A historical museum, established by the Federal Republic of Germany on October 28,1987 in Berlin, presents an immense challenge. The possibility of establishing a historical museum in this city has been under discussion since the end of the 1970s, but the decisive impulse towards its realization came with the 750th anniversary celebration of Berlin. Sixteen renowned and independent historians, art historians and museum experts had prepared within two years a charter which clearly states the aims: "to present an overview of German history, both within its European context and with all its inner diversity, in a manner that is neither presumptous nor self-reproaching, but sober, self-critical, yet also self-assured".
Those who will be working to realize the museum should draw their attention especially to the "depiction of structures and processes, experiences and events". The charter stresses that "Our history is German history, but it is also much mor than this; consequently, its representation cannot be restricted just to the area occupied by the Federal Republic of Germany and the former GDR...".
On June 9, 1988, an international jury awarded first prize in the architectural competition to the design by Aldo Rossi of Milan. The new museum building with approximately 33,000 square meters of usable floor space altogether - is to be erected as a federal building project on the banks of the Spree, diagonally opposite the Reichstag building.
After two years residence in a turn-of-the-century factory the development team was given another most prominent - building as a provisional place to show temporary exhibitions and to build the collections: The Zeughaus Unter den Linden. The beautiful building in former East-Berlin was originally constructed as a war trophy museum in 1695 in a subdued baroque style and served also as arsenale. From 1953 to 1990 it had housed the Museum of German History which showed German history from a communist point of view. From November 1989 on the first democratically elected Government of the GDR closed this institution of state propaganda and handed the building with its collections over to the Federal Republic of Germany. Since October 3, 1990 the Zeughaus and its collections are used by the German Historical Museum to prepare and to realize a museum that "should help the citizens of our country to appreciate clearly who they are as Germans and as Europeans, as inhabitants of a particular region and as members of a world wide civilization...".
Since 1962, our museum's proximity to the wall has brought us into contact with people for whom the wall became an inextricable part of life. Among them are relatives of those shot and killed at the wall, individuals who helped others escape - including Scarlett Pimpernell, who did not stop until he had slipped one thousand fugitives out, and Reinhard Furrer, who orbited the planet in a U.S. space shuttle two decades later. This circle also includes refugee border guards, whom we have routinely introduced to the press and who have spoken to their former comrades. Our friends were also those on duty at the wall who subtly signaled with their Kalishnikovs that they would not shoot. As stated in a note thrown from the eastern side in thanks for cigarettes tossed from the western side: I will not forget the time I was in contact with them and hope to see them again." In short, this work facilitated, and was facilitated by, our experience of a particular constant: the awareness of Germans that they belonged together.
Thanks to those friendships, our museum has come into possession of now highly prized objects used in escapes. After the "shift" brought about in the GDR it was because of those bonds that we received such trophies of the victory of nonviolent revolution.
Every room in our museum also contains art treating the theme of "the wall and human rights." To list the most important works would be an injustice to the others. We therefore mention only one that will always be our most valuable, Daniel Mitljanski's sculpture Requiem for Sacharov, for which Yelena Bonner granted us custody of the death mask of the great human-rights activist. We were encouraged to mount an exhibition on nonviolent struggle, which has already been shown in Riga, Moscow, and Tbilisi and that is scheduled to travel to Prague and Israel soon.
Through his successful "experiments with the truth," Martin Luther King demonstrated the possibilities of "nonviolent avalanches," which hit the American public just as unexpectedly in his day as they did in Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, and Budapest in 1989 and Moscow in 1991. But the groundwork of these successes was that the Soviets had been stopped in Berlin and that this island of freedom was also a pole of stability. The U.S. checkpoint has since been dismantled, but the museum has remained. When U.S. Brigadier General Sidney Shachnow presented us with the legendary quadrilingual sign bearing the words "You are leaving the American sector," we assured him that German-American friendship would always be a theme of the exhibition in our museum.