When I finally decided to take this trip, back in October of last year, I knew that one of the reasons I had for coming to Berlin was to help figure out something I’ve never understood. I’m talking about the Holocaust.
I understand what happened, of course. Millions of Jews, homosexuals, and other minorities were discriminated against, persecuted, collected up, herded onto trains, and then brought to camps in the middle of nowhere, where they were so mistreated that many of them died, and those who didn’t were simply killed outright, with bullets or gas.
If I didn’t know that before I visited the Holocaust memorial here in Berlin (its full name is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe), I certainly would now. Upon walking into the museum itself (which sits underneath the Field of Stelae I saw on the free tour), the first quote you see is from an Italian Holocaust survivor named Primo Levi. “It happened,” says the quote, “therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say.”
The rest of the museum is dedicated to that sentiment; proving and reminding us, from all sorts of angles, from the human to the abstract, that “it happened,” to and around people who were just like us. After a hallway with a historial timeline, the memorial starts in the Room of Dimensions, where there are private stories and texts directly from people in all stages of the Holocaust itself, from early rumors and rumblings among the Jewish community, through Kristallnacht and the ghettos that the Nazis put the persecuted in to further segregate and humiliate them from the rest of the public, all the way up to (in one case, at least) letters and notes written even minutes before these people were actually murdered and killed.
In the Room of Families, the personal stories of families are told, through photographs, drawings, and video and personal documents. Some of those families made it out, some of them died in the first few waves, and some of them stayed a long time at the camps before being killed, but all of them were profoundly affected by the stupid, inhuman actions of the Nazis and those who followed their orders. I listened to the stories on an audioguide as I walked around: This father and his daughter were taken at different times, killed at different camps. This woman’s family was killed but she escaped by hiding out in various places. This man was last seen boarding the train in a Polish town around 1941, but we don’t know what happened to him since then.
The Room of Names is perhaps the centerpiece of the memorial — it’s a completely dark room with names and dates periodically projected on all four walls, as names and stories are read out through speakers, first in German and then English. “Fredrich Steiner,” the speakers say as that name flashes on the wall, “was born in a small town in Hungary in 1930. He attended school with his two sisters and brother, and was taken to Auschwitz in 1942, where his entire family was killed in the gas chamber. He was 12.” And then the room moves on to the next name, and another short story, in German and English. And then another, and another. The memorial is working with various media organizations to try and catalog all of the six million killed in this way.
Finally, the last Room of Sites, talks about the tragedy from a geographical sense, portraying in a map on the wall just how huge and widespread this campaign of genocide was. This was not something that just sort of happened — a mistake that just escalated into an indefensible act. This was a planned, coordinated, regulated organization. In one of the cases mentioned in the Room of Sites, the Nazis built an entire camp in a small town in southern Germany, shipped hundreds of thousands of Jews and other minorities there to die, and then buried them in a mass grave, rolled the dirt over it, and completely demolished the camp, removing any trace of what had happened. No part of that was an accident, clearly. Those buildings were built to kill Jews, and when they were done, they had no other function.
I was amazed, too, at how clear and complete the documentation was. They knew exactly where all of the people taken had come from, and when they were taken, and even the exact day they were killed. That was a lot of research, I thought, to track down all of these people and know exactly where they were at every step of the way. But then, as I explored this and the next museum more, I realized it probably wasn’t that hard at all: The Nazis kept very clean, very strict records of exactly who was where and when. Not only did they murder millions of minority people, but they signed, stamped, and dated all of the orders as they did it.
The memorial is continuing to document these actions even today — there is a living, growing archive being kept there of various information and testimonies from survivors and their families. The documentation is astounding, and they’re building up more every day, collecting as many stories as they can, not only to prove and show that such a thing occurred, but to make sure the memories of these people and their lives aren’t lost forever, as much as the Nazis tried to make it so. I sat for a bit in the video archive (I happened to be there on the day it was open), and pulled up a few interviews with survivors, saw a lovely Polish lady talk about the last time she saw her mother, and a gruff German man with wired glasses and a nice suit talk about walking past the bodies of hanged Jews when he was a child. “Hanging bodies?” asks the video interviewer from offscreen.
“Oh yes,” the man said. “They had killed them.” And then he sits there, quietly. The interviewer sits there as well, pausing, trying to get him to say more. But he doesn’t.
I was disoriented for a while after walking out of the memorial — I walked down the street in Berlin, found a little cafe, and grabbed a sandwich, a diet coke, and a Berliner jelly doughnut (I had to). Obviously, seeing all of that was very powerful, and the memorial makes it very clear just what happened. But to be honest, that’s not what I came to Europe to hear about the Holocaust. I know all of these things occurred. My question is: Why?
Hitler, obviously, was a maniac. And the other Nazis in his employ are a who’s who of men who should never have been given any power at all: Himmler, Goebbels (if you wrote a book with a villain like Goebbels, people would complain that he was way too evil to be true), Goring, Mengele, and all of the other idiots. But the kind of coordination it took to do something like this — to build whole towns just for the purpose of murdering thousands — takes more than just those few, crazy men. It takes a whole nation, a whole willing people.
So that was my question — why did Germany do this? I’m not here to blame anyone, and certainly, in the few conversations that I’ve had with Germans about the Nazis, I think they give themselves more blame than anyone else ever has. But what makes a group of people follow such evil men, obey orders, see the kinds of things that were happening around them (Jews being humiliated, arrested, beaten, even shot in the streets), and decide that it’s all right?
I found my answers at another museum just down the street, called the Topography of Terror. Germany is very careful not to memorialize the Nazis at all — there are lots and lots of memorials here to all kinds of tragedies that have befallen this country, from World War I to the Holocaust and all the way up to Communism and the Wall. But there are no memorials to the Nazis anywhere. I wrote the other day about Hitler’s bunker and how it is now a car park with one little sign on it, and there is one building that was put up by the Nazis that survived through the war (though of course the swastikas and other insignia have been pulled down off of it since), but other than that, I haven’t seen any signs in the city here that the Nazis used to rule.
The Topography of Terror, however, is the closest thing to a memorial documenting who the Nazis were and what they did. It sits on top of what used to be the Gestapo and SS headquarters in Berlin, and indeed, the ruins are still there, though it’s nothing but a pile of rubble, and Germany plans to keep it that way. But inside a relatively new building on those grounds, there is a free museum to visit, and walking through it provides a good, clear, straightforward look at exactly what I was looking for: How the Nazis came to power in Germany, how they convinced the public of their insane beliefs about race and culture, and how they inspired millions of humans to carry out inhuman actions.
The beginning of the answer, as always, is money. Germany after the first World War was in trouble — they’d lost the war at a huge cost, the population was broke, and the government wasn’t any better. So the US, always opportunists, sent over some big-time loans, and suddenly Germany was flush with money again. In Berlin, they called this the Golden Twenties — the early 1920s were a very prosperous time here, and there were lots of great bars around and parties in the streets. In 1929, however, the stock market crashed back in America, and all of that money the US had sent over had to go back, as bankers called in loan after loan. That left Germany in even worse trouble than after the war — at one point, I have learned, inflation caused deutsche marks to trade for something like millions on the dollar.
So it’s around 1930. The Germans are poor and depressed yet again. Democracy (which had been established after the first war in 1918) hasn’t worked well for them at all, and while in America, democracy is often championed as the be-all, end-all of government, the Germans hadn’t been doing it for a couple of decades, and they were already pretty tired of it.
Hitler, before this, was a precocious, charismatic guy with a dark political side and some strongly held racist beliefs. He’d already been in jail for an attempted coup (which is where he wrote Mein Kampf), and he came along and, with the rest of the National Socialist party, saw all of these terrible conditions. He saw a democratic system that was just about to give out, and decided he could spin it to his own ends. He saw a public desperate for answers and help, that would essentially vote for whatever he offered them. All he had to do was promise a return to the good times that everybody remembered from 10 years ago, get elected into office, and then use that office to carry out his own ends. The people remembered life under their Kaiser, and they were of the opinion that maybe putting power in the hands of one guy wasn’t such a bad idea. Maybe he would save them.
The Nazis themselves, I learned, were politically all about work. Work was the key ingredient in their politics — working is what made a man a man, and working is what made a nation great. They were a Labor party, basically (“National Socialist German Workers’ Party” is their full name) — all about jobs, higher wages, a good life for the common man. And if you couldn’t work, or didn’t work, then well … you weren’t the common man, then, were you? Not such a good life for you. Or, in the minds of the party leadership, preferably no life at all.
This is morbid stuff, I understand — it feels weird to try to humanize the Nazis at all, try to figure out what made them tick and what about them actually appealed to the Germans. I don’t want to sound like I’m sympathizing with them at all — they were evil, and what they did was wrong, maybe the most wrong thing man has ever done to man. But I am fascinated by how the inane can turn into horrible evil, how a simple platform like “work is good” can be turned into “everyone who isn’t like us has to die.”
As I walked through the Topography of Terror museum, I learned that the way the Nazis came to power is the exact opposite of everything I’ve been taught in my education in America. I’ve heard over and over again that all men are equal, but the Nazis trumpeted that “all men are not equal” in their propaganda and papers. Who doesn’t like hearing that they’re better than others?
I’ve heard for years (and in fact, my work depends on the fact) that freedom of the press and freedom of speech are basic rights of man, but the first thing the Nazis did in power was shut down political parties that were opposed to theirs, close any papers or media that didn’t agree with them. The first victims of the Nazi party, even before the concentration camps were built, weren’t Jews — they were writers and artists who spoke out against the Nazi party.
I’ve learned that discrimination of any kind is wrong. The Nazis used tactics like public humiliation (putting signs or stars on people and marching them through the streets), segregation, and intimidation to make sure that anyone different from their ideal was discriminated against.
I’ve learned to speak my mind when I see something wrong. The Nazis required people to salute almost all the time — at rallies, while passing a statue or a flag, and whenever they saw a soldier. Anyone who didn’t, or anyone who went against the norm, was subject to the usual persecution.
I’ve often wondered why there weren’t Germans who said “this is crazy, you can’t do this” while the Holocaust was happening, but one of the stories I read was about a woman, a schoolteacher, who didn’t do the salute at a rally, and told her students they didn’t have to either. She was reported by someone else, and was brought before a police officer, who asked her why she wasn’t saluting. “Because I don’t want to,” she told him, a statement I thought was quite reasonable.
“But you have to,” said the policeman. “Times have changed. This is what we do now. Just raise your hand!”
That story was more insightful, more powerful to me than anything I saw in the Holocaust memorial. The Nazis didn’t do these terrible things by just telling the German people, “We’re going to kill a bunch of Jews right now; you cool with that?” They accomplished these things by first preying on a bad situation, promising food, money, and jobs to people who had just lost those and desperately needed them. And then they systematically made it all right for normal people to agree with their insane platforms.
“Sure, you might not be with our politics 100%, but it’s cool, just do us a favor and raise your hand when we ask. Yeah, it might be a little much to actually parade this guy down the street because he’s Jewish, but look, it’s a fun day outside for you and the kids, and we even brought an oompah band to parade with us [this is true -- the Nazis often brought entertainment to get the public to attend their public humiliation]. Ok, yes, locking the Jews up in a ghetto might not be ‘fair,’ per se, but having fewer people out here makes food, housing, and jobs way cheaper and easier to get. And gee, you know, that ghetto (that we made, and don’t take care of, and made sure was overcrowded) is really a mess — wouldn’t it be better if we just moved those people somewhere else? We’ve got these trains right here — let’s just put them on there and ship them off to the country. Where do they go after that? That’s not your business. Don’t forget to raise your hand!”
Dark stuff. It’s scary, because we’re asked to do things all the time, and most of them are reasonable. But it’s very easy, frighteningly so, to see how reasonable can go to inhuman so very quickly.
The Topography of Terror provides a relatively suitable ending to the story: Eventually, the Americans and the Soviets showed up, and the Nazis were killed, killed themselves, or tried to flee. I was surprised, reading all about it, at how cognizant the top Nazis were about what they were doing — Hitler killed himself with both cyanide and a pistol, and gave orders to burn his body so it couldn’t be used as a trophy (the Soviets actually had no plans to do that anyway — they took what was left of it away, and put it somewhere no one could use it to honor him).
Himmler, who ran most of the day-to-day operations of the Nazis at home, was caught trying to escape as a British prisoner of war, and when it was discovered who he actually was, he bit down on a cyanide capsule. Goebbels, who was responsible for most of the remarkably powerful propaganda that made that slide to inhumanity so easy, also killed himself. These men schemed and planned and worked for years to bring all of this terrible tyranny about, but in the end, even they couldn’t stand by their beliefs and actions. Even they didn’t want to face the rest of the world after what they’d done.
Neither the Holocaust memorial or the museum about the Nazis and their operations gives explicit instructions about how to keep this from happening again. Neither of them preaches at all — everything in both museums is presented as simple fact, and despite all of the deeply disturbing material in the Holocaust memorial, it’s all documented and clearly presented, with no judgment passed at all. So the one thing I didn’t hear is: What do we do next?
And honestly, I don’t have a good answer. Vigilance, I guess. Vigilance of the self, vigilance to keep yourself from doing wrong, from hurting others, from judging or attacking anyone. Vigilance against prejudice, against hate, against fear. The Nazis used all of those things to go from mundane, daily life to inexplicable horror, so it’s up to us to fight those off on all fronts, to make sure it doesn’t, though it can, happen again.
After all of that, I needed a break, so I went to a restaurant I’d been recommended by a Tipoaa listener called Kartoffelhaus No. 1. I ordered three of the most delicious things I’ve had on this trip so far: A Paulaner Hefeweisen, roasted potatoes, and a schnitzel (a breaded pork steak) with mushrooms in a cream sauce. All excellent.
I finished off the meal with a Duckstein, a red beer that was also very good (though not quite as excellent as my hefeweisen). My belly full of good food and beer, I hiked out across Berlin back to the hostel.
I then camped in the bar there for a while, chatting with people from all over the world: A girl from Spain, one from Holland, a guy from Austria, a very nice hockey fan lady from Toronto, and a trio of ladies from Australia. I didn’t do much chatting in France, so it was nice to meet some people.
Because I like this hostel so much, and because there are ads all over the place here for the franchise’s other outlet in Prague, I’ve decided to go ahead and make my last stop in Prague. I’m a little worried about the language (at least French and German share letters with English — Czech looks nothing like it), but everything I’ve heard about the city is that it’s amazing, so I’m looking forward to seeing it. This little change in plans, too, has somewhat justified my lack of planning and booking the trip ahead of time. I was aiming to be much more fluid with my journeys, but there’s been so much to do and see in the places I have been that if I had it all to do over again, I probably would have gone ahead and booked things ahead of time.
But not having previous arrangements in Amsterdam obviously made it much easier to decide to go elsewhere when I found out what a mess Queen’s Day would be. I am sorry that I’m missing it, but that’s all right — I’ll have to come back.
Posted on Monday, April 23rd, 2012 at 11:31 am. Filed under general.