A Place of History

The Berlin Armoury

View of the armoury Berlin (2005)German Historical Museum

With over 300 years of history, the "Zeughaus," or Armory, is the oldest building on Berlin's boulevard Unter den Linden. Today the baroque building houses the permanent exhibition of the Deutsches Historisches Museum (German Historical Museum). It's not only the collection inside the house, but also the building itself, that is closely linked to German history.

Prospect of the royal armoury of Berlin (around 1755) by Johann David Schleuen the Older (attributed)German Historical Museum

On May 16, 1667 Elector Friedrich Wilhelm (1620–88) wrote in his political will that "a beautiful armory must be built there." His wish was granted after his death with the laying of the foundation stone in 1695 under Elector Friedrich III.

With its almost-square ground plan, the Berlin Armory is a monumental 2-story building with 4 wings. The sides of the buildings, each almost 300 feet long, enclose a square inner courtyard.

One of its key features is the collection of sculptures on the roof balustrade. Equally distinctive are the 22 heads of dying warriors, representing a major piece of European baroque sculpture. Andreas Schlüter, the architect in charge until 1699, played a decisive role in the design of the architectural sculptures. The iconography pays homage to the art of war.

"The armoury and the royal palace in Berlin" (1775-1800) by Joseph Carmine (publisher)German Historical Museum

Four architects managed the project until the completion of the external facade in 1706. However, the Armory was not completed for another few decades; due to a lack of resources, the building was not completely fit for purpose as an arsenal of weapons until 1730.

Frederick William I, King in Prussia (1713-1740) (after 1733) by Antoine Pesne (attributed)German Historical Museum

The interior design of the Armory was functional compared to the exterior facade. Under Friedrich Wilhelm I (1688–1740), also called the "Soldier King," the building was primarily used for military purposes. It also represented the increasing military power of Brandenburg-Prussia. As such, the continuous halls housed a great number of guns, spoils of war, and trophies.

Looting of the Berlin armoury on June 14,1848 (or: The mob storms the Berlin armoury on June 14, 1848) (1848) by Oehmigke (und) Riemschneider (publisher)German Historical Museum

The Armory itself became a target for looting several times, including during the Russian occupation of 1760, upon the capture of Berlin by Napoleon in 1806, and during the revolution of 1848, when the population stormed the Armory.

Prize medal of the trade exhibition in the Berlin armoury (reverse)German Historical Museum

Over time the character of the building changed from an arms store to an exhibition space. The Armory quickly gained a large number of trophies and weapons during the Wars of Liberation (1813–15), which were made accessible to the public for the first time in 1831. The construction of a model collection from 1815 to 1831 was one of the instrumental steps in transforming the Armory into one of the most notable public museums in Europe. Other exhibitions also took place in the rooms, including the "General exhibition of German industrial products" in 1844.

Demolition of the old vaults on the northern front of the armoury to build the dome (August 8, 1878)German Historical Museum

After the German Reich was established in 1871 the Armory was ultimately converted into a museum under Emperor Wilhelm I. Structural alterations took place from 1877 to 1880 for this purpose. These primarily included the glass roofing of the inner courtyard, the construction of a double flight of stairs in the courtyard, and the construction of a cupola hall on the upper floor of the north wing called the Hall of Fame of the Brandenburg-Prussian Army.

Weapons collections in the Berlin Armoury (1887) by Gustav Fritsche, Königlich Sächsischer BuchbinderGerman Historical Museum

The Royal Armory Museum was opened on November 8, 1883. The guns and flags captured during the Franco-German war of 1870–71 were set up in the covered atrium. In the following years the Armory became one of Berlin's most popular museums.

View into the Rulers' Hall (Herrscherhalle) of the Berlin Armoury (1934)German Historical Museum

The new Hall of Fame was the focal point of the museum's historical outlook, focusing on the Hohenzollern dynasty. It showcased the Prussian army's military power. The extensive artistic design was completed in 1891 and was primarily devoted to honoring heroes. The new cupola hall, named the "Herrscherhalle," or Sovereigns' Hall, was in the center of the Hall of Fame.

View of the Rulers' Hall of the Berlin Armoury (after 1910)German Historical Museum

Off to the left and right of the Hall of Fame were 2 galleries called the General's Halls. The historical and military focus of the growing collection was the dominant feature until the early 20th century.

New Year's reception and sevice in the courtyard of the Berlin Armoury (January 1, 1900)German Historical Museum

The glorification of military superiority seen in the collection was also expressed in the euphoria about war felt in Germany at the beginning of the First World War.

Aerial view of the Berlin Armoury (around 1920)German Historical Museum

After the First World War the Armory became part of the National Museums. The collection held in-house was rearranged according to scientific criteria to shed the reputation of a "patriotic military institution of edification." After the abdication of the Hohenzollern and during the Weimar Republic, the Armory played a more restrained role as a museum of military history.

Exhibition of French war booty in the courtyard of the Berlin Armoury (1940)German Historical Museum

However, after the National Socialists came to power in 1933, it became clear how little had fundamentally changed in the museum's ethos. The military tradition and glorification of Prussia was highlighted again and used to promote the aims and war propaganda of National Socialism.

Adolf Hitler speaks in the Berlin Zeughaus (Armoury) on the annual Heroes' Memorial Day (16 March 1941) by Wien-Bild BildagenturGerman Historical Museum

From 1940 Adolf Hitler gave annual speeches in the Armory courtyard on "Heroes' Memorial Day," in which he evoked military traditions.

The Hall of Fame of the Berlin Armoury after a bomb attack (November/December 1943) by Scherl BilderdienstGerman Historical Museum

While some museums closed upon the outbreak of war in 1939, the Armory remained open until September 1944 as part of National Socialist war propaganda. Objects from the collection were relocated during this time, however.

Destruction on the upper floor of the Berlin Armoury (after 1945)German Historical Museum

During the Second World War, not only were the collections lost and scattered, but the building was also seriously damaged. After the war the Allies closed the museum as an institution. They even considered demolishing the building, as it was a symbol of Prussian militarism, but instead decided to give the building a new purpose.
In July 1947 Soviet military administration finally designated the Armory in East Berlin as the municipal art museum, which was by this point under the control of the Berlin museum administration.

Im Juli 1947 bestimmte schließlich die sowjetische Militäradministration das sich in Ost-Berlin befindliche Zeughaus zum städtischen Kunstmuseum, das nun der Berliner Museumsverwaltung unterstand.

The Zeughaus courtyard after the Second World War (1946) by Henry RiesGerman Historical Museum

The building's restoration began in 1948 with the aim of establishing a "House of Culture." The baroque exterior and courtyard facades were to be restored to be true to the original. The interiors were to be restored to their original state without the extensions of the 19th century, i.e. without a Hall of Fame and open staircase. Due to structural problems, the historical vaults of the ground floor could not be preserved.

The Zeughaus with a notice advising its reconstruction and remodelling as the Museum for German History (30 January 1951) by Illus Bildagentur and ADN-ZentralbildGerman Historical Museum

In 1950, at a meeting of the Central Committee of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED), the decision was made to found a "Museum of German History." In the same year, due to the poor condition of the stone, the Armory was completely gutted and a steel skeleton structure was installed.

Clearance of the east wing of the Berlin Armoury (1951) by Siegfried LochGerman Historical Museum

The reconstruction was subsequently divided into 2 parts: the faithful restoration of the Baroque facade architecture and the planning and implementation of a completely new interior design.
The project had several planning stages which were overseen by different architects. Initially the emphasis was on the functional architectural style of the 1920s. This style was replaced, however, by that of revivalist architecture, the "national tradition" construction style required in the GDR.
The reconstruction therefore also reflected the political and cultural developments in Germany, which had been divided since 1949.

View of the Karl Marx exhibition at the Museum für Deutsche Geschichte (MfDG) (1955) by Foto BrüggemannGerman Historical Museum

The Museum für Deutsche Geschichte (Museum of German History) was officially founded in 1952. It was the first attempt to exhibit a cultural and social presentation of German history instead of the military history in the Armory. This was based on the Marxist-Leninist historical view of the GDR.

"Unter den Linden" boulevard with view of the Armoury (Museum für Deutsche Geschichte) and the Palace of the Republic (after 1973) by Martin SchmidtGerman Historical Museum

The construction of each wing was carried out one after the other, meaning the first permanent exhibition of the Museum of German History opened in 1962. The final interior, however, was not completed until 1967.

After German reunification, the Armory and the collections of the Museum für Deutsche Geschichte (MfDG) became the property of the German Historical Museum (DHM), which had been founded 3 years earlier in the Federal Republic of Germany. Originally the DHM had planned to build this in West Berlin, but the plans changed after the end of the GDR and the MfDG closed its doors for the last time. From 1999 to 2003 the Armory was extensively renovated and rebuilt once more. The aim was to do justice to both the baroque structure and the changes made during the reconstruction after 1945.

In addition to general modernization, construction also included expanding the area on the upper floor and adding a new roof over the inner courtyard. This roof was designed by Ieoh Ming Pei. The exhibition building next to the Armory, also designed by I.M. Pei, was completed at the same time in 2003. The DHM's first permanent exhibition was opened in the Armory in 2006.

Credits: Story


Ulrike Kretzschmar: "Vom Arsenal zum Museum", in: Das Berliner Zeughaus. Vom Waffenarsenal zum Deutschen Historischen Museum, hg. v. Ulrike Kretzschmar, München et al. 2006.

Mary-Elizabeth Andrews: Zeitschichten. Deutsche Geschichte im Spiegel des Berliner Zeughauses, Berlin 2015.

Text- und Bildredaktion: Björn Schmidt / DHM.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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