Munich, Germany is one of my favorite cities. I’ve visited Munich more than I’ve visited any other city outside the U.S. and I do so every year. *coughOktoberfest* Unfortunately, being the birthplace of the Nazi party, Munich will forever be associated with arguably the most heinous period in history. As someone who loves this city, this is truly a shame. But as a WWII travel enthusiast, it gives me a chance to always find new ways to learn about this era in a place that doesn’t try to hide its ugly past. And for my most recent visit that meant checking out the Munich NS-Documentation Center for the first time.
WHAT IS THE MUNICH NS-DOCUMENTATION CENTER?
Open as of 2015, the Munich NS-Documentation Center (locally known as NS-Dokumentationszentrum München) is a museum dedicated to… hang on. Back up. You shouldn’t even call it a “museum” really… education center would be more appropriate. It focuses less on displaying and more on teaching and remembering. And its topic? The Nazi party—how it started, where it came from, its key players, its crimes, pivotal moments in history, Munich’s role as the “capital of the movement,” and where it all stands today.
WHERE IS THE MUNICH NS-DOCUMENTATION CENTER?
Berlin. It’s in Berlin.
No, it’s not in Berlin! In fact, it’s in Munich, specifically, Munich’s Maxvorstadt district. It’s halfway between Königsplatz and Karolinenplatz, just down the street from Odeonsplatz and that will all make a lot more sense when you get there I promise. You know what, here’s a map:
It’s pretty centrally located within the city of Munich and walkable to and from just about everywhere else you’ll go during your visit. For instance:
- From the Hauptbahnhof (Munich’s main train station): 12 minutes
- From Marienplatz: 16 minutes
- From the Hofbräuhäus: 19 minutes
- From the English Garden: 20 minutes
- From the Theresienwiese (Oktoberfest): 28 minutes (look, if I can walk from the Wiesn to the Deutsches Museum, you can do this. Or, whatever, just grab a cab.)
So why is the Munich NS-Documentation Center located where it is? Well, actually, reason #1 to visit the Munich NS-Documentation Center is…
ITS LOCATION IS SIGNIFICANT
The current building housing the Munich NS-Documentation Center is located on the site of the former “Brown House” -aka- the former headquarters of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP) which would become/and the birthplace of the Nazi party as we know it.
Named for the color of uniforms the party members wore, the Brown House was a mansion purchased for use by the Nazis in 1930 (since they’d previously just been using Munich beer halls to conduct their business, the way one does). The Brown House served as a center of operations for the Nazi party from 1931 until it was destroyed by an Allied bombing raid in October of 1943, even after they moved most of their business to Berlin.
Though the current Munich NS-Documentation Center is located in a bright and shiny new building, many of the surrounding structures are as they were when the Nazis called this place home. Outside the Center you’ll see signs pointing out historical structures here and there, one example being the ruins of one of the Nazis’ Honor Temples–two enormous structures erected to house the remains of the sixteen soldiers killed in Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch who were worshipped as martyrs by the Nazis.
Besides the Brown House, this entire (really big) area between Königsplatz and Karolinenplatz, of which the Brown House was just one small corner, served all the Nazis’ needs for mass political rallies, marches, book burnings, administration, and much more.
Part of the significance of the Center’s location really becomes evident when you reach the third floor. Here, you’re shown historical footage on large projection screens hanging in front of the building’s northwest windows. On the screens you’ll see footage of these mass Nazi rallies and marches through Königsplatz (and other events), and, simultaneously out the window, YOU’LL SEE KÖNIGSPLATZ. Only this time you’ll see a kid riding a bike down an empty sidewalk and a horse-drawn beer carriage slowly making its way toward the arches. Seeing these two very different scenes of the same place is striking in its effect.
For me, learning about a topic at the source is the most effective way to learn.
ADMISSION TO THE MUNICH NS-DOCUMENTATION CENTER IS FREE
For the time being, admission to the Munich NS-Documentation Center is absolutely free. Just walk right on in. No need to feel awkward or like your trying to pull a fast one—it’s really okay. When you walk in, there’s an administrative desk on the left side of the room, manned by a couple of friendly employees who will, once again, assure you that it’s free. Then you’ll pull out your wallet and try to rent an audio guide at which point you’ll be handed one and told, “Go ahead and take it. It’s free.”
Note: As of April 2020 admission to the Munich NS-Documentation Center will no longer be free (but it won’t be much more). I’ll update this page as soon as the changes go into effect.
IT ANSWERS A COMMONLY ASKED QUESTION
One of the most asked questions when it comes to Nazi history and crimes (if not the most), is “How in the world could this have happened?” I know, personally, I have asked that (to myself, to the universe, to the internet, to that guy on the bus that one time) at least hundreds of times. And if you’ve ever wondered the same, the Munich NS-Documentation Center has the answers.
Here, you’ll learn how the conditions of Munich, Germany, Europe, and beyond in the period following WWI were but the fertile soil in which the Nazi party could—and did—grow and grow and grow. You’ll learn about Hitler’s early life and how he rose from virtually nothing to being the most powerful man in the world, step by step. You’ll learn about the bases for anti-Semitism, racial hierarchy, and other Nazi ideologies. And all of this will help explain How in the World This All Happened.
If you’ve ever asked “How in the world could—WWII, Hitler, National Socialism, the Holocaust—have happened?” rest assured there is an answer and it’s to be found at the Munich NS-Documentation Center, the birthplace of it all.
THE MUNICH NS-DOCUMENTATION CENTER IS EXTREMELY WELL ORGANIZED
I’ll be the first to admit digging deep into the cracks of WWII can, at times, be overwhelmingly technical. But if the girl who has to read the chicken finger microwave directions four times before pressing start can understand the content here, so can you.
The Munich NS-Documentation Center does a great job of presenting a large amount of complex information in a manner that any person who walked in off the street because this place is free can easily digest. Digest, not stomach, let’s make that clear.
After trying to pay for, and then picking up, your audio guide catch the elevator and head to the fourth floor where it all starts. From here, the information presented will be chronological in order, from the top floor down. To get its points across, the Munich NS-Documentation Center utilizes photographs, video footage, audio recordings, and informational displays–vertical, around the room’s perimeter, and all numbered so you always know where to go next, with supporting horizontal displays in the room’s center.
- 4th floor | Origins and Rise of the Nazi Movement 1918-1933
- 3rd floor | Dictatorship and Society in National Socialism 1933-1939
- 2nd floor | Munich and the War 1939-1945
- 1st floor | Dealing with the Nazi Era after 1945 + Special exhibitions
- Lobby (because in Europe the first floor is always the one above the ground floor) | Information and ticket booth, bookshop
- -1st floor | Learning Center, Library, Workshops, Cloakroom
- -2nd floor | Auditorium, Cafeteria
One of my biggest travel pet peeves is when a museum doesn’t have any sort of discernible flow (I’m looking at you, Egyptian Museum in Turin, Italy.) — and this one’s got it.
NOTE: The Munich NS-Documentation Center currently does not offer guided tours however exceptions are made for school and other larger groups.
THE DISPLAYS ARE BOTH IN GERMAN AND ENGLISH
I realize this sounds like a pretty basic requirement for a “museum,” but I’m surprised myself at the number of tourist attractions and sites, tours, museums, etc. I’ve been to where there hasn’t been any English to be found. In Germany and elsewhere. (Most hilariously that time I got trapped on a 3-hour, 100% German language Munich brewery tour*.)
*Important fact: I do not speak German.
American visitors need not worry—all displays at the Munich NS-Documentation Center are in both German and English.
THEY OFFER AN AWESOME AUDIO GUIDE
Part of what makes a visit the Munich NS-Documentation Center so great is the included audio guide (available in many languages and, again, for free). The guide, comfortable to wear I might add—most of which are very much not, summarizes the information displays, gives even more background information, and includes commentary from actual witnesses to the points you learn about. I realize that’s the point of many-an-audio guide, but I felt the one at the Munich NS-Documentation Center far exceeded any others I’ve used.
And because the majority of visitors do use the audio guide, this helps keep the Center in a constant state of near silence—save for the lady wearing her baby like a backpack. If you have a little bit of extra time to spend at the Munich NS-Documentation Center, be sure to utilize the incredible audio guide.
THE MUNICH NS-DOCUMENTATION CENTER HAS A WONDERFUL BOOKSHOP ON SITE
If you’re as into reading books on WII-topics of all kinds as I am, the bookshop at the Munich NS-Documentation is right up your alley.
This bookshop is a branch of the Literaturhandlung, a renowned Munich bookshop dedicated to non-fiction accounts of Jewish life and history and fictional books by Jewish authors. They’ve got books on, well, the history of National Socialism obviously, but also a wide range of other WWII topics and they’ve got them in German and in English. How many new books did I add to my “to-read” list? Oh, I dunno, I ran out of data before I could look them all up. But it’s a lot. The bookshop is in the rear part of the ground floor and can easily be missed—so make a note to remember to check it out!
THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
➤ First and foremost, the Munich NS-Documentation Center is closed on Mondays. However, if a German bank holiday falls on a Monday, the Center will be open. As a foreign visitor, chances are you won’t know a German bank holiday from a kreuzschlitzschraubenzieher*, so maybe just wait until Tuesday?
*Phillips head screwdriver
➤ Secondly, the name of the street on which the Munich NS-Documentation Center is located has recently been changed. Formerly, the Center and the Brown House occupied the same space on Briennerstraße. However, in 2018 the Center’s address was renamed Max-Mannheimer Platz 1 after Max Mannheimer, a holocaust survivor and Jewish activist. However, on many maps the street still appears as Briennerstraße.
➤ Depending on both your interest in the topic and how much you know about the subject already, how long you spend at the Munich NS-Documentation Center will vary. Personally, I spent one hour on the 4th floor alone, and then another two on the subsequent floors all together, but you could definitely spend much longer.
RECOMMENDED READING & WATCHING
📖 The Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany by Thomas Childers (2017) | Before I visited the Munich NS-Documentation Center (and still actually, look I’m really busy ok?) I read/am reading this book. It is “the dramatic and definitive story of the Third Reich—how Adolf Hitler and a core group of Nazis rose to power and plunged the world into WWII.” Reading this before my visit to the Center was immensely helpful in my understanding of the subject. Also, much of the first 50 pages talks about the Brown House so it was quite interesting getting to visit the actual site.
📖 The Death of Democracy: Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic by Benjamin Carter Hett (2018) | Described as “A riveting account of how the Nazi Party came to power and how the failures of the Weimar Republic and the shortsightedness of German politicians allowed it to happen. Basically, the fourth floor of the Munich NS-Documentation Center is much more detail.
📖 Hitler: A Biography by Ian Kershaw (1991) | I think the title tells you everything you need to know (but the top review of this book on Amazon has a lot of good points to make). If you’re as interested in one of history’s most convoluted characters as I am, this is a great place to start
📽 Look Who’s Back (2015) | Known in German as Er ist wieder da, Look Who’s Back is a satirical comedy in which Adolf Hitler wakes up in the location of the former führerbunker but in modern times. It sounds ridiculous, and it is, but it’s also equal parts hilarious and terrifying. After waking up in current day Germany, Hitler’s mission is still the same: “world domination”… and this movie shows how what we can’t imagine once happened, can easily happen again even today. NOTE: Look Who’s Back is also a book by Timur Vermes, but I prefer the movie. (The link is for the Blue-ray version, but Look Who’s Back is also currently available on Netflix.)
📽 The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (2012) | “The incredible story of how an Austrian paper-hanger rose from total obscurity to become the absolute master of the German people.” Ten researchers spent over 20 years collecting documents and footage to create this film.
📽 Nazis: A Warning from History (2015) | A six-part documentary series that seeks to answer the question of how a political party like this Nazis could have become so powerful.
📽 The Great Dictator (1941) | Another comedy, a controversial masterpiece, and Charlie Chaplin’s first speaking role. At the time of its release it was Chaplin’s most successful film, and today it’s praised as still highly historically significant. But also, it’s the only movie in this list that Adolf Hitler watched himself. Twice.
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