The Holocaust and the Holocaust Memorial. A few insights, evoking many questions…

Today, I’m publishing my 50th update. I’ve seen and written about 49 locations of historical value earlier. Often, it is proved that Berlin is not a city in which the centre is the only area that counts. I’ve seen heavenly areas I didn’t knew, as well as the dark past of my favorite district Neukölln. Updates have brought me from Adlershof till Zehlendorf and -outside of Berlin- from Großbeeren till Oranienburg. However, I don’t think there is a place which is of such historical importance as the Holocaust Memorial in the heart of Berlin’s city centre…

So far, I’ve waited to publish an entry about the Holocaust. The topic is heavy and it brings a huge responsibility with the author – of who I think that (s)he has to be -very- informed about this topic. Moreover, it is hard to sum up the insights about the Holocaust at something as easy accessible such as a blog. It remains a topic that cannot be explained within only 3000 words and five photos. On the other hand, I cannot ignore this historical event at a blog which is about German history. Since I plan this to be my last investigative post, it feels like it’s the last chance to write about the extermination of the European Jews. Now, without pretending that this is a complete history of the Holocaust, I want to inform visitors before going to the Holocaust Memorial.

Creating ‘Lebensraum’: the start of the ‘Germanisation’ of Eastern Europe during WW2.

The most recommendable work of reference I’ve read about the Holocaust has been the well respected historian Ian Kershaw’s publication Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution. In one of its chapters, Kershaw defends that Hitler worked towards a new War since the end of WW1. By 1925, when Hitler wrote his autobiography Mein Kampf, he had a core ideology that consisted the expansion of ‘Lebensraum‘ (‘Living Space‘, or: German territory) in Eastern Europe and the ‘elimination’ of Jews in these territories. In this stage, no one understood what this ‘elimination’ should look like – including Hitler himself. Before Hitler took the power, he realised that he wouldn’t win elections by this core-belief only. In the early 1930s, he tempered his antisemitism and gained votes by his anticommunism. However, when Hitler consolidated his power in the years after 1933 – public debate was controlled and organised antisemitic propaganda was without critique. Jews were boycotted (April 1933), excluded by law (September 1935) and killed (November 1938).

Important in the cumulative discrimination was a certain dynamic pattern that is typical for Nazi Germany. In this dynamic, Hitler knew how to contain the radical antisemites in his party – and how to time and canalise their aggression. In his speeches, he gave signals for his radical party members to do a ‘bottom up’ violent act. As a result, the Nazi Party had to ‘soothen’ the radicals by further discriminating the Jews. In public sphere, Hitler would make virulent comments and in private sphere, he explained of what he thought that should happen. An important example of such a green light was a part of Hitler’s notorious speech from January 1939, the so-called prophecy speech:

“Today I will once more be a prophet. If the international finance-Jewry inside and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations of the world into a world war yet again, then the result will not be the bolshevisation of the earth, and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe”

By Hitler’s invasion and occupation of Poland, the War broke out in September 1939. However, the “annihilation of the Jewish race” did not start yet. A couple of escalations had to take place before. In this, the Warthegau (Warta shire) played a key role. In Hitler’s ambition to create ‘Lebensraum‘, the Warthegau would be the first district to ‘Germanise’. This district had to function as a prototype for others and therefore, the most fanatic Nazi’s were stationed in this district. Here, another crucial pattern that was typical for Hitler’s ‘style of ruling’ becomes visible. This pattern derived from the vague command to ‘improve the objectives of the Führer‘. After Hitler spoke out his expectation that the Warthegau would be ‘Germanised’ within ten years, career-making civil servants took this as a licence to ‘work in the spirit of Hitler’. In the Warthegau, the police was under the control of the regional head of the SS, Wilhelm Koppe. By May 1940, he was a key figure in the extermination of more than 2000 disabled patients. Now Koppe was held responsible for the ‘Germanisation’ of the Warthegau, it meant that he had to make the Jews invisible (by putting them in concentration camps) or deport them further to the East, in the General Government district where already a few million Jews were concentrated. In May 1940, the Jewish district of Łódź -the biggest city in the Warthegau- was already immured and turned into a ‘ghetto’ containing 163.000 Jews. The ghetto was more than full, but trains with German Jews kept arriving. Hunger ruled and diseases came up, but administrative and logistic problems restrained deportations towards the General Government. The Jews were stuck in the ‘to be Germanised’ Warthegau, while Wilhelm Koppe realised what Hitler wanted him to do…

Children from the ghetto of Łódź, being deported to the extermination camp Chełmno. ©USHMM

When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, June 1941, the Nazi’s again planned to create a buffer zone for all German and Austrian Jews – the East of the Ural Mountains. As often, the Nazi’s overestimated themselves heavily. Unfortunately, and this is crucial, it were not only the Nazi’s that suffered from their setbacks. Already in September that year, it was forecasted that the German Army won’t win the War before the winter – which meant that a ‘territorial solution for the deportation of Jews’ had no chance. An other ‘Final Solution’ about what to do with the Jews had to be found in the East of Europe. In the following weeks, the first steps were made in the systematic extermination of the Jews. The ‘Einsatzgruppen‘ (‘Task forces’) in Ukraine murdered 33.000 Jews at the Babi Yar ravin by the end of September. In the Warthegau, Wilhelm Koppe understood well how he could ‘work in the spirit of Hitler’. In October that year, 3000 Jews within the county named Konin were concentrated in the town of Zagórów (in German: Hinterberg) and killed in the forests.

The 26th of November 1941, the mechanical extermination of the Jews had started by the SS. The first gassings of several hundred Jews took place that day, in the Warthegau county of Kalisz. For committing this crime, the Wilhelm Koppe used his experience with the usage of ‘doctors’ who killed disabled patients in the Aktion T4. This ‘experience’ was most of all how to direct the exhaust gasses of a truck into its trailer. By the 8th of December, two of these ‘gas trucks’ were driven from Berlin to Chełmno. Here, 97.000 Jews were exterminated within seven months.

At the 11th of December, Hitler declared war to the USA – which was answered with a a declaration of War in return. Nevertheless, Hitler stated that it was a Jewish conspiracy and held his notorious ‘prophecy speech’ from January 1939. The next day (December 12th), Goebbels wrote in his diary about a conversation with Hitler – in which the latter stated that a new phase concerning the ‘Jewish question‘ could start. In other words, due to military and logistical problems – the Nazi dynamic created a radical ‘solution’ for their self-invented and created problem. After being unable to take care of the Jews that they had deported, the extermination had started. The Warthegau may have been crucial to in taking this first steps in the mechanisation of the Holocaust, another 3.5 million Jews were already at the ‘General Government’ district. This is where four notorious extermination camps -Belzec, Sobibór, Treblinka and Majdanek- were constructed rapidly and opened from March 1942 onwards. Also the camp Auschwitz prepared for the extermination of Jews in this phase. It wasn’t located in the ‘General Government’ or in the Warthegau, but in the discrict of Upper Silesia. By the summer of 1942, the extermination machine ran at full speed. Most of the casualties would fall in the following year.

Important is though, that not all Jews were killed in the extermination factories. About half of the Jews were killed by shooting. In moral view, there may not be much of a difference. Taking someones life, either way, remains murder. However, from a humanist point of view it is worth telling how these millions came to their end. As historian Christopher Browning had written in his case-study, these shootings were committed by ‘Ordinary men’. A certain Reserve Police Battalion from Hamburg, mainly fathers from families, were among the execution squads. After they were brought to occupied Poland, they were asked by their commander -pale, tears in his eyes- if they want to cooperate doing ‘a frightfully unpleasant task’ or wanted to leave without consequences. After some hesitating, only eleven out of the initial 174 men stepped out. The others were added to the ‘Battalion 101’ of a mere 500 ordinary men, that became an incarnated killing machine. Between July and November 1942, this Battalion 101 deported over 40.000 European Jewish men and women to the extermination camp Treblinka – while executing 8000 Jews themselves. In the late autumn and spring of 1942/1943, the trained killers volunteered to take part in hunting the Jews that were hidden in the forests and in small towns. In short, the ordinary men became fanatic murderers…

The Police Battalion 101 during Christmas (1942/3)

What went wrong here? Are we still talking about ordinary family-men from the Nazi-sceptic city of Hamburg? Working class heroes -dockers truck drivers- and white collar workers who grew up before Hitler took power? Yes, antisemitism was all around in Nazi Germany – but still it is not plausible that these ordinary men were eager to actively murder Jewish civilians… One of the morbid answers in here is solidarity. Not with the victims, but with their fellow ordinary men. When they were interrogated after the War, many of these men said that they wouldn’t leave their colleagues doing the dirty job. Them who stepped out after a few round of executing -and had to do logistic work at the German camps– were told to be ‘cowards’. Moreover, the ordinary men had weekly briefings of 30 till 45 minutes. In these, they were ‘educated’ about Nazi topics such as loyalty, the offensive spirit and… comradeship. In addition, they were brainwashed with statements that ‘the Jews’ initiated the USA boycotts of Germany – and that it were them who bombs on the homeland…

Nazi-propaganda. “The Jew. War’s starter. Extending the war.”

The question arises about what the German people knew about the Holocaust. Till which level were they supporting Hitler’s antisemitism? In the last free elections of November 1932, 33% of the German people voted for Hitler. In this, Hitler tempered his antisemitism, focusing on the fear of socialism and communism. After Hitler took power in 1933, the Nazi’s slowly but steadily controlled the media, the opinion and would cumulatively discriminate the Jews. However, unlike the War that Hitler always wanted, the Holocaust had not been an intended plan – but a result of the dynamics between the Nazi-top in Berlin and experienced, fanatic Nazi’s in the province. The Holocaust was an unpredictable side-effect of the War, but completed consciously – and fatal for millions…

So, when 33% of the German people voted for Hitler in the last free elections (November 1932) – they did not vote for the Holocaust to take place in the future. On the other hand, there have barely been any resistance against the discrimination and the deportations of Jews. The protest in Berlin’s Rosenstraße, where German wifes of Jewish man protested to prevent their deportation in February 1943, have been the only protest – as far as I know. Now, why did the German people not resist against the extermination of Jews? An obvious answer may be the existence of control departments, such as the Gestapo (Geheime Staatspolizei; Secret States Security) that prevented people from protesting. However, the Gestapo had relatively few staff for its German population. There has been more than only control: the people just didn’t protest that easily. According to Ian Kershaw, the reason of this may be a hardly understandable moral indifference. “The crooked road to Auschwitz was build with hate, but paved with indifference” is how the historian states it. This incomprehensible mentality becomes a bit more understandable after Kershaw explains that the German people had their own trouble during wartime. Everyone had a male family member that was missing at the war’s front, while air raid attacks became increasingly a constant threat. Due to gossips, the people could – but didn’t want to know what happened to the Jewish countrymen. In addition, people thought that they could not be held responsibly either. This moral indifference provided the criminal Nazi regime to radicalise their murderous acts. Whether this is moral indifference or passive accessory – I remain for you to consider…

So far, this article has been about Hitler, local Nazi fanatics, ordinary men and indifferent civilians. About the timing of Hitler’s speeches, about dynamics in Nazi Germany – and about the crucial timing that the European Jews were deported. Still, many questions remain. For example, what did the Nazi-officials show its population of the deportations, the ghettos and the extermination camps? What did the Jews go through in those camps, and who were in charge? What happened with the possessions of deported Jews? Or, formulated more clear: how did the people feel after confiscating such property of fellow citizens that were killed? And how fast did information about the extermination camps spread among the people? When it comes to the Holocaust, countless of questions can be asked…

The'Treblinka' monument by Vadim Sidur (Berlin-Charlottenburg, April 2014. Photo by Joep de Visser)In earlier posts, I’ve shown memorials that remember events that were prior, but participating in the Holocaust – for example the deportations of Jews or the violent round-ups. However, before the construction of Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe, only one small monument to remember the Holocaust was to be found in the German capital. In 1966, the Soviet vanguard artist Vadim Sidur made a rather grim sculpture. Abstract, but clearly a pile of dead human beings. Sidur named his sculpture after the extermination camp ‘Treblinka’. In 1979, the sculpture was placed in front of a court’s house: the Amtsgericht Charlottenburg.

Yet, this memorial actually only remembers one of the many extermination camps. A central memorial for the murdered Jews of Europe was still lacking. Intitiated by the journalist Lea Rosh, a support group for a Holocaust Memorial was found in January 1989. Before the Holocaust Memorial opened in May 2005, many debates had taken place. The location has been changed, competitions with hundreds of designs had been rejected by an intervention of the contemporary prime minister (Helmut Kohl) and the winning design of the second competition has been changed. The construction symbolically started at the 27th of January 2000, the day that Auschwitz was liberated 55 years earlier.

The site of the Holocaust Memorial, before the memorial’s construction.

While the design of Peter Eisenman became tangible, discussions only intensified. One of the main critique is that a monument for Jews only would create a ‘hierarchy’ in the ‘victimship’ of Nazism. Other monuments, such as for Roma and Sinti, homosexuals or disabled people, won’t have the same dimension. And why would one make a difference between Jewish, political, homosexual or other victims of the Nazi’s? Was the Holocaust even different than the Porajmos? Other critiques thought that the monument would be too artistic, or too much a sensational ‘tourist attraction’ that wasn’t sincere. In 2003, the construction works were temporarily brought to a standstill when a newspaper found out that the producer of the anti-graffiti coating had produced Zyklon B, the gas that was used in the gas chambers, during wartime. The leading architect, Peter Eisenman, decided to continue working with this company.

The Holocaust Monument under construction.

Peter Eisenman, besides the architect also the mastermind behind the Holocaust memorial, stated “This is a place of no meaning” – and did explicitly not explain what the highly abstract monument resembles. For Eisenman, the Holocaust memorial had to break with the tradition of other memorials. “The scale and dimension of the Holocaust makes every attempt to describe it in traditional ways inevitable to a hopeless project. Our memorial tries to develop a new idea about remembering that clearly distuingishes from nostalgia.” This new concept of remembering had to be an experience. “Nowadays, we can only understand the past by an experience in the present day.” That is quite much all. Thoughts are absolutely free. “When a swastika is graffitied on the memorial, this is a reflection of people who feel this way. When it stays there, it is a reflection of which the government thinks about it that people paint swastikas here. I can not influence that. There will be children that play tag and mannequins that strike a pose. The location is not howly.” Thus the responsible architect. The memorial was inaugurated at the 10th of May 2005, exactly 60 years after the War’s end. The time had come to compare expectations with experiences.

How will you -as an average, relatively informed visitor- experience the Holocaust Memorial? After telling your social network that you plan to visit Berlin and the Holocaust memorial, your friends who have been there probably told you that it resembles a graveyard. In this fictive graveyard, the grey steles are the coffins – which are given posthumously to the Jews. The colour grey is chosen for being the colour of ash, referring to the bodies that were burned. However, a couple of questions remain. A very obvious question concerns the meaning of the the number of steles. You won’t find information about this at the location itself – so you already feel that you misunderstand the memorial. When you get to know that there are 2711 steles, you may only conclude that this number has no meaning. Why is the ground uneven? Should you look for the spot where the steles are the highest? And why are there over a hundred ‘coffins’ implemented in the busy pavement? Does this make (unaware) passers-by desecrators of a grave? Why would an architect do that on purpose? And what to think of visitors of the Holocaust memorial that jump from stone-to-stone? Walking through the memorial, you’ll even experienced people playing hide-and-seek. Walking out of the memorial, you will see the average sight-seeing tourist taking a snapshot while smiling towards the camera. Your experience probably ends by standing aside, looking over the memorial for a while. You may be disappointed because you haven’t got the feeling that you’ve learned something, or ‘felt’ a message. And only if you are lucky, you’ll find an arrow pointing you to the underground ‘information point’…

Taken everything into account, I think we all agree about the importance of a central and spacious location to remember the Holocaust. The intention of Eisenman -using an experience to remember the Holocaust- may be interesting. Unfortunately, and Eisenman already realised this, people behave questionable: they will pose at group-photos and children will run and play. For them, the absence of information about the Holocaust and a clarification of the memorial makes that the level of abstraction is too high. After all, even an informed or a frequent visitor can’t tell whether the Holocaust memorial resembles a graveyard, or not at all. This lack of clearness may easily lead to dissatisfaction at the first place. Understandable, because – wouldn’t it be desirable here, to have a memorial that makes a strong statement that everyone understands? However, I’ve noticed that the shortcoming of clarity has a side-effect. It really keeps me thinking, and brings up many questions about what it remembers after all: the Holocaust…

The Holocaust Memorial (Berlin-Mitte, April 2014. Photo by Joep de Visser)

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