Remembering the Terrible Truth

The Unvarnished Truth

I was a young soldier, just nineteen years of age when I landed in Germany in 1985. In part, it was a big adventure, or at least the continuation of the one on which I had embarked when I’d enlisted two years earlier.  In my childhood, I had always been interested in history, particularly military history.  I was a child of the cold war, after all, when we lived in fear of a nuclear holocaust, with the very real possibility that the destruction of mankind was imminent, and that any moment could be the last.  We had to put it out of our minds, of course, because we needed to go on living.  Still, it hung there in the aether like the executioner’s blade poised before the downward swing that would mean the end.  It’s part of why I enlisted, after all.  What could be more important than to help stand as part of a deterrent against that? While in Germany, I learned many things, but one of them came during a unit trip, taken by bus, to a place less notorious than some others, but the name of which we must ensure will live in infamy: Dachau.  It was here that I faced what must be remembered as the terrible truth about the endpoint of irrational hatred.  It is the destination that senseless human hatred always seeks.  Less than three-quarters of one century later, that hatred is rising again, this time in an American political party, but if we are to defeat it, we must remember that terrible truth.  All of it.

It had been on the unit training schedule for some time.  It would be a trip by bus. Dachau lies to the Northwest of Munich. My unit was located at Ansbach, some thirty miles West of Nürnberg, but rather than travel by Autobahn 6 and then 9, perhaps providing the quickest trip, the buses took what might be called “the scenic route.”  We traveled over the German countryside, admiring the beautiful, pastoral scenery in the first light of the morning. Like so many mornings in Germany, there was a heavy mist, not quite dense enough to be a fog, but as the sun climbed higher into the morning sky, despite the intermittent cloud cover, it seemed to melt the mist away revealing the beauty of the hills and forests and farmland.  In places, the sun broke through the clouds in bursts of theatrical rays one expects to see only in movies.  On we traveled, and it seemed backward in time.  Even the smaller villages along our path seemed so misplaced, as if from an earlier age, with only the occasional bus or other automobiles to remind one that we lived in more modern days.  I think it was this that turned out to be the most unnerving thing about the trip. When we neared our destination, the clouds seemed to gather into a more uniform gray. The sun had gone, and it was quite humid. The morning light had dimmed and it seemed what had promised to be a nice day turned rather darker.

There, nestled among all this quaint, innocent rural simplicity was a facility dedicated to mass extermination.  The air was still heavy but also cool as we unloaded from the buses.  The guide led us through the remains of the facility, some preserved, but other portions now only the footprints of buildings, as they took us around the facility.  It’s hard to describe, but the place had a pall about it. It was dreary, perhaps properly so, as if the Earth itself had been intent upon memorializing the site. We moved down to where the crematorium had been. The scale of it all really astonished me.  My mind raced to grapple with the numbers that were being recited from memory by the tour guide, and I began to wrestle with the numbers of rail cars that must have arrived, turning murder into an assembly-line.

There is only one way such a thing can happen, and it is for people to dehumanize their fellow men – to disparage them as somehow less than human – and thereby exterminate them as one would an insect.  In fact, this is why people Farrakhan describe the Jews as “termites” or other creatures of similar inconvenience to human existence.  Truthfully, it’s the same reason we describe murderers as “monsters” and their acts as “monstrous.” Later, we will seek to extinguish them, so that they may never harm another person, and we therefore begin to dehumanize them from the outset, before their names are known, and all we know is their crimes.  This is a deeply normal human psychological process.  The danger in it is that too often, it is not merely our criminals who we seek to dehumanize, but also our political or social opponents.  Sometimes, it’s the bogeymen we erect in place of our own human shortcomings.

Hitler and his Nazi Party turned Jews(primarily) and others into their bogeymen and scapegoats.  According to their deeply irrational philosophy, every evil was due to the Jews, or due to the weak non-Jews whose loyalty had been purchased by Jewish money. This had been their claim and excuse.  It was the rationalized explanation for all they were doing.  It was all a lie.  Even the most psychologically broken of them knew it.  The adherents of similar theories today also know it’s a lie, but they make excuses for it.  They pretend that what Hitler and his henchmen did hadn’t happened, or hadn’t been so widespread, or that it wasn’t as bad as it had been made out to be.  This too is a lie.  In point of fact, it was much worse, and it was much deeper, and its roots lie in the most ugly of human motivations, so ugly that a prohibition and warning against it lies in the Ten Commandments of the Judeo-Christian tradition: “Thou shalt not covet…”

As we stood there in the morning dreariness of Dachau, we noticed that there was an odor to the place.  I don’t know or want to know what stench must have pervaded the air forty years before, when the US Army first liberated that place, but in the humidity of that day, I and others thought we might have gotten a small hint.  At least in the mid-eighties, death still haunted the place.  Maybe it was the power of suggestion.  Maybe it had been the photographs of what had been found upon the camp’s liberation. Perhaps it was the interminable misery that we all knew must have been the daily torture of that sickening place, combined with the sense among us that we were the military descendants of the men who liberated that camp.  All of these made it so much more real and so much more vivid.  Except for some of the senior Non-Commissioned Officers, and a few of the officers, we were nearly all under thirty years old, and a clear majority under twenty-five.  It was interesting to see that even the toughest of the tough guys among us seemed to have lumps in their throats as we surveyed the site.  At the root of it, part of our mission was to see to it that there would never be such a place again, and that even worse would not be visited again on this Earth.

I’m thirty-five years older, and at least a couple of years wiser than I had been.  The Nazi Holocaust was real.  Mass-murder in assembly-line factories, where the victims were processed, dehumanized, stripped even of their teeth, and murdered en masse, all of this was a feature of Nazi Germany – not a bug.  It wasn’t accidental.  It wasn’t an aberration.  This was the desired outcome of their leaders and not a few of their underlings. We must teach our young about this because one cannot remember that which one has never known.

I can’t pretend to tell you what you might feel upon visiting that place, but if you find yourself in Bavaria, please put it on your itinerary.  With the rise of anti-Semitism in the United States, I fear that the sort of vast ignorance and blind hatred and scapegoating so common in 1930s Europe might rise again here.  We see that we now have one major political party, the members of which will not condemn it.  We see that it is rationalized by their leaders and ignored for the sake of party unity even by some of their Jewish members.  It’s being white-washed and tolerated again. They’ve concealed it behind neutered platitudes about generic “hate,” all without confronting the naked anti-Semitism now rampant and increasingly acceptable in their party.  Those who had once vehemently pledged “Never again” seem now to be saying “Never Mind.”

We mustn’t let this happen. We must learn the truth and speak the truth.

Please visit the Dachau website and take the virtual tour. It’s not the same as being there, but it should provide you some idea of the scale of what happened there.

Assembly Line of Mass Murder

 

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