Tag Archives: Holocaust

From Ordinary Men to Willing Executioners: Holocaust Remembrance 2018

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

We live in troubling times and I believe that we are at a point in world history where the not so distant specter of a horrifying past is is rising before our eyes and all too many people cannot see it.

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day. On that day seventy-three years ago the Soviet Red Army liberated the Auschwitz Concentration Camp, the centerpiece of the Nazi Death Camp machine. To be sure, in his panic to save his neck Heinrich Himmler had started in the Fall of 1944 began to switch from his tactic of extermination to using the Jews as bargaining chips., but by then most of the Jews under Nazi control were dead. Those that remained, emaciated and dying by the thousands to starvation, and unchecked disease, as they were marched in ghastly conditions to camps deeper inside Nazi controlled areas.

About this time last year two things happened in the United States that caused me to shake my head and wonder if we are becoming a place that will turn its eyes away from current atrocities, genocide, ethnic and religious cleansing, and walk away. Likewise they were events the presaged even worse.

Last year President Trump issued a proclamation to observe Holocaust Remembrance Day, a statement that did not mention the Jews. How one remembers the Holocaust without mentioning the Jews is beyond me, but some of the President’s advisers, including the now fired and disgraced Steve Bannon, are closely connected to the self-proclaimed Alt-Right, a movement of white supremacists and neo-Nazis looking for respectability. The second thing the President did was to issue an Executive Order halting the immigration of refugees from certain Muslim majority countries, and to cap the number entering. I’m not going to go into details about that but it is not the first time that the United States stopped refugees from entering the country on national security grounds, as in the 1930s and 1940s one of the reasons used to keep German Jewish refugees out of the country was exactly that, they might be Nazi spies and saboteurs.

But since those early days the President, members of his administration, members of Congress, and his supporters in the Right Wing media have increased the rhetoric of racism and race hatred. In addition to Muslims who has often insinuated are terrorists, or sympathetic to terrorists, the President has defamed and dehumanized whole classes of other immigrants, those from Africa, Central America, and the Caribbean as being from “Shithole countries.” Likewise, after Charlottesville, the President stated that neo-Nazis and White Supremacists are “very good people” and even though his son-in-law and daughter are Orthodox Jews he has frequently disparaged Jews in public and private.  Of course as so often is the case much of what the President is saying being sold under the label of Patriotism. Hannah Arendt wrote:

“The antisemites who called themselves patriots introduced that new species of national feeling which consists primarily in a complete whitewash of one’s own people and a sweeping condemnation of all others.”

The present day reminds us that this is a day that we should never forget. The horrors perpetrated by the Nazi regime, all in the name of “race purity” and the extermination of the Jews and others deemed by the Nazis to be “sub-human” or untermenschen is something that is hard for most to imagine.

A couple of years ago I read Bettina Stangneth’s book, Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer. While I am very well informed and educated on the lives, writings, actions, and statements of many of the Nazi war criminals, this new book on Eichmann is the most troubling that I have ever read. In particular it is the accounts of his writings and interviews with other pro-Nazi, or former Nazis in Argentina, particularly the Sassen Interviews, which span hundreds of hours of tape and thousands of pages of transcripts.

I am a Christian, a gentile, and a historian, as well as a nearly thirty-seven year military who served alongside our advisors and the Iraqis who fought alongside of us. I have lived in Germany, read, speak and write German and have many friends in that country, including members of the German military, retired and active duty.  My study and association with Holocaust survivors goes back to my college days at California State University Northridge when as an undergraduate history major I spent much of my time studying Germany from the first unification and the Kaiser Reich, the First World War, Versailles, Weimar and the Hitler Regime. My professor, Dr. Helmut Heussler, whose family left Germany in the late 1920s, served in the U.S. Army in World War II and was an interrogator at Nuremberg. I took a number of classes from Dr. Heussler, including Hitler’s Germany and the Holocaust. In the latter I had the chance to meet Holocaust survivor Mel Mermelstein, who was later played by Leonard Nimoy in the TV movie Never Forget. 

Since my college days I have continued to read and study, and to get a second Masters Degree in History in which much of my work dealt with the Nazi regime. I have visited the sites of former concentration camps including Dachau and Bergen-Belsen. I have been to the sites of the Nazi Party rallies in Nuremberg, the courtroom where the Nuremberg Trails were conducted and to the T4 Euthanasia complex at Hadmar. One day, God willing I will get to Auschwitz and some of the other sites.

The Nazis had begun their persecution of the Jews shortly after Hitler took power in 1933. Later in the year the Enabling Act gave Hitler and his henchmen the legal means to begin their persecution of the Jews and others. These were followed by the Nuremberg Laws and other laws that targeted the Jews. Persecution increased throughout the 1930s, and sadly most countries refused to accommodate increased Jewish immigration. Then came Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, when on 9-10 November 1938, a series of orchestrated attacks on Jewish businesses, Synagogues, institutions and individuals. On that night close to 200 synagogues, 7000 Jewish businesses and 29 major department stores were destroyed or damaged. Over 30,000 Jews, mostly men, were arrested and sent to concentration camps, 91 people were killed outright, and several thousand died in the aftermath.

mass killing einsatzgruppen

When the Nazis invaded Poland, its Jews were rounded up and placed into ghettos where many died of starvation and abuse even before the ghettos were liquidated and the people who lived in them were deported to the extermination camps. In 1941 as the German military seemed to be assured of victory in the Soviet Union the Nazis decided to exterminate the Jews of Europe. In the Soviet Union four Einsatzgruppen followed each of the German Army Groups and systematically began to massacre the Jews of every city and village which German soldiers captured. Over a million and a half Soviet Jews were killed by the Einsatzgruppen, Ordungspolizei battalions, Army Security Divisions and locally recruited units.

At the Wansee Conference of January 20th 1942 the specifics of the “Final Solution” were mapped out by Himmler’s number two man, SS General Reinhard Heydrich. What followed is beyond the comprehension of most people, but the perpetrators were for the most part men and women who were terrifyingly normal.

The truly terrifying thing about the Nazi perpetrators of the Holocaust to me is that most of the men at Wansee, men that commanded the Concentration camps and the Einsatzgruppen were very ordinary men who simply believed that they were doing their jobs. Very few could be described as psychopathic killers by nature. They were lawyers, doctors, career police officials, businessmen, and bureaucrats who carried out an extermination campaign that killed by their own numbers between 5.5 and 6 million Jews, not to mention others deemed to be subhuman including the handicapped, the mentally ill, homosexuals, and other non-Jewish minorities like the Gypsies not to mention the wide variety of those considered political enemies. But it was the Jews that bore the most tragic fate.

When you read their writings, listen to them when they were interviewed, or watch footage of them during or after the war, you find that they had absolutely no empathy for their victims. When confronted about the evil that they engineered they invariably blamed their victims, just as many like them do today.

Most of the men who coordinated the massive effort to exterminate the Jews of Europe following the Wansee Conference of January 20th 1942 approached their jobs dispassionately. This was a common attitude among the civil service, military and police officials that oversaw the Holocaust. They simply did their jobs and followed the law, and for most of them, their victims meant nothing.

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Hungarian Jews being sent to Extermination Camps

Adolf Eichmann summed up the attitude of many when he said regarding his work to deport hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz in in just a few weeks during the fall of 1944, “Whether they were bank directors or mental cases, the people who were loaded on those trains meant nothing to me.” Speaking to Willem Sassen in 1957 Eichmann reveled in that accomplishment, “It was an achievement that was never matched before or since.” Eichmann also enjoyed leading his victims on, pretending that he might listen, and they might change his mind. Eichmann was proud of what he did. He told his staff, “I will leap into my grave laughing because the feeling that I have five million human beings on my conscience is for me a source of extraordinary satisfaction.”

Hannah Arendt wrote of Eichmann:

“The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.”

This was what made the Holocaust committed against the Jews of Europe by Nazi Germany a phenomenon different than other genocides. Many of the perpetrators were not driven by centuries old hate as in the Balkans, tribal blood lust as occurred in Rwanda, or the products of Soviet Communism or Communist Chines Maoist regimes, but a profoundly racial ideology.

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It was the racial ideology of the Nazis which deemed the Jews and other non-Aryans to be sub-human. That ideology undergirded the German treatment of the Jews, and the conduct of the war, especially in the East. But the execution of the plan required the bureaucratic, administrative, technical and legal skills brought to the table by ordinary men. These were men who sought promotion, advancement, and economic security for their families. Individually many would have never killed, but they ran the rail networks, the factories, the banking and finance industries and supported the war effort, most not thinking much about the evil that they abetted or if they did finding a way, be it social, scientific, religious, patriotic, legal or simply in the name of efficiency.

Survivors of Auschwitz

That is what makes the evil committed by them so terrifying. It is the product of “normal” people in an advanced Western nation. Make no bones about it, their actions were evil. They aided and abetted the genocide of the Jews, the disabled, other “sub-human” races, particularly Slavs, as well as those that they deemed less than suitable. Sadly, human beings, even Americans have that same capacity to commit genocide.

I think that the most chilling thing about the Holocaust was that the greatest atrocities were committed by ordinary men, sometimes well educated, decent family men. These were men who simply executed orders and often went home at night. Arendt wrote that “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” She was right, there was an ordinariness to the evil perpetrated by the Nazis, at the same time there are those who consciously decide to participate in evil.

It is important that we do not forget the Holocaust. It is also important to recognize that the instruments of that horror were on the whole “ordinary” men who as they saw it were simply doing their job. It is something that everyone needs to remember. Bettina Stangneth wrote “Systematic mass murder is not just the sum of isolated instances of sadism but the result of a political thinking that is perverted from the ground up.”

So many of the perpetrators saw nothing wrong in what they were doing, in fact at his trial in Jerusalem Eichmann said, “To sum it all up, I must say that I regret nothing.”

The men and women who committed these crimes believed that their victims were less than human and like so many people even today, they had no empathy. Gustave Gilbert, an American Army Psychologist at the major War Criminal Trials at Nuremberg said it so well: “Evil is the absence of empathy.”

Today we have to be very careful. Christopher Browning wrote in his book Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Holocaust in Poland:

“I fear that we live in a world in which war and racism are ubiquitous, in which the powers of government mobilization and legitimization are powerful and increasing, in which a sense of personal responsibility is increasingly attenuated by specialization and bureaucratization, and in which the peer group exerts tremendous pressures on behavior and sets moral norms. In such a world, I fear, modern governments that wish to commit mass murder will seldom fail in their efforts for being unable to induce “ordinary men” to become their “willing executioners.” 

In such a world it is all too important that we never forget, especially now when we could be watching it begin all over again.

I’ll write more on this tomorrow.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Resistance is Never Futile: Sophie Scholl and the White Rose

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I have written about Sophie Scholl and the White Rose resistance against Hitler before, I spent time in September on my last visit to Munich to visit a number of the places where Sophie Scholl, her brother Hans, and other members of the resistance worked to write and distribute six pamphlets exposing the crimes of the Nazi regime. While distributing the sixth Sophie and Hans were caught when a maintenance man at Munich University spotted them and reported them to the Gestapo.

Tonight I watched the German language film Sophie Scholl: The Final Days. I found it to be an intensely emotional experience as I watched the film, shot on location in places that I have walked resonated in real time as I watch the freedoms that the United States was founded on being attacked in real time right now. I wonder how long it will be until the Constitution is turned upon its head and the law and the courts are turned into accomplices of terror.

I think the scenes in the film that were the most powerful to me were those that depicted the interrogation of Sophie by the Gestapo investigator Robert Mohr. He is a Nazi, but he is also a professional police office and investigator, devoted to the law, a law which though the words had not been changed since before Hitler’s assumption of power, had been commandeered by the Nazis to prescribe loyalty to the Hitler regime above all. The real Robert Mohr survived the war and lived until 1977

By the end of the film I was in tears, especially in the scene just before her execution her parents are allowed to visit her, and her father tells her that he is proud of her. Try as I might I couldn’t see my mother doing that for me, my late father yes, but my mother no. When in 2009 I visited them shortly after my father had been placed in a nursing home and I was in a state of emotional and spiteful collapse after my return from Iraq, I objected to her agreement with the Fox News pundits our their portrayal of the war and she called me a coward. I had spent seven months in Al Anbar Province with American advisors and our Iraqi allies, being exposed to constant danger and being shot at on several occasions. She would have been a perfect and obedient servant of the Third Reich. As a career officer returned broken from War I would have probably shared the fate of men like Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg and the other anti-Hitler plotters of the July 20th bomb plot. That night I left her house for a hotel, and though I have visited her and been to the house since then, I have always stayed in a hotel when visiting home. I haven’t been back since October 2014 and that is probably a good thing.

In their trial Hans Scholl, though berated by the President of the People’s Court, Judge Roland Freisler told him: I have served on the Eastern Front, as have many others here, but you haven’t. That is my feeling toward those who combat veterans who object to nationalist propaganda being disguised and patriotism by people who have never spent a day in uniform much less who have never put on a uniform, or even fewer who have served in harms way.

Honestly, in our current day I fear for freedom in this land, and I must always do my best to speak the truth. That might mean making waves or enemies, Lord knows how many supposed friends have condemned my political and religious beliefs because they do not reflect the the ideology of the supposedly Evangelical Christian America First followers of our current President, not to mention those who decide that they cannot speak up simply because they do not want to make waves in order to survive though they know in their hearts that their actions betray their faith and life.

Sophie wrote:

“The real damage is done by those millions who want to ‘survive.’ The honest men who just want to be left in peace. Those who don’t want their little lives disturbed by anything bigger than themselves. Those with no sides and no causes. Those who won’t take measure of their own strength, for fear of antagonizing their own weakness. Those who don’t like to make waves—or enemies. Those for whom freedom, honour, truth, and principles are only literature. Those who live small, mate small, die small. It’s the reductionist approach to life: if you keep it small, you’ll keep it under control. If you don’t make any noise, the bogeyman won’t find you. But it’s all an illusion, because they die too, those people who roll up their spirits into tiny little balls so as to be safe. Safe?! From what? Life is always on the edge of death; narrow streets lead to the same place as wide avenues, and a little candle burns itself out just like a flaming torch does. I choose my own way to burn.”

Though Sophie, Hans, and a number of their friends were executed and others imprisoned, their message got out. Smuggled out of Germany the sixth pamphlet was reprinted in the millions and dropped by the Royal Air Force and American Army Air Force over Germany. That leaflet said:

For us there is but one slogan: fight against the party! Get out of the party organisation, which are used to keep our mouths sealed and hold us in political bondage! Get out of the lecture rooms of the SS corporals and sergeants and the party bootlickers! We want genuine learning and real freedom of opinion. No threat can terrorise us, not even the shutting down of the institutions of higher learning. This is the struggle of each and every one of us for our future, our freedom, and our honour under a regime conscious of its moral responsibility…

Fellow Fighters in the Resistance!

Shaken and broken, our people behold the loss of the men of Stalingrad. Three hundred and thirty thousand German men have been senselessly and irresponsibly driven to death and destruction by the inspired strategy of our World War I Private First Class. Fuhrer, we thank you!

The German people are in ferment. Will we continue to entrust the fate of our armies to a dilettante? Do we want to sacrifice the rest of German youth to the base ambitions of a Party clique? No, never! The day of reckoning has come – the reckoning of German youth with the most abominable tyrant our people have ever been forced to endure. In the name of German youth we demand restitution by Adolf Hitler’s state of our personal freedom, the most precious treasure we have, out of which he has swindled us in the most miserable way.

We grew up in a state in which all free expression of opinion is unscrupulously suppressed. The Hitler Youth, the SA, the SS have tried to drug us, to revolutionise us, to regiment us in the most promising young years of our lives. “Philosophical training” is the name given to the despicable method by which our budding intellectual development is muffled in a fog of empty phrases. A system of selection of leaders at once unimaginably devilish and narrow-minded trains up its future party bigwigs in the “Castles of the Knightly Order” to become Godless, impudent, and conscienceless exploiters and executioners – blind, stupid hangers-on of the Fuhrer. We “Intellectual Workers” are the ones who should put obstacles in the path of this caste of overlords. Soldiers at the front are regimented like schoolboys by student leaders and trainees for the post of Gauleiter, and the lewd jokes of the Gauleiters insult the honour of the women students. German women students at the university in Munich have given a dignified reply to the besmirching of their honour, and German students have defended the women in the universities and have stood firm…. That is a beginning of the struggle for our free self-determination – without which intellectual and spiritual values cannot be created. We thank the brave comrades, both men and women, who have set us brilliant examples.

For us there is but one slogan: fight against the party! Get out of the party organisation, which are used to keep our mouths sealed and hold us in political bondage! Get out of the lecture rooms of the SS corporals and sergeants and the party bootlickers! We want genuine learning and real freedom of opinion. No threat can terrorise us, not even the shutting down of the institutions of higher learning. This is the struggle of each and every one of us for our future, our freedom, and our honour under a regime conscious of its moral responsibility.

Freedom and honour! For ten long years Hitler and his coadjutor have manhandled, squeezed, twisted, and debased these two splendid German words to the point of nausea, as only dilettantes can, casting the highest values of a nation before swine. They have sufficiently demonstrated in the ten years of destruction of all material and intellectual freedom, of all moral substance among the German people, what they understand by freedom and honour. The frightful bloodbath has opened the eyes of even the stupidest German – it is a slaughter which they arranged in the name of “freedom and honour of the German nation” throughout Europe, and which they daily start anew. The name of Germany is dishonoured for all time if German youth does not finally rise, take revenge, and atone, smash its tormentors, and set up a new Europe of the spirit. Students! The German people look to us. As in 1813 the people expected us to shake off the Napoleonic yoke, so in 1943 they look to us to break the National Socialist terror through the power of the spirit. Beresina and Stalingrad are burning in the East. The dead of Stalingrad implore us to take action. “Up, up, my people, let smoke and flame be our sign!”

Our people stand ready to rebel against the Nationals Socialist enslavement of Europe in a fervent new breakthrough of freedom and honour.

Honestly, I do not know how many Americans today regardless of their political party who would if faced with the possibly imprisonment and death of speaking out against the anti-American, illegal, and unconstitutional actions of the Trump Administration, or for that matter any administration. Sophie said “Somebody, after all, had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don’t dare express themselves as we did.”

Freedom matters, as does truth. There is no excuse for the Christian to stay silent in the face of evil. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak.”

Never forget that resistance is never futile.

So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Life Unworthy of Life: a Visit to the T4 Euthanasia Center in Hadamar


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Yesterday was our last full day with our friends in Hessen before driving to Munich tomorrow so we can fly home on Thursday. It was a good day.

In the morning I went with our friend Gottfried to the T4 Euthanasia Center memorial at Hadamar which is about 12 miles from where he lives.

Hadamar had been a mental hospital for decades before it was chosen as one of six places where an euthanasia program ordered by Hitler was to be conducted.

Between 1941 and 1945 over 15,000 people, deemed to be “life unworthy of life” were murdered, either in a bus garage where they were killed with carbon monoxide gas, the gas chamber, or by lethal injection or intentional overdoses of barbiturates while laying in bed at night. The gas chambers at Hadamar ceased operations at the end of 1941 and were removed, making the killings in the next stages “up close and personal” killings done by medical professionals.


Those killed included men, women, and children deemed to have diseases, handicaps, or mental illnesses that kept them from being a useful part of the German economy, or a drain on society. Likewise, there were many people brought to Hadamar to be sterilized so they could never reproduce. The orders for this action came from Hitler himself and were based on what were in the early 20th Century very popular expressions of Social Darwinism which were not isolated to Germany. Sadly, there were those who expressed the same thoughts and conducted medical experiments and sterilization short of euthanasia in many Western countries, including the United States.

The victims included the handicapped, the mentally ill, those born with Down’s Syndrome or other neurological diseases, Jews, people with long term illnesses, children, people determined to be asocial, and during the war soldiers, including those of the Waffen SS who were determined to have mental illness, including what we would now call PTSD which made them unfit for active service.

The relatives of those killed received notification from the authorities that their son, daughter, sister, or brother had died of natural causes, certified by the doctors who had decided that they should die. Unlike the extermination camps in the East, or the concentration camps, the killing in Hadamar and the other T4 centers was conducted by medical personnel. Most of the up close and personal killing using lethal injection or barbiturates were conducted by nurses under the direction of physicians. When the first phase, that which used carbon monoxide gas in the bus garage was ended, many of the personnel involved were transferred to help run the extermination camps including Treblinka, Soribor, and Auschwitz in the east. Their service at Hadamar was little more than a training ground for their future employment.

I will write more about the T4 Program and Hadamar at another time. That being said I have to admit that the visit was chilling. In addition to being a memorial, with historical classes, seminars, and tours being offered, the campus is used for many other activities, including medical and educational programs. Likewise, unlike places like Dachau, which are not particularly scenic locations, Hadamar, located in rural Hessen is a place that one could never imagine mass murder ever have taken place. It is a beautiful and peaceful location, so the crimes that happened there, although numerically small compared to other camps are unimaginable.

Afterwards Gottfried and I talked and went back to his house. I went on a walk to the town hall, or the Rathaus to see the towns memorial to the Jews who lived there before the war and then I took a walk in the surrounding area and went back to the Jewish cemetery which I had visited last night as the grave stones could not be read in the dark. Those which were still legible were written in Hebrew and or German and most dated to the 1800s and early 1900s. As I mentioned last night the Jews who remained in Loehnberg were forced to sell their houses and belongings and were sent to the extermination centers. At least one survived and she helped dedicate the memorial at the Rathaus in 1991. One thing that I do like about Germany is that the majority of the people now have the opinion that the crimes of their parents, grandparents, or even great-grandparents generations need to be remembered, and the victims, and not the perpetrators be honored. I wish it was that way in the United States where we honor too many of the men who brought genocide to the Native American tribes, or enslaved African Americans and considered both the be less than human.

As I walked through the forests and meadows surrounding Loehnberg after my visit to Hadamar yesterday, as well as Dachau, the White Rose Memorial and museum in Munich, and the National Socialist Documentation Center in Munich I did a lot of thinking. I wondered about people who could excuse such terrible crimes in the name of love of country, or even worse because they really believed that God thought that their country and race mattered more than others. I began to think about Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism in the light of what happened in Germany, a people who believed for close to 80 years that God intended them to dominate Europe and even the world. Many of theological writings of the times in Germany and the United States.

But anyway, tomorrow we fly home.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Medieval Towns, Cathedrals, Monasteries, and a Jewish Cemetery: a Day in Hessen


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

We are enjoying our time with our old friends in Germany and the past two days have been rather relaxing. Today we got some shopping in and I got to take a lot of pictures in the city of Limburg which is about twenty kilometers from where our friends live. I got some nice pictures of some of the old buildings as well as the cathedral which has a different look from most other cathedrals in Europe especially its exterior. While the earliest church dates to around 910 A.D. the current cathedral was completed about 1230 A.D. It is dedicated to St. George. The architecture is mostly Romanesque but the area around the high altar is Gothic. It and the city with its timbered houses are well preserved and have pretty much avoided the ravages of time, it is beautiful and well worth hour or so trip from Frankfurt should you be in the area. We also were invited to the last remaining tower from the old city wall which is on the Lahn River and now maintained by the local German Navy veterans chapter. There is much naval and maritime history maintained in it and our visit there with Gottfried, his wife Hannelore, another old friend, Franz, and a member of the local group who opened it for us was quite nice.


Yesterday, (Sunday) I made a trip with my friend Gottfried to a former Benedictine monastery at Altenburg. Founded in 1178 the church itself was completed in 1268 and dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel. It was plundered during the 30 years War and though the monastery burned in 1952, the church survived. The monastery has been renovated since. The church is still active but for the last 200 years has been a part of the Evangelisch (Lutheran) Church. We arrived toward the end of the sermon during the service and I found it interesting to see how much of the liturgy in German, both Catholic and Evangelisch that I remember and easily I can worship in that environment as compared to most American churches.


After we returned from Limburg this afternoon I took a late walk in the town and in the surrounding countryside at dusk and didn’t finish until night had fallen. While I was walking I came upon the Jewish cemetery which is in the forest outside of town. Loehnberg had a small, and sometimes itinerant Jewish population dating back to the early 1600s. In 1927 there were three families in the town, the Sternberg, Halberstadt, and Sieligmann families. I am going to try to find out more about them, but Edith Sieligmann at least survived and was invited back to the town in 1991 for the dedication of a memorial panel in the Rathaus, the current town hall which the Nazis had forced the family to sell at a minimal price. The cemetery is in the forest surrounded by a fence and locked after by the town. Since I saw it as it was getting dark I could not read the grave stones but hope to get a walk or run out that way tomorrow as well as to see the memorial panel in the Rathaus, where I might find more information.


In the morning here we will be going to the Hadamar T4 Euthanasia site where thousands of people, mostly people who were physically handicapped, or mentally disabled in some way, including young children were killed. The T4 sites were the first facilities opened for the purpose of killing in Nazi Germany. Their gas chambers and gas chamber experts became the men who operated the extermination camps, including Auschwitz in Poland.

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Path of Remembrance: A Visit to Dachau

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Holocaust survivor Yehuda Bauer wrote: “The horror of the Holocaust is not that it deviated from human norms; the horror is that it didn’t. What happened may happen again, to others not necessarily Jews, perpetrated by others, not necessarily Germans. We are all possible victims, possible perpetrators, possible bystanders.”

The picture that you see above is the memorial to the Unknown Prisoner at Dachau. The words: “Den Toten zur Ehr, den Lebenden zur Mahnung” [To Honor the Dead, to Warn the Living] are engraved at its base.

Yesterday, Munich time, I took short excursion to Dachau in order to visit the Concentration Camp. I have been to Dachau a number of times beginning back in 1996. For me as a historian of the period the trip is both for learning and for meditation, for beyond its historical significance this is a holy place, a place made holy by the blood of tens of thousands of victims of one of the most evil regimes in history. The crimes committed by the staff of Totenkopfverbande SS guards from it’s inception were intended to terrorize and dehumanize the inmates who included political prisoners, religious objectors, Jews, and homosexuals. They were not there because they were convicted of any crimes, in fact many had actually been exonerated by courts, or had served what ever sentence they had been convicted of, but upon release were picked up by the SS and taken to Dachau.

Prisoners were told on arrival:

Here you are, and you’re not in a sanatorium! You’ll have got that already. Anyone who hasn’t grasped that will soon be made to. You can rely on that . . . You’re not prison inmates here, serving a sentence imposed by the courts, you’re just ‘prisoners’ pure and simple, and if you don’t know what that means, you’ll soon find out. You’re dishonourable and defenceless! You’re without rights! Your fate is a slave’s fate! Amen.

In the Camp they were subject to punishment for even the most minor or perceived infractions, beatings, whippings, and other punishments were meted out by guards who themselves were punished if they showed any mercy or human kindness to a prisoner. “While an offender sentenced to a term in prison knew when he was going to get out, release for the concentration camp inmate was determined by the whim of a quarterly review board, and could be delayed by the malice of any of the SS guards.”

Theodore Eicke, the commandant who systematized the Concentration Camp system created a world that his subordinate, and the later Commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Hoess described:

“It was Eicke’s intention that his SS-men, by means of continuous instruction and suitable orders concerning the dangerous criminality of the inmates, should be made basically ill-disposed towards the prisoners. They were to ‘treat them rough’, and to root out once and for all any sympathy they might feel for them. By such means, he succeeded in engendering in simple-natured men a hatred and antipathy for the prisoners which an outsider will find hard to imagine.”

Even a brutal man like Hoess found the brutality hard to watch, he recalled the “malicious evil-minded, basically bad, brutal, inferior, common creatures’ amongst the guards, who compensated for their sense of inferiority by venting their anger on the prisoners. The atmosphere of hatred was total.”

In the twelve years of its existence the staff of Dachau, through mistreatment, execution by bullet, gallows, through being used as subjects in grotesque medical experiments, by “execution by work,” or untreated illness and disease, murdered 41,566 prisoners. The point to be remembered is that despite this incredible number of murders that Dachau was not an extermination camp.

I took the S-Bahn from Munich-East to Dachau, a trip of about 30 minutes. While there I read the chapter in Richard Evans book Third Reich in Power that described the establishment and operations of Dachau and the other early Concentration Camps, from which all of the quotes above this are from. When I got off the train I had a choice of taking a bus to the camp or walking to it via the path known as the Weg des Erinnerns or Path of Remembrance. I chose the walk which was about two miles. Along it there were markers with parts of the history of Dachau and what the prisoners experienced from getting off a train to getting to the camp. The path winds through the town along the street now named Friedenstrasse, (Peace Street) and through John F. Kennedy Platz.

As I neared the camp the signs pointed out the SS Training School and housing for the SS guards. Then it left the paved road and went onto a trail which was uncovered in 2004. This trail is named Strasse der KZ – Opfer, or the Street of the Concentration Camp Victims, or perhaps better translated, “Sacrificial Victims” which was the path that the prisoners took from the SS barracks to the camp itself. It ended at the Hauptwache, the main guardhouse which also functioned as the entrance to the camp.

I went through the wrought iron gate with the cynical words Arbeit Mach Frei, work makes you free in the center of it. On entering to the right is the camp’s administration and headquarters building which now serves as a museum. Since I spent a lot of time at the museum last year I went left which took me down the western perimeter of the camp with its barbed wire fences and guard tower with the foundations of the camps prisoner barracks to my right.

Eventually I reached the location of the execution grounds and the crematorium. I had been there in 1996 but the weather was so cold and damp that I didn’t stay long and I have never found the pictures that I took then. Today I spent more time there, for it is truly the holy place in the camp. Even though there were a good number of people there, including a tour group, it was very quiet. I heard very few words as I walked the area. The first thing I did was to walk the execution grounds around the crematorium. In front of the building the former location of the camp gallows was marked. Behind the building was a memorial with a Star of David crowned with a Menorah and a marker to the thousands of unknown victims. Walking to the right of it down a gravel path that winds through a small grove of trees along the camp wall there were other markers to where the ashes of those murdered were unceremoniously deposited between 1933 and 1945.

But perhaps the most chilling marker was at the place where SS guards executed prisoners up close and personal with a pistol shot to the nape of the neck. The wall behind where they knelt still stands a long with the blood ditch. After that I walked to the crematorium. At the south end there is the delousing station. The camp was designed with a gas chamber for which there is no credible information of it ever being used. Instead, prisoners who were no longer fit for work were either given lethal injections in the infirmary, sent to extermination camps, or the former T4 Euthanasia site in Hardheim.

Had it been used the the procedure would have been much like the other camps where the unknowing prisoners walked in their camp uniforms which were then removed so they could go into a waiting area before they entered the “shower” or as it is marked over the entrance, the Brausbad. At Dachau this cynically named room was the a gas chamber that was designed to hold up to 150 prisoners. Once they were in the chamber the specially constructed doors which would make the chamber airtight were shut. Then SS men on the roof would release canisters of Zyklon-B gas into it. Within minutes the prisoners were dead, their bodies showing their final agony as many tried to escape the chamber. This was common at other camps as well as in the extermination camps.

Once the executioners had determined that the prisoners were dead and the gas was evacuated from the chamber, other prisoners would enter to remove the bodies to another waiting room, in which the bodies were staged before they were taken to the four chamber crematorium for cremation. Their ashes were then deposited in the areas nearby. At the end of the building another waiting room contained bodies of other prisoners who had been executed by pistol, or died of beatings, whippings, or disease.

The walk through those areas of the camp as well as the walk up the Path of Remembrance brought me close to tears at many points as I imagined what it must have been like. I was in a somber mood when I left that area and walked past the Russian Orthodox, Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish religious shines along the north edge of the camp. I think that the Jewish one was the most poignant to me. Across it were the words of Psalm 9:21 in German, and as one walks down into it a hole at the top off the monument’s roof allows light to stream into the darkness.

Finishing that I walked down the eastern wall and fence, once again noticing the guard towers, but about halfway down I turned right and walked over to the center street between the rows of prisoner barracks, the street known as Appelallee where the prisoners were assembled multiple times per day for head count and inspection purposes. As I walked down that street which is now lined with trees and markers denoting which prisoner block was at each spot I could almost see the images of the emaciated prisoners falling out for inspection and their brutal guards.

Finally I arrived back at the area in front of the headquarters building which due to a recent commemoration was decorated with wreaths from the German government, the State of Bavaria, Israel, Romania, and other nations. The words Never Again were prominently displayed. As I walked out of the camp I saw a dedication in English, German, French, and Russian which said:

May the example of those who were exterminated here between 1933 and 1945 because they resisted Naziism – help to unite the living for the defense of peace, and freedom and in respect for their fellow man.

I left the camp and decided to take the bus back to the train station where twenty minutes later I was back on a S-Bahn train to Munich.

You may wonder why I took the time to go into such detail about this walk. The answer is the same that I choose to walk civil war battlefields, it is to being to try to understand what the people there were seeing and experiencing. Of course there were the prisoners who were so savagely treated by their jailers. Then there were the bystanders, the citizens of Dachau and other German cities who watched as Jews, political enemies, and others were marched to the camp, which was not a secret installation. Finally, there were the perpetrators, very few of whom were punished for their actions.

But another reason is that the survivors, be they victims, perpetrators, or bystanders are rapidly passing away. Soon none will be left. When that happens it is up to us the living to ensure that this is not forgotten and that those murdered at Dachau, the other Concentration Camps, the extermination camps, and those killed by the murder squads that went from one end of Europe to the other in a systematic attempt to wipe every Jew that they could find off of the face of the earth. Yes, there were other victims, but the Nazi crusade against the Jews knew no boundaries, physical or time included. Unlike every other genocide it extended beyond national borders, or time; it was an eschatological crusade that by the will of Hitler was limited by only one factor, the complete military defeat that was inflicted on Nazi Germany by those who she attacked.

Finally, the story must be told because there are those who either claim it didn’t happen, or are tired of talking about it. In Germany those include leaders of the new-Nazi AfD (Alternative for Germany) Party. In the United States, Britain, and other nations there are members of many new-Nazi and Alt-Right groups who desire very much the same thing, but if decent people decide not to speak out, if we remain silent, there is nothing anywhere that will keep these ideological descendants of Hitler from beginning it again, if not to the Jews, to other despised racial, religious, ethnic, or ideological groups. We live in a world where demagogues take advantage of people’s legitimate anxieties and deeply ingrained prejudices to stir up ungodly anger and hatred in order to both gain new followers and to incite those followers to a campaign of violence.

Doctor Timothy Snyder wrote:

“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.”

Today among other things I will visit sites associated with Sophie Scholl. She was a young Christian college student who led the opposition group the White Rose, which during 1941-1943 attempted to tell the truth about what the Nazis were doing. They were found out, and most after trial were beheaded in Munich. There is a small marker to her and the group just about a block from the hotel on the wall of a building. Her grave is in a cemetery less than a mile from the hotel.

The one thing about Germany as opposed to other nations, including Japan in China, Korea, and much of Asia, Russia and the mass exterminations of Stalin’s time, Belgium in the Congo, Britain in many of its colonies, much of Eastern Europe, Turkey, and yes, even the United States has faced its responsibility to remember the victims of their most evil and lawless government. If only other nations would take such deliberate steps to acknowledge their crimes. It may have taken over a generation for that to become a part of Germany’s being and part of their moral voice today. In Germany the monuments stand not to the perpetrators, but to the victims. An they are not just monuments, dedicated to memory, but the German words Denkmal and gedenkstatte contain the German word for think, meaning that they are not just there for people to remember a mythological past, but rather to be a part of the now living the history of those days for the living to ponder and to serve as a warning that it can happen again.

In a world where nothing is guaranteed and where those who deny or minimize the Holocaust attempt to find legitimacy and to silence good people I have to speak up. I cannot allow myself to become a bystander and let it all happen again, not to the Jews or anyone else.

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under ethics, faith, History, holocaust, nazi germany, News and current events, Political Commentary

“Denial” on the Trip to Munich

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Yesterday I flew to Munich and was able to to see a film that I should have taken to watch a long time ago. The film was Denial which is based on the trial of the libel trial against Deborah Lipstadt by the infamous Holocaust denier and fake historian David Irving. The film was worth it and I have decided to while in Munich again travel to Dachau. This time by myself to walk the perimeter, and this time, the Gas chamber. I’ll do it on a day with bad weather. I will get up early and allow Judy to sleep in and rest.

Holocaust deniers, and deniers of other instances of genocide or systematic racism, including those who still deny the evils of American slavery, or the extermination of Native Americans. The truth of the matter is that when it comes to these matters that all speech and all opinions are not equal. The fact is that the Holocaust happened, the same with so many other genocides, Armenia, Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia, the Native Americans, and yes the evil of the American system of slavery which was ensconced in law, and supported by Northern businessmen and bankers as much as it was the Southern slaveholders and politicians who pushed for slaveries expansion across the continent and into Central America and Cuba themselves.

The deniers do one thing well, they lie. In the film and in the real trial the issue came down to the veracity of David Irving, and the court found that he lied and twisted evidence to support his pro-Hitler beliefs. The same is true with other Holocaust deniers, as well as the proponents of the Noble South, the Lost Cause, and those that defend modern White Racism.

So while I am in Germany I will revisit Dachau, visit the graves and memorials to the anti-Nazi martyrs of the White Rose, and the T4 Euthanasia center in Hadamar. I have to do it so as the survivors pass away that someone like me, a gentile, priest, and historian can confront those that lie and deny in order to defend their ahistorical and evil ideology. Sadly, their ranks are growing, emboldened by what they believe is the support of the American President. Whether he actually supports them I don’t know, but they believe that he does and many of his words seem to support what they believe.

So as you read this I will have been in Munich a few hours. It will be a rainy day today, or at least the morning will. After we arrive Judy and I will settle into our hotel and weather permitting head down to the Fest in the afternoon or evening.

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Padre Steve’s Reading Rainbow: Some of the Most Important Books in my Life

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I think that it important to read, and read, and did I say read?

Barbara Tuchman wrote:

“Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. Without books, the development of civilization would have been impossible. They are engines of change (as the poet said), windows on the world and lighthouses erected in the sea of time. They are companions, teachers, magicians, bankers of the treasures of the mind. Books are humanity in print.”

Since I write about a lot of topics and because I am a historian as well as a stand up theologian, I read a lot and I frequently quote from other people in anything that I write. Sometimes I find that those who have gone before me have said things I want to say much better than I could on my own. Thus I am not afraid or ashamed to give attribution to them, after all, it is only fair.

But today I want to share some of the books that I think are important for anyone seeking to understand our world. In a sense, this is my Reading Rainbow moment.

Most of my picks deal with history, military, diplomacy, civil rights, politics, as well as baseball. Despite the fact that I am a priest I don’t have many books on theology, religion, or faith on my list, but then the fact is that I don’t see a lot, including many of the so called classics that hold up over time. So today just some of my reading rainbow.

Here they are in no particular order:

The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman

Street Without Joy by Bernard Fall

A Savage War of Peace by Alistair Horne

A Bridge Too Far by Cornelius Ryan

Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson

The Hot Zone by Richard Preston

The Nanking Massacre by Iris Chang

Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence

Hero: A Life of Lawrence of Arabia by Michael Korda

Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality by Danielle Allen

A Soldier Once… and Always by Hal Moore

To Kill an Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

The Centurions by Jean Larteguy

The True Believer by Eric Hoffer

The Past that Would Not Die by Walter Lord

The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass

The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt

On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer

The Summer of ’49 by David Halberstam

Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball by George Will

Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Why Don’t We Learn from History? By B.H. Liddell-Hart

They Thought they Were Free by Milton Mayer

Once an Eagle by Anton Meyer

Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the U.S. Military by Randy Shilts

The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Boenhoffer

Black Earth: the Holocaust as History and Warning by Timothy Snyder

This Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

Forever Free: the Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction by Eric Foner

The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk

The Wounded Healer by Henri Nouwen

Nuremberg: Infamy on Trial by Joseph Perisco

In the Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity by Jill Lepore

On Being a Christian by Hans Kung

The Crucified God by Juergen Moltmann

The Mystery of the Cross by Alister McGrath

Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power by Rachel Maddow

War is a Racket by Smedley Butler

The Iowa Baseball Confederacy by W.P. Kinsella

The Forgotten Soldier by Guy Sajer

The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn

American Scoundrel: The Life of the Notorious American Civil,War General, Daniel Sickles by Thomas Keneally

Lincoln at Gettysburg by Gary Wills

Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning

Perpetrators Victims Bystanders: The Jewish Catastrophe 1933-1945 by Raul Hilberg

And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts

Lincoln’s Lieutenants: The High Command of the Army of the Potomac by Stephen Sears

The Nazi Doctors by Robert Jay Lifton

Sorry, no descriptions or intros included, but trust me. They are all worth the read. Anyway, those are just some of my favorites on from my Reading Rainbow. Yes, there are plenty more, but that’s all for now.

Have a great day and as always,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Loose thoughts and musings, philosophy