Victims and perpetrators

We spent much of our seminar examining the history of 20th century Poland and Germany from the point of view of the victims of repression by the Nazis and Communists.

But what about the perpetrators of that repression and what they thought?

First, let me be clear that “respectable” Germans aren’t experiencing a longing for the return of Ithe Nazis and don’t subscribe to their loony notions of Aryan racial superiority. As a matter of fact it’s a criminal offense to give the “Hitlergruss” or Nazi salute, to do the “goose step” associated with Nazi troops on parade, and in some contexts, to display the swastika. (And it’s not illegal, but Hitler ruined the “little mustache” for all future generations.)

But there seems to be a desire on the part of Germans collectively to tell the story of what happened in World War II — I thought that partially explained the extremely throrough treatment of the “Final Solution” in our tour of Auschwitz and Birkenau.

This was also evident in our visit to the “Topography of Terror” museum on our next-to-last day in Berlin. It’s in the area of central Berlin in which the offices of Nazi government were located. Most of those buildings, including the headquarters of the SS and Gestapo, were heavily damaged by Allied bombing then razed after the war. But the administrative offices of the Luftwaffe, the German Air Force, are still standing across the street.

The museum has both indoor and outdoor exhibits, and the outdoor exhibiit preserves yet another part of the Berln Wall. But we spent most of our time here indoors. These exhibits explain how Nazi Germany worked, and to me it certainly didn’t glorify what Hitler’s regime did, but neither was the tone of presentation especially damning. But the facts took care of that.

Photos and statistics detail the extent of Nazi terror in each nation they occupied, and also explain how the SS and Gestapo were organized and how they carried out their brutal campaigns.

What I found particularly interesting here was a temporary exhibiit on the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, an SS officer and one of the major organizers of the Holocaust, in Israel. He was sentenced to death for his role in deporting Jews to ghettos and death camps, and was executed in May 1962.

The exhibit included the bulletproof glass booth in which Eichmann sat for protection from his victims’ families during the trial. TV monitors played footage from the trial, mostly of Eichmann himself testifying. I was struck by how ordinary he looked, at the time at 50-something-year-old guy in dark-rimmed glasses, not menacing at all. His basic defense was that he was just following orders.

The Jewish political writer Hannah Arendt, who fled Germany after Hitler’s rise to power, wrote about the trial for The New Yorker. She said Eichmann was an example of “the banality of evil,” that even the most normal-seeming person could do horrible things when placed in the right circumstances.

I’ve always heard that phrase, but it really came to life after seeing this exhibit.

Our other site visit was an example of the use of abstract art in historical memory, at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. It’s visually striking, consisting of 2,711 concrete slabs or “stelae” of varying heights, spread over a site of nearly five acres. It’s near the Brandenburg Gate and the former Reich Chancellery building. And a parking lot for it is over the site of the bunker where Hitler committed suicide.

Opened to the public in May 2005, it was designed by American architect Peter Eisenman, whose work also includes the University of Phoenix Stadium, home of the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals. He’s been quoted as saying that he wanted to create an effect of disorder and confusion for visitors who wander through the stelae.

At a distance, as seen below, it’s more orderly and in aerial views looks almost wavelike. It’s an interesting effect and it allows the visitor to read whatever meaning into it that he or she can draw.

The New York Times called it a “forest of pillars, remembering the unimaginable.” And, as I’ve noted before about other sites in these posts, its very presence is a cause for debate for many Germans who feel that enough is enough in terms of expressions of guilt for the deeds of a previous generation.

As at many of the sites we’ve visited there are the unsettling juxtapositions. Outside, it’s hot. People are sunning themselves, reading. Children are running around playing hide-and-seek among the pillars. Just another summer day in Berlin. (Our tour guide says security sometimes has to chase away young people who want to come drink and make out.)

There’s an Information Center on the site. Our tour guide tells us the German government wouldn’t provide funding for just the artwork alone. Its most memorable exhibits are those which tell the stories of individuals. And especially heart-rending are the notes people wrote before being taken away by the SS or the Gestapo to ghettos or death camps — quick scribblings left in a house or thrown from a train to loved ones they were leaving behind. “We would like to live, but I don’t think they are going to let us,” one read.

It just leaves you speechless.


About theoldperfessor

I'm a college professor, teaching journalism and public relations classes at a small private university, and a freelance writer.
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