On Auschwitz

October 2015

Auschwitz Birkenau concentration camp

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.

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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 side effects on how we look at people in general. Aus­chwitz, beside other places, has a nagging, not exactly com­fort­able message for us: We’re prob­ably not good by default. Civil­iz­a­tion is fragile. Optim­ism is healthy, but so is a certain scep­ti­cism.