Germany’s Atonement and France’s Blind Spots

By the end of our time in Berlin, I couldn’t handle the huge paragraphs of text that German museums presented me at every turn. I often thought that several museums would be more effective with their information placards printed and bound in a book rather than hanging on walls. Why do the Germans dote upon documents and details? Why don’t the French or British?

It’s hard to be peppy in Germany when museums are filled with chilling thoughts instead of glowing triumphs. The Topography of Terror museum, for example, exhibits the below photo of Kurt Meyer, commander of the 12th SS Panzer Division and supervisor of war crimes in Normandy, celebrating at a reunion for Waffen-SS soldiers. Like many SS men convicted by West Germany and the Allies, Meyer’s sentence got his sentence commuted. He was free by 1954.

Kurt Meyer (front left), war criminal, celebrates with other former members of the Waffen-SS in July 1957. The Topography of Terror museum prominently displays this photo along others of Nazis who “got away with it.”

The French deal with war criminals in their museums, but not with their Meyer equivalents. Moreover, they almost never mention their own men who participated in the Holocaust (save Laval), let alone draw attention to the leniency that the Republic showed the perpetrators. Instead, they choose to overstate the role of the Résistance in liberating France, despite the group being militarily irrelevant for most of the war. Funnily enough, the Deutsches Historisches Museum and Topography of Terror exhibit had greater documentation of French collaboration with the Nazi occupation than did the French themselves. Recent French media, like the film La Rafle (an account of the Vel d’Hiv Roundup in Paris), have begun to deal with the realities and complexities of resistance and collaboration, but most museums lag behind.

In this candid, a French gendarme confers with an SS officer. Source: not a French museum, but the Wannsee House, in Potsdam. The French prefer to devote space to the Maquis of the Resistance.

The French also have a messy totalitarian legacy in Pétain, dictator of the “French State” in World War II, but they don’t have Germany’s neo-Nazi/Holocaust-denier problem. Germany has volunteered its leadership in combatting the bad history of those above plus others who perpetuate myths like the “clean Wehrmacht.” That added anti-Nazi goal can alone explain why the nation’s museums stick so closely to documents: it’s hard for an apologist to argue with a huge body of primary sources. Like the Poles at Auschwitz, the Germans seek to warn the world far more than entertain: the Deutsches Historisches Museum spends as much space on the rise of Nazism as it does on its effects of the war.

“Officers of Tomorrow.” The Germans do not point at old propaganda with glee, as many French may with old signs for Free France, but with abjection. One might remember that boys were indoctrinated in the Hitler Youth so that they would die for the state by the millions. The most glee propaganda in the German museums is also the most chilling.

The Wannsee House’s exhibit ends with a series of quotes from Holocaust survivors and their families. One stuck with me, from Joseph Wulf: “I have published 18 books here about the Third Reich, but this had no impact. You can publish things for the Germans until you’re blue in the face, there may be the most democratic government in Bonn, but the mass murderers wander about freely, have their little houses and grow flowers.” Mr. Wulf, perhaps not enough Germans had learned the lessons of the National Socialist dictatorship by the 1960s, but today, the Germans go to the ends of the earth to disprove Holocaust-deniers and apologists with exhaustive and unflinching documentation.

What Do a Million People Look Like?

Like a hellish twin to the Louvre’s glass pyramid, the dynamited concrete roof of Crematorium II’s gas chamber slopes down into the soggy Earth. On the overcast day of our visit, the caved-in roof of the gas chamber, black and flooded as though by sorrow, seemed to be a black hole. According to conservative estimates, the SS murdered 1.1 million people in Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Standing in the camp myself, looking at the remains of the crematoria, I suddenly realized that hundreds of thousands died within 50 feet of where I was standing. I wanted to run away. What do a million people even look like alive, much less dead? At Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the loss to humanity hangs heavy in the air. The American cemetery in Normandy drew tears from me, but standing where more people died per square foot than anywhere else on Earth more so evokes dumbfounded depression, incomprehension, and terror.

What do a million people look like alive? How could a nation condemn so many? FG: a pit containing the ashes of some of those killed in the chambers. BG: the dynamited remains of a gas chamber. Photo courtesy of Ian Mintz.

Though mediocre and lapdoggish bureaucrats filled the ranks of Nazi Germany’s civil service, Auschwitz embodies the terrifying efficiency by which the world knows the Nazis. Auschwitz II-Birkenau was the terminus of Germany’s vast rail-deportation network. Cattle cars of starved innocents arrived daily through its gate, each one sorted by SS officers and racial doctors for either work “selection” or immediate death. In the most perverse sense, those sent to the chambers were lucky: the forced laborers were given only starvation rations, crammed six-abreast in triple bunks, and worked to death. In Auschwitz I, the original camp, guards tortured and starved (and sometimes gassed) Poles, Jews, Roma, and others. They exploited labor by terror and mass punishment.

The camp even has ghosts, of a sort: the remains of long since dismantled shelters stretch into the distance in eerily neat rows. Only the bones of the buildings, the chimneys and foundations, remain. Photos cannot fully capture the camp’s expansiveness. Even with most buildings gone, one cannot easily see from one end of the camp to the other.

Prisoner barracks at Birkenau were dismantled and shipped to Warsaw for emergency housing after the Germans, in full retreat and bloodied by an uprising, destroyed 90 percent of the city.

Auschwitz offers no great historical lessons on its own. Its memorial plaques do not preach with walls of text, but rather offer a warning to humanity. The camp speaks on its own behalf. Students talk of racialization and dehumanization in the abstract in classes, and we naturally recoil at mention of those –tions, but the praxis of those –tions is quite different and far more harrowing. The Nazis needed assembly-line-style murder facilities because their soldiers in the East could no longer stomach shooting innocents and kicking them into mass graves; perhaps that fact should give us hope for humanity, but Auschwitz itself offers no balm. Its existence should curb visitors’ enthusiasm for the dehumanization rampant in modern politics. Neither blood nor creed nor origin are sufficient to treat humans like livestock. Nothing is.

“For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazi murdered about one and a half million men, women, and children, mainly Jews, from various countries of Europe.”

Visit Auschwitz yourself. It’s our duty as human beings to bear witness, to remember, and to act to ensure no regime can enact such horrors again.

De Gaulle the Liberator and Macron the Alienator

Wavering and leaderless after the Second World War, the French had few to turn to but Charles de Gaulle. Never elected in prewar France, this general and self-appointed political leader of la France combattante won public approval in a landslide. Decades later, President Emmanuel Macron’s aloofness and elitism tests French confidence in the strong executive meticulously crafted by de Gaulle.

Once the confetti of the liberation parades had settled, the French looked to de Gaulle for guidance. After all, according to more than one deluded French museum, his Résistance could have liberated Paris without the Allies’ help (sorry, Eisenhower). To many French, de Gaulle stood resolutely against the whims of the liberating powers while restoring France’s internal stability and international leadership. As the first President of the Fifth French Republic, de Gaulle openly espoused a strong executive and wrote the Fifth Republic’s constitution to reflect his vision.Like a sleeping guardian, de Gaulle would awaken in times of great need to save the Republic before retiring back to isolation. Despite de Gaulle’s self-declared transcendence of party politics, the French Left saw traditionalism and Catholicism in his policies, famously pressuring him to resign in 1968.

This 1958 presidential campaign poster frames de Gaulle as a man without party, an unassailable centrist. It reads, in part, “Listen to me: Communism is servitude, party politics is impotence. Between these two extremes is the French People’s Rally.” Macron’s centrism made him similarly attractive in the 2017 election—the alternative was a far-right candidate. Note the Cross of Lorraine, a symbol of de Gaulle’s Free French Forces, in the top left.

Today, many French resent centrist President Macron as an énarque (a play on the name of his alma mater, ÉNA, and monarque), one of the distant French elite.  Our delightfully skillful bus driver, Pascal, explained that an ignored middle class opened the bleeding wound of the gilets jaunes movement: Macron’s gas tax punishes commuters who cannot afford to live near the city center. He pressed his thumb into the wound by dismissing protestors’ concerns as misinformed and fringe. Macron grows distant from his constituents: all around the Place de la Bastille hang posters of Macron bedecked in the royal robes of Louis XVI. Unlike de Gaulle, who even responded to resignation calls from outside his coalition, he takes for granted that the French will come around and continue to reject his far right opposition. Tonight’s European Parliament elections say otherwise.

“[Let’s] abolish privileges [of the nobility],” a reference to the French Revolution, featuring Macron as Roi des Français.

Today, some on the French Left call for a new republic, though support for such a measure has fallen ever since Macron began making concessions to the gilets jaunes. We most likely will not soon see a Sixth Republic, but disappointment with Macron has eroded French confidence in de Gaulle’s strong executive.


Churchill’s Oratory in Britons’ Hearts

Winston Churchill’s oratory fascinates me. His wartime speeches, broadcast on the BBC from his underground War Rooms, sound like a bulldog looks. As though unmoved by bombings and setbacks, his voice steadily reassures the listener. The Imperial War Museums (IWM) gave great attention to his steeling of Britain’s will during World War II (especially by those speeches), but their focus on his personage makes me question whether they credit him or the “people” more for surviving the Battle of Britain.

The three IWM museums I visited—the Churchill War Rooms, IWM London, and the HMS Belfast—prominently feature testimonies from civil servants, Holocaust survivors, and sailors. Recordings in the War Rooms tell us that Churchill was demanding, picky, and easily irritated. Every cot in that cramped bunker borders a working room, and one air conditioning pipe connects them all. Anyone with wooden floors and central air may understand the problem: when Churchill took his daily “siesta” (an hour-plus nap), the entire complex quieted down. The museum leaves it unclear whether that silence arose from fear or respect.

Since Hitler hoped to topple Britain by terror and revolution, the War Room exhibit gives great credit to Churchill’s four wartime speeches for redoubling Britons’ will to defend their “island home.” Speech snippets are piped in to a lounge through a vintage radio, as though one is with family in the sitting room. Indeed, the War Rooms exhibition thrives on the “great man” theory of history: Churchill inspired the people to persevere and pushed his staff to excel. Churchill did not do everything, but life in the War Rooms did revolve around him.

The curators make little attempt to critique his policies or demonstrate that his speeches had a significant stabilizing effect on the populace. His speeches very well may have, but the curators, in their enthusiasm, just took it for granted that they did. Clearly, Churchill seared his words into the national memory on those nights, but the population was already steeled against Hitler, without egging-on from Churchill, from the very first bombing of the East End in September 1940. Britain has not forgotten the slight: in London, only the Blitz’s constellation of memorials rivals that of Trafalgar. Fire-bombing a poverty-stricken neighborhood can do that. Britons united through years of collective effort for victory, to be sure, but it is suffering which united them most.