Must-see museum: the NS Documentation Centre in Cologne

Posted by on 5 Dec, 2015 in Blog, Germany, Slider | 6 comments

Anyone who knows me, knows I love a good museum.


If a ‘museum-connoisseur’ is a thing, I am one (if not, I suppose culture vulture will have to do) and as such, I’ve been to a fair few museums in my time – including plenty about World War II and the Holocaust.

As a long-time student of German and Russian, I’ve studied the war in a great amount of detail from many different sides. And yet my recent trip to the NS Documentation Centre in Cologne was among the best WWII museums I’ve visited. For one important reason…


The EL-DE Haus


Nazi museum in CologneArtistic interpretation of the Third Reich by Dutch artist Gernd Arntz

The building the museum is found in actually has an interesting history of its own. Named the EL-DE Haus after the initials of its founder (jeweller Leopold Dahmen), the building was first rented by the Nazis in 1934 and went on to become the headquarters of the Gestapo in the area – the Nazi secret police.

The Gestapo was officially part of the Sicherheitsdienst (Security Service) and so its role was to ‘protect’ Nazi Germany – largely against dissidents. As such, the basement of the EL-DE Haus was transformed into an overcrowded prison where political prisoners were tortured and even executed.

Despite its location in Central Cologne (just a stone’s throw from the Cathedral), the EL-DE Haus escaped the severe bombing of the city relatively unscathed. Something the museum points out as a tragic irony.


The prison cells


El-DE Haus: Gestapo prison

After a bit of misdirection, we actually started our tour in the basement of the building – in the Gestapo prison. Directly after the war, the basement was used for filing and sorting for several decades and so was left in a remarkably well-preserved condition. Today it is cold, stark and undeniably haunting.

The prison featured 14 cells, the largest of which were a mere five square-metres. At its peak these tiny spaces held up to 33 people at a time – the original beds were removed to make room for more people. Prisoners were regularly tortured in a lower part of the basement, with executions taking place in the building’s courtyard from 1944 onwards.

El-DE Haus: Gestapo prison

The stories of those who passed through the prison is recalled on displays and via the audio guide, but the most remarkable feature of the basement is the preserved engravings. Up to 1,800 engraving and messages were left on the walls of the cells and have been carefully restored by curators to tell the personal suffering of those who were imprisoned here.

The writings, a third of which are in Russian or Ukrainian, are at times vengeful, sorrowful, optimistic or apathetic – but each is chilling reminder that many innocent people lost their lives here.

Make time to visit the courtyard where more than 400 inmates were executed.


The Rise of Nazism in Cologne


Rise of Nazism: Cologne Nazi museum

For me, a great feature of the NS Documentation Centre was its unflinching and unforgiving look at the rise of Nazism in Cologne.

As in most German cities, the popularity of Nazism was not taken very seriously at first. Even in the late 1920s, Cologne had a reputation for being liberal and open-minded, although anti-Semitism was not unheard of.

The first Nazi paper, Der Westdeutsche Beobachter (The West German Observer) had little initial success when it was first released and banners on the NSDAP HQ building in Cologne reading “The Jews are our downfall” were taken down on order of the city’s mayor shortly after being put up.

Sadly however, Nazism soon took hold and although the party recorded 10% fewer votes in Cologne than the national average, the party soon swept into power – although students at Cologne University led a large protest against the party in 1933.

World War II museum in Cologne

Visitors can see photos of anti-Semitic Karneval floats from the 1930s – a real reminder of how prejudices against Jews permeated every aspect of German life.

Nazi museum in Cologne

One of my favourite parts of the museum was the photos and projections showing Hitler’s plans for Cologne. A key strategic city on the Rhine, it was to become the Third Reich’s gateway to the West, with an entirely new city centre built on the right bank of the Rhine.


Cologne in World War II


WWII museum in CologneNazi soldiers marching in front of Cologne cathedral

The final floor of the museum was definitely the most moving: Cologne through World War II, as told via the stories of local victims.

In 1925, there were 16,000 Jews in Cologne, but by 1939 this number had halved as many had chosen to flee. The exhibits of the final floor try to tell the full story of those who remained. Through discovered personal accounts, unearthed letters and surviving documentation, the museum has pieced together the final months of many of Cologne’s former Jewish inhabitants, the majority of whom were sent to Litzmanstadt concentration camp.

History of Jews in CologneCologne-resident Max Hertz is shown hanged in Litzmannstadt camp. 

Of the Jews from Cologne sent to the camp, only 23 lived to see it liberated.

One particularly moving room tells the story of four Cologne residents: an epileptic woman forcibly sterilised, a disabled woman who was euthanised, a gay man who was sent to a concentration camp and an ‘undesirable woman’ also sent to a labour camp. Alongside their harrowing stories, the bureaucratic paperwork that sentenced them to their fates is shown.

Romani Holocaust victims

The suffering of the local Romani population is also remembered in a room showing the identification cards and stories of those murdered.


Final thoughts


So what makes this museum stand out amongst the others?

I found the NS Documentation Centre deeply depressing, incredibly sad – and above all, fascinating. The museum managed to put the war into a new context for me – from the viewpoint of a city I now love.

Plenty of museums deal with the tragedy of World War II from a very general perspective, but this exhibition is entirely localised. Every effort has been made to follow the fortunes of local people, to make those who lived and died incredibly real and to show that these atrocities weren’t committed thousands of miles away by monsters, but in this very city by its own inhabitants.

I really think that this unfaltering look at Cologne’s history makes the NS Documentation Centre a must-visit for anyone visiting the city or the area.




NSDOK (NS Documentation Centre) is open Tues-Fri 10.00-18.00, Sat & Sun 11.00-18.00.

Entry costs €4.50 for adults, €2.00 for concessions. Audio guides cost an extra €2.

U-Bahn stop: Appellhofplatz

Eff It, I'm On Holiday


  1. Glad you found this museum and I enjoyed your account. I found it four years ago on my first visit to Cologne.

    • Thanks for your comment, Judy – what did you think of the museum when you went? I haven’t explored many in Cologne but I imagine it must be one of the best.

  2. I’ve never visited Cologne, but the NS Documentation Centre seems pretty depressing, like you say. I’m sure there are other beautiful things I would love to see in Cologne, like for instance the Cathedral of Cologne. Thank you for joining #TheWeeklyPostcard.

    • Depressing – definitely, but also a very important part of the city’s history and heritage. The cathedral is lovely too – best appreciated from the other side of the river!

  3. We were in Cologne earlier this year – our third time in the city – and decided not to visit the rally grounds or take a WW2 tour. It takes a certain mindset to visit WW2 sites without getting depressed, and it wasn’t the right time for us. Kudos to you for being able to “appreciate” the historic value of the museum.

    • I think that’s definitely true, Linda – you do need to have the right mindset for it, but I would definitely recommend for your next visit. The museum is very educational, as well as being quite depressing.

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