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1695 to 1883: From Royal Armoury to Museum of Military History

It was Frederick William, Elector of Brandenburg who first came up with the idea of establishing an armoury in Berlin. His son, Elector Frederick III (later crowned Frederick I, “King in Prussia”), turned the envisioned project into a reality. Construction began in 1695; work was completed in 1730. The Latin inscription above the main portal refers to the building’s original purpose: “To honour the feats of arms, instil fear in his enemies, offer protection to his friends and confederates, Frederick I, the exalted and undefeated King of the Prussians, had this Armoury built from the ground up to store all the instruments, spoils, and trophies of war.”

The imposing building, situated at the heart of a royal city surrounded by strong fortifications and opposite the royal palace, originally served as the main arsenal of the Prussian army. It was a storehouse for the “instruments of war” (Kriegswerkzeug, or Zeug for short, hence the building’s name) that were required in the event of armed conflict. These included, for example, heavy guns and their limbers, and muskets and sabres. Other objects originally stored here were trophies captured in campaigns, including flags and standards.

In the first half of the 18th century, the Kingdom of Prussia rose to become one of the greatest military powers in Europe. Until the end of the Hohenzollern monarchy in 1918, the military retained great power and influence within Prussian society. After the Wars of Liberation (1813 to 1815) against the Napoleonic forces and their allies, new trophies from the battlefields entered the collection, turning the Zeughaus into a memorial to the victories over the French emperor Napoleon I, which the Prussians presented as a foundational myth marking their ascendency.

Karl Friedrich Schinkel, designer and chief royal architect to the Prussian Crown, oversaw the restoration and partial refurnishing of the building in the years around 1820. From this point on, the collection objects were now also used as resource material for the technical development of improved weaponry and for officer training. In the revolution against the monarchy of 1848, insurgents stormed the Zeughaus and looted some of its contents, including new Dreyse needle-fire rifles, whose innovative design were a Prussian military secret at the time. Once the uprising was quashed, the Prussian commanders decided it was no longer appropriate to use the building to store serviceable weapons.

The victory over France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71 was followed in January 1871 by the proclamation of the founding of the German Empire, with the Prussian king, Wilhelm I, declared Kaiser. He decided to convert the building into a “Hall of Fame of the Brandenburg-Prussian Army” with its own museum.

1883 to 1945: From Hall of Fame to Heap of Ruins

Opened in 1883, the royal Prussian army museum glorified the rulers and military history of the Hohenzollerns. Exhibits included medieval weapons and armour, historic cannons and fortress models, and uniforms of the army of Frederick the Great. In addition to objects commemorating Kaiser Wilhelm I and Kaiser Friedrich III, the other big attraction was the new “Hall of Rulers and Commanders”, which opened after a period of renovations. The hall was decorated with frescoes and sculptures by renowned artists of the time.

One of the walls featured a monumental canvas painting by Anton von Werner, “The Proclamation of the German Empire” – one version from a cycle of history paintings of the same name. The hall also included a larger-than-life marble sculpture of Victoria, the Roman goddess of victory, by Fritz Schaper, and other sculptures by Reinhold Begas. Thanks to numerous transfers and donations, as well as acquisitions and exchanges, the museum quickly rose to become one of the largest militaria collections in Europe.

As soon as war was declared in 1914, in what was termed the Great War and later WWI, the military museum was used as a platform for propaganda. Booty seized from the western and eastern fronts was put on public display in the building’s courtyard in a visual demonstration of the Imperial German Army’s latest successes. The museum also provided space for the veneration of war heroes, for example when a plane flown by the fabled fighter pilot Captain Oswald Boelcke in air-to-air combat went on view. The exhibitions initially sought to rally the population, and later to strengthen their perseverance through hard times. The collecting activities during these war years centred on the uniforms, equipment, and weapons of Germany’s allies and of its opponents.

After Imperial Germany’s defeat, the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II, and the founding of the republic, the museum, which until then had been administered by the military, now fell under the remit of the Prussian Ministry of Science, Culture, and Education in 1919, becoming one museum among many within the alliance of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Now headed by a civilian director, the museum concentrated its exhibiting and scholarly activities on medieval and early modern arms and armour. The return of captured spoils of war to France, and German demilitarization, as stipulated in the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, left visible gaps in the museum’s holdings.

In 1934, one year after the takeover of power, the Nazi regime started using the museum for its own purposes. In a new guise as a military museum not just for the state of Prussia but for the whole of Germany, it was now headed by a Wehrmacht officer. A new section of the permanent exhibition was opened to commemorate the recent Great War. The display reflected Nazi doctrine by arguing that the war had been lost, not by the generals, but by acts of treason and sabotage on the home front – a conspiracy theory that had undermined Weimar democracy and revealed a militaristic desire for revenge. In the first years of the Second World War, war booty was again put on display in the museum, as visual statements of the Wehrmacht’s victories in the blitzkrieg against the Dutch, Belgians, and French, and the early Russian campaign.

The museum took its first hit in the arial bombardment of Berlin in late 1943. More bombs followed, on one occasion causing the roof truss to go up in flames, leaving the building exposed to the elements, while the glass dome over the Hall of Fame and parts of the vaulted ceiling collapsed. Although valuable exhibits had already been evacuated, sometimes their evacuation had the unintended effect of putting the collection at even greater risk, with many of the objects packed away in crates subsequently captured by advancing Polish and Soviet soldiers while in transit out of Berlin. Other collection holdings, meanwhile, that did arrive at the designated external storage sites were later plundered by civilians.

Following the end of the Second World War and the division of Berlin among the four Allied powers, the ruined Zeughaus building found itself located in the Soviet sector of Mitte. The victors saw Prussian and German militarism as one of the root causes of Nazism. The Allied Kommandatura of the city of Berlin thus dissolved the museum as a symbol of this legacy and its vanquishment.

1950 to 1990: Museum of German History

In August 1950, the Central Committee of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED), which ruled East Germany, decided to found a history museum in the socialist mould. Its purpose was to convey a new concept of history to the wider population and serve as a site of learning. In the Marxist-Leninist reading of history, the national history of Germany was not a succession of individual rulers and military conquests, but rather a sequence of class struggles that, conforming to established doctrine, naturally led to the victory of socialism and communism and culminated in the founding of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) as a “state of workers and peasants”. This view of history not only accentuated the role of revolutions but also the narrative of anti-fascist resistance and the socialist pursuit of world peace. In January 1952, the charter of the newly founded Museum für Deutsche Geschichte (MfDG) was recorded in writing. Just six months later, the new museum put on its inaugural permanent exhibition at its provisional location, no. 26 Clara-Zetkin-Strasse (now Dorotheenstrasse). In the early 1960s, the museum moved into the rebuilt Zeughaus.

The personal belongings of leading communist figures such as Karl Liebknecht and Ernst Thälmann were deemed highlights of the exhibition. Its section on current times, meanwhile, featured diplomatic gifts, treaties, and foreign accolades, which were intended as markers of so-called international solidarity and above all the GDR’s close ties with the USSR. More space was given to modern technical equipment, for example a model of the Interkosmos 1 research satellite and an industrial robot. Such exhibits aimed to showcase the scientific and economic achievements of socialist society. The museum also provided a political stage for the cult of personality, for instance when it unveiled a memorial to Lenin in 1970. The MfDG’s special exhibitions explored historical events such as the Peasants’ Revolt of 1524–1525 and the Reformation, as well as current topics. These exhibitions often celebrated the history of the GDR or the SED.

Since at the time of its founding, the sole collection resource for the MfDG were the surviving military holdings of the former Prussian armoury, it was naturally imperative that a new collection be created. Its focus was the history of the labour movement and the socialist party. In 1958, the USSR returned part of the Soviet war booty seized from cities like Berlin and Dresden and taken to Moscow. While donations and acquisitions did help swell other areas of the collection, the museum undoubtedly also profited from the expropriations of former private property under the East German land reform (Bodenreform). However, since the museum often lacked authentic historical artefacts dating from many of the major periods and events in the history of socialism, the MfDG commissioned artists, especially painters, to create representations of historical events or scenes in place of actual historical exhibits bearing witness to the same.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, the management of the MfDG tried to catch up with the swiftly changing political landscape. Shortly after the monetary union that occurred three months before full political reunification between the two German states, they made a public plea: “[Get] the GDR into the museum”. The call was an attempt to secure the material culture of everyday life in the vanishing state through a strikingly open accessions policy. On 29 August 1990, the Council of Ministers of the last GDR government decided to dissolve the MfDG, with effect from 15 September 1990, just weeks before it itself was dissolved. The MfDG’s property and holdings were transferred to the Deutsches Historisches Museum (DHM).

1990 to Present: Deutsches Historisches Museum

The founding mission statement for the DHM was jointly formulated in 1987 by an expert commission made up of historians, art historians, cultural analysts, and museum curators. The plan they put forward emphasized how German history intersected with European history and placed it in a wider continental and transnational context. As reunified Germany’s new history museum, the DHM’s role was not to glorify the nation, but to explain its formation:

“The museum should be a place of reflection and knowledge through historical memory. It should inform, but also inspire visitors to ask questions about history and to offer answers to their questions. It should stimulate critical debate, but also enable understanding and offer opportunities for cultural identification. Above all, the museum should help the citizens of our country to realize who they are as Germans and as Europeans, as inhabitants of a region and as members of a global civilization, where they come from, where they find themselves at this point in time, and where they might go on from here.”

(Final draft of the mission statement jointly authored by the Commission of Experts for a museum of German history in Berlin, submitted 24 June 1987.)

Chancellor Helmut Kohl and the mayor of Berlin Eberhard Diepgen signed the founding charter of the DHM on 28 October 1987, in one of many events that year on both sides of the Wall marking the 750th anniversary of Berlin. The museum was originally slated to occupy a new building at the bend in the river Spree approximately where the chancellery now stands, but in 1990 it took over the Zeughaus building from the newly dissolved MfDG instead. German reunification took place shortly afterwards, on 3 October 1990, making the DHM the museum of German history for both reunited East and West. After its founding permanent exhibition, the Zeughaus closed for four years, from 1999 to 2003, for extensive renovations, with its second permanent exhibition opening in 2006 and running until 2021.

In 2003, the Exhibition Hall designed by the Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei was opened. Since named the Pei Building, the extension increased the DHM’s original exhibition space many times over. This modern wing allowed the museum to hold various temporary exhibitions in addition to its permanent collection display. Thanks to the sheer scope of its collection (which includes not only political history but also popular culture, “high” culture, military history, and a library), a string of thought-provoking temporary exhibitions – many contentious enough to spark public debate – a long list of publications, and its wider integration in a national and international museum network, the DHM has risen to become a modern national history museum.

Dr. Thomas Weißbrich and Laura Groschopp