M didn’t want to go to the Nazi Rally Grounds or Courtroom 600, where the Nuremberg trials were held. He said he didn’t want another reminder of the Nazi atrocities, but my position was different. The idea of spending an afternoon with a historian, talking about the trials and actually visiting Courtroom 600? I had to do it. I would’ve gone alone, but at the last minute he decided to join me. But he was uneasy and closed off about the whole thing.
One thing I appreciate about the two of us is that we are very aligned about important things and our emotional response to the Holocaust has been pretty close to identical. But my view is that people can either sit in the emotion the rest of their lives OR try to understand what happened so we recognize the signs before it happens again. Which is why I got more than a little nervous when Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld and others of their ilk started their U.S. propaganda campaign after Sept. 11, 2001. When we started hearing our country referred to as “our homeland.” It smacked of Nazi propaganda to me. Same with all the nationalistic fervor. Nationalism and patriotism are two different things. It’s a fine line, and that bunch crossed it. Which is how we ended up committing some atrocities of our own. But then, that’s another story for another day.
I first learned about the Nazis and World War II when I was maybe nine years old. Digging through my parents’ bookcases as a child, I found a book about Adolf Eichmann with some of the most horrific photographs imaginable. I was an avid reader and a precocious one, too, but that collection of photos were a shocking sight. I never did ask my parents about it, we didn’t have that kind of relationship, but that book–which I read then, at age nine–was my first exposure to what happened in Europe during the war. I never forgot those photographs.
Since then, it’s been hard for me to understand how the German people allowed such inhumanity. I was stuck on that question for a very long time, reviving it after my visit a decade ago to Dachau. This trip helped answer that question for me, but not for M.
It’s only human to want to assign blame. But it isn’t all that productive to stop there. Going further is more useful.
I’d like to tell you about what we saw and where I went with it.
Nuremberg is the site of the eight-square-mile Nazi Rally Grounds, where Hitler was constructing a complex of monstrous, megalomaniacal buildings, including a Congress Hall, a stadium for the Hitler Youth, deployment areas for the army and what was to be the largest sports stadium in the world.
Why Nuremberg? The city was one of his favorite German cities, our historian told us. Now, it’s the site of a historical Documentation Center, built on to the ruins of Congress Hall and the place where a very fine permanent exhibition called “Fascination and Terror” looks at the causes, the context and the consequences of the National Socialist reign of terror. And that’s what I wanted to know about.
I knew about the atrocities. I wanted to know how and why they happened. Because six million is a lot of dead people. Murdered by a crazy criminal mastermind and his henchmen.
The proportions of everything Hitler planned for the huge Rally Grounds and the grounds themselves are immense and meant to leave a big impression of power and might. Congress Hall was meant to seat 60,000 people.
The Zeppelin Field is an open air arena for Nazi rallies, and they were held there in 1933 and 1934. If you’ve ever seen the old Nazi propaganda film (if you were a film student, you most surely did), Triumph of the Will, you’ve seen where those rallies were held. I stood in front of the grandstands, closed my eyes and could almost hear the thud of jackboots marching and in my mind’s eye, saw masses of soldiers in that familiar uniform, perfectly aligned. I thought about what it must have been like for German people to see and hear this kind of major spectacle mean to stir nationalistic fervor.
Germany had been in an economic slump before Hitler came to power, and he presented his platform as a way out of the slump. The construction of all these massive displays of power created badly needed employment.His speeches and events were meant to stir nationalistic pride. Looking at these overpoweringly large edifices and pillars topped with threateningly powerful eagles, it’s easy to see how Hitler cleverly planned to sweep people up in the glory and drama of the moment.
Here’s where M and I get stuck: the atrocities of the Holocaust.
They’re carrying a few meager possessions that they wouldn’t be allowed to keep anyway. I look at those photos and realize that they have only a slight idea of the horrors that they were to face. If that. The men and women in their hats and coats. Mothers holding babies.
They’re wearing yellow stars. Or pink ones. On the chart below they’re called “badges”
The vast majority died in those camps. Most, if not all of those faces in these photographs belong to people the Nazis murdered. It’s hard to fathom, it really is. But it happened.
I remember walking around Dachau and feeling the spirits of those who had died. There’s a little crooked thing–a moue— my lips do when I’m puzzled or disturbed. At Dachau, my mouth stayed in that crooked position during my entire visit. And at the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. The same thing happened as I walked through the exhibit at the Documentation Center in Nuremberg.
Unlike my husband, I never miss an opportunity to view photographs of Nazis rounding up Jews, political opponents, homosexuals, gypsies and other “undesirables.” It’s important to look at these images of people–people just like us–look at their faces, know that they were walking toward almost certain death. It’s important to look into their eyes and remember them.
It’s also important to remember the kind of propaganda the German people were subjected to day in and day out. Anti-Semitic propaganda. Because someone had to be blamed for Germany’s defeat in World War I. For the economic decline after that war. And for all Germany’s misfortunes.
Oh, it’s so much easier when you have someone to blame. We know that only too well, here in the U.S. The only difference is that we haven’t take it a step further and executed masses of those people we blame. Not yet, anyway.
But you know what? It could happen. It always starts out small, just like it did in Germany. But that’s just for openers. Pretty soon you have your own rally grounds and massive buildings.
Little by little, the Nazis started to shift public opinion. Hitler was elected chancellor in 1933 and after that, there was no stopping him. Not for a long time. Think about the length of time Germans were exposed to aggressive propaganda.
Here’s what I’ve come to understand at an almost visceral level: That a concerted propaganda campaign like the one the Nazis mounted can and will influence people. That’s not really a surprise to me, since I began but didn’t finish a doctorate in social psychology, which is the study of group behavior and I spent an entire career focused on influencing groups of people via public relations. So, no, not a surprise. It’s just that I found it so hard to believe that human beings will accept the slaughter of other human beings so readily.
And then I stood in those rally grounds and could picture the way the Nazis overwhelmed the populace with their continual displays of power and might. Because you can’t be exposed to this stuff day in and day out over a period of years without it affecting you in some way. Either you believe it or you are afraid of it.Eventually, many of those in power were brought to justice in this building in Nuremberg.
Criminals like Goering, Hess, Speer and others were brought into the courtroom from the jail next door through this elevator door. You can see it on the far left in the old black and white photo above.
The result: about a dozen death sentences in the first trial. Seven imprisonments.
Blame is one thing; understanding is entirely different. Understanding how and why bad things happen doesn’t mean we accept them or that we don’t want to hold Germans accountable. It means that we want to understand the mechanism underlying the end result. So we can prevent such a thing from happening again.
As I walked through the exhibit at the Documentation Center I imagined myself looking out my window as Jews and other “undesirables” were forced to leave their homes, herded out into the streets, crammed into railway cars and transported to death camps. I imagined myself seeing my neighbors disappear.
Would I speak up?
Or would I be too afraid that I, too, would be sent away?
What would I do?
What would you do?