The NS-Documentation Center of the City of Cologne is probably the first institution worldwide to offer a 360-degree tour of the Memorial and permanent exhibition, both supported by an audio guide in eight languages. In addition, this ambitious tour offers far more than a simple view into the rooms. Every media station of the exhibition offers a wide range of content through film and audio which is also available online for individuals who cannot visit the exhibition in person.
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Cologne’s National Socialism Documentation Center is the largest regional memorial site in all of Germany for the victims of the Nazis. It was founded by a resolution passed by the Cologne city council on December 13, 1979. For many years, the center’s activities were restricted to research and academics. So on June 11, 1987, the council once again passed a resolution calling for “the foundation of the NS Documentation Center of the city of Cologne,” and the center gradually developed into the comprehensive institution it is today. The NS documentation center today serves in equal part as a memorial and a research center, linking the commemoration of the victims of the Nazi regime to the exploration and portrayal of Cologne under Nazi rule. The center considers itself a combination memorial site, learning center and research locus.
Since 1988, the NS Documentation Center (NS Doc) has been housed in “EL-DE Haus”, the EL-DE building. Significantly, this building was the headquarters of the Cologne Gestapo (secret police) between December 1935 and March 1945. The name EL-DE is based on the phonetic pronunciation of the letters L and D and comes from the building’s developer, Leopold Dahmen, a Catholic businessman who rented the building to the Gestapo even while it was still under construction. The Gestapo had the building reconfigured for its own purposes, which included building ten prison cells in the basement. In a bit of historical irony, the EL-DE building remained largely untouched by the ravages of the war. Between 1947 and 1949, it was refurbished and enlarged, in keeping with in its original style. Since an expansion in 2012, the NS DOC uses about 2,800 square meters of space in the EL-DE building.
The former Gestapo prison was inaugurated as a memorial site on December 4, 1981. The exhibition was updated in 2009. In addition, the Gestapo rooms at the back of the prison, as well as their bunker in the sub-basement were opened to the public. Beginning in 2012, the former place of execution in the courtyard will also be a part of the memorial. Some 1,800 inscriptions and drawings done by prisoners have survived on the cell walls.
Since June, 1997, the permanent exhibition in the EL-DE building has depicted political, social and community life in “Cologne During the Nazi Era." That includes the seizure of power and the power apparatus, propaganda and the “national community,” everyday life, youth culture, religion, racism, the genocide of Cologne’s Jews and its Sinti and Roma, and opposition, resistance, war and society during war.
The memorial site and the permanent exhibition are an essential part of the learning center and the educational program. In addition, temporary exhibitions on a broad range of subjects explore local and national aspects of the Nazi era. Between the beginning of 1998 and the beginning of 2012, the center mounted 53 temporary exhibitions. A comprehensive supplementary program was developed for each exhibition.The NS Documentation Center organizes more than 130 events per year, in a variety of different formats. Events range from small lectures, readings and panel discussions to workshops, large conferences and cultural events with theater and music.
The NS DOC’s education department develops tours of the museum and the memorial. In addition, the center runs a workshop on “Youth Culture in the Nazi Era”, a tour called “Navajos and Edelweiss Pirates” through Cologne’s Ehrenfeld district, where an anti-Nazi resistance group operated during the war, a “Childmobile – Suitcase Full of History” that works in schools and day-care centers and the family tour entitled “What Happened in the EL-DE Building?” In addition, the department develops specialized programs for target groups such as specific professions, university students, student teachers and teachers.
Since the beginning of 2008, the Information and Education Association against Right-wing Extremism (ibs) has complemented and broadened the work of the NS Documentation Center. The ibs addresses the issue of extreme right-wing ideology in the world today. Its goal is to foster a consciousness of human rights, democracy, cultural diversity and non-violence, as well as to confront and prevent extreme-right patterns of thought and action. The In-formation and Education Association fund a mobile counseling project against right-wing extremism in Cologne county.
The library is primarily a reference library, with a focus on literature about Cologne during the Nazi era, the general history of the Nazi regime, as well as its didactics, and about right-wing extremism. In addition to current books and newspapers, the library collects dissertations, contemporary magazines, books, brochures and printed materials published by Nazi organizations, such as public notifications. Also in the collection are in-house organs from companies in the Cologne area. The library holdings comprise approximately 18,424 volumes (as of 2012). Use of the library is free. The catalogue can be viewed online on three Internet pages. Library users receive help and advice on their projects, and a media center can be used for viewing materials.
The documentation section provides a critical foundation for historical research, as well as for processing the results. This is where various historical source materials are secured, managed and made accessible, and where the information databases are created and maintained. The collection is made up primarily of photographs, photo albums and collections, posters, museum objects, personal documents, diaries, letters and witness statements. Gifts, permanent loans and the reproduction of photographs ensure that the holdings are constantly growing. The “Jewish Life in Cologne” collection alone comprises materials from 300 smaller and 30 larger personal estates, including some 4,000 photographs and numerous original documents. The photo archive has catalogued 30,000 photographs so far, with many more still to be processed.
The NS Documentation Center has, since the beginning, also viewed itself as an important research locus, as the name suggests. Much of the documentation from Cologne's Nazi era was destroyed or lost during the war. So the first task is and was examining, collecting and securing materials (files, documentation, artifacts and photographs, as well as books and brochures), then cataloguing them in databases and analyzing them. The results of this research work are reflected in all areas of the institution’s activities – in publications, special exhibitions, events, the Internet presence and the educational programs.
Since 1994, Cologne publisher Emons has brought out series of “writings of the NS Documentation Center of Cologne.” In 2012, a sub-series called “biographies and materials" was added. In addition, since 2005, the NS DOC has itself published a series of teaching workbooks and, since 2008, a series by the ibs. There have also been numerous individual publications related to the work of the documentation center. Since 2003, the center’s activities have been documented in detailed annual reports.
Since its founding, research projects have been key to the work of the NS Documentation Center. The subjects of those projects include, among others, Jewish history, collecting contemporary witness statements and interviews, forced labor, the police, young people, including subjects such as “Child Evacuations to the Countryside” and “non-conformist youth,” the press, clubs and organizations, the persecution of the Sinti and Roma, and Nazi military justice. Among the large, ongoing research undertakings are the history of the Holocaust, opposition and resistance, the Gestapo, the Nazi system of Gauleiter, architecture and urban planning, Cologne’s public health policies under the Nazis and the Hitler Youth movement. The NS DOC supported the “Stolpersteine” project Demnig’s project from the very beginning, including providing support for the cooperative project, “Stolpersteine in Hungary.”
The center has been the recipient of numerous awards. It has received 17 important prizes and awards, some of them national or international. These include the “special recommendation” of the 2000 Museum of the Year Award; the 2001 Architecture Prize of North Rhine-Westphalia and Cologne; induction in 2002 into the “Excellence Club” of the "Best in Heritage” organization; the 2006 History Award from TV’s History Channel; the 2007 prize for innovation in adult education from the German Institute for Adult Education; the 2008 Freya Stephan Kühn prize for “excellence in effort and achievement in communicating history” awarded by the state association of North Rhine-Westphalian history teachers and, in 2011, the award for best museum during Cologne’s Long Night of Museums.
The development of the NS Documentation Center is itself a typical example of the history of German memorial domain and commemorative policies. It would not have been possible without the efforts and commitment of citizens and, even today, their support is crucial to important parts of the work. Since January 1988, that work has been supported by the Friends of the EL-DE Building Society.