History after 1945

Repressed history

Use of the site by a construction waste management company and an „Autodrom“, 1981 © Magret Nissen / STdT

After the Second World War, the site fell into obscurity, its history forgotten. The buildings used by the Gestapo and SS were destroyed or heavily damaged in bombing raids. By the mid-1950s, their ruins had been dynamited and torn down. The division of the city left the site on the edge of West Berlin: from 1961, the Wall marked its northernmost extent. At the end of the 1960s an “Autodrom” moved in, where people could practice driving without a licence. Another part of the area was used by a construction waste management company.

Only from the end of the 1970s was the historic location “rediscovered”. The International Architecture Exhibition (IBA) lobbied several times against plans to drive a road straight across the site. Associations of survivors and civil rights associations pointed out its historical importance. Further attention was paid to it because of the renovation of the neighbouring “Martin-Gropius-Bau”, formerly a museum of applied arts. It opened in 1981 with the exhibition “Prussia – approaching an assessment”.

Once the way the site was to be dealt with became, in 1982, an object of debate in the House of Deputies, the Berlin Senate set up a competition open to architects from across Germany in 1983. A certain number of international architectural offices were also invited to take part in the competition to “design the site of the former Prinz-Albrecht-Palais”. From the 194 designs submitted, the panel selected that produced by Berlin landscape architect Jürgen Wenzel and artist Nikolaus Lang.

At the end of 1984, however, the Senate stepped back from realising the project. Instead, after further intensive public discussion of its use, the area was fitted out “temporarily” and made accessible for the first time in 1987 as part of the 750th anniversary of the city of Berlin.

A place in remembrance: From „temporary exhibition“ to the Topography of Terror

The exhibition hall of the Topography of Terror. Right: the protective roof over the remaining foundations of the Gestapo “in-house prison”, May 1990. © Margret Nissen / STdT

The opening of the documentation centre, the Topography of Terror, took place on 4 July 1987 as part of the 750th anniversary celebrations for the city of Berlin. The exhibition “Topography of Terror. Gestapo, SS and Reich Security Main Office on the ‘Prinz-Albrecht site’” could be viewed in an exhibition pavilion designed by Berlin architect Jürg Steiner. Excavations of the numerous structural remains had taken place in the meantime, and the site was also provided with numerous panels providing historical information. Originally, documentation was only to be presented here during the anniversary year – as part of the central historical exhibition “Berlin, Berlin” in the Martin-Gropius-Bau. Because of its great success, however, the temporary exhibition was extended at the end of 1987, first by a year, then indefinitely.

In February 1989, the Berlin Senate convoked a specialist commission under the chairmanship of Dr Reinhard Rürup, the scientific head of the Topography of Terror. The committee’s task was to draw up a long-term design and usage concept for the site. In its final report of March 1990, the commission underlined the national and international importance of the historic site and recommended setting up a documentation and visitor centre. The historic site, with the exposed ruins and traces of the post-war period, was to be retained. These proposals were accepted by the Berlin House of Deputies and Senate, and a little later by the Federal Government, becoming the basis for further political decisions. They were also discussed in two public consultations with the people of Berlin and international specialists, each lasting several days.

In 1992, the civil society-supported “Topography of Terror” project of the Berliner Festspiele became a public-law foundation, independently constituted from 1995. In 1992, the State of Berlin once again initiated an architectural competition with twelve invited participants for the construction of the new documentation centre. Winning first prize, the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor was commissioned with creating the building in 1993.

The permanent exhibition of the Topography of Terror along the excavation site by Niederkirchnerstraße, September 2006. © Hans D. Beyer / STdT

However, during the project’s construction phase, technical problems and incalculable cost risks arose. For this reason, in May 2004, the State of Berlin and Federal Government, which were behind the foundation, decided not to complete the structure begun in 1997 and left unfinished since 1999, but to begin a new competition.

This third competition for the site of the Topography of Terror was preceded by intensive preparations. A public symposium and two specialist colloquia were carried out. Finally, a detailed usage plan for the competition process was drawn up under the direction of the managing director of the foundation, Professor Andreas Nachama. The updated concept was based once again on the recommendations of the specialist commission of 1990.


View of the documentation centre of the Topography of Terror, 2010. © Stefan Müller / STdT

In April 2005, the Federal Government set up an open, international competition for design of the site. The competition task covered both a concept for laying out the historic site with its material remnants and a design for the actual exhibition building supporting additional scientific and educative purposes. The designs needed to live up to the national and international importance of this historic site in the centre of the capital, while not eulogizing this “place of perpetrators”.

In January 2006, the judging panel awarded first prize to architect Ursula Wilms (Heinle, Wischer and Partners, Berlin) and landscape architect Professor Heinz W. Hallmann (Aachen), unanimously recommending their designs. In November 2007, the ground was officially broken for the new project, financed by the State and Federal Governments. The completion of the construction project was the task of the Federal Office for Construction and Zoning, acting on behalf of the Federal Ministry for Transport, Construction and Urban Development.

© Stefan Müller / STdT

The prize-winning architectural design of the new documentation centre also included a layout for the main exhibition in the building, which, according to the prize documents, was to allow “diverse and changing views” of the site of the Topography of Terror. Further development of the design for the exhibition areas took place with close collaboration between architect Ursula Wilms and the Ulm-based design office Braun Engels Gestaltung.

The new documentation centre of the Topography of Terror and its surrounding site opened on 6 May 2010. Since then, visitors have had access to four exhibition areas. The building contains the permanent exhibition “Topography of Terror. Gestapo, SS and Reich Security Main Office on Wilhelm- and Prinz-Albrecht-Straße” and has space for special exhibitions. Outside, the exhibition trench along the excavated basement walls facing onto Niederkirchnerstraße (formerly Prinz-Albrecht-Straße) is used as an exhibition area. It usually displays the permanent exhibition “Berlin 1933–1945. Between propaganda and terror”. The site of the Topography of Terror is linked together by a tour of 15 stops around the area, giving an overview of the history of the site. The three permanent exhibitions are available in two languages (German and English).


The newly designed exhibition trench along the uncovered remains of the basement, 2010. © Stefan Müller / STdT

With a large number of historical vestiges and traces, the site is an essential component and the “primary exhibit” of the Topography of Terror documentation centre.

Material remnants on the historic site include traces of late 19th-century buildings along the former Prinz-Albrecht-Straße (today Niederkirchnerstraße) and Wilhelmstraße and the colonnade of the former Prinz-Albrecht-Palais. The cellars of a former SS canteen and vestiges of the prison yard wall have also been retained. In addition, there are two monuments on site: the floor monument protected by sand and gravel covering the residual foundations of the in-house Gestapo prison and the memorial to the Berlin Wall, around 200 m of the structure that have been preserved along Niederkirchnerstraße.

The excavated basement of the former SS canteen, 2010. © Stefan Müller / STdT

The historic site also includes the “Acacia copse” on Wilhelm- and Anhalter Straße. According to Nazi-era plans, here and on the north-eastern part of the site, the structures of the time were to be replaced by two massive edifices to house the Reich Security Main Office. Today, the copse with the former “Autodrom” tracks above all give an idea of the post-war history of the site.


Berlin Wall monument at the entrance to the Topography of Terror, 2020 © STdT

The Berlin Wall became a global symbol of the partition of Germany after the Second World War and an icon of the Cold War between the eastern and western blocs.

Construction began on 13 August 1961. With this hard border, over 150 km long, the government of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) hermetically sealed East Berlin and the remaining territory of East Germany. Between October 1949 and August 1961, more than 2.7 million people had fled the GDR, largely via the sector crossing points between East and West Berlin. The wall was intended to staunch this flow of refugees and make any uncontrolled border crossings impossible.

The barrier was in several sections: an “outer” and an “inner” wall, a border strip with a patrol road, watchtowers and barrier fortifications. Up to 1989, at least 136 people died at the wall, 98 of them refugees. Most of them were shot by the GDR border patrols.

The reforming policies of the Soviet Union, the rapidly growing protest movement among the population of East Germany and the sudden ability for thousands of GDR citizens to flee through other parts of Eastern Europe led, on 9 November 1989, to the peaceful fall of the Wall. A little later, the first sections were torn down. Even before the reunification of Germany on 3 October 1990 it had largely disappeared from the Berlin cityscape.

The 200 metres of it remaining on Niederkirchnerstraße – here marking the border between the boroughs of Mitte (East) and Kreuzberg (West) – has been retained at the request of the Topography of Terror with all the traces of destruction from the period of reunification. It was listed as a scheduled monument in 1990. The fragment of the wall is today part of the documentation centre. As one of the few stretches of wall still standing in Berlin, it is also part of the “overall concept for the Berlin Wall” drawn up by the Berlin Senate.

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