Long-delayed Nazi museum to open in 'home of the movement'

MUNICH, Germany - Munich will open a museum on the former site of the Nazi party headquarters Thursday, in a long overdue reckoning with the German city's status as the "home of the movement".

The inauguration coincides with the 70th anniversary of the "liberation" of Munich by US troops at the end of World War II, and of Adolf Hitler's suicide the same day in a Berlin bunker.

Ageing American veterans and Holocaust survivors will join political leaders for a solemn ceremony at the new museum, a modern white cube built among a few surviving neo-classical buildings in what was the Nazis' organisational nerve centre.

Museum director Winfried Nerdinger admitted that it had taken Munich too long to face up to its toxic legacy as the birthplace of Hitler's party, a fact long shrouded in shameful silence.

"Munich had a harder time with this than all the other cities in Germany because it is also more tainted than any other city," said Nerdinger, the son of a local resistance member.

"This is where it all began." Nerdinger said the key aim of the "Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism" was to address how Munich, which prided itself as a hub of tolerance with its thriving arts scene and sprawling beer gardens, could see its civic spirit so perverted.

The four-floor exhibition offers explanatory texts in English as well German, and period photographs and videos documenting jackboot marches and the city's utter destruction by Allied bombing.

A chilling video graphic portrays the city's Jewish community as points of light, with more and more extinguished as the deportations to the concentration camps gathered pace.

Nerdinger noted that he intentionally avoided displays full of crisp brown uniforms or giant swastika flags, saying he had no desire to showcase the Nazi "aesthetic".

Instead, visitors find artifacts such as hand-scrawled sonnets found in the pocket of resistance member Albrecht Haushofer, who was executed just before the war's end. Blood still stains the paper.

Hitler 'like a magician'

The German Workers' Party (DAP) was founded in a Munich beer hall in 1919, and Hitler joined the same year.

In 1920, it became the National Socialist Germans Workers' Party (NSDAP), the only political force allowed in the country after Hitler's rise to power.

Following the failed Beer Hall Putsch of 1923, Hitler used his subsequent trial for high treason as a platform to gain a national following.

An earlier thwarted communist revolution and a crippling economic depression helped fuel a backlash that would turn Munich into a "hotbed of reactionary sentiment", as the novelist Thomas Mann called it in 1926.

Here far-right thugs would find funding and legitimacy from the wide swathes of the upper middle class, which saw in Hitler a saviour.

In 1930, the Nazis established their headquarters at the Braunes Haus (Brown House) in an upscale part of the city centre, now the site of the museum.

Even after Hitler became German leader on January 30, 1933 in Berlin, it was in Munich that the Nazis duped European powers into signing the fateful agreement decreeing that Czechoslovakia must cede the Sudetenland, and launched the Kristallnacht pogrom.

Munich was also key to the planning of the concentration camp system, beginning with the first major prototype, Dachau, on the city's outskirts in 1933. Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday will attend a ceremony marking the camp's 1945 liberation.

The exhibition also casts a critical eye on the post-war period, with top Nazis seamlessly continuing their political careers and neo-Nazi groups trying to revive widespread xenophobia.

Edgar Feuchtwanger, a 90-year-old Jewish native of Munich who returned from his adopted home in Britain for the ceremony, said he was pleased the museum was finally opening.

"I suppose it's a difficult legacy to come to terms with, isn't it?" he told AFP.

"People always ask me, 'What did people think then? How could they have fallen for all that?' And I have to say to them: Hitler seemed dramatically successful, he seemed like a magician. And then when the rabbit came back out of the hat they didn't notice or didn't want to notice.

"I think it's an important thing to tell people what was going on and that it never be forgotten so it is never repeated." Munich, the state of Bavaria and the German government each covered one-third of the museum's construction costs of 28.2 million euros (S$39.8 million).

It will open to the public on May 1.