Saturday, November 2, 2013

The banality of evil

From a photographic exhibition depicting Nazi terror during my Berlin visit a couple of weeks ago  [1]. There were atrocity photos too, but the image that spooked me most was this ... …

The caption was : SS female auxiliaries (“SS Maids”) and SS men from Auschwitz concentration camp at the SS retreat Sola-Hütte 30 kilometers south of the camp in an idyllic mountain landscape, undated (probably July 22, 1944). At center is Karl Höcker, adjutant to camp commandant Richard Baer.

I look at the date, July 1944, and I ask myself: didn't these people see that in less than a year the war would be lost and they would be called to account?  Well they weren't of course so maybe that’s not such a good question, but what would they say in later years when their children saw this photo? “I was just doing my job, it seemed important at the time”, I suppose. The banality of evil [2].

The American museum director who now curates this and similar photographs says they “vividly illustrate the contented world they enjoyed while overseeing a world of unimaginable suffering. They offer an important perspective on the psychology of those perpetrating genocide."

I see from Der Spiegel's website that the SS female auxiliaries photo came from an album belonging to Karl Höcker, who took the pictures as personal keepsakes. Prior to its liberation by the Allies, Höcker fled Auschwitz, and after the war worked for years in a bank, unrecognized. In 1963 he went to trial, claimed he “had no possibility in any way to influence the events”, was sentenced to seven years in prison, and was released after serving five. He died at the age of 88 in 2000.

The next photo is a bit fuzzy I'm afraid. It's just a snap I took as I went round the exhibition, and I haven't been able to find a better copy on the web.

The caption here is : SA men publicly humiliate Hermann Weidemann, a local council member from the SPD who had been taken into “protective custody”. Hofgeismar, May 2, 1933. Sitting on an ox with a cardboard sign hung round his neck, Weidemann was led through Hofgeismar by the SA in a pillory procession. The victim, a Social Democrat councillor in the town, was followed by a crowd of curious spectators.

I think that in mentioning the curious spectators the caption has it about right. There seems to be a party atmosphere. What would the two girls in the foreground tell their children 20 years later if this photo came to light? “I didn't understand politics, I was too young” …  “My parents told me the Social Democrats were destroying Germany and had lost us the war in 1918, something had to be done” … “It seemed like a carnival, I didn't really know what was going on” …  “Back then Hitler seemed to have the right idea but in the end he took it too far” … "Is that me? I'm ashamed ... " ?? 

By the way I see from Wikipedia that from 1933 and 1944 Weidemann was held in Sachsenhausen concentration camp, and for three years after the war, from 28 April 1945 to 1948, he was mayor of Hofgeismar, whose streets the Nazis had paraded him through on the ox (though the Wikipedia article fails to mention this event).

I'll close with my most disappointing Berlin photo. Hitler’s bunker. I imagined a conducted tour showing the bedrooms, the kitchen, Hitler’s office, the garage full of staff cars, all as in the 2004 film Downfall (if you haven't seen it you must). But it was not to be. This picture of me looking glum in a car park is as good as it got.

It seems that after the war the Soviets levelled the Chancellery buildings; though despite some attempts at demolition the underground complex remained largely undisturbed until the two halves of the city were reunited in 1989. During reconstruction of that area of Berlin, those sections of the old bunker complex that were excavated were for the most part destroyed. The site remained unmarked until 2006, when a small tourist information board was put up.  Some of the corridors of the bunker still exist today, but are sealed off from the public.  I wonder why this cavalier attitude to an important piece of archaeology?  To prevent it becoming a neo-Nazi shrine perhaps?

[1] At the Topography of Terror – the present-day name for the site on which the most important institutions of the Nazi apparatus of terror and persecution were located between 1933 and 1945. The buildings are all gone, replaced by a modern exhibition hall.

[2] Banality of evil : the idea that evil occurs when ordinary individuals are put into corrupt situations that encourage their conformity. The phrase was coined by philosopher Hannah Arendt after witnessing the 1962 trial of high-ranking Nazi Adolf Eichmann who seemed, at least to Arendt, to be the most mundane of individuals whose evil acts were driven by the requirements of the state and orders from above.


Monday, October 28, 2013

I visit Berlin and puzzle

Just back from Berlin where I couldn’t resist posing at the local metro station under a sign indicating the exit for Karl Marx Alley (boulevard really), Peace Street and The Street of the Paris Commune. Or what about the inscription on the back wall of this regrettably dark photo of the main staircase of Humboldt University:

Die Philosophen haben die Welt

nur verschieden interpretiert,
es kommt aber darauf an,
sie zu verändern
Not even attributed, you're meant to know it's from Marx's Theses on Feuerbach. Cool.  “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”

The building [1] stands on Bebelplatz, at the right of this panoramic view:-

On 10 May 1933, Bebelplatz made history in an inglorious manner. It was the site of the most notorious of the book burnings organized by the Nazis, in which important works of world literature were thrown into the flames.  Karl Marx's Theses on Feuerbach first amongst them no doubt. The 20,000 volumes burnt included Heinrich and Thomas Mann, Erich Kästner, Stefan Zweig, Heinrich Heine, and Kurt Tucholsky. Don't worry I haven’t heard of some of them either but you get the idea.  A monument to this outrage has been created in the square, consisting of a glass panel opening onto a white underground room with empty shelf space for (supposedly) all 20,000 volumes. A plaque bears an epigraph from an 1820 work by Heinrich Heine: Das war ein Vorspiel nur, dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen (That was only a prelude; where they burn books, they end burning people).

I say supposedly because my rough estimate of the shelf space was 6,000 volumes. My friend Vincent got a slightly higher figure but nowhere near 20,000. 

The books all came from the university building with the Karl Marx inscription. Though the inscription wasn’t there then of course. And we are told the ignorant thugs who did this deed were mainly “students”. I feel sorry for the librarian. I visualise him being charged with the duty of identifying all the offending volumes, which doubtless included many rare first editions. My sympathy might be misplaced of course, maybe he was a Nazi and revelled in the work. But I imagine not. A rector with Nazi tendencies, Eugen Fischer, was appointed in 1933 but I haven’t discovered if he was yet in place at the time of the book burning.

I want to comment on all those old buildings you see in the panoramic view of the square. They are, from the left, the State Opera, St. Hedwig's Cathedral straight ahead and the Humboldt University building. Now I haven't found an image of Bebelplatz in 1945 but here’s a fairly typical image of Berlin in that year.

So what I puzzle over is, when I was in an old church, the Humboldt University, various 19th century museum buildings, what was I actually in? A repaired pre-war building? Or a modern replica?  On a four day visit to Berlin I encountered a fair mix of modern buildings and old ones, but how old were the old ones really? 18th and 19th century? Or 1960’s? I came away without a feel for the answer to this question.  I've plenty more to say about Berlin but I'll stop here for now.

[1] Now known so far as I can tell as the old law library