We touched a metal plaque placed in the ground just before we left the Buchenwald memorial. The ambient temperature was 14 degrees Celsius. There was a light breeze.
The guide asked us why the plaque was warm. We didn’t know. After listening to our silence, he told us there was a heating system below the plaque. And that it kept the temperature of the metal at 37 degrees.
He asked, “why 37 degrees?” We answered, “body temperature.” He asked, “why body temperature?” We answered, “to remember those who died there.”
He was glad we got it. He elaborated. “The Nazis (1) who ran the camps systematically dehumanized their captives. They wanted to erase the inmates and their treatment from our memories. Therefore, we must never forget them. And we must be alert that it never happens again.”
The inmates were dehumanized by having their names replaced by numbers. They were dehumanized by being wilfully shown that severe punishment was awarded to those who harmed animals, but no action was taken against any who harmed the inmates. They were dehumanized by being used for experiments and discarded like lab rats. And in so many other ways.
Most of the guards at Buchenwald and other camps were SS guards. “SS” is the abbreviation of the German Schutzstaffel, which means “protection squadron.” The SS was a paramilitary organization. Its members were volunteers.
They were recruits who were usually eighteen years old when they arrived, after two years of training.
Why did they volunteer? Why did they torture and murder men and women old enough to be their grandparents?
The guide said the volunteers believed and acted on the “propaganda” which said that those in the camps deserved to be there and to be treated inhumanely. This was encapsulated in a text on the inside of the gate to the camp which the inmates faced when they assembled for roll-counts. The text read “to each what he deserves.”
The guide added that the volunteers took pride in being noticed positively while in uniform and enjoyed the relatively good pay and perks.
The guide spoke of the massive construction activity undertaken to build the camp on a hill forested with beach trees (2), the logistics of moving people and supplies in and out of the camp, and the recreation time SS men spent in nearby Weimar.
He said this made implausible the claims of the people of Weimar that they didn’t know what was going on in Buchenwald.
The guide suggested why some inmates endured for long in the camps, even survived them. He said it was faith, in the case of Pastor Paul Schneider, about whom I wrote extensively ten years ago (3). Schneider survived 15 months before he was martyred. For others, it was their political beliefs.
We learned much more today, I won’t go into it. I’ll just say that based on the tone of voice the guide used to instruct us, and his overall presentation, the Nazi era is a national burden in Germany.
How could the scale of inhumanity be so great? How could their ancestors have done such things? How could they have stood by and done nothing to stop it?
The guide was clearly thinking about failures in handing out justice. He spoke of some businesses which exploited the “free labour” in Buchenwald (4) and made huge profits. He pointedly said that many never made reparations. And that many victimizers were never punished.
Hitler’s party was the National Socialist Party. Its ideology was fascist, which means rule by a dictator and relentless, violent suppression of criticism and resistance. Its members are commonly called Nazis.
Buchenwald was liberated by the Americans. This is symbolized by the clock placed at the entrance to Buchenwald. The clock is stopped at 3:15 pm. It’s the time at which it was liberated, on 11 April 1945.
After negotiations over how Germany should be governed concluded, the Americans surrendered Buchenwald to the Soviets. The Soviets, and the East German government which they established, operated Buchenwald as a camp for prisoners of war and for opponents of the government.
The Americans put ranking Nazis on trial but didn’t act against small fry Nazis. The Soviets/East Germans, had no tolerance for anyone who might even remotely be a fascist. They rounded up the small fry and put them in Buchenwald and other camps, where abuses continued.
It’s probably true to say that any Nazi who remained in East Germany was punished (even if not given a fair trial) and that the same cannot be said about Nazis in West Germany. This is just like the different treatment meted out in the two Koreas to Koreans who joined the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II.
How are we to judge how people behave during wars?
According to one estimate, the Nazi regime was responsible for murdering 17 million people? These comprised Jews, Soviet civilians, Soviet Prisoners of War, Polish civilians, and more. Statista.
If we make excuses for Nazi-era Germans, can we be justly critical of people in fascist countries today? Should we turn back refugees? Should we urge them to return and resist? Would we do the same if it was us and our families?
How about the people of Russia, re. the war on Ukraine? How about the people of Afghanistan, re. the repression of women and children by the Taliban? How about the people of China, re. the suppression of Uighurs? How about the people of Myanmar …?
A poster caught my attention today in Erfurt. Some Germans are protesting about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Is this a sign that Germans are more likely than other nations to protest this invasion? Is the German psyche (if there is such a thing as “national psyche”) different from than the psyches of the citizens of other nations? Should churches respond? How?
Today our guide in Erfurt did a dramatic thing when he took us to the Augustinian monastery at which Martin Luther enrolled as a monk. He guide knocked on the door, just as Luther must have. And he told us about Luther’s sense of guilt and need for cleansing.
He told us Luther, to express his penitence and longing for God, used to lie outstretched on the floor in front of the altar. He lay on a man-sized plaque which commemorates the Dominican monk who was responsible for the death of Jan Huss, whose Bohemian surname means “goose.” (5)
He told us that Jan Huss, just before he was burned at the stake, prophesied: “You are now going to burn a goose, but in a century, you will have a swan which you can neither roast nor boil.” (Luther Press)
Are only some called to be goose and swans? Or is it a general calling? Is anyone called to be a martyr today, like Paul Schneider and Jan Huss? How many Christian martyrs can we name? How about non-Christian martyrs? Any in Malaysia?
End of Day 5 of Luther Study Trip.
Note 1. At the beginning of the tour, the guide referred to “National Socialists.” Gradually, he switched to “Nazis.”
Note 2. Buchenwald means “beach forest.”
Note 3. This is the first of 14 posts I wrote about Paul Schneider.
Note 4. Inmates were moved to satellite camps adjacent to factories and forced to work in them. In exchange, the SS received about 2 million marks per month. This was a fortune in those days.
Note 5. I’ve read several book-length biographies of Luther. I’ve not read about the Dominican plaque. I do find it odd that a tribute to a Dominican is found in an Augustinian enclave. My sole source is the guide. I’m aware that the goose/swan account is found in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and nowhere else.