Author Archive

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Staying in Power: Intimidation, Fear, but above all Misiniformation

July 1, 2010

As we explored Berlin I continued to be more and more amazed by the near complete control that the National Socialists held over every aspect of German society. It is not uncommon when examining history to see examples of dictatorships which are able to maintain power by rendering the citizenry incapable of mounting an efficient resistance, but in Nazi Germany Hitler was actually able to engage the citizenry in the very machinery which prevented that resistance. The stories of average citizens reporting their neighbors for harboring Jews and political dissidents were incredibly disturbing, and they were not the only example of the type of control which the National Socialists possessed over German society. How though, were they able to exert such complete control?


Certainly the National Socialists used intimidation as a control tactic, just as many dictatorships throughout history have done. The SA, SS, and Gestapo were all designed precisely to intimidate. From the design of their uniforms to the physical characteristics which were required to serve in these forces they possessed an inherent and deep ability to intimidate those around them. I have no doubt that some Germans became complicit in the crimes of the National Socialists because of this intimidation, however, it is also clear that this intimidation alone cannot account for the level of complicity which was present in Nazi Germany.


A much more significant tactic that the National Socialists used to exert the level of control they were able to exert was fear. They sought at all times to ensure that the citizens of Germany were afraid. Afraid of the Jews, afraid of the West, afraid of Communism, afraid of anything and everything to which the Nazis were opposed. This fear became such a fundamental part of German life that the German people would report their neighbor not out of spite, or because they were intimidated by the Gestapo, but because they were afraid of their neighbor. Afraid that their neighbor sought to undermine the very foundation of Germany society and the values which they believed Germany stood for. But how were the National Socialists able to create this deep of a fear in the citizenry?


They created this fear by becoming masters of misinformation. The National Socialists provide us with an example of a propaganda campaign unmatched in the history of the world. The control that they exerted over the press, over public speech, over the radio and TV were so utterly complete that they could repeat lies over and over without the truth having a single opportunity to be presented to the public. An old adage says that a lie told enough times by enough people will ultimately come to be believed and the Nazis certainly leveraged this adage. Their control of information reached the point that they could effectively tell the public anything they wished and it would be considered to be true. And it is this control that allowed them to create the kind of fear that they needed to not merely remain in power, but to have power over every aspect of German society.

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Does Memory Become More Clear With Age?

June 22, 2010

As I wandered the streets of Berlin I observed a sharp disjunction in the manner in which the nation of German remembers its past. While the tragedies that occurred during World War II are remembered well, those which occurred in the decades following do not have a central place in the public eye. While the nation makes a point of remembering and memorializing the victims of the National Socialists, and makes a priority of ensuring that a tragedy like that will never again occur due to ignorance; public remembrances of the GDR tend to focus on the actions taken by resistance movements and the joy of reunification, rather than on the ignominy of Communist tyranny.

This obviously begs the question, “Why?” Why is it that actions taken by the National Socialists are common knowledge, with memorials dotting the street indicating the locations where German Jews were collected and taken to concentration camps, but no similar memorial exists for those who were taken by the Stasi? Typically when I think of memory I think of something that fades as time passes by. I think of memory as being strongest immediately or shortly after the event being remembered takes place. However, in Germany this does not seem to be the case.


It seems that in Germany there is a significant lag between the time that the tragic incidents of their history have occurred, and the time when the nation is prepared to deal with that past. This was observed in the aftermath of WWII which, even though it ended in 1945, it was not until the late 1960s that the nation made a priority of remembering and memorializing the tragic actions and genocide which took place under the reign of the National Socialists. I believe we may be observing a similar timeline with remembrances of East Germany and the tragedies which occurred under its Communist regime. Just as it took over 20 years for the travesty of National Socialism to be fully recognized, I believe that we will see a similar delay with regards to the GDR and that in the next few years we will start to see its actions placed more and more in the public eye.


The key reason for this, in my opinion, lies in power and those who control it. Both after the fall of National Socialism, and after the fall of the GDR, we observe that many people who worked for the party, even in rather powerful positions, maintained their roles in government and bureaucracy. Over the years as the elder members retired, the younger members of the parties would have moved forward in their careers. It would naturally take 20-30 years to cycle all of these former party members out of the government, taking with them their “Ostalgia” and refusal to recognize the negative elements of their former regime. As this process nears completion I would expect to see a great surge in the national awareness of the tragedies which occurred under the regime of the GDR.

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What is a memorial?

May 31, 2010

As I walked past the square I noticed a seemingly random arrangement of stones of some sort. While clearly laid out in an orderly fashion each possessed its own individuality, some taller than others, some tilted to the left or right. I asked what the place was and the answer was, “The Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe.”

The next morning this same memorial was the first stop on our agenda. As we approached the square I noticed that each stone looked very much like a sarcophagus, but unadorned, with neither decoration nor inscription. It struck me that this seemed like a graveyard. An entire square filled with unmarked graves representing the Jews that had been murdered across Europe.
As I pondered the meaning of the stones having different heights I began to realize that each stone did not represent a single Jew, but many, and that the taller stones represented a greater number of individuals. However, little did I know how many. As I walked through the square I felt the stones grow larger, their shadow looming upon me. The stones which seemed at first only slightly taller now felt immense. I realized that as I walked the ground was sloping down, and the stone which seemed but a foot or two taller from outside the square was really 5 or 10. At the center of the square I felt an immense sense of isolation. Looking around I saw only gray stones. I could hear people wandering in other parts of the square, but I could not see them. I wanted to reach out and talk to someone, to share in this moment, but no one was there.

At this moment, from around the corner of a stone, burst several children playing hide-and-seek. My initial reaction was to be upset, to tell these young Germans that this is a place of death and that they should respect this sacred ground. But I stopped myself, I thought, “Is this really a place of death, or is this a place of life?” is this ground dedicated to the dead, or is it dedicated to the living that WE might remember those who have died? By playing in this square do these children dishonor the dead, or do they honor the value of life? I do not know the answer to these questions.