Wednesday was a beautiful Munich day and we headed out on the S2 train to the Munich suburb of Dachau, also the home of the first Nazi concentration camp.
Usually when you think of the Nazi era the Germans are the bad guys, causing war and slaughtering innocents. But at Dachau the experience is slightly different – Dachau represents a true German tragedy. Germans who stood up to Hitler, who refused to go along with the Nazi seizure of power, and who tried to save their country from a fateful path based on fear and violence were sent to Dachau.
Dachau is not like Auschwitz. It wasn’t a death camp. Most of its prisoners were political or religious prisoners, though to try to avoid making them pitied lots of hardened criminals were sent there too. 30,000 died, many of them near the end as provisions ran out and the war was being lost.
The Nazis won a struggle for the German soul, though the Germans didn’t really understand what they had supported. The National Socialists promised to make Germans proud to be German again, to reject the hated Versailles treaty and to reinvigorate German values that had supposedly been weakened by democracy and capitalism. Once they took power, their propganda machine gave the German people the story they wanted to believe. And if you were tempted to dissent anyway Dachau was a symbol of what could happen to you if you didn’t take the path of least resistance.
Go along with the propaganda, believe that the National Socialists were saving Germany, and you’d be fine. Be foolish enough to defy the conventional wisdom and call the Nazis out for what they were, you’d be arrested, humiliated, beaten, and forced into slave labor, underfed and abused. Psychologically the impact was clear – people closed their eyes to what they should have been able to see, and then justified their actions because their country later on was “at war.”
The Nazis were bullies. They were heartless. They rejected non-conformity. If you didn’t act like they thought a true German should, then you were worthy of humiliation and brutality. Such a mentality is driven by fear. It’s a base fear, a fear in the soul that one has no value and is adrift in a sea of meaninglessness. To counter act that, fearful people grasp towards conformity and a belief that proper behavior is the key to self-worth. They project all their self-loathing on-conformists and free thinkers as a way to purge themselves of their existential fears.
For such people, empathy plays no role, strength is the ultimate virtue, and humility is debasement. That is what the Nazi movement represented. It was the playground bully in charge of the state, demanding obedience and conformity in exchange for an emotional sense of belonging. Implicit was the threat that non-conformity meant suffering.
The Nazis never won a majority in a free election. Many Germans secretly opposed them, but felt they had to put country first in a time of war. The German tragedy is that many good people found excuses not to stare into the evil engulfing them and fight back. Instead they conformed, bought the narrative the National Socialists were selling (even if they deep down had doubts) and pushed aside the moral dilemmas.
The opponents – Christian activists, socialists, communists, and people from across the political and social spectrum, tried to shout out a warning. Even as the clouds gathered, they were making headway, as the Germans in 1932 started to move away from the National Socialists. Their vote declined by the end of that year and if not for inside deals to try to create a conservative majority government, they may have failed. Instead Franz Von Papen convinced President Hindenberg that Hitler could be trusted given his party’s weakening status.
Hitler was made Chancellor on January 30, 1933. The Reichstag burned on February 27, 1933. Hitler took that as a reason to demand dictatorial powers to respond to the terrorists threatening Germany. In a mood of fear and nationalist fervor, most parties, even those who opposed Hitler, voted to grant him that power. He used it. He arrested those who voted against that “Enabling Act,” and a host of other political opponents across Germany who had been trying to shine light on the truth of the Nazi party.
So many were arrested that local prisons filled. In late March 1933 Dachau opened as a concentration camp to house these people. Officially they were in “protective custody” until the state could investigate whether they were truly a threat. But they had no rights and they were humiliated and abused.
Dachau was the model for the other Nazi camps. The death camps were run much like Dachau.
At the end Germans saw what had been done in their name. When locals witnessed the corpses and near death condition of the inmates they were horrified. Only then did they realize how evil their leaders had been, and how wrong they were to support them and believe the propaganda. Many deep down knew that they should have known better.
Germans take those lessons seriously. All German school children watch Schindler’s List and visit concentration camps. They learn of the holocaust. They learn to understand the horrors that happened. They learn not to trust nationalist rhetoric or the politics of fear.
But it can happen again. The politics of fear represent an emotional theme that often succeeds. People close their eyes to what they should see, and believe what they deep down know to be wrong. The heartless bullies can grab power. Learning the history of the German tragedy is one way to help us try to assure it doesn’t happen again.