Is The Worst Really Over?

June 24, 2010

Reflecting upon the Holocaust, the Nazis and WWII at wide I did not think that such an oppressive government would rise to power in Germany for years to come if ever again.  Boy was I wrong.  After reading about the GDR, going through the Stasi prison as well as the Stasi center that contained information of all Germans living in the GDR during their reign, it is clear to me living conditions for many did not change at all. 

The extent to which the Stasi were involved in people’s lives and dictating every move is almost unimaginable.  I mean, when we toured the place that had all former residents of the GDR and their information documented on little note cards, that was almost too much for me to comprehend.  I didn’t think that a government could be that organized and in everyone’s lives—but clearly that is possible.  When I saw actual booklets, very thick booklets, of information gathered about certain individuals I couldn’t believe my eyes.  Our guide discussed how most of this information was obtained through secret spies.  These spies could be your co-workers, neighbors, or even your spouse!

In my perspective, violence was the only means upon which the Stasi was able to maintain control.  If people did not spy for them, dress they way they wanted, or had an alternative perspective on the information they were learning in school, they were punished.  People feared for their lives.  But I guess I would too if people were suddenly disappearing and never returning.  And if people did eventually return, it was apparent they were traumatized and beaten to the extreme.  The Stasi had their own prisons; the one in particular we visited was unknown to almost everyone who lived in the town.  Obviously horrible things were happening there if the government did not want its own citizens even knowing of the prison’s existence.

In this prison, prisoners were interrogated, tortured, and many times died of poor living conditions.  Most depressing for me was those people who had formally been imprisoned under the Nazi regime, were set free, only to be detained again during the GDR.  Looking at the pictures below, the gates and the barbed wire is very reminiscent of the Nazi concentration camps.  I can’t help but to draw a connection between the two.


The people that were imprisoned twice were “enemies” to both the Nazi and the Stasi regimes and were dangerous because they encouraged beliefs that questioned the rule of government.  Some of these “enemies” never hurt anyone or caused any damage but to only have a different view point that was extreme and dangerous to each regime’s ideology.  So again, the German people turned their head to what was going on!!  It was simply impossible to have an extreme viewpoint and consequently they turned out to be the true homo sacer of German society.  Nobody cared about these people or what happened to them.  This leads me to want to further examine the current condition of the United States and the continual acceptance of certain individuals or groups of people to be homo sacer.


Punishment, Acceptance & Denial

June 24, 2010

After the Nazis were defeated, what would be next for Germany?  How were the German people going to deal with everything that the Nazis had done?  Throughout the trip I managed to piece together some sort of picture of how the German people did deal with it.  During the 1950’s, Germany was reconstructing their entire livelihood from their government to their cities and more intimately to their homes.  Germany was in shambles and instead of focusing on what had actually happened, most notably the extermination of millions of people, I think they simply chose to ignore it.  Focusing attention on rebuilding Germany is a good distraction and enabled an entire generation that lived through the Nazi regime to simply forget and ignore the previous fifteen years.  Looking at this result initially, I couldn’t believe that this could actually happen after such a catastrophe—and then I tried to put myself in their shoes.  From a German perspective, losing the war was embarrassing; not just that, but many German citizens looked the other way when the Nazi atrocities were happening in their own country—maybe they didn’t know how to cope with it?

It wasn’t until 1968 that this coping mechanism was questioned.  More importantly, it was the next generation, the children of the people who lived in the Nazi regime, that were asking their parents questions.  What was your part in WWII?  Were you a Nazi?  Did you resist?  Did you know about the concentration camps?  Did you know that millions of people were being exterminated just miles from our home?  Why didn’t you tell me about this before?  Still today, I’ve noticed that it is hard for descendants to discuss about their relatives if indeed they were a Nazi.  Of course people want to say that their relatives were resisters and tried to help the Jews, but in fact resisters were few and far between.

It’s amazing to me that in the following years after the Nazis fell, many people closely involved with the Nazis who carried out their orders were never punished.  In fact, many went on living life to the fullest and continued on with their careers.  I wonder how a doctors, after killing and experimenting on prisoners in concentration and extermination camps can simply forget what they had done.  While we toured the concentration camp, the guide told us that many of the doctors that worked in the camp simply went back home and continued to practice medicine.  Below are two pictures that portray the normality that went on the years following the war.  The first picture is that of a former Nazi that worked in a concentration camp that got convicted in court, went to prison for three years and then simply went back to his normal life; you can see his ease in watering his plants.  The next picture is of three men who were not directly involved with the Nazis, but were clear supporters, who 5 years after the war obviously still supported them (look at their neck piece).


I think that the process of investigation and punishment towards those involved with the Nazi regime was poorly set.  Many people went free from punishment.  This is definitely a situation where we as a society can learn how to better handle a situation if it were to happen again.  But in a sense we haven’t learned at all.  Who has been punished for what happened in Rwanda or in former Yugoslavia?  What has been done to improve this process?  As a society, are we simply ignoring the situation or worse yet, denying that genocide is still happening as justification of inaction?


Those Who Resisted….But More Importantly Those Who Survived

June 23, 2010

Throughout the trip I think too often I focused upon those who suffered and died.  After going through the Museum Blindenwerkstatt Otto Weidt, resistance for some Germans and Jews were made real.  It is easy to look at pictures in museums or read information from books, but experiencing the actual place where Jews worked and hid really made an impact on me—it gave true meaning to resistance during this time.  As I walked through the museum, actual brushes that the factory made were present; real passports and photographs were presented.  But it was a big picture of Otto Weidt himself and his staff that pulled me into the exhibit.  The very place I was standing was where most of these workers walked and stood.  Looking closer at the picture, you can actually see a few smiles here and there, which I scarcely have seen of Jews at this time in history.  Smiles must be a sign of some happiness.

Otto Weidt and his staff

Otto Weidt treated his employees as though they were irreplaceable and did everything in his power to save his workers.  He even went so far as to falsify documents and personally went to concentration camps to get them!  As tensions rose in Germany, Weidt went a step further and hid an entire family behind a closet.  Looking within the space the family lived in, it was an eerie feeling to know that a group of people were forced to live in such a confined space, fearing for their life every second of every day, in order to survive.

Actual Room Where Weidt Hid a Family in his Shop

Hiding and working in the shop was a tool for resistance.  As a German, Weidt resisted by doing all he could to save as many Jews as he could—especially those most vulnerable like the deaf and blind.  He put his life on the line for doing what was right.  I honestly wonder how so many Germans turned the other way or ignored all the atrocities that were going on?  Sure, the Nazis threatened anyone who defied their authority but living with the guilt that you did nothing is almost worse.  The Jews that worked and hid in the shop was a clear act of resistance as well.  They did not except their fate that the Nazis had planned out for them.  They needed to survive—survival was the ultimate resistance that I think a Jew could accomplish.

This particular exhibit is different than the rest in that it was developed out of a student project.  I really love that German students started this and developed it into what it is today; I wish more things like this were done in the United States to commemorate American Indians, slaves, and Americans who helped to resist and survived.  Methods of resistance in U.S. history are a rare story told throughout our education.  These stories could be used as a tool to help educate and facilitate understanding for the American community.  It would widen the scope of American history for the slaves and American Indians and turn the focus of victimization to resistance and survival.


Recognition, Remembrance, and Representation of Life

June 23, 2010

When I first approached the idea of coming to terms with the past, I wanted to use my experiences in Berlin as comparisons and critical analysis to the United States’ attempts at remembrance.   However, what I did instead was simply appreciate the memory of society in Berlin’s specific memorials and the symbolization of life in all aspects.  Recognizing historical tragedies require public discourse to come to remembrance, but representing life in these memorials is just as important.  To clarify, I feel that memorials need to connect to life, individuals, and history.  They cannot simply become erections that serve as political duties, nor should they serve as commercial or trivial attempts to acknowledge while deferring to discount and forget simultaneously.

Not only was I impressed, I feel Germany’s conscious challenges of coming to terms with the past of Nazi Germany and the GDR should be models for other societies in acknowledging their past, present, and facing the future they will build.   Attempting to analyze, digest and learning to live with the past, in particular the Holocaust, the people of Germany have erected memorials and museums dedicated to coming to terms with the past.  Specifically, the emergence of Vergangenheitsbewältigung and dealing with the atrocities committed during the Third Reich, when Adolf Hitler was in power, has permeated the life in Berlin.  The memories of the GDR and Nazi Germany are found in every corner of the city, and the German people’s attempt to analyze and come to terms with the past is commendable.

Recognizing the importance of life is imperative to remembrance.  How life is remember and represented is also essential to creating a memory that helps society come to terms with the past.  What I found to be particularly powerful in the memorials was the personalization of the history of Germany.  By simply showing numbers of people killed, where, when, how, or why, there is a sense of disconnect.  To really be effective in coming to terms, I feel there needs to be a personal connection.  The stories of families and individuals displayed in the museums and memorials were effective, in my eyes, at creating a deeper connection to the history and its recognition and remembrance.

The representation of life throughout Berlin was especially powerful to me.  It not only signified a seemingly successful shot at recognition and remembrance of the past, but signifies solidarity at showing a greater respect for life through the people of Germany.  From the trees growing from concrete structures in the Garden of Exile, to the flowers flourishing next to the killing grounds of Sauchenhausen, life is powerfully recognized and represented.

And life does not exist simply in the memorials erected.  It exists in the art saturating Berlin’s city streets and the lives and education of the people of Germany.  Life is an important concept in remembering the past, but it is important in our society today, as well as the future we are moving towards.  It is true, genocide still exists in our world and fear can result in the cooperation and obedience of terroristic regimes.  Women, children, and families are killed by state operations, and torture eerily similar to the chamber found in the basement halls of Hohenschönhausen is used by our very country.

By recognizing, remembering, and representing life, memorials of past atrocities allow people to develop their own understanding, and just might open their eyes to events chillingly comparable to life as it is today, and the conditions of life that are being created by similar event.  These are the important aspects to take from a memorial of historical atrocities, and not the model-posed pictures of you in front of a chimney where people’s bodies were spread as ashes through the air.


Dealing with the past through trial

June 23, 2010

Following the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, and subsequent reunification of Germany a year later, much attention was paid to how to deal with the past. Dealing with the past crimes of regimes, the Nazis and the GDR in particular, has been a challenge within German society. Coming to terms with the past and finding a way to reconcile the past political traumas has become an important issue within German society, and as it is with many difficult situations, there are differing opinions on how this is to be accomplished. How does a society recover from the horrors of the Nationalist Socialist Party or the dark realities of the German Democratic Republic and its secret police? West German president Richard von Weisacker once remarked that “whoever closes his eyes to the past becomes blind to the present?” Many would believe that to recover from the past you would simply need to find those who were responsible for the crimes and make certain that they are held accountable. Others would believe that to fully recover from a dark history, it would be important to find a way towards reconciliation, and then eventually to seek justice, not the other way around. If the bitter angry past can be overcome, what actions must states fulfill in order to atone for past evils?

After unification had become successful in Germany in 1990, it became an important issue to start to deal with the crimes that the East German government had committed. The method in which most governments would actively confront criminal offenses would be through legal retribution. In the case of the GDR, these matter were quite complicated. Seeking justice through the courts was the popular opinion for many, and making sure that the leader of the GDR, Erich Honecker would be convicted of his crimes was to many an important way of dealing with the past. The prevailing wisdom about retributive justice is that it demands that offenders be held accountable for their wrongdoing through prosecution and punishment (Amstutz, p. 67). The only way to repair ruptured relationships between victims and victimizers and restore their moral equality, is to make sure that offenders be diminished through public condemnation, and victims must regain their former moral status (p. 68). This is easier said then done, and within the context of the German Democratic Republic, much harder to accomplish.

This strategy for seeking justice through prosecution and public condemnation poses many challenges. Although it seems a best fit for carrying out against those at the top, the senior government and military officials, its becomes ever more complicated when dealing with those in the middle and at the bottom. The evidence for criminal culpability of government officials and senior military leaders is likely to be difficult to obtain as well. Germany found it easier to prosecute soldiers who killed citizens trying to flee East Berlin than the leaders who established the evil regime of totalitarian communism (p. 68). Furthermore, prosecuting those responsible for East German abuses was difficult from a legal standpoint. How do you accuse those responsible of committing abuses when in their own country, the laws allowed for such abuses to exist? Many legal scholars believed that if East Germans were to be held accountable for their actions, they could not be tried under the laws of pre-unification West Germany. Pre-unification West German criminal law was not designed to deal with the sorts of government sponsored crimes of the GDR era. Its application to offenses committed under communist rule was bound to displease both accusers and accused alike (McAdams, p.54).

Judging the East German past could have been made easier if the East Germans themselves had been able to put their leaders on trial, but such was not the case. The hastiness of the revolution, and the quick ability for the two Germany’s to unify prevented such internal East German trials to exist. Once again it seemed that Germans, from both East and West, were coming to terms with the legacy of totalitarianism. Honecker and his associates were not merely guilty of having committed specific criminal offenses during their time in office. As leaders of the GDR’s Socialist Unity party (SED), they were responsible for setting into motion and then maintaining what many Germans felt was a distinctively unjust political order, an Unrechtsstaat, “state without law” (McAdams, p.56). The state itself had been set up in such a way to “pacify the masses of its people and force them into submission” (p.56). But because the laws of the GDR has distorted the legal system, “no one – from Honecker down to the lowliest border guards  – should be able to excuse or justify manifestly criminal behavior by claiming that they were operating within the law of the land (p.57).”
Claiming that all those who had been involved in the GDR should be held accountable became a more debated topic during the post-unification years. During the transitional period, is it appropriate for a new government to punish those responsible for reprehensible actions that might have been lawful under the old regime?


Never Again

June 23, 2010

Never again

The saying “never again” or some variation on it is embedded in the nomenclature of Germany.  Summing up the idea that the holocaust and atrocities under Hitler should never be repeated, “never again” is almost a mantra.

So throughout my stay in Berlin, I became thoroughly acquainted with many of the exhibits, museums, memorial sites and other places that really drive home the idea that theses types of atrocities should never happen again.

Maybe I am cynical or just plain jaded, but I keep asking myself over and over and over again how exactly these memorials make a never again scenario even remotely possible. And after a few weeks of reflection I have come to many conclusions and here are a few….

It is possible that the memorials and sites of reflection do, in fact, get the ball rolling and the conversation started about humanity, life, and the extermination of it. Maybe the thousands of tourists that come and see theses cites in Berlin each year go back to their homes and respective communities and really spread the word about how brutal humans can be. Maybe much more of the world is now better versed in the dark aspects of German history. Better yet, perhaps everyone goes home and votes for policies and politicians that do not resemble the ugly history they have just seen firsthand.

Not just tourists, however, are effected by the memorial cites. One group of people who are thankful for the memorial cites are those persons who decided to become history majors because without tourism and memorial cites, many of them would be out of a job. At nearly every memorial cite or exhibition our class went to, I made it a habit to ask the speaker/guide about their academic background, and the large majority were history majors.

The city of Berlin and the country of Germany benefit as well–the memorials act as a huge Public Relations boost by making public apologies and large and expensive measures to regain the trust of the public. In fact, I would say that from a PR perspective the Germans have done far better at Vergangenheitsbewältigung than any other country guilty of similar crimes.

But alas, after reflecting and expounding upon my experience I have come to the conclusion that these memorials and sites seem like the biggest Elephant in a room ever.

People are so caught up in wanting to go see the tourist attractions that in their journey to remember the past by exploring history they forget about the history that is be created as we speak. It feels as though spending ones time to learn about genocide and then not actively engaging conversation and activism related to contemporary genocides being committed in Darfur and Palestine is counterproductive to the learning achieved at a memorial cite.

Especially at GDR prison, I got this overwhelming feeling of guilt because of my country’s policy on torture. Here I was at a former prison where torture tactics were used readily and frequently and many of them, especially the water torture and sleep deprivation, seemed very analogous to tactics used at Guantanamo Bay. But is this a feeling that is shared by all? When hundreds and hundreds of American tourists come and visit this site, do they somehow leave with a changed view of U.S. foreign policy? The statistics gauging US support for torture would tell a different story, with at least half of all Americans supporting torture at one time or another.

And to close, aside from the genocide and violence perpetrated against countless human beings that is still happening despite these memorials in place, other negative elements from the “bad years” memorialized are still ever-present in western society and culture. To list a few: homophobia, racism, classism, the “othering” of humans (especially gypsies), and anti-intellectualism.

Finally, I admit that, yes, apologies need to be made and histories need to be accurately told from all points of views and perspectives. However, I argue that the idea of “never again” should be the focus. And for this student, I saw far too many inconsistencies in my great stay in Berlin between memorials and actually following through with “Never Again”.


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.”