GAPP Exchange Journal 2012
In the Dark Shadow of History
The Quiet Bavarian Countryside
Southern Germany was one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen and yet for me, there was a subtle ever present grayness everywhere, just beyond of the reach of visible sight. Most of our party probably didn't notice the shadows, but as a student of history, I could see and feel them almost everywhere I visited during my stay. The country has been trying to rise from the rubble of World War II since the German Army finally submitted to unconditional surrender in May of 1945. And in most instances, the country has dug in, rebuilt, and prospered. However, the single link to the horrible war that the country has not yet distanced itself from is the ugly legacy of the Holocaust. It is not something that is easy to forget nor something we should ever try to forget, making it forever present, despite the passing of time. Adolf Hitler's unconscionable concept of industrialized genocide took the World War II Era to another level, so extreme, it is difficult to comprehend and fathom. All wars are terrible but the Holocaust was especially heinous, the absolute demonstrative failure of humanity on multiple levels. Time is said to heal all wounds but the immense weight of the dark and evil tone associated with the cruelty of the Holocaust remains forever present, preserved in thought and monuments of stone.
Magazine Tower / Burial Site of Holocaust Victims
---------------------------------------------------------------------The concentration camps were incredibly widespread with small satellite camps providing slave labor to a variety of local war time industries, including an aircraft plant in Mühldorf producing the Messerschmidt BF-109 fighter planes. When the allied troops liberated one concentration camp after another, they were appalled by what they found and equally shocked that the German people living nearby did nothing to stop it. In some cases the local people were lined up and marched through the camps to see first hand what was going on behind the fences. Furthermore, they were assigned to burial duty and bore the task of disposing of the emaciated and decomposing corpses. Young boys who were members of the Hitler Youth were brought in to see the horrific atrocities that were the end result of Hitler's Final Solution. The point was further driven home by transporting Holocaust causalities by the truck load to nearby towns and then having the local people bury them within a mass grave at a centralized location. The intended message was clear... You also are to blame and must share the burden. An example of this practice was in the historic town of Burghausen, which is most well known for having the longest medieval castle in the world, a major tourist attraction. A major focal point of the castle is the large white magazine tower, which once served as a lookout, stored gunpowder, and housed various weaponry located just outside the exterior castle walls. After 1945, it was also known as the location of a gravesite for victims of the Holocaust.
Führerbau / Surviving Nazi Building in Munich
---------------------------------------------------------------------I have long wondered how a nation can ever recover from such a dark legacy; can ever receive forgiveness; can ever again regain a true sense of national pride. I appreciated the ability to discuss this topic with my host Andy Galeneder and several of his friends including Klaus Mittermeier, who were free and open to talking about this difficult topic. I also appreciated the political and historical perspectives of Andy's wife Angela Schadhauser, who I also enjoyed learning from, concerning German life and history. The result of our intellectual exchange for me personally was a new found understanding of the German perception of the Holocaust and the difficult necessity for them to keep the memories alive and forever present, however painful and shameful they may be. It was my experience that Germans today take pride in the fact that they do not try to hide the crimes of the Holocaust and openly acknowledge it as a horrific event. Although, many historians have said it is unfair to hold Germans today accountable for the sins of their fathers and grandfathers, it is still a heavy cross that they must bear and carry forward to future generations. Most German school students frequently visit Holocaust sites on field trips in a continuous effort to educate the younger generations on the mistakes of their historical past. The hope is to ensure the students will never forget what terrible things mankind was capable of allowing to happen in the past, so it will never happen again in the future. It is a most important lesson that would suit all nations to learn and review.
German Flag of the Weimar Republic
---------------------------------------------------Andy told me it was a rare thing to see the traditional black, red, and gold colors of the German flag displayed anywhere in Germany when he was growing up, not something practiced by the people since the beginning of the World War II Era. The perception of anyone flying a German flag between the years of 1945-2000 could lead to an accusation of being a Neo-Nazi, and face certain scorn. The flying of the flag and the concept of true patriotism were both traditions lost to the shame associated with the Third Reich. However, all that changed in 2006 when Germany hosted the FIFA World Cup and suddenly the German people felt the need to bring forth their colors to support their team and nation. The German team did well, finishing a respectful third place in the coveted soccer tournament that invited 32 teams from across the world. Following the conclusion of the World Cup the flag continued to be flown in celebration of Germany's success and has stayed on display ever since. It was a healthy outcome for the nation of Germany, a venue which helped provide the nation an opportunity to rediscover some sense of national pride and unity. During our stay the 2012 Euro Cup was in full swing and the black, red, and, gold colors were seen proudly displayed everywhere. I even purchased a German flag in the form of a hat to wear to the next soccer game accompanied by a flag colored lei necklace of cloth flowers hung around my neck to help root on Deutschland!
Hitler's Birthplace / Braunau, Austria
Several of my host teachers went out of their way to show me examples of Germany's efforts to pay tribute to the victims and the nation's acceptance for the responsibility for the Holocaust. A good example of this open attitude in regard to the past was the day Wendy and I were treated to a tour of the beautiful city of Passau by hosts Wolfram and Elvira Englberger. We stopped several times along the way to check out points of interest, including the village of Braunau on the Inn River, just inside the border of Austria. It is a charming old town, complete with the traditional cobblestone paved market square, quintessential clock tower, and was enclosed by tall colorful interconnected buildings similar to Mühldorf. Despite the town's beautiful urban landscape, the village has the unfortunate legacy of being forever known as the birthplace of Adolf Hitler. It was something I had not been aware of until we arrived within the village. The house was a little difficult to locate, as you would be hard pressed to locate it on a local map or find it designated in a travel brochure. At first, we walked right past it, and then backtracked about 50 yards to a large yellow building that looked like a hundred other structures I had passed since arriving in Germany. Another pair of tourists were in the location also trying to identify which building might be the possible location of Hitler's birth and were pointing to the yellow house. There was no plaque or marking on the building designating it as having any association with Adolf Hitler but we then noticed a large stone monument resting on the sidewalk off to the right hand side of the building. It was inscribed with a few words in the German language, which translates to... For Peace, Freedom, and Democracy... Never Again Fascism... Millions of Deaths Remind...
The fate of the house is a good example of Austria's attitude toward a past associated with Adolf Hitler, World War II, and the Holocaust which the nation continues to struggle, comprehend and accept. Some might suggest Austria was much slower than Germany in accepting responsibility for their association with the negative legacy of Third Reich and have only recently began to deal with the subject within the last decade. After the war the yellow painted apartment house served as the town library, then a bank, offices for a charity, and even a school for children with learning disabilities, which I thought was ironic since such children were labeled as a liability to the future of Germany by the Nazi Regime. Today the building is once again vacant and debate continues on just what to do with the property. An effort by the town council to place a plaque on the building in 1983 was challenged in court by the owner, who did not want to draw additional negative attention to the building. The owner won the case and a plaque has never been placed on the building. However, in 1989 the newly elected mayor decided the site must be marked and ordered a large stone monument be placed at the site. The request avoided legal protest because it was placed between the street and sidewalk, which is land officially owned by the public. As a nice historical touch, the memorial stone was cut from a quarry located within a former concentration camp near Linz, Austria, where prisoners had quarried stone as forced labor. Despite the building's bright yellow exterior, a darkness seemed to permeate from within the building's walls, which I experienced the entire time I stood within its presence. For me, the building appeared sad and empty, containing an aura of despair.
Nazi Party Headquarters in Munich
It was an uneasy feeling for me to be standing before the building where a young Adolf Hitler was brought into a world he would ultimately forever change. It was strange to see the arched wooden doorway where he entered and exited the building. The family only lived within a few rented rooms inside for a few years and then moved on to the city of Passau when Adolf was approximately three years old. Yet it still cast an intense eerie feeling, to see the humble beginnings of a man who would grow up and become notorious as the greatest criminal in world history. It is estimated that between 50-70 million people died worldwide as a result of World War II. Can it be hypothesized that they all would have lived had he never been born within this simple house located on a quiet street, within a small village in Austria? If only he were permitted to remain in the army following the First World War; If only he was admitted into art school in Vienna; If only he were stopped before he was unstoppable... If, If, If... It is amazing to think about the impact one person can have on the world for good and unfortunately in this case, evil. I really appreciated our host's willingness to show us something that might evoke negative feelings but they were open to showing both the positive and negative sides of their country's historical past and heritage. Germany continues their efforts to show the world they openly acknowledge their past and hope to help educate the world of their country's role in World War II during the reign of Adolf Hitler. In the city of Munich, the site of Hitler's office and the Nazi Party Headquarters known as the Brown House was mostly destroyed by allied bombing raids late during the war. Since the rubble was carted away soon after the war, the former site has remained a vacant lot, void of any reference to the site's ominous past. For over fifty years it sat empty, seemingly without any future use, and slowly became consumed by weeds. However, times are changing... currently, a new museum is being constructed on the site, which will be known as The Nazi Documentation Center in Munich with the objective of educating the public on the consequences and repercussions of the Nazi Era in Munich. The site is expecting to open to visitors in 2014. Many of the people I met, who were mostly educators, took pride in the fact that modern Germany is striving to educate younger generations the hard lessons of tyrannical government and accompanying atrocities of the World War II Era.
Without the systematic extermination of millions of people based on their religion, ethnicity, handicap, sexual orientation, and many other characteristics, World War II may have gone down in history as just another horrific and terrible war. If you subtract all the elements associated with the Holocaust from the event of World War II, how differently Germany would be historically judged today. Why did it happen? Why was it so important to the leadership of the Nazi movement? What exactly were they really trying to accomplish? Since 1945, thousands of books have been written about Adolf Hitler in an attempt to unravel the complexities of his unthinkable rationale. In many ways, Hitler's inner circle themselves were so hypocritical in their effort to promote their perceived ideal of the Aryan Race. In retrospect, few of them personally lived up to the utopian image they deemed as the superior race. Many of the top Nazi leaders were short, had dark hair, brown eyes, a few were overweight or even rumored to be homosexual. Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels suffered from polio as a child and was considered handicapped with a clubfoot, yet deemed many other handicapped people as unworthy of life and a burden on society. Some of the first victims of the Nazi Regime were physically and mentally handicapped individuals who were legally murdered through the T-4 Euthanasia Program in Berlin. It is estimated that 275,000 Germans with disabilities were purposely euthanized during the war and another 350,000 were subject to forced sterilization to prevent hereditary diseases and traits of disabilities to be carried to future generations. However, this was not the case for Joseph Goebbels, for some reason he did not include himself in any of these categories. In the end, he and his wife killed their six children and then minutes later, took their own lives in Berlin, during the final hours of the war. He was unwilling to have any of them live within a world other than the one conceived by his twisted, hypocritical perceptions, which he attempted but thankfully, failed to create.
Altötting Town Hall Building
-------------------------------------------Another example of the fear within Germany was seen in the position taken by the Catholic Church concerning the actions of the Nazi party. They denounced their violent actions but worked quietly behind the scenes to prevent the churches from being closed by Hitler altogether. And as expected, individual priests and church officials who went further with their criticism were arrested, sent to concentration camps, and/or executed. It is estimated that in Poland alone, the Nazi Regime killed approximately 3,000 Catholic clergy members, most in concentration camps. Even as the end of the war loomed and the American troops and their allies were sweeping through southern Germany the ruthless Nazi Regime would make the decision to kill their own people. Several of the town leaders of Altötting decided to light up the town at night as a symbol of surrender to protect the religious structures from allied bombing raids. The intentions of the town leaders were carried by an unknown person to a small group of Waffen-SS soldiers who were staying at a monastery nearby. They rounded up the town leaders and shot them execution style along the sidewall of the town hall and then cut the main electrical line to prevent Altötting from being spared during the bombing raids. Despite the efforts of the sadistic soldiers, the townspeople placed candles in every window to light up the village and eventually the electrical line was repaired to save the famous churches from destruction, including the sacred Our Lady of Altötting Chapel.
Stumble Stones of Regensburg
One of the most moving tributes to the victims of the Holocaust we came across during our travels were the Stumble Stones, seen while touring the historic streets of Regensburg. The Stumble Stones were the creation of German artist Gunter Demnig, who researched the origin of multiple victims of the Holocaust from various backgrounds. Next, he created small brass monuments each commemorating the innocent lives of those killed by the Nazi Regime. These brass markers are designed to attach over top of the square shaped crown of a single cobblestone. He attached them to the street in front of their former homes or places of work before they were taken away to concentration camps. Sadly, they never came home again, but at least now they will never be forgotten. Despite their small size, they are an extremely powerful visual tribute to those who fell victim to the Final Solution. It made the common obscure statistical numbers much more personal. To think these were the names of the people who once lived here and were forced out through this very doorstep in front of me to be carted away and never seen again. The artist has created and installed over 35,000 memorials to date and continues to create them. Ironically, they were featured in the July 2012 edition of National Geographic Magazine, the first publication I happened to read after returning home from my trip. It was a pleasant surprise to see something I had just witnessed in person in one of my favorite magazines. I was glad to see the Stumble Stones and artist Gunter Demnig were getting some much deserved recognition and attention.
In conclusion, I really grew to empathize with the German people, past and present, concerning the nation under the Nazi rule of Adolph Hitler. In the end, the government they supported at first, created an environment of fear and consequent despair. Anyone who questioned anything or spoke out in protest were sure to suffer the same fate of the other groups who were considered inferior or perceived as a threat. It makes you wonder what was the whole purpose of Hitler's vision for the future of Germany? Why would anyone want to live under the constant fear of an authoritative government reinforced by the sadistic Waffen-SS troops of Heinrich Himmler. The frightening world from George Orwell's epic novel 1984 comes to mind. One of the first bridges to forgiveness was when the American troops began to realize not all Germans were Nazis. Most in the regular military were simply young men or even teenagers who were formerly simple farmers, factory workers, shopkeepers, or students. Despite their lack of connection to politics or interest in Nazi ideologies they were drafted into service, many giving their lives for an obscure cause they may not have fully understood. In many ways, the civilian population of Germany were prisoners themselves of the Nazi fascist agenda for the country and the world beyond. How much did they really know of the crimes against humanity going on around them or were they simply in denial and didn't really want to know the truth. Maybe the real question is what could they really have done to stop it? Or was the Nazi leadership willing to give the order to kill anyone and everyone?
Looking Back Into History
Berlin Holocaust Memorial
(Photo Source / Chocolate Media)
Berlin Holocaust Memorial
(Photo Source / Chocolate Media)
In my opinion the German people may not be proud of their past, including the years leading up to and during World War II but do take tremendous pride in their openness and willingness to accept responsibility, especially concerning the Holocaust. The gigantic monument to the victims of the Holocaust a few feet from the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin is a perfect visual example of their remorse. All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men to do nothing... Edmund Burke.
Adolf Hitler as an Infant Circa 1889
(Photo Credit / German Federal Archives)
Please Note: This article was written as commentary and is comprised of my own personal observations, opinions, and interpretations of historical events. I used the personal stories I heard during my travels, the archives of the National Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., and various other historical sources as references to help provide the facts, figures, and statistical information contained within this essay.
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