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The More Things Change, the More They Remain the Same

June 23, 2010

“The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Yes, I know is quote is very cliché. However, I began to seriously think about it when I viewed the guest book in The Museum for the Murdered Jews of Europe. In this book an individual had written, “We must make sure that this never happens again.” Reading this I was just amazed, because, not only has mass murder happened again since the holocaust, but also it is happening today. I find it interesting that people always discuss the holocaust but never the massive amount of murders Stalin was responsible for in Russia and Eastern Europe, Mao’s great leap forward, Pol Pot in Cambodia, the slaughter between the Hutus and the Tutsi’s in Rwanda and Burundi, or the senseless death in the Sudan. Maybe that individual, when writing that message, was aware and had these other mass murders on their mind, however, I suspect that that is not the case. As with most who have very little sense of history, I think this individual fell pray to what I call one-track holocaust thinking. In other words, looking at genocide and seeing the holocaust as the horrific mass murder it was, but being unable to critically look at genocide and mass murder and see how such acts are able to take place, and where they have taken place post WWII.

I often wonder how it is that most people are unable to name acts of murder and mass genocide other than the Jewish holocaust.  After much thought, I have decided one of the main reasons is that because of nationalist issues, many countries, especially the United States, do a horrible job of teaching history. And, as a result, people are not able to critically look at genocides and mass murder and move beyond pinning the blame on single individuals through the use of good and evil rhetoric.

As our grouped toured around Berlin, this lack of historical and social understanding continued to reveal itself to me. I found it striking that everywhere around Berlin they’re where memorials commemorating the NAZI holocaust, yet there is such dislike for the Turkish. On the streets, on the trains, in the papers, the very people who have been living in Germany for so many years, who rebuilt the country with cheap labor after the war, still seemed to be reduced to second-class citizens. Don’t get me wrong, I am certainly not arguing current Turkish racism in Germany comes close to Jewish persecution, it just strikes me that a society who spends so much time taking accounting of their role in the Jewish holocaust, could still be so unaccepting of people who “are not German enough.” It’s as if people are unable to draw causality between prejudices against the Jews in German society before the holocaust, to the actions leading up to Hitler carrying out his murderous policies. I sometimes wonder if the masses really are able to understand that the holocaust was so much more than just gas chambers and Hitler, it was the prejudice of a society as a whole.

Again, I repeat… “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

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Rememberance and Coming to Terms

June 23, 2010

Like an individual who reflects upon the events in their life, every society must make decisions about how they will remember and come to term with events in its history. All societies experience trauma, be it national socialism in Germany, or the extermination of natives who occupied the North American continent prior to the arrival of Eurpoean colonists as a result of the westward expansion of American settlers. These types histories are traumatic for any society, and like trauma in an individuals life understanding is a never ending process, it is not easy, and a final outcome can never be decided.


This continual process to understand collective history is a process that is complicated by the realities of the human existence. Questions that any society must look to include, but are certainly not limited to the fact that people experience and remember events differently, people have differing emotions about experiences related to those events, and as a result of those realities, defining what individuals shall be viewed victims and perpetrator is a process, that despite the common rhetoric of easily definable good and evil, is never cut and dry.
The difficulty of defining perpetrator and victim can be illustrated by looking at Germany and the holocaust the took place under National Socialism. An important question that must be asked is where the German people themselves victims of Hitler; did they live in so much fear that they where unable to speak out even if they would have wanted to. About the holocaust there can be little doubt that Hitler and his Nazi government directly formulated and executed the genocidal policies of the holocaust. However, are these levels of guilt really sufficient to explain the holocaust? It could surely not have happened if only Hitler and the Government wanted wished it. The sheer magnitude of the holocaust required more than just the state apparatus and the individuals within it–at a minimum it required the racism already present within German culture before Hitler came to power, and finally the passive acquiescence of the German people. Admittedly, not everyone in Germany was anti-Semitic, but as a German citizen after WWII, such does not release them from their countries collective history. Accepting this means that responsibility for the holocaust cannot lay with just single individuals or the state, in the case of the holocaust, responsibility must lie with the collective whole of society, to look at it any other way only divests responsibility from the people who are responsible for placing such individuals in a position where they would form such a horrendous government.

Beyond this difficulty in defining who will be viewed as the victims and who will be viewed as the perpetrator, coming to terms with societal trauma is difficult because different individuals experienced events differently. For instance, a Jew who experienced increasing levels of persecution in the years following Hitler’s election to chancellor, and a political prisoner who was victimized in the same concentration or extermination camp, though experiencing some of the same atrocities, may view them and their proper remembrance very differently. A question that arises here is does the political prisoner who initially supported Hitler but alter fell into disfavor deserve the same memorialization in Germany as the Jew who in no way supported Hitler and was a member of his largest victim group? Another controversy along these lines was explained and discussed with our class at The Memorial for The Murdered Jews of Europe. Though it was decided in the end that this memorial would commemorate only the Jews murdered throughout Europe, initially questions centered around if doing such a thing put certain victims on a level above other victims. In fact, though I cannot know remember who, one individual in our class inquired of our tour guide if only memorializing Jews at one of Germany’s main holocaust memorial was no different than separating and identifying the victims with individual labels just like Hitler did with the multi colored triangles prisoners whore on their clothing in the camps.
As was apparent from each of the memorial sites we visited in Germany, memory and coming to terms with societal trauma is not easy. However, though society can never reach an end point to this process, keeping the discussion alive is a benefit. Though much controversy accompanied many of the sites we visited in Germany, each controversy kept alive the discussion that the atrocities committed under national socialism must be kept alive.

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Berlin: From Initial Impressions to Understading

May 31, 2010
Berlin is beautiful and holds a surprising allure. It is a city whose varied history is unmistakably present in not just museums, but in the buildings that house them, the streets and neighborhoods they are located in, and the people who occupy them. As a result, Berlin has surprised the hell out me. I spent so much time planning the legs of my German tour not affiliated with the class , that until I began looking up Berlin right before my trips departure, I had constructed my German image without giving much thought to Berlin. I had spent so much time viewing material that reinforced the image of Germany’s princely and European aristocratic history, that I almost forgot I was coming here to study the city that had been the capital of Hitler’s Third Reich and then the capital of the former communist GDR.
My first two images of Berlin were of Alexanderplatz, the former center of east Berlin, and then the Friedrichshain neighborhood our hostel is located, also in the former eastern bloc. In both areas, despite communism  having fallen, the architecture and energy emanating from the neighborhoods were still unique in that the eastern areas communist history are still very apparent.

At first my opinion was that the areas matched the stereotypical image of what former soviet communist areas would look life. Much of what I first saw was drab and grey and not well kempt; and coming from the United States and neighborhoods that are well manicured, I must admit, I was initially unimpressed and uncomfortable. Though I have sense, after having ventured out into many different areas of the city, come to appreciate and respect the areas in the former east and the uniqueness that they maintain. Thus, my initial impressions of there is too much graffiti, flyers and postings in public space, and trash on the ground, has shifted too recognizing a resistance to the sterility of mass produced westernized culture.