Day 5: Weimar and Buchenwald


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.)

Buchenwald Skyline.jpg

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.

Buchenwald Toys.jpg

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.

Daily Stats

Steps Taken

  • 11,221

Day 4: Nuremberg


Nuremberg is a short day trip from Munich. Like all of Germany its history is layered. The medieval town is beautiful. The churches, cathedrals, and squares are enough to make anyone stop in for a visit. They're famous for the sausages, and as the home of the 16th century artist Albrecht Durer. The city was an important center of the Holy Roman Empire and the German Renaissance. It loaned its name to the Nuremberg laws which systematically denied the rights of Jews, the Nazi rallies famously recorded in the film Triumph of the Will, and the location of the Nuremberg trials which held some Nazi leaders accountable for their actions after the war. 

Nuremberg Rallies, 1937.

Nuremberg Rallies, 1937.

We went for a bit of it all. You've probably seen some of the places we visited. The Zeppelin Field is the site of the famous Nuremberg rallies. The rallies, like the architecture, were massive in scale. The rallies were recorded in the film Triumph of the Will, and often when someone wants invoke the image of the Nazi past you'll see an image of the rallies. (If you've seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens, they are deliberately invoking these images as well.)

Visiting the site is eery. And yet I love the way the Germans present their history. The site wasn't torn down. Instead they are slowly letting nature destroy the site. Grafitti adorns with walls with the message, "Never Again." The Germans have made a deliberate attempt to remember their history, but to do it in a way that demonstrates their rejection of it. There is a refusal to forget or deny their past, instead they present it in a way that helps them chart a different future.

This visit, however, was only part of the day. After lunch it was a trip through the medieval city's past. If you're interested, check out the images below..

Daily Stats

Steps Taken

  • 24,266

Sausages Eaten

  • Approximately 9

Locations mentioned in Frankenstein

  • 1

NEH Day 3: The Eagle's Nest and Hitler's House

The Eagles Nest.jpg

It’s difficult to describe the events of our third day in Germany. Our destination, the Eagle’s Nest, is a contradiction. It is a place of undeniable beauty where some of the most horrific events of the the 20th century were planned. A tea house, built as a birthday present for Hitler, overlooks the present day Austrian border. At the summit of Kehlstein mountain, it provides breathtaking vistas of the valley some 6,000 feet below. In the morning Nazi leaders hiked through these pleasant vistas and then casually organized the disenfranchisement and subsequent murder of an entire population over afternoon tea. The weight of this place is heavy. Beauty and genocide nestled uncomfortably together. These inconsistencies alone would be enough to make this place weird, but the subsequent years have added another equally peculiar layer. These places of beauty and horror are now a place for tourists from the four corners of the world. Busses, elevators, and hiking paths lead people to this engineering anomaly in the foothills of the Alps. At the top one finds a restaurant where travelers can enjoy traditional Bavarian fare. I ate a mediocre sausage while my colleagues enjoyed a hearty bowl of potato soup in the place where Hitler formally sat. The Eagle's Nest is not a shrine, nor is it a museum. The local government wouldn't allow that. Nor is this place simply commercial kitsch. It is a place of beauty, curiosity, and deep historical significance that many want to see. And where the crowds come so does the industry. Of course when sublime landscapes, genocide, and commercialism intersect it is easy for one to become disoriented.

Germany tries to manage the contradictions with care. A few hundred feet below the Eagle's Nest lies the ruins of Hitler’s house, the Berghof. It could easily be another beacon for tourists, but it isn't. Not wanting a shrine, the Germans blew the house up after the war and they don't include its locations on any of the local maps. Finding it isn't impossible, but it required some hiking, a few wrong turns, and a trek off the beaten path. A few of us decided it was worth the search.

When we found the house's ruins, we weren't alone. A handful of other explorers had made the same journey. The space was quiet, and the half dozen others spoke in whispers. There was a family with their elementary age son climbing over the ruins. An old man held court whispering his thoughts to a few interested listeners. One woman had a camping chair, a novel, and a picnic. Who has a picnic on the ruins of Hitler's house? In the tunnels underneath the home we found swastikas and other neo-Nazi graffiti. At the house itself we found a small shrine made from recycled cans and small candles. Displaying nazi symbols is illegal in Germany, and my understanding is that the local population has no patience with white supremacists seeking to worship at the altar of Hitler. Open adoration of Hitler has consequences. Maybe that is why everyone was whispering. I wondered were these the the type of people to set up shrines to the fallen Nazi party? I don’t know. I do, however, feel safe assuming that they wondered the same about us. This is the concern in the modern world. The hate that inspired the Nazis is not dead, but most people are unwilling to erect a shrine or carry a tiki torch and advertise their hate. In times like these I couldn't help but wonder who was there to celebrate the downfall of the Hitler and who was there pining for his return.   

Daily Stats


  • Eagle's Nest
  • Tunnels under Hotel Turken
  • Hitler's House
  • Documentation Museum
  • A train station restaurant with the best pork chops this side of Austria.

Steps Taken

  • 14,740

Delicious Meals

  • 1

NEH Day 2: The Fairy Tale Castle

Our second day in Munich started with a trip the the Haus Der Kunst. On the way to the museum we stumbled across the perpetual wave that Munich's surfers have been riding for years. It's bizarre to find in the middle city, but pretty cool. The Haus der Kunst was a museum built by Hitler to hold art he considered truly German. The famous "degenerate art" exhibition, the one where Hitler displayed all art that he considered symptomatic of the degenerate nature of inferior races and ideologies, was housed not far from here. Perhaps unsurprisingly most of the items Hitler considered real art have faded from history, while the degenerate art continues to be taught. (Check out Kandinsky to see the type of art Hitler hated.) In what I am discovering is typical German fashion, the Haus der Kunst continues as a museum but now it houses the type of art that Hitler despised.  It seems the Germans find as many ways as possible to demonstrate the utter defeat of the Nazis. They don't deny their past or hide it. Instead, they find ways to subvert the ideology and demonstrate their rejection of it.

After a morning in the Haus der Kunst we split up to check out items in line with our personal research. Nicole, a fellow Humanities professor, and I set off for Neuschwanstein Castle. It's approximately a two-hour train ride from Munich to a town called Fussen. The train ride alone was worth it. Winding through the Bavarian country-side, we had continual vistas of the approaching Alps. Beyond the scenery, proving that I could navigate the German train system was a bit of a personal victory. It shouldn't be. The train system is super easy and I am a middle-aged man with advanced degrees. But I'll take my victories where I can find them.

The Castle itself is a bit of an oddity. It was built in the 19th-century, with an exterior that has earned it the moniker, the Fairytale Castle. (You may find the academic types in your life using a word like simulacrum to describe places like Neuschwanstein. The idea is it is an image of a preferred past, that never really existed. Its kind of like how places like Celebration, Florida invoke an image of the 1950s, but its image of the 50s is based on a romantic vision of a history that never really existed. Simulacrum is a good word and a good theoretical principle. Plus using it makes you sound smart. Speaking of Disney, Walt based Sleeping Beauty's castle on Neuschwanstein.) The castle's builder, King Ludwig II was a relatively unimportant king with relatively little power. Pulled in multiple directions by his stronger neighbors, he spent his time indulging his fantasies including this castle. It was never finished, but what remains is breath-taking.

After exiting the train and guessing at which bus would get us closer to the castle, Nicole and I found the right spot. Which is to say we found ourselves at the bottom of the mountain looking for another bus to take us about half way up. We never found it. But we did find a lovely horse-drawn carriage which we shared with a group of Asian tourists. We didn't speak the same language, but we were equally interested in the architectural peculiarity sitting at the top of the hill and equally uninterested in the more arduous option of hiking up the mountain. We didn't have time to go in the castle. (It was about a two-hour wait for tickets.) But the interior is not the reason to see Neuschwanstein. We did hike around a bit and find Mary's Bridge with views of the castle that are unmatched. If you ever go, take the time to hike to the bridge. It's worth it. You can also check out the pictures below.

Final note: Neuschwanstein reminds me that little in Germany (or perhaps nothing) escapes the shadow of the Nazi past. Neuschwanstein was used to hide many of the art works the Nazis stole from Jewish families. Over 20,000 stolen works of art were hidden here.

Daily Stats

  • Places
    • Neuschwanstein
    • Haus der Kunst
    • Munich Surfers
  • Steps Taken-15,601
  • Trains Taken- 4
  • Horse Draw Carriage Rides- 1

NEH Germany 2018: Day 1- Munich

A door in Munich

This year I was selected to travel to Germany and the Czech Republic as part of the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute. This grant was awarded to Valencia years ago, and, as the initial gift was very generous, it now provides an endowment for yearly educational opportunities that are unique in my academic experience. Every year an internal director (read: Valencia faculty member) works in collaboration with an outside scholar to design a series of readings, seminars, and travel intended to enhance a professor's pedagogy. In addition to enhancing their own courses faculty develop projects intended for use by their colleagues. This year's trip was hybrid in nature. Much of the organized material focused on the Holocaust, while faculty members were provided space to pursue other academic interest specific to their courses. 

The Holocaust focus was led by Dr. Michael Savage. Savage spent 35 years in the British military, most of that time as part of a special forces unit. During that time he earned his MA and then his PhD focusing on the Holocaust and genocide. While the British military makes space for academic study, Savage had to petition his commanding officer to study the Holocaust. Normally the military encourages academic pursuits that are specific to military history or readiness. Savage's argument was that the Nazi genocide provides a pattern behavior. Studying this pattern can help us identify (and perhaps prevent) potential disasters. This was not a skill the average enlisted man or woman possessed, and, as Savage had spent time in Rwanda, Sarajevo, and Darfur, he believed the knowledge was relevant and necessary. I tell you this, because Savage is unique. His practical experience alone would be enough to qualify him as someone worth a few minutes of your time, but he is also a top notch scholar. You know the kind of scholar reserved for research universities and endowed chairs. I could be more effusive in my praise, but let me say quite simply, I was impressed.

The other portion of this hybrid trip (i.e. my faculty research) is varied. I teach everything from Intro to Humanities, to ancient humanities, to humanities stuff that happened yesterday. Germany and the Czech Republic has all that. From top notch museums in Berlin, to concentration camps in Weimar, to Luther's home in Wittenberg, to witnessing the aftermath of communism on the people and cultures of Western and Eastern Europe. Additionally, I am interested in how we treat one another. How do you convince neighbors to pick up machetes and murder their neighbors like we saw in Rwanda, or to convince police to line up women and children for execution over graves they had dug for themselves? In other words, what systematic approaches of dehumanization must one take to convince people to accept the mass killing of fellow human beings? Of course this assumes that a systematic approach is even necessary.

So that's where I've been for two weeks--in Germany learning about one of the darkest moments of the 20th century. But why write this blog? Simple answer: somewhat like Everest it is there. I have a bunch of pictures and a penchant for babbling on a bit, so why not put it on the internet? Additionally, I have stopped using facebook, instagram, twitter, google+, myspace, and all the rest of the social media universe for the moment, and yet I still want to share portions of my life with friends and family. Call me a special snowflake, I don't mind.

This blog has no pretensions to literary greatness, nor a desire to be witty, ironic, satirical or even poignant. It is amorphous and will take shape according to its own will, assuming of course that I actually follow through and complete it. The only goal is that I will go through the trip chronologically, sharing images and thoughts from each day. It is intended primarily for friends and family who want to know what I have been doing with myself. And it should have a lot of amateurish photos and selfies. So enjoy.

Therefore, without further ado here are some pictures from my first day.