Recently I took a long weekend to visit Weimar in the German Bundesland Thüringen. It’s a fairly significant location in the history of the German state relative to it’s size and has a reputation as the home of Goethe and also of Schiller those giants of human thought. One thing that I didn’t know was also there are the remains and memorial of Buchenwald labour/concentration camp are about a 15 minute bus ride from Goetheplatz in the city centre.
The former camp grounds have a visitors centre and a museum, the preserved crematorium, stables and officers quarters and one guard tower. You can also see what remains of the concrete pylons which held up the barbed wire to stop prisoners from escaping. Though this sounds like a lot, actually the whole area is very open and if you didn’t know its history you would probably describe as having a park-like atmosphere. It’s on the route for a number of tour bus package holidays and there are of course the mandatory educational visits of (giggling, oblivious) school aged-children from the region.
The museum within the grounds is very thorough and if you can understand a little German, then you have access to perpetrators and victims speaking in their own words. Many of the detailed or original documents were in German only. We spent about 3 hours walking through the grounds and museum. There is also a collection of survivors’ and post-survivors’ art. The more recent works made on commission or by people who felt like they had a contribution to make were of modern schools and in some cases, I felt – given the gravity of where we were, exploitative.
This was my first visit to a memorial like this. I’m not a huge history buff and I don’t make a habit of visiting concentration camps. I still feel incredibly ambivalent about the whole experience. My primary response was “what’s wrong with people” and in some ways seeing the now peaceful area of farmland and adjacent forest made me feel guilty for even attempting to holiday or otherwise have fun after my visit. I’ve read, heard and seen many sound-bytes about the evils of war and crimes against humanity; Lest we forget and the panoply associated, but to be honest whom do these memorials really serve?
As an educational tool, the children and youths in military service we saw there seemed bored and faintly amused. For international visitors there was very limited information in foreign languages. As a place of mourning or penance, from what I read, everyone who survived limped as fast and as far as possible away from the place never to return. For those people looking for some kind of insight into how the Holocaust happened; I now have more questions than answers.
The foremost thing that struck me was that, at least in Weimar, the atrocity that was the concentration camp was an atrocity of individuals perpetrated upon on other individuals. These atrocities were not only from camp guards onto prisoners but from one class of prisoner onto another. I think for foreigners is not highlighted is that though the National Socialists were not backward about their desire to wipe out Jewish people , it seemed their ideology was pretty much into general social eugenics, including (if I may phrase it this way) political eugenics . The officers and guards used hierarchies of German political prisoners and Eastern European slave labourers to keep down the ” dysfunctional” prisoners and allowed a very small number of people in authority to control great masses of people. This was one of the things that really disturbed me. When the camp first opened and people were in relatively good health the great mass of prisoners working together probably could have overcome the guards. Instead they emulated their jailers twisted ideology and impressed it upon their own squalid living conditions achieving a new kind of normal.
Also from the reports of people who worked in the camp, they too seemed in some ways to somehow disassociate the absolute horror of what they were ore doing into some kind of new normal. An illustration of what I mean would be someone like a clerk or something, being happy that they got all the trains off to Auschwitz and other extermination camps on time, satisfied at a job completed competently and not considering the monstrosity of the whole thing. Most people with a passing knowledge of modern history won’t need any more detail on that line of argument. Though if you do you should probably read Hannah Arendt. In any case, as I mentioned before it all made me think of the following questions:
- If the people running the camps were normal people, what would stop me from committing similar atrocities in the same circumstances?
- If the Gestapo hauled me out of my bed in the middle of the night to torture me about my political loyalties, whom would I be willing to name and how would I be willing to degrade myself to regain my freedom?
- If people started printing hateful things about a group of people in my town, and later some of them were forced into exile or disappeared at what point would I a) know that something serious was happening, and b) speak out against what was happening?
- If war was coming, would I know when to flee?
- How can people say that there is no absolute right and wrong?