BERLIN — The latest attraction in the German capital is an underground chamber about the size of a small living room, a devotional portrait of Frederick the Great hanging on the wall. An oxygen tank sits in one corner, suggesting its occupant’s constant fear of suffocation. On a desk rests a small statue resembling his beloved German shepherd, Blondi.
The new exhibit is a re-creation of the study in Adolf Hitler’s bunker, the space where the 20th century’s most notorious tyrant spent his final days before taking his life with a gunshot to the head. Painstakingly assembled by the curators at the Berlin Story Bunker in an attempt to evoke the horror of the Third Reich for a new generation, the exhibit has fast become a lightning rod for critics who charge the museum with doing something else: humanizing Hitler.
In a nation where portrayals of the Nazis remain the ultimate cultural minefield, the museum’s approach has sparked a backlash from those who fear that depictions of the darkest chapter of this nation’s history are veering into entertainment. The uproar is adding fuel to a broader debate about the commercialization of Hitler and the Nazi era.
Only last month, there was widespread outrage when a giant Hitler face was projected onto the facade of a central Berlin shopping mall as part of an art installation while recorded excerpts from a speech by Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, played in the background.
Earlier this year, a collection of Nazi memorabilia, including socks worn by Hitler and a cyanide vial that belonged to Goebbels, were sold at an auction in Munich. Hitler’s former Strength Through Joy resort on the Baltic Sea — never finished in his day — is being transformed into luxury vacation apartments that are selling out fast.
And now Germans can see the re-creation of the study in Hitler’s bunker.
Levi Salomon, spokesman for the Berlin-based Jewish Forum for Democracy and Against Anti-Semitism, called the new exhibit a step toward the “normalization of evil.” To show the room, Salomon said, meant presenting the German leader as a bureaucrat and statesman like any other.
At a time when far-right politics are on the rise in Germany and across Europe, critics say there has perhaps never been more potential danger in blunting the horror of the Nazi era.
“People today know that Hitler did many bad things, but they’re not emotionally affected by it. . . . They don’t tremble when they think of Hitler — my body is always shaking when I hear this name,” Salomon said.
Yet Salomon, like many other critics, has not seen the new exhibit in person. Enno Lenze, one of its creators, insisted it is vital to view the reproduction of the study in the context offered by the museum, which is housed in a World War II air raid shelter and offers damning historical accounts of the Nazis.
The shelter is situated a few blocks away from Hitler’s original Führerbunker (“leader’s bunker”), a series of rooms measuring over 3,000 square feet, which were destroyed years ago and are now covered by a parking lot. Lenze said he was initially worried that the new exhibit might become a pilgrimage site for neo-Nazis. But they have been discouraged, he said, by the museum’s policy of offering only a glimpse of the reproduction of Hitler’s study as part of a 90-minute guided tour.
Yet Lenze concedes that by building the study, the museum is to some extent offering a voyeuristic peek into Hitler’s last days. If that is what it takes to draw in visitors and teach them about the Nazis, then so be it, he says.
“We bait them with a buzzword and squeeze the education in between,” Lenze said.
On a tour of the museum last week, Lenze provided a group of visitors with gruesome details of Nazi crimes and the appalling conditions in most air raid bunkers. In April 1945, up to 14,000 Berliners were crammed into the bunker that holds the exhibit — a space meant for 3,500 — while Nazi bigwigs were throwing Champagne parties at the nearby Reich Chancellery in nihilistic anticipation of defeat.
As the tour reached the copy of Hitler’s underground study, visitors took in the mundane room with interest. It was in a room just like this, Lenze told his audience, that Hitler fatally shot himself on April 30, 1945.
To be sure he died, Hitler also swallowed cyanide, which his aides tested beforehand on his German shepherd, Blondi. Hitler reassured himself that his pistol worked by having Blondi’s puppies shot one by one.
The museum intends to keep visits solemn. Lenze, during the tour, suddenly snapped at a Scandinavian tourist who tried to take a photo of the room. “No pictures, I told you!” he exclaimed. The woman explained that she had not understood his warning in German. Lenze replied: “It doesn’t matter, these are our rules.”
Lenze later said: “We don’t want to create the impression that people can just come here for entertainment, quickly check out Hitler and snap a fun picture.”
Despite such caution, critics from Berlin’s museum community warn about anything that blends Nazi history with a semblance of entertainment.
Kay-Uwe von Damaros, spokesman for the Topography of Terror, a permanent exhibition in central Berlin documenting Nazi crimes, emphasized that he has not seen the reproduction of Hitler’s office yet. But he said his museum has taken a far different approach.
“We would never get the idea to rebuild Hitler’s study,” he said. “It’s of no use to our objective, which is to inform about history.”
Six years ago, Berlin’s German Historical Museum found itself in the center of a similar controversy over its special exhibit on Hitler, which critics said focused too much on the man himself, and might leave visitors fascinated with the former fascist leader. Even then, however, it shied away from reproductions like Hitler’s study in the bunker.
“The problem is that there’s a danger of certain items becoming devotional objects,” said Boris Nitzsche, the historical museum’s spokesman. “There’s always the risk when dealing with a person like Hitler that he’s given an aura of mystery and becomes some kind of pop icon.”