and executed shortly after for distributing flyers criticizing the Nazi regime. On that Sunday in 2018, the university church was packed full with people remembering the individuals who had the courage to speak out and resist. They lit candles and laid white roses, the symbol of the resistance, on the altar.
No country has an untarnished past. No matter what nation you call your home, you can take pride in many facets of it, and shame in others. Atonement, forgiveness, and reconciliation are not easy topics. But what I’ve learned since coming to Germany is the importance of unmasking the whole narrative, especially the narrative of the oppressed. We don’t have the power to change the past, but we do have the power to decide whose voices we listen to.