Thoughts about History

The former sight of the S.S. headquarters is now a museum

I decided to separate this post out from the city-specific posts because those were about having fun and this one has a more serious tone. Going to Berlin, Munich, and Prague was a fun experience, certainly, but it also was an educational one. Something that is different between Europe and America, or at least certain places in Europe, is that history is inescapable. Walking around Berlin, it seemed like every block had a memorial for some group of people persecuted or killed during the Third Reich, or a piece of the Berlin Wall still standing as a reminder of the Cold War. In Prague, even something as simple as a designer store in a certain area of town was significant (the Jewish quarter, now home to a fancy shopping district, had a Hugo Boss store; the designer apologized just a few years ago for having designed the Nazis’ uniforms).

Checkpoint Charlie

I think there are two reasons for this. One is proximity; in the United States, war has usually occurred far from home. Events that ought to be memorialized—dropping atomic bombs on Japan, the Vietnam War, all the way up to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—have taken place on foreign soil. Obviously, thousands in the U.S. have personal connections to events abroad, at least the more recent ones, but we don’t generally have to look out our windows and see reminders of it leftover from those eras.

The Memorial to Murdered Jews of Europe’s design was inspired by the Jewish cemetery in Prague

The other reason, I believe, is responsibility. Think about how little coverage the Vietnam War gets in schools compared to the American Revolution. How often we think about Nazi concentration camps and how little we think about American internment camps (it’s true that the two are hardly comparable, but that doesn’t mean the latter didn’t happen). How Christopher Columbus and the pioneers are still glorified for discovering and expanding America but not vilified for their treatment of Native Americans. America has done many incredible things in its short history, but not everything that has happened in those few centuries has been positive, and we tend not to take responsibility for these things. There is a trend toward changing this, toward acknowledging fault and owning up and recognizing what it took to get where we did, but there’s still an overall feeling of “America, fuck yeah” when we were the victors and “never happened” when we weren’t.

The German War Memorial in Berlin

This isn’t the case in these three cities I visited last week. After touring Dachau, we ended up on the same train back to Munich as our tour guide, and she gave us some insight into how history is discussed in Germany. It is spoken about straightforwardly in history books, and people (particularly in Berlin, she said, although increasingly in Munich) don’t shy away from it. People, she said, want it to be remembered, acknowledged. I think that is a good way to go about things. Here are some of my strongest impressions and the things I learned about history in Berlin, Prague, and Munich:

The Lustgarten

Berlin is the capital of Germany and a main site of many important aspects of history, particularly from the last century. During WWII it was the headquarters for Nazi Germany and afterwards, the city was divided into East and West Berlin until the end of the Cold War. Because much of the city was bombed during the Second World War, most of the history in the city involves these two time periods. The Lustgarten was the site of Nazi propaganda rallies, such as in this famous picture:

One of the most interesting sites I visited while in Berlin was an exhibit called “Topographies of Terror,” located at the former site of the S.S. headquarters. The exhibit basically went through the Nazis’ rise to power, their reign of terror, and their eventual defeat. It talked about the S.S. and the Gestapo especially, and how they would pit neighbours against each other, how they would use fear to silence people or to make sure they would not fight back. As the exhibit showed, political threats, dissidents, and people who fought against the Nazi Party were also put into concentration camps.

This memorial is simple, but on the inside…

A looping video of kisses honours homosexuals persecuted by the Nazis

The city is full of memorials to people persecuted or killed by the Nazis, or people who suffered during the division of Berlin in the Cold War. The Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted by the Nazis is one of the most interesting. One of the reasons is because of the contrast to Berlin’s culture today. Berlin is now one of the most gay-friendly cities, with a number of clubs, events, and other evidence of acceptance, tolerance, and celebration. It is interesting to look at this in comparison to Nazi Germany, when homosexuals (men moreso than women because they were believed to pose more of a threat) were put into camps and were seen as worse than any other prisoner except for the Jews, or even a few decades ago, as homosexuality was illegal until 1968-1969.

I like this memorial because it’s style emphasises the hidden nature of homosexuality during an intolerant time—one must look into a small window in the minimalist geometric shape to even discover what the memorial is about. However, inside is a looped video of men kissing men, women kissing women, a celebration (or, as my friend’s guidebook put it, “a middle finger to Hitler”).

This haunting memorial’s empty shelves represent burned books

Another interesting memorial was the one outside of Humboldt University. Visible only through small glass windows in the Bebelplatz walkway, the stark white, empty shelves are built to hold all of the books that the Nazis burned in 1933. They destroyed “un-German” books, books by Jewish authors, books by socialists and communists, American writers, and anything else deemed to be against the Nazi ideals. There is also a plaque with a phrase translating to “Where they burn books, they will also burn people.”

According to our tour guide, the Nazis were told to take down the statue of Mendelssohn, a Jewish composer, from this opera house. But the statues weren’t labeled so, being Nazis, they went for the one with the largest nose… who turned out to be Wagner, Hitler’s favourite composer.
The Jewish Quarter in Prague. On the left is the Old-New Synagogue, where legend says a Golem was created to protect the residents

To me, Prague’s most affecting piece of history is the Jewish quarter. Unlike most Nazi-occupied cities, the buildings and synagogues there have not been burned or destroyed, and the reason for this is horrifying: Hitler wanted the area to remain after the war as an open-air museum to “an extinct race.” As I said, horrifying.

On the slightly brighter side, he of course did not succeed, but the area still remains intact. There are synagogues here of all different styles, from modest buildings to the elaborate Spanish synagogue, whose style is reminiscent of architecture here in Andalucia. The area also has reminders that all was not well for the Jewish people even before the Nazis—the cemetery is above street level due to the layer upon layer of bodies buried there, as it was the only place the Jews were allowed to use for a long time.

Inside this synagogue are the names of people sent to the concentration camps, most of whom never returned.

In particular, the Pinkas synagogue was a place of great remembrance. On its walls are inscribed 80,000 names, the Holocaust victims from Bohemia and Moravia.

Even more poignant is the room showcasing the art of children being held in Terezin, the concentration camp outside of Prague. Hidden in a suitcase by their teacher, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, these drawings depict life in Prague and at the camp. As the vast majority of children at Terezin were later sent on to Auschwitz, and as records were rarely kept, many of these pictures are the only sign left that these children existed at all.

Jan Palach set himself on fire to draw attention to the communist government’s restrictions of freedom and free speech
“Work will set you free” was a mocking phrase seen on many concentration camp entrances.

 

On our first morning in Munich, we went to Dachau concentration camp, arriving early in the morning to take the English-language tour. Dachau was the Nazis first permanent concentration camp, originally built mainly for the purpose of holding political prisoners, and was the model for later camps.

The camp was famous in Germany, with prisoners coming in from all over, as well as from nearby countries. Although the camp was built as a work camp, not an extermination camp, nearly 42,000 people died there, and the area holds some chilling reminders of that fact, such as the two crematoriums on its grounds, and the guard towers from which watchmen were instructed to shoot to kill.

There is no evidence that the gas chamber at Dachau was used for mass executions, but it is still a horrifying site.

If you ever go to Dachau, I highly recommend taking a guided tour run by the memorial site. Our guide, in addition to being very informative, our guide raised some interesting points about the context of the site, how we can look at it today and what people need to know and think about in order to prevent such horrors from happening again. While nothing has reached the scale of the 6,000,000 Jewish prisoners (and countless others) murdered during Nazi Germany, the end of World War II has not put an end to the problems it represents. Genocide occurs, religious intolerance persists. But I think that learning about history, acknowledging what has happened and remembering it, is an important way to help prevent it from happening again.

Tomorrow: Food (a much more lighthearted post, I promise)

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