An Ugly Legacy

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Memorial at the site of the old Jewish synagogue in Vienna, destroyed in 1420-21

A travel course on German political history inevitably confronts the holocaust.   Of the 11 million humans killed, six million were Jews and the rest were Slavic, gay, gypsi (Roma and Sinti), pacifist, socialist or otherwise “ungerman.”  Yet its very easy to fall for caricatures.   To believe that the Germans were somehow seduced into a kind of unique evil, undertaking an unbelievably heinous crime while delivering Europe into the most destructive war in human history.   Or that Hitler was an inhuman pathological monster with super human seductive skills, and Germans were driven by racial bigotry and anger at the Versailles treaty!

Alas, history is not so simple.  Germany wasn’t that much different than other states in Europe, and anti-semitism has a long history full of pogroms and extermination efforts.   Hitler wasn’t that much different than other people; indeed, it’s dangerous to think such people must have been obvious monsters, that would prevent us from recognizing them in our midst today!  The technology of the past wasn’t sufficient to create the kind of holocaust experienced in the 20th Century (not to mention Stalin’s purges and various other mass killings/genocides of the last century), but in a real way WWII and the holocaust was a culmination of hundreds of years of European history.

We visited the Freud museum, located where he lived in Vienna until finally leaving in 1938.  We discussed his experiences as well as the impact of his theories on psychology and politics.

We visited the Freud museum, located where Sigmund Freud, who was Jewish, lived in Vienna until finally leaving in 1938. We discussed his experiences as well as the impact of his theories on psychology and politics.

That’s why we visited the museum and memorial at Judenplatz in the old Jewish section of Vienna, ordered destroyed in the so called Vienna Geserah of 1420-21.   Up until the first crusade in 1096 Jews had lived relatively normal lives in Europe despite real anti-semitism.  They performed services that Christians could not, and thus were protected by nobility.   As the Catholic church gained power and reach after the embrace of Aristotle in the 13th Century, Jews soon became a convenient scapegoat.

Hapsburg Duke Albrecht V, accusing Jews of colluding with the enemy in a war, ordered the elimination of the Jewish population in Vienna.  While many Jews escaped down the Danube, others were tortured, killed and their property confiscated.  Albrecht decreed that no Jews should ever live in Vienna again.   They did come back, but that event was for all intents and purposes a holocaust.  The technology and reach was not as far, but the goal and brutality was much like that of the Nazi SS 520 years later.

Sans Souci - the summer palace of Prussia's atheist, gay, military genius enlightenment King, who expanded the rights of Jews

Sans Souci – the summer palace of Prussia’s atheist, gay, military genius enlightenment King Friedrich the Great (1712-86), who expanded the rights of Jews

The history of Jews in Europe is complex.   Which country seems more anti-Semitic:  France during the Dreyfuss affair from 1894 to 1906, when Alfred Dreyfuss was falsely accused of treason, in part because of he was Jewish, or Germany in 1898 when the Kaiser paid a state visit to Jews living in Palestine?   Indeed, one reason that Hitler could arouse passion is that Germany let Jews achieve higher positions than in many other parts of Europe – though contrary to claims by Nazi propaganda on average they did no better than the rest of the German population.

Even after the Nazis came to power they got support from people like American flying ace Charles Lindbergh, who praised the unity of purpose of the German people, and dismissed the virulent anti-semitism as a mere annoyance.   The British sent ships filled with Jewish refugees back to Germany when they attempted to go to Palestine.    The US rejected Jewish refugees as well – antisemitism is part of the western cultural tradition.

At one point these grounds at Dachau, the first concentration camp, had rows and rows of barracks for the prisoners.

At one point these grounds at Dachau, the first concentration camp, had rows and rows of barracks for the prisoners.

Walking around Dachau near Munich it’s easy to forget that the first victims of Nazism weren’t Jews, but rather political opponents of Hitler’s who were round up and sent to concentration camps which were created because of the mass increase in people incarcerated.  Hitler’s first opponents were the socialists, democrats, internationalists and pacifists.   Later, outside of Germany actual extermination camps were created to do on a broader scale what Albrecht V did in Vienna in 1420-21.

One wants to believe that this centuries long on again off again persecution of Jews is over, that the holocaust was a wake up call to the world.   Indeed, right wing radicals in Europe tend to rail against Africans, Arabs and more prevalent minorities, though anti-semitism remains a part of their perverse nationalism.

If history teaches us anything, it’s that cultural baggage persists.   Despite the racist ideologies popular throughout Europe and the US in the early 20th Century, something like National Socialism would only be embraced when people were really desperate.  In 1928 the Nazis got only 3% of the vote and Hitler was a joke.   Then came the great depression, massive poverty, unemployment at near 40%, and a country riddled with internal conflicts and a dysfunctional government.

On the day before our Dachau visit, the European Union had EU Parliamentary elections.  These elections are viewed as rather meaningless by Europeans who often use EP elections to register protest votes.  Marine Le Pen’s racist National Front got nearly 25% of the vote, the first time it came in first in a French election.  Right wing radicals made gains in Denmark and Austria – but got only 1% of the vote in Germany.

Though she tries to sound less shrill, Marine Le Pen's National Front is built on the same kind of thinking that created National Socialism.

Though she tries to sound less shrill, Marine Le Pen’s National Front is built on the same kind of thinking that created National Socialism.

Now, throughout the West, we have to stay alert to racism and bigotry, be it against Latinos, gays, blacks, Jews, or any group signaled out because of their identity.  It may seem to be a harmless fringe, but given the right circumstance a harmless fringe can become a virulent cancer, destroying a society from within.  Unfortunately racism, anti-semitism, and bigotry remain part of the culture heritage of the West.   We should not tolerate it.

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  1. #2 by lbwoodgate on June 10, 2014 - 22:04

    The rise of the hard right is evident everywhere. Today Eric Cantor lost his Virginia congressional seat to a TeaParty backed candidate in a GOP primary in that state. If you can imagine, his opponent, Economics professor Dave Brat, considered Cantor too liberal, because Cantor appeared to be supporting immigration reform. All that anti-Obama trash talk of Cantor’s didn’t seem to satisfy the red-meat vitriol of the far right in his district. Some people simply refuse to move out of the 19th century.

  2. #3 by Dardis McNamee on February 19, 2016 - 09:02

    We in Vienna just wish the memorial at Judenplatz wasn’t itself so ugly — there is no transcendence of the tragedy here, just a flat-footed block of resentment, made to look like a library that isn’t one — impenetrable and cold. One would so wish for something more interactive, like the Theseus Temple in the Volksgarten that could have housed life and remembrance with a human face. And not become a blemish on one of the loveliest Baroque squares in the city already named in honor of the Jews, who helped build the city we know.

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