War & pieces: Dresden’s Military History Museum

War & pieces: Dresden's Military History Museum

(Image © Chris Rowlands / Modern Traveller)

Follow Modern Traveller into the depths of Dresden’s disarmingly monumental museum of the artefacts and aftermath of conflict.


It’s neither a folly nor a jolly, really – though that is the category in which we’ve placed it. Why? Because one needs to spend at least a day – or more – exploring its corridors and floors, to truly get under the skin of this intriguing, goliath of a collection of military history.

And what a skin it is: a 19th-century armory bisected by a translucent, five-storey shard of stripped metal – just as war bisects nations, peoples and history itself – which points skyward with wilful disregard for its classical surroundings.

Designed by Polish-American architect Daniel Libeskind, this jolting addition to the museum’s facade is the first indication of what one can find inside: this is no stuffy experience of glass-cabinetted kitsch.

Instead, Dresden’s Military History Museum – or Militärhistorisches Museum der Bundeswehr, to give its full title – offers visitors a fascinating insight into the fighting history of a country riven by conflict many times over, both at home and abroad.

Possessing a somewhat labyrinthine layout, courtesy of Libeskind’s architectural addition, there are two ways in which to journey through the museum. For a truly comprehensive experience, one can follow a chronological path, delineated by arrows, from the 14th century right through to the present day.

Alternatively, if thematics are more to your taste, it’s possible to take a conceptual route through the body of the museum, covering everything from the relationship between technology and warfare to the role of animals in conflict.

Pacifists may recoil, but much of this is history worth telling. Of course, there are weapons on display, the armoured suits of medieval stormtroopers and the regalia of battle – but this enthralling collection is far from trumpeted for the sake of celebration.

For all the intrigue ancient siege weapons might generate, the perverse beauty of a finely-crafted set of duelling pistols and the powerful presence of V2 rockets, glorification of war is not the mission here.

As pull-out panels and interactive elements – from wearable chain mail gloves to picture portals – suggest, Dresden’s Military History Museum is about informing, educating and, above all, generating discussion.

Whether the cascade of bomb canisters suspended from a high ceiling or the haunting audio of suffering voices which plays in the Leiden am Krieg (“suffering in war”) section, this is hardly an easy experience through which to walk.

Even the hardiest of warmongers might be made to pause and consider as they explore the five floors of this unexpectedly moving collection of elements from battles, conflicts and wars, of the lives affected, lost and unknown.

With comprehensive coverage of the 20th century, too, there’s a real sense that little has been learnt from what the past ought to have taught us. Where marauders once visited ancient Saxony, centuries later came the Nazis, then a Communist regime which tore Germany in two.

Even into the present day, the museum does not shy away from the harsh reality of war: a series of photographic portraits adorn a wall, detailing the horrific stories of those who have survived an encounter with unexploded ordnance.

Sure, some might wish for more condemnation from the museum – but, in many ways, its staunch neutrality is impressive, commendable and necessary. Whilst facts are unflinchingly given and controversial relics vividly present – from the uniforms of SS officers to Soviet-era weaponry – divisive events are detailed without judgement. This, of course, is left to the beholder.

Take the uppermost floor, where a viewing deck not for the height-fearing offers a breathtaking vista over Dresden, a city near-dessimated by Allied bombing near the very end of WWII. In the room beside the open-air platform one finds bomb-damaged bricks and pavements, shattered on the night of that fateful raid, which created a firestorm that claimed the lives of thousands.

Beside captions detailing death tolls are stories of those perversely saved by the very same bombs: Jews, shortly to be deported to concentration camps, who were able to escape courtesy of the hectic, deadly confusion on February 13 and 14, 1945.

This is just a single example of how the Militärhistorisches Museum neither kowtows to popular outrage nor shies away from the harsh realities of the wars waged using many of the artefacts held in its very display cases.

It’s not an easy place to visit. Beginning with the early history, one is able to remain somewhat distant – the bloodshed seems but a footnote in history.

Soon, though, reaching a section of the Berlin Wall, a symbol of division, loss and suffering, before moving through stories of Militär und Gesellschaft – military and society – it’s a difficult task to remain unmoved and undisturbed by the presence, power and potential of military might, both past and present.

It might take all day, possibly longer, and it might be both moving and melancholic, but rarely has such a diverse array of military history, from such a large period of history, been so well-presented and so evenly handled.

If you’re in Dresden, or even passing by, it’s unquestionably worth your time.

Dresden’s Militärhistorisches Museum der Bundeswehr is open daily, except Wednesdays, from 10.00 until 18.00; admission is €5 for the permanent exhibition, €3 for the temporary exhibition or €7 for a combined ticket. There are discounts for students, families, Dresden-Card holders and members of several military associations. On Mondays, the museum opens from 10.00 until 21.00, with free entry after 18.00.

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