We stayed overnight in Weimar. It was the home of Goethe, and compared to Munich and Berlin it was a small out of the way place. The city is, however, quite beautiful. Nearby is the Buchenwald Concentration Camp. Part of my education on this trip was learning about the larger atrocities of the Nazis, and the system they employed to carry it out. For example, the death camps were outside of Germany. That isn’t to say many people did not die in these camps—they did—but the gas chambers associated with the Holocaust were housed elsewhere. Additionally, the camps weren’t constructed only for Jewish people. This camp was built primarily for Soviet prisoners. The worst areas of the camp, however, were reserved for Jews.
Today these spaces are maintained at the public expense. Every school-aged child will visit a concentration camp once during their education. Every soldier will revisit one of these sites as part of their training. The sites are free to visitors, and most hold archives for scholarly research. I have argued elsewhere that Germany’s approach to the horrors of their history may explain their ability to more capably address them. (An approach to history that I think America has not managed.)
I can’t really capture what it felt like to walk through this place. This is partly due to the natural beauty of the place. The camp is slightly elevated allowing it to overlook the valley below. The lush valley it overlooks is now dotted with wind turbines, but the beauty is undiminished. The decision to build a camp here was deliberate. This is the heart of the old Weimar Republic, which the Nazis despised. For those imprisoned here the beautiful vistas of their surroundings only deepened their sense of despair. It was the type of psychological trauma that the Nazis excelled in.
There were two moments where the weight of the place was most present. The first was a specially designed space to execute Soviet soldiers. It was made to look like a normal doctor’s office. They would bring in prisoners for what seemed like routine medical exams. After a few routine tests, they would take the prisoner to record their height. When the captured soldier placed their back against the wall, an SS officer, positioned on the reverse side of the wall, would position a gun in a concealed hole in the wall and murder the prisoner with a bullet to the back of the head. The prisoners had no idea of what was coming, no time to resist, no time to prepare. The exam space was constructed with a hose ready at hand. They would clean the exam space ready for the next unsuspecting prisoner. Next door were four incinerators to efficiently deal with the remains. The precision of the design is chilling.
The second moment was in a museum on the site. It was filled with items from the camp. One room was filled the clothing of the camp prisoners. There was a handy chart for the various patches the Nazis used to identify the reason the prisoner was being held. A red triangle for communists, a pink triangle for homosexual men, two triangles, one inverted, to create a Star of David. Another room was filled with furniture the SS officers forced the prisoners to build. The prisoners were quite accomplished, and the officers homes must have been handsomely furnished. Another space was filled with the bowls abandoned when the camp was liberated. Something about all those empty bowls put the scope of the camp in perspective. It was just room after room of human suffering.
But the case the really got me—the one I still think about—was a case holding a few children’s toys. Simple toys. A wooden horse. A painted tree. Evidence of parents doing their best to provide something, anything for their children. I’m writing this almost a year after my visit, and the tears well up. I don’t want to be maudlin. The evil of the holocaust speaks in a thousand ways, many more horrific than this. Cognitively I know that this was not the worst scene I had encountered on this day, but in that moment the camp was no longer an empty field. It was alive and horrible. People trying to stay alive. An attempt to provide joy for children in a world where joy was systematically, efficiently erased.
How do you convince people to perpetrate such evil? How do you scale it up from the few to the many? I don’t know. I think it must start with dehumanization, and, if unchecked or, more disturbingly, if carefully exploited, it ends in a place like Buchenwald. I think about this when I read the news and when I read social media. My twitter feed worries me. Current political policy worries me. We are not 1930s Germany. To paraphrase Timothy Synder history does not repeat itself. The Holocaust will not happen again. The next atrocity will not map neatly onto the pattern of the past, but it will result from a failure to learn from it.