Topography – a detailed description or representation on a map of the physical features of an area.
Terror – the use of extreme fear to intimidate people, especially for political reasons.
(Oxford Dictionary of English)
I put off visiting the museum of Gestapo atrocities, aptly called The Topography of Terror. One knows what happened. Why go for total immersion?
I have misgivings about the remembrance of WW1. Where is the political analysis that caused the lunacy years, 1914 to 18? What good does remembering those young men a century later, do those young men? It is a bit bloody late to now say oops – sorry – shouldn’t have happened. In other words, we are not remembering the senseless slaughter in a way that will do the dead a service. We are doing it for our consciences – to make us feel better. Isn’t it a cop out? Shouldn’t I feel the same about the Topography of Terror museum in Berlin? – too little and too late. I would discover how wrong I was!
When I trudged one winter’s day, through the ice, northwards, toward the Potsdamer Platz in Berlin, approaching the site of the infamous headquarters of the Gestapo and SS, I had no idea of the awful truths I was about to discover. The original building was destroyed. The cells and torture rooms in the cellars were intact. They needed excavating and were the first part to be opened. The building housing the museum is new.
When I left the museum of terror two hours later, I had learned three things, which is why it is important that everyone visit the museum, and the graves in the fields of Flanders. Every immersion increases knowledge. Knowledge empowers us to prevent it happening again – or so we hope!
What I learnt:
Fact 1. Everyone knew! The first shock was about the myths surrounding the SS. They were not just another military unit and everyone at the time must have known that. The pictures show that the population must have known Jews were murdered, and young women who dared smile at a French PoW were shaved by the angry mob. Because of the museum, there is now nowhere to hide. Albert Speer – Hitler’s architect – wrote his memoirs in the 60s from Spandau Prison. He was Germany’s conscience. He explained how it was possible not to know. Since his death, historians have shown his memoirs to be fairy tales. How could he not have known, when he was the top man organising forced labour in factories?
My mother-in-law was more refreshingly honest. As a young woman, she lived in what is now Russia. She told me, ‘There was a home for severely handicapped children in our village. One day, trucks arrived and took away the children and their nurses. The rumour in the village was that they had been murdered. The local newspaper reported that they had been taken to a better, more modern home. What would you have believed? One story was too horrible to contemplate – the official version allowed us to sleep nights. Did we know? I would have to answer, ‘Yes’.’
Fact 2. Crimes were ignored. The SS murderers went largely unpunished after the war. Look at the title picture of this piece. It is a photo of part of a massive wall of drawers in the museum. Each drawer is a person, about whom there was evidence that he had committed crimes. The pulled-out drawers are the criminals who were actually brought to justice. You will have to look hard to find them. Doctors who carried out human experiments, causing great pain, permanent debilitation or death, were free to practice in the community, after the war. There was evidence on approximately 106000 Nazi criminals. Successful prosecutions number around 6000.
Fact 3. The museum wasn’t built until the criminals were dead. The new exhibition and documentation building and the redesigned historic grounds, opened to the public on May 7, 2010. That is 65 years after the events. The perpetrators were dead by 2010.
Add 1 + 2 + 3 and you don’t get 6. You get a different truth. Not only were the criminals largely ‘pardoned,’ of their crimes by the governments of Germany, France, USA, Britain, but their crimes were not made public until most involved in the torture and genocide, had lived out their good middle class lives and were in comfortable graves.
Neil MacGregor, in his book, Germany – Memories of a Nation, rightly says, no nation put so much effort into dealing with its past, as modern Germany. The Topography of Terror museum and the Holocaust Memorial up the road from it, are part of this clear out, but it is still not enough.
The reason why thousands of men per day could be sent to their death during the First World War, was the control the government had over the media. Many young men were murdered after sham courts marshal trials found them guilty of cowardice. The press was never able to report.
The reason why Hitler could control an unwilling nation for 12 years was because he controlled the press, radio, told lies and killed dissidents. He had an effective propaganda machine to explain away the unpleasant bits. The German voters believed the rhetoric in 1933. It was handy to accept the problems were down to trade unionists, communists, ethnic minorities (principally Jews) and anyone else who contradicted the lies. By the time the population saw through the propaganda and realised they had been hoodwinked, it was too late. The state had the guns and were prepared to use them. The state had the prisons and were prepared to indefinitely incarcerate innocent people in starving, freezing conditions, doing inhuman labour, all without trial. If there was a trial, the judges handed down the required verdict or they found themselves in prison.
Enough said – except here are some nagging thoughts that won’t go away.
Did our politicians and press really pillory the judges – demand they give up their independence and tow their line over Brexit? I’m afraid they did.
Do police in the USA randomly shoot black men and boys, because they don’t like them. It seems so.
Didn’t the police in Washington arrest journalists, incarcerate them for 36 hours and confiscate their equipment, when those journalists were covering anti-Trump demonstrations on the day of his inauguration? Doesn’t President Trump regularly call journalists liars if he doesn’t approve of their reporting. It is indeed the case.
Are not foreign workers regularly demonised by our politicians and press, although there is no evidence they take jobs or depress wages? Everyone needs a boo-man.
Was not the Brexit campaign tainted with lies and half truths from politicians and media? It was a shabby first half year in 2016.
Is not the far right, across Europe, once again on the march? Wilders and Le Pen will be significant players in elections in Holland and France this year. The AfD is doing well in elections in Germany, despite using language that could come from the Hitler handbook of hate. 2017 could be a watershed year for democracy.
Suddenly I don’t feel so smug. Suddenly I’m glad that the Topography of Terror and the graves in Flanders are there, to visit, to confront us over how it works and show us how truly awful the result can be when we gag the press, pervert the judiciary and make minorities responsible for that which we don’t like.
My Berlin Novel, ‘The Last Stop,’ deals with some of the post-war ghosts, still rattling around Germany.