Back when I was a student at the Dresden Institute of Technology in the 1970s, I rarely felt comfortable actually going to an area, ominously dominated as it was by derelict barracks and Russian military vehicles in the streets. There was one exception: the building of the former Saxon Cadet School. This was used as an officers’ mess for the Soviet troops, and civilians were sometimes granted entry in the evening, perhaps by means of bribes or other unorthodox practices. Sitting in the gallery, listening to Russian sixties and seventies hits and drinking cheap vodka, my fellow students and I would keenly scout the dance floor and whenever we spotted a pretty Russian or Asian- looking girl, we would dash across and ask her for the next dance. Yes, hard as it is to believe, such fraternisation even took place in the barracks quarter of Dresden, which, by a twist of fate, somehow survived the terrible bomb attacks in February 1945. As a reserve officer of the German army, I was not so long ago asked to take part in a military training programme in Dresden. The training was held in the same building, now functioning as the German Army Officers’ School, well restored and refurbished with a new, elegant officers’ mess building. A far cry from the communist days, when if someone had told me how the building would turn out I would called them a fool.
The presence of Soviet troops is a distant memory now, and the new German Military History Museum, run by the Bundeswehr and sited in the former Royal Saxon Arsenal, has become one of the cultural highlights of Dresden. Since 1897 the former arsenal served as the Saxon Military History Museum. For readers outside of Central Europe, it may come as a surprise to learn how Saxony was able to have independent military institutions within the framework of the Second German Empire, generally considered to have been completely dominated by Prussia. The King of Prussia wearing the crown of the German Empire was of course the key figure and supreme commander of the German army, but due to the First World War Entente propaganda against the “Huns”, it is not commonly known that even in military questions he was not an absolute ruler (for more details, it is useful to read the books of Christopher Clark about Prussia and Germany). Within the federal structure of the Second German Empire, the member states, especially the kingdoms of Bavaria, Saxony and Württemberg, had a measure of military sovereignty in peace times. From 1938 to 1945 the building was used by the Wehrmacht as a military museum, while from 1972 to 1990 it had the same function for the East German army. After German reunification the federal government decided to locate there the central Bundeswehr military history museum, fully fitted out with state-of-the- art content, display and presentation methods.
The building itself is an architectural masterpiece. The American architect Daniel Libeskind designed a perforated metal-coated wedge, breaking through the compact mass of the 19th century building. The top of the wedge has a symbolic function: it points towards the site where the Royal Air Force marked the first targets at the beginning of the Dresden bomb attack. The interiors are spacious with a design that retains many of its original features and avoids the perils of pseudo-historicism. Of course you can see in the outdoor part of the museum the usual display of canons, tanks, transport vehicles and the like as in war museums elsewhere, but the exhibition concept followed inside seems to be unique and innovative. In the light of 20th century German history there can be no place for any cults of national heroes or ostentatious displays of arms. So the organisers of the permanent exhibition had to find another basic idea. According to the catalogue of the exhibition, the architecture of the museum as well as the permanent exhibition tries to avoid unilateral presentations and to abandon old visual habits (for details, cf. www.mhmbw.de). “The exhibition confronts the visitors with their own aggressive potential and treats violence as a “historic, cultural and anthropologic phenomenon”, the leaflet says. The first part of the sentence sounds a bit sermonising in the spirit of “political correctness”, but translated into the language of the Judeo-Christian tradition it could also refer to the original sin working in all of us, and bringing up our worst qualities in crisis situations.
The classic chronological presentation can be seen in the old part of the building; the trademark “wedge” of the architect Libeskind is dedicated to a thematic walk. The exhibits are arranged according to the following themes: military and technology; defence and destruction; animals at military service; ordeals of the war; shaping of bodies; politics and violence; military and music; military and fashion; military and language; war and game. The category “animals at military service” does not mean sadistic drill sergeants regrettably having a biotype in perhaps all armies of this world. In this context, it means on the one hand the misuse of animals, and on the other hand the symbiotic cooperation between human beings and animals in military operations. The category “ordeals of the war” shows different kinds of prostheses in a shockingly calculated manner. Fashion makes of ten use of military accessories like epaulettes or clothing materials like khaki, the classic example being the British trench coat. The “shaping of bodies” shows how uniforms are used for abolishing the soldiers’ individual qualities and features on the one hand, and the efforts of the soldiers themselves to maintain their personality on the other. In a long display, we can see the story of a soldier from conscription to dismissal or death. At the wall of the same room we can see 13,000 small figurines looking like tin soldiers in grey uniforms, together with one single coloured figurine, representing the almost lost individuality. The number 13,000 was not chosen at random: according to the designers of the exhibition, the lives lost in every 48 hours amounted to that number in the First World War. The confrontation of “defence and destruction” is very instructive. The multitude of bombs, missiles, projectiles, hanging vertically over the heads of the visitors arouse anxiety and demonstrate together with the ruins and fragments of bunkers and shelters that there is no reliable protection – there is only a permanent race between two contradictory goals. In a similar manner we can see “tanks”, and “warplanes” made for old merry-go-rounds, serving the amusement of families with children.
Compared with this, the chronological show is somewhat more conventional, but not completely: the displays are accompanied by short curricula, displaying the wide range of players from the emperor to the private. Of course there are also impressive things like handguns, uniforms and canons. Marine paintings show how this topic of art degenerated progressively into an instrument of propaganda. It seems impossible to separate totally the thematic display from the chronological one; the latter shows in a separate cabinet the correlations of warfare and economy, e.g. products of armaments industry and substitutes of consumer goods of the starvation periods of the First World War.
It is impossible to describe all of the topics, so all I can do is only highlight some of them. The organisers attempt to present in a fairly balanced way the complex relationship between Prussia and the Habsburg monarchy; thus the attack at Oeversee during the German–Danish war has more or less the same weight in the presentation as the battle of Düppel. It is also evident that Prussia felt somehow uncomfortable because of the 1866 “fratricidal war” against Austria: no soldier was decorated with the “Iron Cross”, since this would have been incompatible with the tradition of this distinction originating from the liberation war fought together against Napoleon. The alliance between Germany and the Austro-Hungarian double monarchy is represented by a portrait of Franz Joseph I in Hungarian-adjusted uniform.
Another significant piece is the flag of the small, symbolic German navy in the period of the Weimar Republic. The national colours (black, red and gold) appear only in a small field in the left upper corner, while the main colours are black,white and red – those of the former Empire –, with the Iron Cross in the centre. There may be very few symbols where the internal conflicts of theWeimar Republic, this “democracy without democrats”, and especially the loss of control over the armed forces obtain a better illustration.
During the Nazi era, and at the latest during the Second World War, the question inevitably arose: where are the limits of military loyalty, to which extent does a soldier have to follow inhumane and senseless orders and where is the starting point of the moral justification, and what is more, of the moral necessity of resistance? In the hands of Hitler, the Wehrmacht became a docile instrument of oppression and missed several opportunities to eliminate his criminal regime. The only serious attempt to overthrow his rule was the plot of 20 July, with the brilliant idea to use “operation Walküre”, originally prepared in order to crush inner uprisings, for the elimination of Hitler and the main Nazi leaders. As it is well known, the attempt failed due to dilettante execution. The permanent exhibition shows deeply moving letters of the conspirators to their families, written before their execution.
On the basis of such experiences, after the Second World War the Bundeswehr adopted the ideal of the “citizen inuniform” who does not say good-bye to his good sense and his civil rights when enrolled in the army, and who refuses to follow orders obviously violating human rights and constitutionality. According to the Constitution, only the German Parliament has the right to decide on military missions abroad – an executive order of the government is not sufficient. The role of the Bundeswehr as loyal political instrument of the constitutional political leadership is shown by a striking example. The visitors can see a wrecked off-road vehicle of the German ISAF contingent, destroyed by an improvised explosive device. In the lower left corner of the vitrine – it is necessary to look precisely there, otherwise it would escape the visitor’s view – there is a ballot paper of German chancellor Angela Merkel, voting in her capacity as Member of the Parliament whenever it has to decide about German military missions abroad. At these votes MPs rule over death or life. Fortunately the heavy and depressing perils of the Cold War remained on a theoretical and psychological level, but the peacekeeping missions have had a lot of victims. There are also many soldiers who have lost their inner equilibrium and suffer posttraumatic syndromes. Professional soldiers are usually ready to admit that they have to face dangerous situations on a perfectly legal basis, with fair payment and adequate medical care, but when they come home, they are confronted with bureaucratic issues. There are still people – both in the official and in the private sphere – who treat traumatised soldiers as malingerers, which does not help them find their way back to normal life, although they deserve the support of their fellow citizens. This is one of the lessons to be learned in the new war museum of Dresden.