Twentieth century German history has an inescapable stain that will remain forever in the memories of people across the world. The Holocaust and other Nazi atrocities are central to our understanding of both the Second World War and our human capacity to perform unthinkable acts towards each other.
This trip has given me the opportunity to learn extensively regarding the Holocaust and in particular the history of concentration and death camps. While in Germany our group visited the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, which was primarily a labor camp which housed almost every type of prisoner held by the Nazis. The well-preserved camp included two original prisoner barracks, two medical barracks, and the foundations of the crematorium and gas chamber there. The camp also includes a memorial that the Soviets erected to commemorate the Red Army POWs held and killed at the camp. The experience of being present at the site of mass murder and forced slave labor was intense and somber, and the entire group felt sobered.
A single item piqued my interest more than any other part of the camp. In the prisoner barracks, an encased painting hung on one of the support beams. A survivor of the camp created this painting, and it depicted the different symbols on the prisoner uniforms to identify the type of prisoner that they were. Prisoners were designated as political, asocial, Jewish, or a combination of these or other factors. There was only one symbol missing from the painting, the pink triangle. This symbol represented persons whom the Nazis imprisoned for having or acting on same-sex attraction. The artist that made the painting did not include this symbol, and our guide said that it was most likely because he did not want to mention those prisoners. If you wore a pink triangle, you were the most likely to die in a labor camp because of reduced rations, alienation from other prisoners, and constant harassment and beatings by guards and fellow inmates.
This is not terribly surprising, because public attitudes throughout the world were still extremely homophobic during the 20th century, but this specific omission concerns me. This man, a Belgian political prisoner, suffered discrimination, hatred, and dehumanization in Sachsenhausen, and yet he pointedly excluded certain prisoners. The ability and the tendency for humans to create an “other” group is unfathomable. Even in the case of the Holocaust, victims of discrimination still actively victimized people that were different than themselves.
This week our world has undergone several jarring episodes of hatred. In Brussels, a gunman slayed 3 people at the Jewish Museum, with another person in critical condition. The reaction has been anti-immigration, and not anti-hatred. A movement has begun because of a shooting in California, and #YesAllWomen has yet to be covered fully by mainstream media. The hashtag is a response to the Santa Barbara homicides and suicide by Elliot Rodger. His attitudes and statements towards women have caused a national outcry, yet many media outlets continue to ignore the hashtag. Instead of highlighting underlying misogyny that our society teaches young men, media outlets disregard this reaction and continue to air movies, commercials, and TV shows that perpetrate the notion that women wrong men through rejection.
The issues that arise in our world today almost all stem from discrimination. This “other” mentality is the root cause of violence and hatred. Yet we fail as a society to teach or inform people about it. In fact, in the case of the Belgian prisoner, even amidst terrible conditions humans have the ability to hate others based on differences.
This attitude is extremely bleak and cynical. I know that there are people out there striving to better the world and stop hatred everywhere. However, the problem will continue unfettered until we, as humans, stand up and say that it is enough. Until we create governments and societies that treat people as truly equal (a utopian ideal), needless conflict and violence will persist. Many people believe that the genocide of the Holocaust will never happen again because we learned our lesson as humans. I believe that a systematic murder of people based on racism on prejudice occurs every day across the world. It is happening today, and through my experience at Sachsenhausen, I believe that even those most affected are participating. I implore you to keep the Belgian prisoner’s prejudice in mind.