“There are moments, there are times, when there isn’t a grey zone, when there isn’t really room for nuance, where, if you’re not resisting, you’re partaking.” – Timothy Snyder, professor of European history at Yale University
I wrote the majority of this post about a month ago while still in Germany, after a profound and disturbing visit to the Dachau concentration camp outside of Munich. I didn’t post it at the time because the message felt somehow incomplete; I was struggling to find my voice.
One of the primary lessons I learned while visiting Dachau was that the majority of the population didn’t agree with Hitler or his agenda (I’ve heard his vote tally at the height of his popularity was only 45% of Germans). They stayed silent because they were scared. They stayed silent because they needed to focus on putting bread on the table for their families. They stayed silent because they didn’t believe this ‘Nazi thing’ would last long. They stayed silent because they believed the government propaganda – in this case that Dachau was only for political prisoners who were menaces to society. They stayed silent because they agreed with part of his agenda and ignored the parts they didn’t like. They stayed silent for fear of being the next one targeted.
“Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.” – Primo Levi, Holocaust survivor and author
Those who stayed silent were mostly honest, hard-working people, who happened to be placed in a profoundly immoral era that they either didn’t see coming or couldn’t comprehend. History does not judge them well.
One thing I want to make sure you understand: the real story of Dachau is one of heroes who were unafraid to face Hitler and Nazi Germany. All lost their livelihood and many lost their lives, but none lost their dignity. And in the end, their sacrifice was not in vain. Although the villains often take up the space on the front page, the real story will always be defined by the heroes.
“Never again” – two words, so simple and yet so profound. These were so important that they wrote them in 5 different languages at the memorial site. For me the words generate so many more questions – “How did it happen in the first place?” and “How can we be sure it doesn’t happen again?”, among others.
What is ‘it’, you ask? ‘It’ is Dachau, a Nazi concentration camp 10 miles outside of Munich. Or, I should say, Dachau is one of the most famous examples of the Nazi version of ‘it’. Think of the worst things that you know about the Holocaust, and they more or less got their start in Dachau. From 1933 to 1945, there were 32,000 documented deaths in its walls (and many more undocumented). You could say this is insignificant when considered against the overall horror of the Nazi era, which included 15 to 20 million killed or imprisoned. The numbers belie the importance of Dachau to the Nazis. It was the first of its kind.
Dachau’s success in rounding up and containing political dissent essentially became a model for later concentration camps. It was a training ground for Nazis to perfect their tactics, which were ultimately designed to create an environment of fear and isolation. Even the layout of the complex and building plans become a blueprint for all concentration camps that would be built.
Starting in 1933, the camp included specific transfers from another prison, then specific political targets, then (thanks to a law which institutionalized racial discrimination in 1935) Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and emigrants. Starting in 1938, Jews were specifically targeted. As one can infer, the strategy was to start at what was considered the fringe of society and then include more and more people; soon, the “fringe” became everyone except Germans who pledged their allegiance to Hitler.
Note that concentration camps (which had many different kinds of prisoners) and extermination centers (which contained almost entirely Jewish prisoners) were very different, but their aim was the same – the physical elimination of the prisoners within. In concentration camps like Dachau, methods were designed to accelerate death (think poor sanitary conditions, lack of food, unsustainable amounts of work, etc).
Towards the end of Dachau’s use as a concentration camp, the Nazis actually added a couple of crematoriums (the ‘old’ one in 1940 and the ‘new’ one in 1943). Although I was assured that the crematoriums were only used for small numbers of people at a time (versus the mass executions you hear about in extermination centers), viewing them was the most sickening moment of my life.
Please, please God, help us all hold the words “Never Again” close and dear to our hearts.
Walking through the gate is a surreal experience; you are greeted with the same phrase that the hundreds of thousands of prisoners were greeted with, “Work will set you free”. In fact, work was used as a tool to make the prisoners miserable, and the text only served to remind them of this elusive concept of ‘freedom’. From there, life certainly didn’t improve: complete isolation, 10-12 hours of hard labor every day, very little water or food, routine imprisonments, beatings, and murders with no justification.
I entered the gates and wandered inside the walls with a heavy heart. By the time I arrived at the gas chamber, it gave me little comfort to discover that this chamber was never actually used for large-scale killings (only for a targeted few at a time). It was impossible to ‘take it all in’; I could only hope for a modicum of understanding while feeling compassion for the people that were sent here (as well as their parents, children, friends). It’s easy to walk away depressed from a place like this; thankfully, there are reminders everywhere of the heroes who risked everything to help their fellow man. Dark times bring out the best and worst in man.
My mind kept cycling back to ‘Never Again’ as I attempted to derive some insights. Technically, the world has not seen this scale of atrocity, but we can’t deny that genocide has continued unabated in various parts of the world. And we certainly can’t discount that fact that there are Nazis in our midst in the present day United States, those who have (until recently) been hidden – more on that later.
The guided tour I took really focused on Dachau’s place in all the madness of that era – its place in the Nazi timeline as well as in the psyche of the both the Nazis and the ordinary Germans at the time. It caused me to think of the arc of ideology; how an idea is born, how its fires are stoked, and how it comes to fullness. The ultimate expression of an idea often turns out to be much different (and can be more sinister) than the original idea ever was.
Why is this important? Because the forces that set the stage for the Nazi era are very much alive today, and when these forces align with power (political, economic, etc.), the wheels can once again be set into motion.
“If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed.” – Adolf Hitler
But let’s go back, for a moment, to 10 years prior to Dachau. I don’t intend to give a history lesson (nor could I) detailing reasons of German discontent at the time, although I understand it had a lot to do with bearing the brunt (many Germans thought unfairly) of reparations from its loss in World War I. Germany had lost its place in the world, and life didn’t make sense for many of its citizens.
Onto the scene burst Adolf Hitler and friends, most famously in a failed coup named the “Beer Hall Putsch”, in which he marched with 2,000 fellow Nazis in an attempt to take over the government. On the face of it, this coup was a complete disaster for Hitler. Two days afterward Hitler was arrested and charged with treason. He was convicted and sentenced to 5 years in prison. The damage had been done though; his message and ‘winning’ personality had resonated with enough people (including prison guards and some judges) that he somehow was pardoned by the Bavarian Supreme Court after spending less than a year in prison. And he used that time to write Mein Kampf, an autobiography which detailed his plans to transform German society into one based on race. So, all in all, the whole ‘convicted of treason and sent to jail’ thing went quite well for him.
The Slippery Slope
“This was our Beer Hall Putsch. This was the beginning of our revolution.” Andrew Anglin from the Daily Stormer
Please take a moment to read the preceding quote and reread the previous paragraph. Understand that this quote was written only a few days ago, in the aftermath of the ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville. The various groups behind the ‘Unite the Right’ rally are very well informed on the aims and ‘accomplishments’ of the Nazi movement – including the extermination of millions of Jewish people – and they are proud to mimic it and follow right along in Hitler’s footsteps. How frightening is that?
The entire frame of reference as a white male in America is one of power. White males across America are feeling their power squeezed out by things outside such as a shifting economy and changing demographics – both of which are inevitable and unalterable. So they are going back to the well that German’s went to in the 1920’s – the well of hatred and bigotry. I see so many online comments trying to equivocate the ‘plight’ of the modern white male with those represented by other minority groups. That is simply a false equivalence – one born out of ignorance and the inability to feel empathy for people who have suffered generations of systemic racism.
Is this Part of Putting “America First”?
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides. On many sides. It’s been going on for a long time in our country…This has been going on for a long, long time.” – Donald Trump
Condemning a Nazi/white supremacist rally and subsequent attack on an anti-protest group is the closest thing to a slam-dunk that a president will ever get. And trust me, Donald Trump is not afraid of making black and white statements. But instead, we got the preceding tweet. On the surface, it sounds nice…but reading between the lines it’s an obvious gesture to muddy the lines of truth. Who is really to blame?? Everyone, says Trump.
I couldn’t care less that two days later Trump offered an amended statement after caving to political pressure. We know what he said, and we know what he meant.
Did you realize that the phrase “America First” has its roots in the WWII era? In 1940, the American First Committee was formed; this group was accused of Antisemitism and is best known for its insistence that the US should not resist Nazi Germany. I doubt that Trump realized that when he chose his tagline, but I’m quite sure Steve Bannon did. Is it that surprising that we are seeing a rise in open conflict when white supremacists believe that they have a stamp of approval from the highest office in the nation?
We should not discount what occurred in the 1920’s and 1930’s in Germany and assume it could never happen again. We can’t possibly know how slippery the slope is that we are on. Even a year or two ago how many of us would expect to find ourselves where we are now?
I’m not equating what happened at Dachau or the Nazi era in general with anything that has happened today. But our lifespans (and our memories) are short, and history has repeated itself over and over again. As I mentioned earlier, the white supremacists are actively pursuing a repeat of history, so it’s incumbent on the rest of us to be informed, understand what is happening before our eyes, and actively call it out; if we don’t then we’ll continue to be surprised by how quickly we are slipping down the slope.
Why do you think the hoods were off in the ‘Unite the Right’ rally? Why do you think that all of the white nationalists, from Richard Spencer to David Duke and on down the line, are talking up their support of Donald Trump? In Donald Trump, they have a leader who is unable and unwilling to call out evil by name, either because he understands that they form a large part of his base or because he truly has no moral compass (or both).
Republicans and the Christian Right made a deal with the devil in the 2016 election. I think this was actually clear to everyone, including Republicans, at the time. They would trade Trump’s failings to get X (Supreme Court justice, Obamacare repeal, etc.). But I hope they will understand at some point that this deal was not worth it; that having a reckless president without a moral compass is not only concerning but incredibly dangerous to the citizens of the world.
I’d like to take us back to the quote at the outset of this blog: “There are moments, there are times, when there isn’t a grey zone, when there isn’t really room for nuance, where, if you’re not resisting, you’re partaking.” Are we approaching such a time? Clearly, I believe so, but it’s up to each of us to decide this. So far, I’m tremendously disappointed with the failure of those groups who enabled Trump’s rise to call evil for what it is.
“Never Again”, two words that will be forever brandished into my mind. But will our world live up to them?