Wikipedia:WikiProject Military history/News/October 2011/Op-ed

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Review essay: Militärhistorisches Museum der Bundeswehr

By Nick-D

The Militärhistorisches Museum der Bundeswehr on 16 October 2011

During my recent trip to Europe I had the good fortune to visit the Militärhistorisches Museum der Bundeswehr (English: Bundeswehr Military History Museum) in Dresden the day after it re-opened following a major redevelopment. This is the main German military history museum and forms part of a network of museums across Germany which are administered by the German Armed Forces Military History Research Office. While I can't comment on what the museum was like previously, in my view the new Militärhistorisches Museum der Bundeswehr is a world-class military history museum that will be of wide interest to both military and social historians. Moreover, by taking an unusual approach to investigating warfare the museum raises some issues which are relevant to the way in which we write military history articles and the topics which they cover. This review essay discusses my views on the museum and the lessons that I think Wikipedia editors could take from it.

The museum

The Militärhistorisches Museum der Bundeswehr tells the story of German military history since the 1300s, with a focus on land warfare. It is organised into three large chronological galleries (1300–1914, 1914–1945 and 1945–today) and several smaller thematic galleries. The thematic displays cover an interesting mix of fairly conventional topics (for example, war and technology and military uniforms) as well as some unusual topics (for instance, animals in war and music in war). While almost all the items on display in the museum include captions in both German and English, English-language signage is almost entirely absent away from the galleries and few of the museum's staff appeared to speak English. As can be seen from the photograph, the museum is architecturally impressive - the renovations to the building were designed by Daniel Libeskind, who also designed Imperial War Museum North in Manchester and the Jewish Museum Berlin.

The key feature of the Militärhistorisches Museum der Bundeswehr is that rather than presenting the military and warfare in isolation, its exhibits seek to illustrate the links between the military and the rest of German society. The items selected for display and their supporting captions seek to explain the political and military contexts of Germany's military history and all the chronological galleries include sections on topics such the war economy, life on the home front and the conditions experienced by military personnel. This is done intelligently and with considerable historical rigor. As is typical for German museums, the displays don't pull punches when describing the wrong-doings of the German military at various times (most obviously, its role in the rise of the Nazi Party and conduct during World War II) - I doubt that any other national military museum in the world displays a noose used by that country's military to hang civilians, for instance.

An interesting feature of the displays, and something which is highly unusual in a military history museum, is that they take criticisms of the military seriously. This is done through displays on topics such as the results of East and West Germany's arms exports to developing countries, protests over the expansion of the military at various times, the factors which motivated contentious objectiors and captions to some weapons which note criticisms of that weapon's development and/or deployment. The museum's coverage of the tensions over foreign deployments of the German military in recent years is particularly good and treats both sides of the debate with respect - for instance, the display on the current German deployment to Afghanistan places a German Army jeep damaged by a mine next to the voting cards Angela Merkel and other senior politicians used when they voted to support the war. This approach to military history is similar to that taken by Imperial War Museum North, but has more substance behind it in my view.

Of course, not everything was perfect. As you'd expect from a museum which had been open for only two days, there were some teething problems – the revolving entrance door was misbehaving, some display cabinets were missing their contents and (surprisingly) many of the large items on display in the galleries didn't have captions. I also hope that the English-language signage is expanded further, and an English translation of the excellent museum handbook is made available. While the balance of the coverage accorded to different periods in Germany's military history generally seemed about right to me, I think that the display on the military involvement in the anti-Nazi German resistance was too large given that this (sadly) only accounted for a very small proportion of military personnel.

Potential lessons for Wikipedia articles

Part of the exhibit on animals in war

I think that there are two main lessons Wikipedia editors can take from the approach used by the Militärhistorisches Museum der Bundeswehr. The first of these is in relation to the topics which articles are written on. The use of both chronological and thematic galleries worked really well, and this could be used to develop interesting article structures. For instance, alongside Military history of Australia (for example) we could have articles on Sport and the Australian military and Discipline in the Australian military which cut across different time periods.

The second possible lesson from the museum's approach is in regards to the topics covered in articles. It's important to remember that 'military history' is much more than just a record of warfare and other activities undertaken by national militaries as it also covers social and political attitudes towards the military (including opposition to it) and the experiences of civilians during wartime. The Militärhistorisches Museum der Bundeswehr does a good job of integrating 'non-military' aspects of warfare into its displays, and I think that many articles on military history would benefit from a similar approach. The museum's willingness to acknowledge and clearly present wrongdoings and ambiguities is also a useful reminder that these also form part of many military history topics.

All up, the Militärhistorisches Museum der Bundeswehr is one of the world's leading military history museums and deserves to be ranked alongside major institutions such as the Imperial War Museum and Australian War Memorial. Its approach to presenting Germany's military history is innovative and I hope that it is adopted more widely, including in Wikipedia articles.

For other perspectives on this museum, it has been reviewed by The Economist and The Guardian.

Travel advice

  • The Militärhistorisches Museum der Bundeswehr is located in the Albertstadt area of Dresden. It is approximately 20 minutes from Dresden Hauptbahnhof on tram routes 7 and 8 or about 10 minutes from the centre of the old town. Alight at the Stauffenbergallee‎ tram stop.
  • The museum's official website is located here, but is available in German only at present. It includes information on opening hours and other means of transport to the museum. I'd suggest allowing at least four hours to see the museum, and preferably more as it is very large.