Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Question Of Collective Guilt

Joshua and I have been discussing, in gruesome detail, the question of German collective guilt for the crimes and horrors of World War II. Every time I travel to Germany, these unpleasant issues reassert themselves, and I have been pondering these matters for the last two weeks and more.

Of course, I do not approach individual Germans and inquire "And what did YOUR ancestors do during the war? Man the ovens? Manufacture Zyklon B?"

Nevertheless, it is always in the back of my mind, the entire time I am in Germany, that evil and unspeakable events occurred in the country not much more than sixty years ago, and that these events occurred during the adult lifetimes of my own grandparents, a time reference I can easily relate to.

At what point in time are the sins of the fathers expiated on behalf of younger generations? That is the question I always ask myself, and of course I do not know the answer to that question. However, my instinct tells me that the issue of collective guilt for the German populace continues to this day, and that this issue should and will go forward for many, many years to come.

Naturally, Germans, of any age, do not want to face this issue. Germans born after the war, certainly, by and large refuse to accept any responsibility for the events that preceded their births. Germans born during the war, or Germans born before the war but too young to have participated in the war's prosecution, are prone to treat the war years as a closed matter, as a moot subject unworthy of further discussion.

But this is not a moot subject, and it may never be a moot subject. And Germans have done themselves no favors in the manner in which they have addressed--or failed to address--the war years. Several examples of this were on conspicuous display in Hamburg.

The public transportation network in and around Hamburg is as fine as any in the world. Nonetheless, the former concentration camp right outside Hamburg--Neuengamme--is not easily accessible via public transport. In fact, it is very difficult to travel to Neuengamme without renting an automobile, as Neuengamme is not part of Hamburg's excellent train network but is only served by very infrequent bus service. The Neuengamme Concentration Camp's hours of operation--hours in which it is open to the public--are constrained and, further, these hours of operation conflict with the hours of bus service to Neuengamme, which do not substantially overlap each other. It seems as if the Hamburg authorities have deliberately made it difficult for interested persons to visit Neuengamme. From my research, most visitors to Neuengamme are Americans, and American visitors clearly learn about Neuengamme from American sources, not from German sources in Hamburg, where little published information is made available, either in English or in German. There are scant references to Neuengamme in literature distributed by the Hamburg Tourist Authority.

Even in the center of Hamburg, however, it is near-impossible for visitors or residents to encounter remnants of the city's former Jewish population without actively seeking out the handful of small plaques and markers that are mostly confined to the former Jewish area of the city.

Virtually the entire Jewish population of Hamburg was slaughtered during the war. Much of Hamburg's former Jewish population lived in a beautiful part of the city known as Rothenbaum, near the University. However, there are very few public reminders of this fact in this area of Hamburg. Only in the 1980's was a plaque finally erected on the plaza on which Jewish citizens were required to gather for their forced departures to the extermination camps. That plaque employs an absurd, if not offensive, euphemism: it states that it was at this particular point that the Jewish citizens "departed" the city of Hamburg. If one was not already aware of what happened to these poor persons after they "departed", one might be forgiven for thinking that the Jewish citizens of Hamburg had merely gone on a group holiday or something, never to return, instead of forcibly crammed into cattle cars and sent to their deaths in gas chambers.

Of course, the Hamburg authorities of today may only be accused of neglecting or minimizing this important component of the city's past. Truly villainous were the Nazi-era authorities in Hamburg, who were among the most vicious and inhuman in all of Germany in their treatment of the city's Jewish population.

Kristallnacht was an event that caused greater havoc in Hamburg than in any other German city. More homes and businesses and houses of worship were destroyed in Hamburg during Kristallnacht than anywhere else in Germany. In Hamburg, the entire adult male Jewish population was arrested the following day and sent to Sachsenhausen. While there were some arrests in other German cities, in no other city was the entire adult male Jewish population arrested and shipped off to concentration camps. The scale and efficiency of Hamburg's Kristallnacht operations have always been attributed to the superior organization and rampant anti-Semitism of Hamburg's city administration and city police force.

These attributes of efficiency and anti-Semitism, hand-in-hand, surfaced once again in Hamburg's elimination of its Jewish population early in the war. Hamburg began shipping its Jewish population to the death camps as early as 1941--far earlier than any other German city--and most Jewish citizens of Hamburg were gone by mid-1942. ALL Hamburg Jewish citizens, except for a few hundred protected ones, were gone by early 1943. By contrast, Berlin did not even start eliminating its Jewish population until 1943.

Hamburg's inhuman treatment of its Jewish citizens did not begin with Kristallnacht, however. It began much earlier, as soon as the National Socialists seized power.

From 1933 the city of Hamburg frequently seized Jewish property simply because the city coveted it. In the early 1930's, a new and beautiful and modern Temple was constructed in the Rothenbaum area of Hamburg. However, long before 1938's Kristallnacht, authorities in Hamburg had requisitioned the Temple and turned it over to Nord Deutschland Rundfunk (NDR), the Hamburg radio network (long Germany's largest and most prestigious and most influential and wealthiest radio network). The NDR continues to occupy the building to this very day. Many of the numerous orchestral recordings that the NDR Orchestra of Hamburg has made, over the last half-century and more, have been made in this former Temple. A small plaque notes the structure's former use; there is, however, no other public indication that this building was formerly used as a house of worship by Hamburg's former Jewish citizens.

Another structure the Hamburg authorities seized was Budge Palais, the palatial home of a Hamburg Jewish family prominent in business, Henry and Emma Budge. Mr. and Mrs. Budge were Americans who moved to Hamburg to look after their German business interests. They were among Hamburg's most prominent philanthropists, financing numerous cultural and social projects for the public good. After their deaths, they left their Hamburg home to the U.S. government, but the Hamburg authorities seized the property in 1938. Briefly requisitioned by British occupying forces immediately after the war, Budge Palais was returned to the city of Hamburg by the British in 1951 and continues to be owned by the city of Hamburg. Today it is a music school, and its most famous room--the hall of mirrors--has been moved from the Budge Palais and installed in Hamburg's Museum Of Arts And Crafts. At the museum, there is no mention that this magnificent room was requisitioned by the Hamburg authorities in the 1930's from a Jewish family.

The American artist Wolf Kahn is the grandson of the late Mr. and Mrs. Budge. In 1939, when he was eleven years old, his family succeeded in evacuating him to Great Britain, from where he made his way to the U.S. in 1940. He never returned to Germany until 2001, 62 years after he left the country. While his maternal grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Budge, were already deceased by the time he got out of Germany, his paternal grandmother perished at Theresienstadt.

Ten weeks ago, Mr. Kahn gave a public speech about growing up as a Jewish child in 1930's Germany. In his speech, he said something that was entirely consistent with my own observations of Germans: "When I see Germans, for example in Europe, when they become a group, they always behave badly. It seems to me that Germans in a group become dangerous. Alone, they're wonderful."

This "dangerous" group aspect of Germanness is reflected, I believe, in the prevailing--and very troubling--current attitude among much of the German populace: that those of the Jewish faith were not victims of the madness of the thirties and forties; instead, EVERYONE was a victim of the insanity of that time.

This shift in outlook has several pernicious consequences: it places the perpetrators of horrendous crimes on the same moral plane as the innocent victims; it negates the need to identify the perpetrators of evil acts and to record their moral turpitude for future generations; it renders unnecessary an analysis of the causes of evil--if everyone was a victim of the "atmospherics" of the time, the sources of evil may easily be assigned to abstract configurations, and not to concrete acts and not to individual persons; and, finally, the question of moral responsibility becomes meaningless, since everyone is a victim and no one is an active, voluntary agent of evil.

The clearest indicia of this new attitude among Germans is a bewildering proliferation of monuments, all of recent origin, generically dedicated to the "victims" of National Socialism. There are dozens of these monuments in central Hamburg--one encounters such monuments practically every block or so--and they are all more or less the same: a vaguely modern sculpture, constructed of a cheap material, of a recumbent woman figure with a weary look on her face, at the base of which is an engraved dedication, "To The Victims Of National Socialism: Never Again". The sheer number of these monuments dilutes their significance, or so it would seem to me--they are far more numerous than newspaper kiosks--but these monuments lend themselves to the unmistakeable suggestion that every citizen of Hamburg was a victim of National Socialism, which is probably the very thought that the city fathers wanted these ubiquitous monuments to convey.

However, if all persons in Hamburg were victims of National Socialism, then no persons in Hamburg can harbor any guilt, can they? And that avoidance of guilt is what these silly, even coarse, monuments are fundamentally all about.

The city fathers of Hamburg would be far nobler if they were to remove all of these ridiculous monuments from the city's streets and replace them with two sober monuments marking two horrifying events that occurred in Hamburg during the war's final days.

In late April 1945, the remaining inmates of the Neuengamme concentration camp were evacuated, on orders from Hamburg's mayor, to the nearby town of Lubeck. British forces were approaching Hamburg, and the Hamburg authorities did not want the British forces to see the horrors of what had happened at Neuengamme.

Once in Lubeck, the inmates, by design, were placed on civilian ships anchored in the middle of Lubeck Bay. The Germans knew that the ships were sitting ducks, and that they would be attacked and sunk by British aircraft or Russian submarines, and the Germans believed that this was the quickest and the most efficient way of disposing of the Neuengamme inmates--with the important added benefit that there would be no troublesome evidence left behind.

And, on May 2, 1945, the ships were indeed sunk in Lubeck Bay. The war was already over--Hitler was already dead; the Russians already occupied all of Berlin; fighting had ceased; all of Germany was already occupied except for pockets of Bavaria and pockets of North Germany; the only item that remained was for the Axis to sign the formal surrender--but the authorities in Hamburg were still busy slaughtering innocent persons.

Most of the Neuengamme inmates died on board the vessels, as there was no way for them to escape--the bottoms of the lifeboats on both ships had been bored and, in any case, the majority of the inmates had been locked into holds below deck, where they had spent the previous several days without food and water.

A few inmates did succeed in jumping off the ships and somehow making it to land, floating on remnants of the sinking ships. These inmates were gunned down by the S.S. as they came ashore.

No one knows precisely how many Neuengamme inmates died in Lubeck Bay. On the larger of the two ships, it is believed that between 7,500 persons and 10,000 persons perished. On the smaller of the two ships, it is believed that between 2,500 and 3,000 persons perished. Whatever the number, this was the greatest maritime disaster in world history. It is also the least-known great maritime disaster, in Germany or elsewhere. It is even little-known in Hamburg.

Hamburg, a maritime city, with a maritime history, should erect a monument in remembrance of those who perished in this tragic and cruel maritime event, schemed and carried out by Hamburg city fathers. Those who perished WERE genuine and legitimate victims of National Socialism and they should be remembered.

The second monument should be erected at a Hamburg high school, still in use, in which another horrifying event occurred in late April 1945.

Twenty-two children, between the ages of four and twelve--all of whom had been the subjects of medical experimentation--were hanged in the gymnasium of this high school in north Hamburg, along with two French doctors and two Dutch nurses who had looked after them, as well as 24 Russian prisoners of war who had shared their ward and played with them.

All fifty persons were executed because they either had been the subjects of medical experiments, or knew about them. Hamburg authorities performed these executions in the very last days of the war so that these deeds would never be known.

Only in 1988 did these unspeakable murders become widely known, and then only because new British war archives had been opened, archives that contained evidence of what had happened in that Hamburg high school in April 1945.

The men, women and children hung in that Hamburg high school--TRUE victims of National Socialism--are entitled to our remembrance, and should be suitably honored by the city of Hamburg.

May God have pity on their poor souls.

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