A Look into the Past–the Other Perspective

Having related all that is wonderful and good in Germany, I cannot overlook the unpleasant past and pretend it didn’t happen. This has probably been the hardest post to write.  How can I attempt to relate neutrally some of the darkest events in Germany’s and the world’s history?  Yet, to my surprise, when mentioning Flossenburg, some of the younger Germans didn’t know it was a concentration camp or even its location or existence. This lesser known camp was established in 1938.

While visiting Bavaria’s Oberpfalz, my hosts knew my interest in Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who had been vocal against the Nazi regime and was among those who were murdered in a concentration camp, the one at Flossenburg to be precise.   Because of  my interest and the openness of our conversations regarding past events, my hosts suggested a visit as it was not too far from their home.

We spent close to three hours at the camp exhibits  because of the tremendous amount of historical information.  Towards the end I couldn’t take much more of the horrific testimonies and had to leave.  My hosts who had visited the camp on previous occasions, had already gone outside and were waiting for me there.

We wandered  the camp grounds, where the barracks were located, the granite quarry, where inmates had been submitted to the cruelest form of hard labour, the graveyard, chapel  and crematorium.  Watchtowers at the four corners of the grounds, stood watch;  silent sentinels to the atrocities they witnessed in years past.

Chapel

Chapel

Incinerator 3 (Medium)

Watchtower and Crematorium

Watchtower and Crematorium

 This camp, initially quite small, was part of the SS’s reorganization of the camps system.  At first it was predominantly a camp for men  and a few women.  The numbers grew over the years although the number of women remained small in proportion to the male population.  The largest number of inmates came from Eastern European countries. In all  84,000 men and 16,000 women had been prisoners at Flossenburg and its sub-camps between 1938 and 1945.

Initially reserved for those considered “criminals” and asocial (i.e. Roma), it quickly included  German political dissidents,  spies and foreign prisoners of war. Here, close to 6,000 Germans who opposed Hitler’s regime were killed. This was news to me, and I’m not sure how many outside Germany are aware of the large number of Germans who paid with their lives for resisting the Nazi regime and were interned here and in other camps.  What I did know was that most of Germany was under the spell of Hitler but this apparently was not quite so. Commemorative stones, as the examples below, show the totals of those (in each  European country ans Russians) who were murdered just at Flossenburg alone.

5,964 Germans who died for freedom

5,964 Germans who died for freedom

1,693 Belgian Victims

1,693 Belgian Victims

When other camps overflowed, the small number of  Flossenburg camp prisoners started to swell into the thousands when the relocations took place. Flossenburg grew from 1,500 in 1938, to over 15,000 in the last year of the war.  1942 marked the arrival of Jewish prisoners to Flossenburg, as a result of transfers  from other concentration camps that  were being evacuated. Polish prisoners followed soon after.  As the camp could not contain the daily influx of prisoners, 25 sub-camps were created in the surrounding areas.

Flossenburg was used as a major profitable granite excavation, through the exploitation of backbreaking inhumane work of inmates. The quarry operations eventually made way for armaments production as the war progressed, and Messerschmitt transferred its operations to Flossenburg.

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Not to, in any way,  diminish the scale of human suffering and evil perpetrated by Hitler’s reign, it is important to  be aware of those Germans who vehemently opposed what was happening to their country and the inhumanity done to Jews and others in the concentrations camps (when news started leaking out).

Pastor Bonhoeffer had been one of the first to sound the alarm – well before Hitler came to power – warning that this man represented evil. He championed what became known as the confessing church, and opposed the many churches who had fallen under the spell of Hitler. Bonhoeffer, along with a number of pastors of the confessing churches, were eventually forbidden to preach or of holding any religious gatherings.  Many continued underground and risked being discovered. Some were and got murdered for it.

Bonhoeffer's Letter; 1st Report of Jewish Deportations

Bonhoeffer’s Letter; 1st Report of Jewish Deportations

Because of his privileged upbringing and his many connections, Bonhoeffer was able to report to Bishop Bell in Britain with whom he had cordial relations. Bonhoeffer had been sent by high-ranking officers and other influential people  opposed to the regime, to enlist the help of Churchill (through the intermediary of Bishop Bell).  They were hoping that by making Churchill aware of the German resistance movement, and by enlisting his help they might ward off the National Socialist madness and save Germany. Churchill wouldn’t hear of it, and the rest  is history.

As we know, there were several attempts on Hitler’s life; all unsuccessful. In the end, Bonhoeffer,  high-ranking officers, and anyone who had been part of the plot to kill Hitler, were found out, taken captive and executed at Flossenburg, after transfer from Buchenwald, Tegler and other camps. They were only a few among the many thousands of Germans who ended up in concentration camps, tried for treason and put to death.

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Many young Germans today carry the burden of their fathers and grandfathers.  Whether guilty or not, the world has sentenced the innocent along with the guilty. The present generation is keenly aware of their country’s dark and shameful past.  Some are hypersensitive and can’t or won’t talk about it. Others are open to share how it affects them and how they live under the constant  sense of judgment or criticism just for being German. Whenever they travel abroad, they invariably encounter,  and have come to expect, veiled references, comments or outright slurs.   These naturally don’t ease the shame they already feel for a still recent  past they didn’t have any part in and wish had never existed.

I try to put myself in their shoes and wonder how I would react if I were blamed or maligned for unspeakable crimes committed by my forebears.  Would it be just?  Or right?  It reminds me of my time in the war-torn areas of Eastern Africa and the tribal bloodshed that continues to this day,  because of the wrong committed by opposing tribes in centuries past.  Retribution is ongoing and of course remains fresh with each murderous act, perpetuating the cycles of violence and the hatred.  Fundamentally, I don’t believe we in the West are much different, although we may civilly  cloak it as something else to justify our own resentment, prejudice or hatred.

All in all, the visit to Flossenburg concentration camp was an eye-opener, surprising in many ways and of course deeply disturbing and depressing. It was a sobering perspective into the other, less known, side of the massacres.  Nevertheless, it will in no way erase the reality of a reign of terror and atrocities against Jews first, and then against Germans, and other nations who stood up to Hitler’s Reich.

In July I’ll be visiting family and friends in Canada, and migth post some impressions of how Calgarians, and Albertans in general, are rebuilding after the ravages of the flood disaster.

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10 thoughts on “A Look into the Past–the Other Perspective

  1. …should not be easy to write or read such an article…glad you did…it is good for the heart and the mind to expand…Ich danke schön. (CA)

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  2. A well-written reminder of evil: those who suffered, those who resisted, and those today who have such a mixed connection to ‘their” past. The complex problems of hatred and fear and the evil that is done in their name…… And yet somehow, Jesus’ call to love our enemies, to work for reconciliation and justice- never easy, but so profoundly essential. (CA)

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    • Thank you. Yes, therein lies the rub; to love our enemies and strive for reconciliation even in the face of evil. Jesus’ call didn’t make this optional and only in divine strength is such possible.

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  3. Thank you Rosemary. I just finished “The Devil’s Arithmetic” by Jane Yolen about a “work” camp. To remember is good. To act, even now, is good. My question for myself is what can I do, here and now, to stop the atrocities still going on in other countries? I have so much respect for what you did in Sudan for Darfur refugees. Please let’s visit when you come to Vancouver. I feel much too small to solve the world’s problems or even save one life, but yet there must be something I can do with the gifts I have, especially my writing. (CA)

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    • You’re welcome. All this is indeed bigger than ourselves. I found that just opening my heart brought possibilities on my path. Your writing is a gift as you rightly stated and with that desire, divine opportunities are bound to manifest themselves. Unfortunately I won’t be in Vancouver this year but would love to visit when I do.

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  4. We are all part of this human race. The brutal legacy of Hitler may be closest to the surface of our western memories, but despicable crimes perpetrated on each other continue today. Have we really learned from the past? How do we help address the suffering happening now? I think remembering and honouring heros like Bonhoeffer is so very important. I ask myself what would I have done had I lived in Hitler’s time. Would I have been swept up in the propaganda, fear and hate, or would I have been like Bonhoeffer? My choices in our time will be that test. Thank you R for you thought provoking words. (CA)

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    • I”ve asked myself the same question, what would I have done, and what would I do now should we be faced with a similar situation? I’m not so sure that I wouldn’t let myself be swayed by the sentiments of the moment. Thank you for your comments.

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  5. A very sad story but true. There are still a lot of reminders in Germany and Europe of that terrible time. German people are ashamed and not proud of it. The world will have to forgive since the ordinary citizens had no idea that this was going on. There was a lot of resistance of Hitler’s regime, but too bad none of them succeded to remove him from power at that time. Being of a German background I feel sad and bad for myself and the young German generation being reminded of this terrible time, but it is the German history. (CA-DE)

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