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“If These Trees Could Talk” A Visit to Buchenwald

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

We are beginning to wind up our trip to Germany staying with our friends Linda and Holger near Karlsruhe. As do so I am beginning to catch up on writing about some of the places that we have been to and things that we have experienced.

Last Saturday while driving from Wittenberg to Eisenach to meet our friends Gottfried and Hannelore we stopped at Buchenwald, a notorious Concentration Camp located on the Ettersburg hill and the Buchenwald Forrest near Weimar. The area is beautiful and serene, it is hard to imagine the evil that took place here. The deaths of over 50,000 people who died from being executed by hanging or with a shot to the base of the neck, being worked to death, starved, maltreated, and being used as Guinea Pigs for medical experiments cannot be removed by the scenery in the local area.

If you visit Buchenwald you will be surprised at how vast the camp is. The area most visited is the main camp, but two others adjoin it, though the visible markers are less numerous or obvious than at the main camp. Unless you have more than a couple of hours you cannot do it all. Had I had the time I would have liked to walk the entire perimeter, which you can do, but due to our schedule I could only spend about an hour and a half there.

At the gate there is an inscription which must be read from the inside of the camp. It states Jedem das Seine or to each their own, which the SS interpreted to mean that the Master Race had the right to humiliate and destroy all others.

Buchenwald was opened in 1937 as a place where the Nazi regime could imprison political prisoners as well as members of what they called untermenschen or sub-human. The former included Communists, Socialists, other political opponents, of course Jews, as well as people deemed “asocial” which could mean almost anything. Repeat offenders and habitual criminals, Roma and Sinti, Homosexuals, Freemasons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the mentally, and the mentally or physically disabled. As the Nazi occupation of Europe grew to encompass most of the continent the list expanded to include the former as well as political, military, social, religious and intellectual leaders of those countries, and anyone else deemed a threat the Reich.

But Buchenwald was not a Death Camp. It had no gas chambers and those executed were killed up close and personal with a bullet to the base of the neck, being hanged in some manner, and in a few cases of Catholic clergy, crucified upside down. Yet it was a place of horror. General Dwight Eisenhower wrote after visiting the Ohrdorf sub-camp of Buchenwald subsequent to its liberation wrote:

The same day [April 12, 1945] I saw my first horror camp. It was near the town of Gotha. I have never felt able to describe my emotional reactions when I first came face to face with indisputable evidence of Nazi brutality and ruthless disregard of every shred of decency. Up to that time I had known about it only generally or through secondary sources. I am certain, however that I have never at any other time experienced an equal sense of shock.

Eisenhower was so moved that he ordered that the best reporters and newsmen come and record what he had seen. He did not want the horrors to be denied by history. He wrote:

I visited every nook and cranny of the camp because I felt it my duty to be in a position from then on to testify at first hand about these things in case there ever grew up at home the belief or assumption that `the stories of Nazi brutality were just propaganda.’ Some members of the visiting party were unable to through the ordeal. I not only did so but as soon as I returned to Patton’s headquarters that evening I sent communications to both Washington and London, urging the two governments to send instantly to Germany a random group of newspaper editors and representative groups from the national legislatures. I felt that the evidence should be immediately placed before the American and British publics in a fashion that would leave no room for cynical doubt.

One of those reporters was Edward R. Murrow who broadcast his visit to Buchenwald:

There surged around me an evil-smelling stink, men and boys reached out to touch me. They were in rags and the remnants of uniforms. Death already had marked many of them, but they were smiling with their eyes. I looked out over the mass of men to the green fields beyond, where well-fed Germans were ploughing….

[I] asked to see one of the barracks. It happened to be occupied by Czechoslovaks. When I entered, men crowded around, tried to lift me to their shoulders. They were too weak. Many of them could not get out of bed. I was told that this building had once stabled 80 horses. There were 1200 men in it, five to a bunk. The stink was beyond all description.

They called the doctor. We inspected his records. There were only names in the little black book — nothing more — nothing about who had been where, what he had done or hoped. Behind the names of those who had died, there was a cross. I counted them. They totaled 242 — 242 out of 1200, in one month.

As we walked out into the courtyard, a man fell dead. Two others, they must have been over 60, were crawling toward the latrine. I saw it, but will not describe it.

In another part of the camp they showed me the children, hundreds of them. Some were only 6 years old. One rolled up his sleeves, showed me his number. It was tattooed on his arm. B-6030, it was. The others showed me their numbers. They will carry them till they die. An elderly man standing beside me said: “The children — enemies of the state!” I could see their ribs through their thin shirts….

We went to the hospital. It was full. The doctor told me that 200 had died the day before. I asked the cause of death. He shrugged and said: “tuberculosis, starvation, fatigue and there are many who have no desire to live. It is very difficult.” He pulled back the blanket from a man’s feet to show me how swollen they were. The man was dead. Most of the patients could not move.

I asked to see the kitchen. It was clean. The German in charge….showed me the daily ration. One piece of brown bread about as thick as your thumb, on top of it a piece of margarine as big as three sticks of chewing gum. That, and a little stew, was what they received every 24 hours. He had a chart on the wall. Very complicated it was. There were little red tabs scattered through it. He said that was to indicate each 10 men who died. He had to account for the rations and he added: “We’re very efficient here.”

We proceeded to the small courtyard. The wall adjoined what had been a stable or garage. We entered. It was floored with concrete. There were two rows of bodies stacked up like cordwood. They were thin and very white. Some of the bodies were terribly bruised; though there seemed to be little flesh to bruise. Some had been shot through the head, but they bled but little.

I arrived at the conclusion that all that was mortal of more than 500 men and boys lay there in two neat piles. There was a German trailer, which must have contained another 50, but it wasn’t possible to count them. The clothing was piled in a heap against the wall. It appeared that most of the men and boys had died of starvation; they had not been executed.

But the manner of death seemed unimportant. Murder had been done at Buchenwald. God alone knows how many men and boys have died there during the last 12 years. Thursday, I was told that there were more than 20,000 in the camp. There had been as many as 60,000. Where are they now?

I pray you to believe what I have said about Buchenwald. I reported what I saw and heard, but only part of it. For most of it, I have no words.

If I have offended you by this rather mild account of Buchenwald, I’m not in the least sorry….

Allied prisoners of war, especially Russians and Poles were brought to Buchenwald. While many Red Army POWs were assigned to the work camps, thousands of other Soviet POWs were summarily executed upon their arrival and thus were never registered as inmates and are not counted in the official German numbers of those who died at the Camp.

In one of the more unusual instances, 168 Allied aviators from the United States, Britain, Canada, and other Commonwealth nations were transported to Buchenwald by the SS from France in August 1944. Normally such prisoners were the responsibility of the Luftwaffe. The men arrived at Buchenwald and remained for two months in the same conditions as the other inmates. During that time three died. The Luftwaffe found out about the prisoners and had them transferred to Stalag Luft III, a regular POW Camp in Silesia from which the legendary Great Escape had been made in March 1944.

One of the Canadians wrote of their arrival at Buchenwald:

As we got close to the camp and saw what was inside… a terrible, terrible fear and horror entered our hearts. We thought, what is this? Where are we going? Why are we here? And as you got closer to the camp and started to enter [it] and saw these human skeletons walking around—old men, young men, boys, just skin and bone, we thought, what are we getting into?

As for me the the cruelty of the SS to their inmates is horrible enough, but I think for me it was the larger scale use of the camp and it’s inmates for medical experiments by physicians that affected me the most. I have Robert Jay Lifton’s book The Nazi Doctors, but to see where and stand where these practitioners of evil did their work was difficult. Lifton wrote:

In all fundamentalisms, and they are usually religious or political, there is the sense of profound threat to what are considered fundamental beliefs and symbols, and a compensatory invocation of a sacred text (the Bible, the Koran, Mein Kampf) as a literal guide to every form of action. History stops so that murderous therapy can be applied. While medicine does not provide the sacred text, one can revert to ancient practices of shamans, witch doctors, and tricksters who could be expected to kill in order to heal. For physicians as well as charismatic spiritual physicians, there is a release from Hippocratic restraint.

Hundreds of inmates were injected with Typhus in order to test treatments for the disease. To test balms which could help victims of incendiary bombs, prisoners were exposed to White Phosphorus which caused massive and incredibly painful burns in order to test the treatments. Many other experiments were conducted by the SS Doctors of Buchenwald.

Almost all of the prisoners at Buchenwald and its sub-Camps were used as slave laborers for German industrial plants and armaments plants. The sub- Camp at Mittelbau-Dora (Nordhausen) which became independent from Buchenwald in 1944 was a key production facility for the V-1 and V-2 rockets. Under the direction of SS Gruppenführer Oswald Pohl and the Verwaltung und Wirtschaft Hauptamt, the Administrative and Economics Main Office, Fritz Sauckel, General Plenipotentiary for Labour Deployment who oversaw the efforts to bring extra laborers to the Reich, and Armaments Minister Albert Speer.

Buchenwald is both historical reality that cannot be denied, as well as an everlasting reminder of the capacity of supposedly advanced human beings can do to others. Man’s capacity for evil is limitless and Buchenwald is one of the great reminders of it.

As I listen to and read the opinions of many American supporters of President Trump I believe that such evil could happen again, this time in my country and at the hands of my countrymen. Honestly, I don’t think that most of these people are really evil. I think that most are simply deluded by years of propaganda put forth by the politicians, pundits, and preachers of the political right who play upon their fears of being displaced economically and socially by minorities, women, foreigners, and others deemed less deserving of having a chance to live the American Dream. In their fear they would excuse the actions of a government that would run Buchenwald and the other components of the Concentration Camp system, not only for punishing political opponents, but also using that system to exploit victims for economic gain without any consideration of them as human beings.

This is something that we have to remember now more than ever. For at least a few months the American President who is an admirer of everything authoritarian now controls all three branches of the Federal Government. With such power at his disposal, a compliant executive branch, a subservient legislative branch, and a Supreme Court in the hands of Right Wing ideologues it would be incredibly easy to pass something like the Reichstag Fire Decree or the Enabling Act giving the President unlimited power.

Historian Timothy Snyder wrote these words not even two years ago.

The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. It would serve us well today to understand why.

I do not want to sound like an alarmist but I am beginning to doubt that the institutions so well designed by our Founders to withstand assaults on the Constitution by one or two branches of government can survive this. There is no going back from what has happened over the past few weeks and we will be very fortunate if our institutions survive in the manner that our Founders intended. The outward structure may survive, but the heart of those institutions will be destroyed, even if the Democrats regain control of the House and Senate.

Tomorrow we travel to Munich to spend the night before flying home Monday. Our trip has allowed me to me more reflective about the current American crisis without being immersed in it on a minute to minute basis.

I expect to post something from Munich so until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Preparing for Another Trip to Germany

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Later this week we will be flying to Germany for what has seemingly become an annual pilgrimage. While there we will be seeing friends as well as enjoying the Oktoberfest in Munich, seeing historical places, and exploring towns where Judy’s ancestors came from in the Rheinland-Pfalz, Baden-Württemberg, and the Alsace in France.

While in Munich I plan to again visit Dachau and the Sophie Scholl museum at Munich University and hopefully a number of other sites. I have a ticket for a soccer match between Bayern-München and Augsburg at Allianz area.

Outside of Munich it looks like we will visit the Flossenbürg and Buchenwald Concentration Camps Southwest of Berlin. We will stay in Wittenberg where Martin Luther began the Protestant Reformation, and the Wartburg Castle in Eisenach where Luther was hidden after his defense and excommunication before the Imperial Diet at Worms. In his ten months of hiding he translated the New Testament from Greek into German.

We will visit friends in Berlin. It will be our first visit to the city since November of 1986, before the fall of the Berlin Wall. It will be interesting to see the redone Reichstag, walk under the Brandenburger Tor, as well as see the the Berlin Monument to the Holocaust, the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, the Bendlerstrasse Museum to the German anti-Nazi resistance, the Berlin Holocaust Memorial, and the Wannsee House.

From Berlin we will stay with friends near Karlsruhe one the Rhein River near the French Border for a few days before returning to Munich for our flight home.

I’ll be writing and posting about those things and more in the coming weeks, but for now I will wish you a good night.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Martyrs of Flossenburg: A Lesson for Christians in the Age of Trump

D.Bonhoeffer im Gefaengnis Berlin-Tegel

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Seventy-three years ago at the Flossenburg Concentration Camp near the German-Czech border a pastor, an Admiral, and a General were martyred on the specific order of Adolf Hitler. The pastor was the eminent Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Admiral, Wilhelm Canaris the former head of the German military intelligence service; the Abwehr, the General, Hans Oster, Canaris’s deputy. All three were Christians and all three opponents of Hitler’s regime. Condemned with them were Karl Sack a senior military jurist, retired General Friedrich Von Rabenau who was also a theologian, and several others connected with the Abwehr and the resistance.

I think that in an age where politically conservative Christians have trampled their own faith to support of a leader who makes a mockery of the Christian faith as he blasphemes the very name of Christ and the teachings of Jesus in his words and deeds. While I am not comparing the President to Hitler I am comparing the corrupt and evil Christian leaders and organizations which support him to the German Christians who eagerly supported Hitler and his diabolical regime. Thus the men who lost their lives in the fight against Hitler on April 9th 1945 and their courage need to be remembered and emulated should the Trump administration continue down its path to trample the Constitution and crush civil and human rights, and quite possibly engage in aggressive preemptive wars that would be illegal under the precedents of the Nuremberg Trials; all in the name of Making America Great Again.

But it is Bonhoeffer that I will focus on tonight. As early as 1932 Bonhoeffer realized the menace and evil of Hitler’s growing Nazi Party and movement. In a sermon the recently ordained Bonhoeffer, then only 26 years old noted that danger and the complicity of all Germans in it, especially Christians.  He warned that resistance to it could well involve martyrdom. But he believed that the the evil of the tyrant gave no one the luxury of claiming innocence:

“the blood of martyrs might once again be demanded, but this blood, if we really have the courage and loyalty to shed it, will not be innocent, shining like that of the first witnesses for the faith. On our blood lies heavy guilt, the guilt of the unprofitable servant who is cast into outer darkness” 

On February 1st 1933, two days after Hitler’s accession to power Bonhoeffer was beginning a previously scheduled speech on what was known as the concept known as the Fuhrerprinzep. The speech was not a direct attack on Hitler but a warning of the limits of power. He had barely begun the speech when for unexplained circumstances he was cut off. While there was no proof that this was deliberately done it would not have been unlike the Nazis to engage in such subterfuge. The speech was printed in a non-Nazi conservative newspaper and he was invited to give the speech in early March at the University of Berlin’s college of political science. At the end of the speech, which included no remarks on current events Bonhoeffer criticized the Fuhrerprinzep which he believed could easily become an idolatrous cult. However, Hitler had ridden into power upon upon that concept as people sought a strong leader to bring Germany out of political, social, and economic turmoil.

“The fearful danger of the present time is that above the cry for authority, be it of a Leader or of an office, we forget that man stands alone before the ultimate authority and that anyone who lays violent hands on man here is infringing eternal laws and taking upon himself superhuman authority which will eventually crush him. The eternal law that the individual stands alone before God takes fearful vengeance where it is attacked and distorted. Thus the Leader points to the office, but Leader and office together point to the final authority itself, before which Reich or state are penultimate authorities. Leaders or offices which set themselves up as gods mock God and the individual who stands alone before him, and must perish.”

german-christians-march

At that early stage Hitler whose office was conditional on the support of President Paul Von Hindenburg and headed a cabinet in which his Nazis were a minority partner realized that he had to say the right things to maintain it, he could not appear too radical. One group that he courted were politically conservative German Christians. In a speech delivered the same day as Bonhoeffer’s curtailed speech, Hitler claimed that the Christian faith would serve as “the basis of our collective morality.” It was a lie but it assuaged the fears of Christians in non-Nazi conservative and moderate parties, many who became a part of the Nazi German Christian movement which decidedly in the service of Hitler espousing Nazi racial doctrines and attacks upon the Jews.

As Hitler and the Nazis stepped up their persecution of their political opponents and the Jews based on the emergency provisions of the Reichstag Fire Decree Bonhoeffer both worked and spoke his opposition to the tyranny that was beginning to envelop Germany. In April 1933 while speaking of the responsibility of Christians and the church to stand against injustice he wrote in his essay The Church and the Jewish Question: 

“The church has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering society, even if they do not belong to the Christian community.” and also“We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”

He became a key member of what became known as the Confessing Church and the Pastors Emergency League where he helped draft the Barmen Declaration. He ran an underground seminary to train theology students. He had the chance to remain in the United States in June of 1939 but refused the pleas of his American friends to do so. He explained his position to the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr:

“I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people… Christians in Germany will have to face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose but I cannot make that choice from security.”

On his return to Germany he was forbidden to speak in public, prohibited from publishing and required to report his movements to the police. However he did have friends. His brother in law, the lawyer Hans Dohnányi who was a member of the opposition, recruited Bonhoeffer for the Abwehr the German military service in order to prevent him from being conscripted into the Wehrmacht based on the proposition that his contacts with British and American could prove useful to to German intelligence. While Bonhoeffer remained suspect to Nazi officials the appointment brought him into the orbit of Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, General Hans Oster, and other leaders of the military opposition to Hitler.

From these men he began to comprehend the fulness of the Nazi evil and learned of early plots against Hitler’s life. Bonhoeffer, a pacifist realized that he must become an active part of the resistance and wrote: “the ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation shall continue to live.” By participating in the conspiracy Bonhoeffer can be accused of hypocrisy, and he knew it. He explained his position in a letter to his sister:

“If I sit next to a madman as he drives a car into a group of innocent bystanders, I can’t, as a Christian, simply wait for the catastrophe, then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.”

During his tenure with the Abwehr he served as a courier to make contact with Allied leaders in Switzerland in order to gain support for opposition efforts, attempts that the Allies ignored, even as he wrote his book Ethics. Bonhoeffer worked with Dohnányi and others in the Abwehr to smuggle fourteen Jews out of German to Switzerland along with large sums of currency. However, the Sicherheitsdienst, the intelligence branch of Heinrich Himmler’s SS  became aware of their activities and both were arrested in April 1943, not so much for that but in order to discredit the rival Abwehr. While the Abwehr was able to cover for most of their activities they were charged with breaking the Nazi laws regarding the Jews.

He was imprisoned in Berlin’s Tegel Prison while awaiting trial but during that time he produced many theological writings which were smuggled out of the prison to his student Eberhard Bethage by his fiancé and sympathetic guards. These uncensored works would become the book Letters and Papers from Prison. He expressed no bitterness in his arrest but reflected on what he and others in the resistance had learned, lessons that privileged Christians in the United States who worship the ungodly political, economic, and military power reveled in by President Trump would be wise to heed:

“We in the resistance have learned to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the excluded, the ill treated, the powerless, the oppressed and despised… so that personal suffering has become a more useful key for understanding the world than personal happiness.”

Documents that exposed Bonhoeffer’s connection to the anti-Hitler plot that resulted in the July 20th 1944 assassination attempt on Hitler by Lieutenant Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg were discovered by the Gestapo in September 1944 and he was moved to the SS Prison at the Reichssicherheitshauptamt, the Reich Security Main Office. When that facility was bombed in February 1945 he was moved to Buchenwald and finally to Flossenburg where he would die.

Two of his writings which he produced while in prison have had a profound impact on my faith.

“During the last year or so I’ve come to know and understand more and more the profound this-worldliness of Christianity.  The Christian is not ahomo religiosus, but simply a man, as Jesus was a man…I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner, or a churchman (a so-called priestly type!) a righteous man or an unrighteous one, a sick man or a healthy one.  By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities.  In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world—watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That, I think, is faith; that is metanoia; and that is how one becomes a man and a Christian.”

“I discovered later, and I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that is it only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world. That, I think, is faith.”

Bonhoeffer’s fate was sealed when on April 4th 1945 Canaris’s secret diaries were found. When Hitler read them he became enraged and demanded that the Abwehr traitors be destroyed. Bonhoeffer and his companions were taken to Flossenburg, but at a stop Bonhoeffer became separated from them and was held with other prisoners in the small town of Schoenberg. While there on Sunday 8 April 1945, Bonhoeffer was asked to conduct a service on the second Sunday of Easter. He had just finished conducting the service at a schoolhouse when plainclothes Gestapo agents arrived to arrest him. British prisoner Payne Best noted that Bonhoeffer:

“spoke to us in a manner which reached the hearts of all, finding just the right words to express the spirit of our imprisonment and the thoughts and resolutions which it had brought.”

As Bonhoeffer was taken he said to another prisoner, “This is the end – but for me, the beginning of life.” He was driven to Flossenburg where he along with the other Abwehr conspirators was condemned at a drumhead trial by SS Judge Sturmbannfuhrer (Major) Otto Thorbeck without witnesses or records of proceedings or defense and hanged the next day, two weeks before American soldiers liberated the camp.

The only account of his death was written by the SS doctor of the camp.

“On the morning of that day between five and six o’clock the prisoners, among them Admiral Canaris, General Oster, General Thomas and Reichgerichtsrat Sack were taken from their cells, and the verdicts of the court martial read out to them. Through the half-open door in one room of the huts I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor praying fervently to his God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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