While waiting for the bus from the train station to Sachsenhausen, I got to overhear a guide for another group discuss the roots of the Holocaust and of Nazism, talking about what is meant by being a German--who counts and who does not count as us and them. The guide made reference to other stuff around the world including millions of Muslims in camps in China, the rise of white nationalism here and yon. One does not need reminders of the contemporary relevance of this stuff, but he expressed it well. The last time I visited a concentration camp was in 1987--Dachau--when Neo-Nazis were mostly a joke, when one could hardly imagine them hanging out in the White House or being amplified (retweeted) by the President. So, yes, this was a huge dose of perspective sauce. While I consider myself well-educated about the Holocaust, I still learned much along the way, in part because this particular camp was less focused on killing Jews and more on dealing all kinds of people selected by the Nazis for punishment--Jews, of course, but also Christian clergy, politicians, dissidents, intelligentsia, Sinti and Roma, people with disabilities, homosexuals, and more.
One of the first things I noticed is the herds and herds of student groups. Visits to a concentration camp seem to be required for German kids. This is part of a larger trend--Germany facing its past in ways that the Japanese do not do so much.
The second thing to notice was most strange: there was an SS camp next to the concentration camp to train camp guards in all kinds of stuff, like how to use dogs, how to run the gas chambers, etc. What is it now? A police academy! That kind of made me a bit sick, but the police are more than a little aware of this so note the sign they put up:
Sachsenhausen was built the same time as the Berlin Olympics, mostly to house political dissidents. Indeed, the Nazis, as they competed for political office before 1933, promised to build concentration camps for those undermining German society. They did, indeed, start such camps within months of winning their first election. And, damn, if that didn't cause some echoes like "lock them up" and kids in cages.
The Nazis hired an architect who thought triangles were cool, although he got fired when they eventually realized that his structures made it hard to expand:
They originally had three guardposts on each corner of the triangle with the guardpost A at the base of the triangle above the gate. While much of the site was destroyed or abandoned after after the war (more on that below) which meant not much remains of the original buildings, the gate remains:
There are very few barracks remaining with rectangles of pebbles and stones to mark where they were:
To be clear, Sachsenhausen was not a death camp--it did not have industrialized murder apparatus. They killed mostly at small scales via forced labor, brutal conditions (open windows in winter, closed windows in summer), overcrowding (designed for 6k, reached 50k), individual murders. As time went on, they faced pressures to kill more. So, a key innovation that I had never heard of before was the neck shot. Apparently, it was stressful to shoot people who know they are about to die--they yell, cry, run, scream, etc. So, the SS innovated by creating a room where an individual would line up to have their height measured and behind the height measuring equipment, there would be space for a person in the room next door to shoot. So, that is how they managed to kill 10,000 Soviet prisoners of war in a short period of time. See the space between the two vertical posts in the picture to the right--that is where the shot would come from.
They eventually build a gas chamber at station Z (as in A is where you enter, Z is where you leave). The camp was liberated by the Soviets and then turned into a camp for those the Soviets wanted to imprison. After that, they turned it over to the East Germans who started to destroy parts of the camp, including station Z. Protestors got this to stop, but as a result, Station Z only has the foundation left:
|Art and flowers mark Station Z|
|This is what is left of the gas chamber.|
|Only the bases of the crematoria ovens remain|
|This is what it looked like before the East Germans blew it up.|
What else did I learn?
- That there were not many Jews here until Kristallnacht, that the camp was most devoid ofJews from 1942 to 1944 after Auschwitz and other death camps were functioning. Things changed towards the end of 1944 as subcamps were being closed and consolidation happened as the Nazis lost territory.
- I thought medical experiments only happened in a few camps, but they were pretty much in all of the camps.
Super-soldiers this was not. Partly coke/meth experiments for keeping soldiers, sailors and pilots awake. Some disease stuff to see what causes stuff to spread. Most notable were the ten or so kids pulled out of Auschwitz and sent here for these experiments--they survived the camp and the war and several met up at the 50th anniversary of the liberation.
- Neo-Nazis arsoned one of the remaining barracks, the one marking the Jewish experience, shortly after Yitzhak Rabin visited in 1992. They repaired the facility but kept the arson damage and folded it into the history.
- Less than 5% of the perpetrators were sent to jail. They had a great display that juxtaposed the perpetrators and the victims in the gate house:
- They had a prison inside the camp for those who they wanted to keep away from the rest of the camp--because they were leaders who might stir things up, for instance. Including the guy responsible for one of the classic lines regarding the onset of oppression.
- There is a big memorial created by the Soviets, but notice that it only has red triangles (for political prisoners including communists) and notice that the Soviet liberator seems to be helping very healthy Russian types.
We live in dangerous times. Maybe this stuff here won't happen again, but there are those out there who are minimizing the past in part to legitimate it and to legitimate hate against Jews, LGBTQ, non-whites, and pretty much whoever is convenient. A reminder that it has happened before is necessary now more than in a long time. Humans are capability of great cruelty.