On Auschwitz

October 2015

Auschwitz Birkenau concentration camp - be quiet!

A few weeks after returning from Poland (dzień dobry!) I’m still thinking about Auschwitz from time to time. Normally I’d have written a blog post, but this time I was hesitating. Everything has been said about Auschwitz and most of what I’m reflecting about probably has been written before many times. So be it. My apologies if these personal notes aren’t adding anything new for you.

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Contrary to my – possibly naive – expectations, I wasn’t fully prepared for what I saw in Auschwitz. A historian with a focus on National Socialism, I had visited various concentration camps and other Nazi related locations in Germany and Austria before. But Auschwitz is different, indeed.

In his Hitler biography, Ian Kershaw describes how invading Poland marked a change in momentum for National Socialism. Already a horrendous dictatorship, Germany started establishing an eliminatory infrastructure in Poland that was unimaginable at the time.

Today, most of the former concentration camps in Auschwitz is well-preserved; walking through Auschwitz I and Birkenau is an intense, unambiguous experience that has no equivalent in Germany.

One thought that struck me underway and I’m worried it might sound banal: Reading books is no substitute for going to these places. Being there widens the sensorial input – smells, wind, heat, silence, the perception of scale, what visitors whisper to each other. It all helps to form a more comprehensible picture.

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The human imaginative power is not good when it comes to scale – we understand scale best when looking at it in real. I was reminded of this when I walked into Auschwitz-Birkenau and started overlooking the “ramp” area along the incoming railway track. Labeling Auschwitz a “camp” sounds somewhat misleading. It resembles a vast, primitive industrial zone. Experiencing this kind of purpose-built scale is particularly depressing.

Scale comes in again when standing in front of the former gas chambers. The SS tried to blow up the underground buildings shortly before the Red Army arrived at Auschwitz, but the collapsed concrete ceilings are still clearly recognizable. It makes a difference to know the size of the gas chambers or to see them with one’s own eyes. They’re so big, calling them “chambers” seems inappropriate. They’re halls.

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It is fascinating and sad at the same time to watch young people explore the museum in Auschwitz I. Many rush through the rooms, only barely looking at the exhibits, as if they’d fear the horror could reach out and grab their jackets.

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Mentioning the visit to Auschwitz put a few conversations with fellow Germans on hold. There’s a brief moment of silence, followed by something like “Ach” or “OK.” Then silence again. I find this remarkable because of all Germans who live today, only very few are left who are guilty in the strict sense of the word. Most who were are dead by now. We could just talk.

At the same time Auschwitz remains a powerful, charged symbol; if you followed the heated debates about Greece’s financial crisis you surely stumbled upon references to Germany’s Nazi past. Instead of being easily offended or anxious we’d rather take a deep breath and join the conversation. It will last for decades to come and putting it aside won’t help.

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From a historical perspective, Europe’s nation states have an abysmal track record as peacekeepers. Nation states simply never worked well in Europe when being left to themselves.

The visionary politicians who pushed for Europe’s unification beginning in the early 50’s all had WW2 and the Holocaust in mind. From their perspective even a loose federation with imperfections and trade-offs was a splendid deal compared to an outdated model of nation states unwilling to see a bigger picture.

Today taking cheap shots at the EU is almost a ritual for politicians. Shame on them. A peace machine that worked so well has deserved a little bit more love.

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Experiencing a place like Auschwitz has, of course, side effects on how we look at people in general. Auschwitz, beside other places, has a nagging, not very comfortable message for us: We’re not good by default. Civilization is fragile. Skepticism is healthy.

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On my way back to the entry gate of Auschwitz-Birkenau, I turned right to the former women’s camp where a few barracks are open for visiting. A blurred, historical sign on a wall caught my eye:

“Sei ruhig!” (“Be quiet!”)

The most absurd two words I’ve read in a long time.