Project Germany: The past, the present, and peace

Anti-war museum presents simple message: War is evil

Among displays is a bomb shelter

by Rita Forbes and Valerie German

A child's gas mask hangs in Berlin's Anti-War Museum.
Ernst Friedrich founded the museum in 1925 as one of his
many efforts to oppose war.

When we visited Berlin’s Anti-War Museum, its director, Tommy Spree, shared the riveting history of his grandfather with us. Ernst Friedrich founded the museum as one of his many efforts to oppose war. A dedicated pacifist, Friedrich refused to join the German army in World War I. This triggered a series of imprisonments. But his activism could not be stopped.

In 1924, he published a book called War against War. The book is made up almost entirely of photographs, with brief captions in German, English, French and Dutch. The first few black and white photographs portray soldiers in crisp, immaculate uniforms marching proudly to war. But these images are juxtaposed with others. Dead bodies sprawled across what was supposed to be the “field of honor.” Trenches full of dead soldiers. Wartime executions. Dead women hanging from a gallows. Dead children. And then come the pictures of soldiers who survived the war. Men whose faces have been almost completely blown off. Page after page, the images continue relentlessly.

Although the photographs are black and white, and were taken over 80 years ago, they are graphic and detailed. This book is enough to turn anyone’s stomach. No wonder its publication in the 1920s was controversial. Friedrich went to court many times, defending his book against those who wanted its sale forbidden.

The message of the book is direct, monochromatic like its photographs. War is evil. There is no discussion of the causes of war or of whether violent action is ever justified. The captions that accompany the photographs do not identify when or where they were taken. We know nothing about the circumstances of these instances of suffering. We simply see the death, the injuries and the suffering.

Ernst Friedrich founded the “First International Anti-War Museum” in Berlin in 1925. The museum was destroyed by the Nazis in 1933 and Friedrich was imprisoned yet again. Upon his release from prison, he and his family left Germany, immigrating to Belgium, where he opened another anti-war museum.

Today’s Anti-War Museum opened its doors in 1982 and stands in a different location from the original. But the spirit of Friedrich’s work has been carried on without interruption.

A pacifist sculpture greet visitors to Berlin's Anti-War Museum.

Large photographs from War against War hang on the walls. Artifacts from both World Wars are displayed. The most compelling exhibit of all, though, is hidden away downstairs: a complete bomb shelter, as it would have appeared during World War II.

Mr. Spree led us into the shelter and closed the door. We sat on wooden kitchen chairs along a brick wall painted white, to help people find their way in the dark. An original radio recording blared from a radio, announcing that bombers were on their way.

“That meant the Berliners had half an hour’s time to get down,” Spree said. “Imagine living in a third story here, and having to wake up the baby and the two-year-old child; you have to go down in your own little shelter.”

Spree’s narrative directed our imaginations as we sat in that dim room, amid authentic surroundings.

“The sirens told you you had to go down, because planes were coming from the west, over Brunswick, and they were filled with bombs,” he explained. “So you had to go down to your shelter room. You took your suitcase along with you, your valuables, papers that could burn... it was already packed, in case you had to leave the building because it was bombed to peaces. War means fire – everything is burning.”

Berlin had a population of about 4 million people in the 1940s.

“Nearly half the population was bombed out,” Spree told us. “Imagine if you had a room like this, and you had to stay and live here. This was quite comfortable, compared with some shelter rooms. Some were very wet. ... But then you could also suffocate, if the city was burning, you didn’t have enough oxygen here. ... Wooden posts here prevent the ceiling from falling down if the house was hit a second time. Upstairs everything was smashed to pieces.”

A Berlin woman recorded the date and time of each air-raid alarm on her wooden door, which is now part of the Anti-War Museum’s bomb shelter exhibit. 400 separate entries are penciled in.

“That meant you had to go down into your shelter room every third day from 1940 to 1945,” Spree said.

A child-sized gas mask was another memorable object. Of the museum’s yearly 4,000 to 5,000 visitors, a large number are children visiting as part of school groups. Spree always lets one of the children try the gas mask on.

“They come in very lively, and they leave the museum very... well, full of thoughts,” he said.

Fifteen years before the start of World War II, Ernst Friedrich had warned against war in his little book. Although war occurred nonetheless, Friedrich’s pacifist work was groundbreaking. Today, that work continues throughout Germany, on a much larger scale. And people seem to be listening.

Information about the museum is available (in English and German) at