It's amazing how quickly you get used to the terrain around you and can make your way around. I must say my skills at map reading are getting much better.
Last night all three of my room-mates were snoring so I was quite happy to get up and out of the hostel this morning after breakfast! I had a number of things I wanted to do today – the first of which was to visit an exhibition called 'Topographie des Terrors' (Topography of Terror) which is on the grounds of where the headquarters for where the Gestapo and the SS used to be in Berlin. As the name suggests, this site, not just being the administrative site, also housed dungeon style foundations where political prisoners were held, tortured and sometimes killed.
As I walked through the snow to get to the main building, I could see the ground slope downwards and I could see the foundations of the dungeons. I get a shiver even now when I think about it – everything just suddenly becomes so real. And as I looked around me and down the street, all the modern cars and billboards seemed to fade away and the building was once again huge and imposing with guards out the front and swastikas everywhere.
The exhibition was mostly inside and it had a wealth of information, not just about exactly what the Gestapo did but it also looked at exactly how it was that Hitler's ideas gained popularity and how he managed to surround himself with people who were willing to act on his orders even to their death.
To understand this fully one must study what life was like in the late 1920s when the Nazi party (though small at first) gained popularity. In Germany, there was a lot of uncertainty, especially economically about what was to happen to it. By 1929 Europe was in the chaos of the Great Depression and this was the perfect background for which Hitler could emerge as the leader who would bring Germany back to a time of prosperity. Indeed, many historians have argued that if the Great Depression had not happened, Hitler would not have gained the kind of power he did.
Much of the exhibition in the beginning focussed on how Hitler brought unemployment down and there were small improvements economically, and most Germans did not see that this was due to a comprehensive program of re-armament of their country in preparation for war. This of course, went against the conditions of the Treaty of Versailles but the Western democracies, much to their discredit, were too focussed on appeasement rather than actually facing Hitler head on in those early years.
When I was reading the absolute fervour that the cult of Hitler stirred up and the militarisation of the populace, I was reminded so forcefully of George Orwell's book, Nineteen Eighty-Four. While I don't agree with Orwell that in the end there is no hope, I can understand why he, having just lived through the war, foresaw a world in which there was no private sphere, not even in the mind, and society was kept under absolute control through propaganda. It's a grim book, but there are so many similarities in it and what Germany experienced from the 1930s to 1945.
One of the things that most surprised me when reading the information today at the exhibition was how lightly so many of the Gestapo and SS were dealt with after the war. Many of these Nazis were known to have been directly involved or in control of the murder of hundreds, if not thousands. It was so common to read “x was charged with the organising the murder of the y, however did not stand trial as they were deemed permanently unfit to do so”. Or else, when someone did have a trial and was sentenced, they were either sentenced to ridiculously short spells in prison (like 6 years) or when they were sentenced to more, it was often reduced. Thus, so so many Nazis, who were responsible for the deaths of so many, were out of jail 10 years after the war ended and working the same capacity as before the war started. Some even worked for the CIA, or continued to act as judges in the German court system, just as they had in the Nazi court system.
I read that as time went on, the Allies cared less about hunting down the perpetrators of the 'Reign of Terror', as it was termed, because of the ongoing Cold War. However, the Israelis never stopped in their search for those who were known to have escaped (most often to South America). There were stories of Nazis found living in South America 20 or 30 years after the war ended and being brought to justice by the Israelis.
I felt so astounded to read these stories. There was one particular photo which really struck me. It was at a trial of a well known member of the SS who was a doctor at one of the concentration camps and was known for his horrific experiments on prisoners. He had eluded trial for so many years and had seemed just slip through the cracks. Anyway, the photo was from 2006, shortly before he died, at his final trial. And his face terrified me. It was still so cruel and cold. He pleaded not guilty.
I also went to the memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe today. It's a strange monument – it is over 2000 rectangular blocks lined in in rows and the ground gets lower as you walk through them, so they appear to get taller around you. You can walk into the monument from whatever side you want, but underground there is an exhibition. I walked through the moment for some time – again struck by the silence – and then went below. This exhibition paid particular attention to the individual stories of people who, through no fault of their own, were never heard of after being rounded by the Nazis.
A picture of the monument is below - someone had left some poppies on one of the blocks.
There was one room where victims' names were read out, along with a small description of their life before they were rounded up. These recordings were only of a few thousand and are played over and over. To read out all the names of every Jew who died during the war would take over 6 years and 7 months.
The temptation when going to these kinds of exhibitions and reading the stories and seeing the photos is to feel utterly powerless in the face of such evil. There was a sense of almost violent revulsion I felt seeing the photos of Himmler smiling and joking with members of the SS as bodies of Jews were piled around them. And it makes me furious that people like Himmler and Hitler took the coward's way out and killed themselves. You wonder, where is the justice in that? I can only be thankful that this world is not the final resting place of humanity and our destiny calls for eternal life, away from such suffering – where those who were last in this world will be first.
After a grim but necessary morning spent in remembrance and prayer for those victims of evil, I spent the afternoon doing much more cheerful things. And thank God I have the luxury to be doing these – I appreciate it so much at the moment. I went to a chocolate factory where I got to see chocolate being hand made and there was a little gift shop at the back. Needless to say, I bought a few gifts for people and of course had to do a bit of taste testing :)
Yes, it's a Christmas tree made out of chocolate bars!
And then I went to the German Historical Museum where I learnt all about Germany and Europe in the Middle-Ages, and in particular about the history of Christianity when a Mr Martin Luther got involved. I must admit this is not my strongest area of historical knowledge but it is one that I find fascinating, so it was great to be able to spend few hours looking into this. What I learnt was although Martin Luther is often the one most people will think of when they think of key players in the Reformation, he was not nearly as radical as such people as Zwingli and Calvin – those guys were zealots. It was fascinating to read how once the idea of individual interpretation of the Scriptures gained popularity, especially with Calvin, thing went nuts. OK, not the best way to put it, but we are still having to deal with a lot of the mess that these guys created because of their attitude of rebellion.
This particular era of history is one I can't wait to look into more when I get back home. It's a shame that Melbourne University offers so little in the history of the Middle-Ages!