A Proposal for a World War Museum

"You must go out into the street against Bush’s war and for peace in Baghdad,” an old friend and colleague told me, agitated—or I should line up with [folk singer Wolf] Biermann and [journalist Henryk] Broder. [Both Biermann and Broder have been prominent voices in the antiwar debate.—WPR] Even as far back as my days in East German kindergarten, I did not react well to being told I “must” or “should” do things. I hated having to march in parades, with a torch and banner, passing in review before the party leaders of the German Democratic Republic. Ever since, I have avoided mass demonstrations and popular movements, even when no one was forcing me to participate.

Out of professional curiosity, though, I did go to the peace demonstration on Unter den Linden, but without a candle and without burning anger toward America. There was tacit unity among the old lefties from Kreuzberg, the former leaders of the East German youth movement (now grown old themselves), skinheads with attack dogs, women all in black and men all in white, bankers and beggars, dutiful bureaucrats, and the hopelessly unemployed, all together marching by the customers of Cafe Einstein and under the watchful eyes of the Berlin police. Thanks to Bush and Hussein, we have finally become “one people,” and Berlin, the ruins of the Reich, has become a hotbed of heavenly peace.

In despair, I looked for a quieter place, somewhere that, with my less than total aversion to war, I could be alone. In Washington I once took part in a protest march against the war in Kuwait. Because the mass of people was not moving, I left it along the route to visit the Air and Space Museum and the Smithsonian. So I was able to combine the necessary with the entertaining. But on this Prussian peace route, such a move is impossible. The Berliners keep moving, inexorably on their way, and the center of the city has no museum to provide an alternative for exhausted fighters for peace. Not a single place where you can escape both the hot and cold wars and find a climate-controlled refuge.

In Berlin’s constellation of museums there are only three permanent exhibitions dealing with the two world wars. There is Ernst Friedrich’s private antiwar museum in Wedding, with its collection of shocking images and documents from 1914-18, organized around the motto “Wage War on War.” And the German-Russian museum in Karlshorst [where the unconditional surrender of the German army was signed on May 7-8, 1945. —WPR] Even though this is the city that Bertolt Brecht described in 1945 as “an etching by Churchill after an idea of Hitler’s,” there is no museum that reflects its bombing—one that would make the experience, like that in Baghdad today, come traumatically alive for visitors, or deal with it comprehensively.

Of course, Berlin itself is one huge war museum, a city whose wounds are still visible as amputated squares, gaping holes in rows of houses, wastelands downtown, defiant bunkers, and theatrical ruins. Whenever a contractor digs into Berlin at a building site, he may dig up an unexploded bomb, exhume corpses, or liberate the fear trapped in a buried air raid shelter.

Last year the bunker on Reinhart Street, inaccessible until 1990, was opened as a showplace for street artists. Visitors were more impressed by the military areas left intact than by the underlit art on the gallery walls. Using Paul Virilio’s Bunker Archeology as my guide, I toured these creepy spaces and decided they would make an ideal war museum. This idea collided with new economic realities. The authority handling former East German property had sold the bunker—no longer needed for potato storage—to a Japanese investor who wanted to transform it into a postmodern House of Art. Computer simulations would let visitors see how to live more beautifully in an Albert Speer ambience.

The German way of dealing with its architectural heritage is either to demolish it or to return it to its origins. Berlin, according to Erich Kästner “the most interesting capital in Europe,” still shows its war wounds, and new fractures are constantly being created. Almost overnight the longest wall in Europe disappeared without a trace. This was very much to the disadvantage of tourists and teachers, because it was a good way to give children a sad lesson in history. They must now content themselves with the Museum at Checkpoint Charlie.

Museums are not just showplaces for the illusion that we can furnish ourselves for eternity, as Swiss writer Jürg Federspiel said. They are, in these hectic times, also places for contemplation and aspiration. Which leads to new museums often being degraded as a means to an end, the architecture a way of displaying the architect’s pride.

The deconstruction of the theme into the building itself is forbidden with war museums. That is why fortresses are transformed into museums of defeat or victory, so they may no longer be used for military purposes. Verdun is the most impressive world war museum that I know of, and Mussolini’s monstrous monument to the Battle of Isonzo, the most hideous.

As unique, striking, and absurd as Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb is the Titan Missile Museum near Tucson, Arizona. In a concrete silo 100 meters deep stands a Titan intercontinental ballistic missile with its nuclear warhead, once the pride of the Pentagon. Retired Air Force officers explain, not without irony, how this gigantic defense system became a nightmare for its staff.

For a while, migrating birds constantly set off alarms at the 120 silos, because their motion detectors were too sensitive. Then hang gliding became popular in Arizona, and more than once it brought the world to the brink of catastrophe. The government complained about its constituents’ love of flying—and lost. Then these titanic missiles were reconfigured to serve as more or less peaceful boosters to put satellites into space.

I confess that such museums fascinate me—not because I am a weapons nut, but because I want to understand the strategy and technology of war. Those who speak of peace must study war and its tools. Peace is not the opposite of war, but its absence, and it will not persist without armies to guarantee it. This is a paradoxical situation, as is the phenomenon of armed conflict prevention. Worse than war is the fear of going to war, as Seneca already knew. That means that we must remedy the symptoms of a sick peace, before the crisis becomes acute and leads to war. For that to happen, a clear image of the disease is necessary.

So I am in favor of establishing war museums in many locations, just as there are museums displaying art, technology, nature, and medicine around the world. It is not only after the NATO attacks on Belgrade, the destruction of Grozny by the Russians, the planes hitting New York on 9/11, and Bush’s crusade against all evil that I have felt the lack of a museum for both friends and foes of military violence in my city. A democratic place for pacifists and patriarchs, heroes and cowards, a place for both those fascinated and repelled by such horror.

What I would like is no arsenal of the modern, no exhibition of immortal victims and unknown soldiers, but a public place for discussion of war. An uncomfortable place that would force us to learn about our mutual dependence and unlearn patriotic virtues.

I have visited war museums and battlefields on three continents and never found what is needed: the confinement of world war into museums, where wars would serve as artifacts from the past to astound visitors. This may sound naive, given the bombs that we now see falling on TV. But in 1940, Frank Lloyd Wright planned glass houses that would serve—after the foreseeable destruction of the environment—as arks for nature. Why not today build a house for present wars and those to come?

My war museum must have empty rooms that will be filled with personal remembrances. Our fathers and mothers could speak here to each other and others about things they could never talk about. The victims—and wagers—of war could speak about their traumas. Jews could argue with Arabs, Russians with Chechens, peace activists with war-makers. Other rooms should remain vacant, ready to be filled with the voices of the countless dead. Monochrome blue paintings by Yves Klein should hang between pictures of war in every color and demonstrate that art can heal as well as hurt. The films of [German director] Harun Farocki must always be available here, as well as all the classic antiwar movies. Seminars ought to explain why most of them help recruit soldiers rather than do as they were meant. For those bent on adventurers in uniform, I would recommend Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun (1971) or Peter Watkins’ The War Game (1965). Both present war as an unheroic slaughterhouse. The museum’s library should be prepared for contradictions, with books by Ernst Jünger and Bertolt Brecht, Henry Kissinger and Gore Vidal, Peter Scholl-Latour and Curzio Malaparte.

In order not to risk tilting at windmills, I am not getting my hopes up that my museum project will be realized. Berlin’s Culture Senator Thomas Flierl already has his hands full and would just laugh at me. But even in these crazy times when wishing and protesting no longer help, people continue to go out into the streets and stop traffic. That makes people angry and is not healthy in this kind of weather.

That’s why I have come up with the idea of creating a museum of war that is always open—a place where visitors can learn more than they do from TV yet not scream themselves hoarse or get sore feet. In the end, it does not matter whether this museum opens tomorrow or the day after that, because war is always possible, and even after the taking of Baghdad it may be impossible to separate it from peace.