In Cologne, Germany, the EL-DE Haus, so-called because of the initials of builder Leopold Damen, serves as a memorial to the victims of Nazi terror. The museum is a centre for documentation and research (http://museenkoeln.de/ns-dok_neu), serving as a facility for educating the public about the horrors of National Socialism. Of particular interest to this writer is the educational aspect of its exhibit concerning Cologne’s relationship with National Socialism. The museum exhibit raises questions about the complicity and resistance practiced by the citizens of Cologne. It portrays the Nazi presence in German everyday life, with emphasis on the policy of racial hygiene. As well, it presents the devastation that Cologne suffered during the Second World War, another aspect of the Nazi legacy.
From December 1935, until the arrival of U.S. forces in March 1945, the EL-DE Haus was the regional headquarters for the Gestapo (abbreviation of Geheime Staatspolizei), Nazi Germany’s Secret State Police. The exterior of this stately building, however, gives no hint of the interrogations, torture, and murder that took place here during the Nazi era.
On the cell walls in the basement, prisoners’ writings offer traces of the cells’ former captives. Their words are reproduced as part of the exhibit. From these writings, it seems that many of the German, French, Polish, and Russian prisoners did not even know why they were there, or why they were subjected to interrogation and torture. We may guess that in many cases, the words scribbled on or etched into the walls may represent an author’s last written statement.
On another floor, the development of the National Socialist movement is traced from the embers of the First World War through to the full-blown Hitler state. Visitors to the exhibit are shown the pervasiveness of National Socialism on everyday life in Germany. The regime dictated that young Germans hold membership in Nazi youth organizations. The regime even went as far as recommending recipes for German housewives to use!
Central to the National Socialist ideology was its policy of racial hygiene. In his book Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler (1943) wrote that he wanted to make Germany Jew-free. Yet Germany had been one of the most progressive countries in Europe, and its Jewish population had been fully integrated into German society. With Nazi rule, however, increasingly restrictive anti-Jewish legislation came into force. Jews who did not emigrate were forcefully ghettoized. Eventually, the ghettos were emptied, and German Jews (along with Jews from other Nazi-controlled territories) were murdered on a massive scale. After the Second World War, and the end of twelve years of National Socialism, Cologne’s Jewish population had been decimated.
The Nazi policy of racial hygiene had other victims as well. In a room that portrays the persecution of the Gypsies (more properly known as Roma and Sinti), visitors are not simply confronted by numbers and lists of names. Instead, Gestapo documentation is presented on about a dozen wooden stands. The photographs are at eye level, and along with the handprints make these people more real to us, and provide us with tangible evidence that these individuals once lived. Their photos, handprints, Gestapo criminal records, and racial reports provide evidence of their arrests and destruction. By reading the names and files, we learn that two families are represented here. We see can their relationships. We know too that ultimately, most of Cologne’s Roma and Sinti were murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Overall, photographs, texts, and artifacts presented at the EL-DE Haus help to give us a sense of the victims, perpetrators, and political and social climate of the time. The exhibit also includes interviews with eyewitnesses. The videos and voice recordings relate the experiences of victims and their families. These stories remind us that many of the people who lived and suffered under the Nazi regime are still with us, and the Nazi past is not so far behind us.
Although the EL-DE Haus does provide some literature in English, most of the text throughout the museum is only presented in German. While Germans are the intended audience, the information should be more accessible to foreign visitors as well. After all, the genocide that took place under the Nazi regime was not only a German crime. It was aided by the complicity of foreign governments and individuals, too often willing participants in the betrayal and roundup of political opponents and ethnic minorities. Even the Canadian government of the day closed the door to Jewish immigration, helping to seal the fate of many German Jews. Cologne’s EL-DE Haus offers a valuable opportunity to learn of the Nazi terror and social tragedy.
Hitler, A. (1943). Mein Kampf. Translated by Ralph Manheim (2002). Introduction by Abraham Foxman. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
NS-Dokumentationszentrum der Stadt KÃ¶ln [web site]. Retrieved July 9, 2005, from http://museenkoeln.de/ns-dok_neu/homepage/fs_start.html