When I lived in Northern Germany in the late 1980s, I visited the Bergen-Belsen prisoner-of-war and concentration camp.
It was a drive of perhaps two hours from where I lived. And a pleasant one, too. The two-lane network of roads ran through open dairy and farmland – nothing so vast as you see here – but pretty. Well-tended. There were stands of forestland, and many small towns, each one very old and very, very neat.
One of the great mysteries of the 20th Century, at least to the countries of the Allied Forces who finally ended World War II was the fact that the general populace of Nazi Germany didn’t rise up against the terrible things Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party did in their names.
I talked to a lot of average Germans in my six years there. Nearly all of them that I worked with or knew socially were my own age or perhaps one generation removed – they’d either not been born during the Nazi regime or they’d been children. The older people – the ones who had been young and middle-aged adults during that time -- tended to be more aloof. Friendly, for the most part, but not terribly interested in engaging in conversation about the national shame.
Those who did talk with me about it assured me that they had not been members of the Nazi party. Instead, they were its victims.
One of the old jokes among the American personnel in Germany after the war was that you couldn’t find a Nazi there.
The younger people talked about it, once you got to know them. They didn’t understand their parents’ and grandparents’ actions, either, but they were tired of being made to be ashamed. They agreed that what their people, as a nation, had done was very, very bad, but they’d had no part in that. If the same situation were to occur again, they were sure they would never allow it.
Bergen and Belsen are two small towns separated by a kilometer or two in an area called the Lueneberger Heide, a large tract of heather-covered moor and forest land. All around it is farmland, with small patches of broadleaf forest to break things up. In the springtime, the wild heather blooms, covering the moor in great swaths of glorious, fragrant pink.
In between the two towns – each very quiet and very neat – is the site of the prison and concentration camp.
There was a small, white sign, easily missed, on the road to tell you where to turn to get there. That road ended in a small parking lot. A building under partial construction stood to one side – it would become a museum, and even then, you could go into the completed part and see exhibits of photos, each with an explanatory panel in German. I don’t recall seeing panels in English, but then my memory of that small building was quickly overwhelmed by what came after.
There are no crowds at Bergen-Belsen. Tucked into woodland, it’s very quiet. The day I visited, there were perhaps four other cars in the lot.
To enter the site where the camp had been, you passed through a low arch in a 30-foot-high wall that was completely covered in dark green ivy. Or perhaps it was laurel, I don’t know now. Just beyond it was what appeared at first glance to be quiet parkland, with a neat footpath running straight ahead. Trees bordered it, tall, unassuming.
I remember being a little surprised. My own understanding of the German camps didn’t jive with lush, green grass and parkland. I’d expected to see the low, long, pale-colored clapboard buildings in which the horribly emaciated inmates had been forced to live and die, stacked one on top of the other in hard, dark, bunk-like cots.
None of that existed here any longer.
Soon, though, I understood. Instead of to buildings, the footpath led to a vast open space, bordered by trees. In it were rows and rows of dreadfully neat, grass-covered mounds, each one faced with a low, gray cement headstone. On each one the number of bodies contained inside the mound was marked in bas-relief.
Each mound was about 20 feet wide and perhaps 50 long. Some were a little larger, some smaller.
At the far end of this vast place of unquiet death was a mourning wall and an obelisk. Small bouquets of flowers had been placed along the wall in spots. Some were fresh. Most were wilted, their bright colors fading.
There were no gas chambers at Bergen-Belsen. In the beginning, when the people died their bodies were burned in the crematorium, but later when the camp swelled to more than 15,000, the crematorium couldn’t keep up. Bodies were thrown into deep, open mass graves. They weren’t covered until the pit was full. As the war wound down to its end, the Allies pressing ever deeper into the countryside, the camp was flooded with prisoners from the other camps to the south in a vain attempt to keep them from being found.
Bergen-Belsen was overwhelmed with 60,000 people. Nearly all of them were in various stages of starvation. Nearly all were desperately ill with dysentery and other wasting diseases. There wasn’t enough food to feed them all, even badly, and each day dawned to more and more dead.
The German camp administrators couldn’t keep up with the bodies. The pits couldn’t be dug fast enough. Corpses were stacked aside for eventual burial and left to lie in the open.
The stench rising from this place, even before the war drew to an end, must have been overpowering.
And yet, the townspeople of Bergen and Belsen, those two quite nearby, neat little burgs, claimed they’d never known what was going on in the camp. They weren’t aware of the horror in their midst.
They were ... uninformed. Innocent. It wasn’t their responsibility.
The atrocities visited upon the Jewish people, the Russians, the gypsies, homosexuals, the mentally or physical disabled and many others by the Nazis during World War II caused the rest of the world to recoil in horror.
And in the years that followed, the men and women who’d participated in that shameful atrocity were condemned as war criminals, hunted down and tried.
The Jews, who’d endured the deaths of millions of their own at the hands of the brutal Nazi overlords said, “Never again.”
I was born 11 years after World War II ended. Like the rest of my generation, I grew up being told that Americans and our allies were heroes, and that the Nazis were evil monsters. I grew up hearing, internalizing, the words “Never Again.”
It was too bad that my German counterparts had to live with the shame of what their people had done before they were born. But I wasn’t sorry for them. To keep something like Bergen-Belsen from being repeated, the dark national shame they endured was a quiet, but firm, requirement.
And yet as I write this, my own country of heroes has turned Iraq into an abattoir of death. Led by liars, we have visited unspeakable horror and destruction upon the Iraqi people.
To make it easier to do, we call them insurgents, terrorists, ragheads, sand monkeys and Hadjis.
As of today, 39,000 to 44,000 Iraqi civilians – men, women and children -- have been killed in their own homes, their neighborhoods, their markets, their places of worship and their businesses, victims of American military intervention. Thousands upon thousands more have been injured and maimed for life.
We’ve also sent our own children and spouses, brothers and sisters to their violent deaths. As of today, we’ve brought two thousand five hundred and ninety-one American soldiers home in coffins. Thousands have been wounded and maimed.
America’s is a collective, insane bloodlust, a national shame.
And we’re not done. For the last month, Hizbollah, a terrorist organization in Lebanon – but also a part of that country’s democratically elected government – and Israel have been at war, firing rockets at one another and fighting a limited ground war as well. Israel, supplied with American aircraft and materiel, is also fighting an air war, sending jets with bombs and missiles to blow up suspected Hizbollah hiding places.
We’re rushing more armaments to them right now.
So far, many Israeli civilians and hundreds of Lebanese civilians have died violently in the conflict, which shows no sign of abating.
Indeed, since it began my own country, my America, has been an enthusiastic cheerleader for Israel as she bombs Beirut and other parts of Lebanon to smoking rubble. My American President, George W. Bush, refers to Hizbollah as “the Hizbos.”
America, my country, feels that this horror, this atrocity, this mass murder at a distance, is necessary for a “new Middle East.”
Whatever that is.
America holds prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba without trial or hope of release. We continue to enable and perpetuate a bloodbath in Iraq and stand by as that country collapses into a civil war we perpetuated. We shrug and turn our backs on poor, war-ravaged Afghanistan and we shake our heads, not very sadly, over the sad fact that hundreds of civilians dying horrific, violent deaths in Lebanon and Israel.
After all, there’s really nothing we can do about it. After all, most of the people who are dying are ragheads and Hadjis. They’re not really people.
The Nazis had a universal word for them. “Untermenschen.” Subhuman.
Really, we’re not responsible. We’re uninformed.
We go to work, we shop and play,we talk with our friends, we make love and we live our daily lives as if we have no personal accountability for what the leaders of our country are doing in our names. Never mind that like the good people of those little towns in Northern Germany, Bergen and Belsen, we have to hold our noses and breathe through our mouths to avoid smelling the stench.
When this latest holocaust finally ends and becomes an American national shame, I wonder if we’ll find any Bush supporters anywhere. Or whether, in 21st Century post-war America, we and our children, and their children’s children will all claim to be Bush victims.
Yet another wise and deep connection made, a result of your careful and intelligent analysis of world events. Unfortunately, as you point out, it's a connection too few Americans will make.
Such wise words are heard all the way in Tokyo.
Here via Tom Watson. Very nice piece of writing.
The same was said about Vietnam. "Never again." Dreams of a world-wide American empire have sunk this country into a deep dark place.
I agree. Wise words, nicely written. I don't know if things will ever truly change. As long as there are men driven by ego and ambition who benefit in some manner from war and chaos, they will continue to send younger men to kill and be killed, regardless of the predicted outcome. They are, by definition, sociopaths.
I feel the same as a Brit. Too few people seem to make the connection between the actions of our government and the regime our grandparents fought against. It is awful to think that my children and grand-children will have to live with the shame of what our generation allowed to happen.
Here also via Tom Watson.
Thank you Blue Wren. And of course, the same monster that gave us Bergen-Belsen, Dachau, Auswitch and more, lives still in each of us. It
feeds when we choose to demonize
those who are different. It grows
when we assume that 'our way' is
the only way.
It will die - in me personally - only when I am slain with the
Jewish carpenter from Nazareth.
Interesting writing, stunning and shunning humanity inside us all... Me here in India in my own lil cozy den but would know the wraths, the irony of pomp and splendour displayed.... The pain immense as I write this heart felt, feeling all empty and bitter.
I wish to thank you for your article. it is the web which will change the world operates, and it is always gratifying to find someone who insists on the direction of change. Thanks again. I would not wish my grandchildren to ask me why I stood by and did nothing after they read their generations version of the Buchenwald Report. Thanks again for the article, Jim
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