Berlin’s German Resistance Memorial Center (Gedenkstätte Deutscher Widerstand) is a 13-minute walk from the nearest subway and train station at Potsdamer Platz, but don’t let that discourage you from visiting. There are two other interesting museums nearby – Modern Art Museum (Neue Nationalgalerie) and the Gallery of Paintings (Gemäldegalerie), though you likely won’t be able to visit all three on the same day, since you should set aside at least three hours for the Resistance Center, more if you plan on being very thorough and read every single display and story about those who stood up to the regime of Nazi Germany.
If you think the museum looks like a nondescript office building from the outside, you are correct – it was built in the early 1900s for the Naval Office, and since 1933 it housed the General Army Office in the Army High Command.
It was in this building that Adolf Hitler announced to the leaders of the German Military (Reichswehr) that he would “conquer new living space (Lebensraum) in the East.”
This building was also the center of an attempted coup against Hitler on July 20, 1944, and a place of execution of the conspirators shortly thereafter.
The inside courtyard looks pretty bland too – grey- and cream-colored walls surround a small space covered with cobblestones. It is obvious that part of the building is residential – there are flowers on the balconies, and windows are covered by lacy curtains. I can’t imagine what it’s like to live right next to a place where dozens of people were executed, but I suppose one would stop thinking about it after a while.
Contrasting with the tidy though a bit sterile look of the courtyard is a larger-than-life-size statue of a man with his hands bound, facing the entrance.
In front of the statue, a plaque in German assures:
You did not bear the shame.
You fought back.
You gave the great, forever tireless sign of change,
Sacrificing your glowing life for freedom, justice, and honor.
By the way, the original is as follows:
Ihr trugt die Schande nicht.
Ihr wehrtet euch.
Ihr gabt das große ewig wache Zeichen der Umkehr,
opfernd Euer heißes Leben für Freiheit, Recht, und Ehre.
I’ve seen the third line “Ihr gabt das große ewig wache Zeichen der Umkehr” translated in a few different ways:
- “You gave the great, forever tireless sign of change,” is from the English version of the museum website
- “You bestowed the eternally vigilant symbol of change,” is how the creator of the wikipedia page about the museum translated the verse
- “You gave the great ever-awake sign of repentance,” is a Google translation
My German is rather rudimentary, but after consulting a few dictionaries and friends who speak German, I’m tempted to (loosely) tranlsate the third and fourth line to:
“with sacrificing your life for freedom, justice, and honor you gave a monumental, forever vigilant signal to change the course (of history or action)”
The courtyard also features a couple of large, glass panels describing the history of the building and commemorating the execution of the main conspirators of the attempted coup in 1944.
The Memorial Center isn’t just about these five men, however. As you ascend the stairs into the main part of the museum, you see dozens of faces – photos of men and women who tried to resist the Nazi Regime.
The main part of the museum is located on the third floor, and of course you can take the elevator, but then you’d miss the haunting faces of people who tried to stand up to the Nazis.
Once you get to the proper entrance into the Center, make sure to grab a map and follow the prescribed route down the narrow hallway to your left to room #1 “Resistance Against National Socialism” then continue to room #2 “Defending the Republic” further down the hall and so on. Otherwise you might, like me, look at the exhibit out of order (we ended up in room #5 right after #1), and while at some museums it doesn’t matter what you look at first, in this case the order is quite important as the first rooms explain the beginnings of the Nazi regime and Hitler’s ascendance to power.
The introductory panel in room #1 “Resistance Against National Socialism“ explains:
“During the Weimar Republic, people of different social origins and political views began confronting National Socialism and warning against the threat of dictatorship. […] After Hitler’s appointment as Reich chancellor, all opponents of the NSDAP were persecuted […] Torture, prison, and concentration camps were used to intimidate them. Jews were threatened and systematically deprived of their rights, while political opponents were vilified.
Most Germans welcomed the new authorities and their politics. Only a minority mounted resistance in reaction to the violation of human rights and the destruction of democracy. At no point did the National Socialists succeed in entirely breaking their opponents’ resistance. These people followed their conscience and risked their lives to use what opportunities they had for human sympathy and political activity under the conditions of a dictatorship. […]
The history of resistance also shows that Germans in the National Socialist era were caught between the poles of enthusiasm, assimilation, and obedience and dissent, opposition, and resistance.”
Further down the hall, the visitors can read quotes from those who resisted, similar to this one by Ludwig Beck
Some of these words on display were written by people who knew they were acting “unlawfully” by standing up to the government, and knew they’d be condemned and likely sentenced to death if caught, but there’s also hope in their words that the history will remember them in a different light:
“Perhaps the time will come when one arrives at a different evaluation of our stance, when one is not judged a rogue, but an admonisher and a patriot” – Peter Graf Yorck von Wartenburg in his farewell letter to his mother, dated August 8, 1944
“It is now time that something be done. The man, however, who dares to do something must be aware that he will probably go down in German history as a traitor. Yet if he refrains from acting, he would be a traitor to his own conscience.” – Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg in a conversation shortly before July 20, 1944
Other quotes are inspirational and appeal to one’s sense of responsibility and righteousness:
“On meeting us, a person must sense […] that we know ourselves to be neither superfluous nor inferior […] That we are not at all concerned with being alive a few days longer at any price, but that we are very much concerned with being the way we are at any price.” – Alfred Delp in his essay “The Christian and the Present Day,” 1939
In room # 2 – “Defending the Republic“ – visitors get a brief history of the pre-Nazi, Weimar Republic, and an introduction to the main historical figures of the times – Adolf Hitler, of course, but also Franz von Papen, Paul von Hindenburg, and others.
And yes, the little “x” in the top right corner in the photo above means that it’s a “window” that you can close to get to the “home” page. The museum is full of display panels that are like websites – there is a home page with general information and links to subpages where you can learn even more about a subject. That’s why I say that if you are planning to read every bit of information gathered and presented by the museum you will spend hours and hours at this place.
Thankfully, each room has at least a couple of display panels with this information, at different heights, so you don’t have to stand in line to get to it. Some of the display panels are on tables with benches, so that if you’re too tired to stand but not yet too tired to learn history, you can sit down and keep reading.
Room # 2 – “Defending the Republic” also discusses early opposition, such as the Iron Front, which “hoped to prevent the German republic from becoming an authoritarian state.” Unfortunately, as the display panels say, “in the summer of 1932, Reich Chancellor Franz von Papen disempowered the democratically elected Prussian government, thus sealing the fate of the Weimar Republic.”
Altogether there are 18 rooms at the German Resistance Memorial Center permanent exhibition, each discussing a different topic:
- 1. Resistance against National Socialism
- 2. Defending the Republic
- 3. National Socialism
- 4. Resistance from the Workers’ Movement
- 5. Resistance out of Christian Faith
- 6. Resistance by Artists and Intellectuals
- 7. Georg Elser and the Assassination Attempt of November 8, 1939
- 8. Paths Leading to July 20, 1944
- 9. Stauffenberg and the Assassination Attempt of July 20, 1944
- 10. Aims of the Attempted Coup
- 11. The Attempted Coup of July 20, 1944
- 12. The Kreisau Circle
- 13. Resistance by Young People
- 14. The Red Orchestra
- 15. The White Rose
- 16. Exile and Resistance
- 17.1 Resistance by Jews
- 17.2 Resistance by Sinti and Roma
- 18. Resistance during Wartime Life
If you follow the links to the topics listed above, you can read a little bit more about each issue, but the Memorial Center website doesn’t include all the information on display in each room.
For instance, room #3 “National Socialism” also features photos that you most likely have already seen, but also some that you might be seeing for the first time, like this composition:
Another photo collection contrasts a photo of ecstatic young schoolgirls waving Nazi flags with a photo of an execution of four defenseless men in Serbia, shot in the back by the Nazis.
Notice the mounds of dirt next to the men about to be murdered – they were forced to dig their own graves and were positioned so that they fall right in after being executed by the hail of bullets.
* * *
As one of the display panels explains:
“With the concordat between the German Reich and the Vatican of July 20, 1933, Hitler succeeded in winning over most Catholic bishops for his policies. They saw the provisions of the concordat as a guarantee that the church would not be harmed and they would be free to live as Catholics.”
However, by 1935 the Nazis have already violated the concordat as priests, clergymen, and individual parishioners daring to resist were arrested, tried, and sentenced on various bogus charges.
The Nazis seemingly didn’t dare to arrest Bishop of Eichstätt,Konrad Graf von Preysing, or Bishop of Münster, Clemens August Graf von Galen, even though the first repeatedly “upheld the rights of the church and the dignity of all human beings” in his sermons, and the latter “publicly attacked the Gestapo’s terrorist methods, the murder of patients in psychiatric clinics and homes, and the state confiscation of monasteries.”
Priest Bernhard Lichtenberg wasn’t as lucky, however. An early opponent of the Regime, during the war “he emphatically protested the murder of people with mental illnesses. [..] As he was helping prisoners and Jews during the war, he was sentenced “to two years’ imprisonment on May 22, 1942, which he served in Berlin-Tegel and the Wuhlheide labor education camp. He was then transferred to Dachau concentration camp. Severely ill, Father Lichtenberg died on the way to the camp in Hof/Saale in 1943.”
Much more numerous than Roman Catholics in Germany were the Protestants. Another panel, titled “Resistance by the Protestants” explains their attitude toward the Nazis as follows:
“Some groups within the Protestant Church initially welcomed Hitler as chancellor […] Formed before the end of the Weimar period, the “German Christians” were a movement within the church that sought to harmonize Nazi ideology with the gospel. […]
Isolated Protestant clergymen and parishioners resisted the intentions of the “German Christians” […] The Nazi regime felt provoked by this faith-based resistance. Pastors were spied on, expelled from their parishes, and imprisoned. Some spent many years in concentration camps or were murdered by the National Socialists. […]
The Confessional Church did not regard itself as a political opposition movement, however, and sought to cooperate with the state on political matters. Only a few pastors and parishioners adopted fundamental opposition to National Socialism.”
One of the few within the Confessional Church (the Bekennende Kirche which “emerged in opposition to the ‘German Christians‘”) who did call for resistance was Elisabeth Schmitz, who wanted “the Confessional Church to take a public stand against the persecution and in favor of people of Jewish origin. She warned of a further increase in anti-Jewish measures. However, the church’s management committees did not heed her written warnings.” Schmitz “taught German, history, and Protestant religious education” but “took voluntary early retirement on April 1, 1939, because she refused to teach according to National Socialist principles.” Luckily for her, she was spared prison and survived the war.
Elisabeth Schmitz wrote the following on November 24, 1938 to Pastor Helmut Gollwitzer:
“When we were silent on April 1, 33, when we were silent on the Stürmer headlines, on the satanic press agitation, on the poisoning of our nation’s soul and that of the youth, on the destruction of existences and of marriages through so-called ‘laws,’ on the methods of Buchenwald – then and a thousand times more, we became guilty of November 10, 1938. And now? It appears that the church will now, this time when the stones are really screaming, leave it to the insight and courage of the individual pastor as to whether he wants to say anything, and what.”
As a word of explanation, April 1, 1933 was the start of the Nazi-staged boycott of Jewish businesses and professionals.
Der Stürmer was a Nazi-aligned newspaper published since 1923 through the end of the war, famous for it’s anti-Semitism.
November 10, 1938 was the “Night of Broken Glass,” Kristallnacht, when “over 250 synagogues were burned, over 7,000 Jewish businesses were trashed and looted, dozens of Jewish people were killed, and Jewish cemeteries, hospitals, schools, and homes were looted while police and fire brigades stood by.”
* * *
Room after room, the German Resistance Memorial Center keeps alive the memory of people who dared oppose the Nazi regime, including Georg Elser and his assassination attempt of November 8, 1939, which probably would have succeeded had Hitler stayed in the room just a few minutes longer.
The story of the coup of July 20, 1944 spans several rooms, as it included hundreds of people, including high ranking Nazi officers.
More than six hundred people were imprisoned after the assassination attempt. Over a hundred were sentenced to death and murdered. A small number managed to go underground.
In addition, on July 30, 1944, Hitler ordered the imprisonment of the families and relatives of those involved. Those imprisoned included children who were sent to National Socialist children’s homes under false names.
The Memorial Center had a special exhibit about these children while we visited. “Our True Identity Was To Be Destroyed” explained that the “children were given new forenames and surnames. Siblings were often separated, and the use of real names was forbidden. The children’s real identities were to be replaced by invented ones. There are many indications that at least the youngest children were to be put up for adoption.” Thankfully, the war ended before the older children were sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp, and they were eventually reunited with their mothers in the summer or fall of 1945.
* * *
Another room I’d like to mention is the last exhibit room at the Memorial Center – room #18 “Resistance during Wartime Life.”
As the information panel explains:
“After the German Wehrmacht’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, the Gestapo and the justice system were even more determined than in previous years to intervene in Germans’ everyday lives in order to smother every hint of opposition. Trials and death sentences under the “Wartime Special Penal Code” were intended to intimidate the population. […] thousands of people were accused, sentenced, and murdered. Critical statements by individuals were punished by death as ‘subversion of the war effort.'”
Among some of those who perished was Elfriede Scholz, sister of Erich Maria Remarque, the author of the well-known anti-war novel All Quiet on the Western Front, who “told an acquaintance and customer at her tailoring shop that she did not believe in the propaganda of a German “final victory” and that the German soldiers on the front were nothing but “beasts for the slaughter.” She also said she would kill Adolf Hitler to put an end to the war. She made similar statements to her landlady. In the late summer of 1943 Elfriede Scholz was denounced and indicted on the basis of these two women’s evidence.” Elfriede Scholz wasn’t actively involved in the resistance. Her crime was merely speaking out against the Nazi regime to the people she knew, who apparently felt it was their duty to report her to the authorities.
Otto and Elise Hampel‘s crime was distributing in stairwells and mailboxes handwritten postcards encouraging people not to donate to National Socialist public collections, to refuse to serve in the war, and to overthrow Hitler. For that “were sentenced to death on January 22, 1943 […] for “demoralizing the troops” and “preparation for high treason,” and murdered in Berlin-Plötzensee on April 8, 1943.”
German writer, Hans Fallada, fictionalized the story of the Hampel’s in his 1947 novel Jeder stirbt für sich allein, which was translated into English in 2009. The US edition translated the title as Every Man Dies Alone. In the UK look for Alone in Berlin. If you decide to read the book do remember that the story is fictionalized and was written at the request of “Johannes R Becher, a leading apparatchik in the Soviet military administration.”
In 2017 the book was turned into a movie, Alone in Berlin, starring Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleason. The trailer looks interesting, but the reviews are mixed. I also don’t know how close to reality the movie is.
Elfriede, Otto, and Elise were just three out of hundreds of people who were resisting the regime either actively, or merely accused of resisting by listening to forbidden radio broadcasts or music.
The German Resistance Memorial Center created a page for each of them on their website. There are hundreds of people on their “index of persons.” Please do take a moment to read the stories of at least a few of them. These people are worth remembering for their courage and determination against all odds, and for their belief that, as Eugen Bolz put it:
“In the event of obvious and lasting abuse of the state’s authority, the people have a right to self-defense.” – Eugen Bolz in his manuscript “Catholic Action and Policy” 1934.
In closing, I would also like to share the words of Julius Fučík:
“I would like everyone to know: that there was no nameless hero; that it was people who had their name, their face, their longing, and their hopes; and that the pain of the last among them was therefore no smaller than the pain of the first, whose name is preserved. I would like them all to remain close to you forever, like acquaintances, like relatives, like you yourselves.” Julius Fučík in a note written in prison, Spring 1943, a few months before he was executed
Thank you for reading. I’d appreciate your comments below.
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