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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.