A difficult question

31 10 2010

How did HItler get away with it?

The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, framed by a street sculpture.

As the seat from which he ran his brutal and murderous regime, it’s a question that permeates daily life in Berlin.

Its residents are reminded of it every time they pass by the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, a massive gothic cathedral in the heart of the city that was all but destroyed by Allied bombs during WWII; its shattered and scarred bell tower stands as a memorial to the price of war, nestled between a new bell tower and sanctuary, built in the 1960s as symbols of the new, rebuilding Berlin.

 

They’re reminded of it every time a visitor walks out of a souvenir shop with a paint-dabbed concrete, allegedly a piece of the wall that divided the city as a result of the treaty between the Allies that ended the war.

But it’s not a question Berliners, and Germans, shy away from.

A new exhibition at the German HIstorical Museum confronts it head on. Through historical  photos, documents, newsreels and artifacts, it follows HItler’s ascendance from a nondescript National Socialist Party worker to Fuhrer, with the blood of tens of millions on his hands. And it offers some theories on the why and how.

The Reichstag is once again home to Germany's government.

Frighteningly, they’re not very complicated.

Essentially, the German people, still smarting from their defeat in WWI, were ripe to buy into a leader who could tap into their aspirations to become a world political and economic power. Hitler may not have looked like much, but he was a savvy political animal who knew how to surround himself with people who shared his ideas; when those people decided Hitler was their guy to lead Germany out of the shadows of WWI, they used propaganda, fear, and intimidation to consolidate their power and enforce their ideas on the whole country. It was not unlike a cult.

Since it opened in the middle of October, the exhibition has been controversial and wildly popular. When we went on Thursday, there was a news crew filming in the lobby, and the exhibit hall was so crowded it was actually kind of hard to absorb  it all in any kind of leisurely, thoughtful fashion.

But across town, just down the street from Checkpoint Charlie, another free, outdoor exhibit touches on the same question.

In the shadow of a 500 meter long remnant of the wall, the Topography of Terror is a timeline of Berlin’s history as Hitler rose to power, the tactics used by the Nazi regime to attain that power and the role the city played in disseminating and enforcing it, from the construction of great monuments to Nazi aspirations like the Olympic Stadium to the night of terror inflicted upon the city’s Jewish population when many of their homes and businesses were destroyed and the people rounded up to be sent away to “labor camps,” to the campaigns of annihilation waged against the city’s homosexual community, mentally handicapped and gypsies – basically anyone who didn’t fit into the Nazi ideal of a “pure” Aryan race.

It was also very busy when we visited. People strolled slowly down the display, taking time to read the panels and listen to the audio presentations despite the cold weather.

Berlin's Olympic Stadium is now a historical monument.

It’s hard to fathom all this history is only about 70 years old, a blip in the human timeline – far enough from today to be mysterious and confounding, yet close enough to be frighteningly real. We can all hope that through such painfully reflective examinations of the past, that history won’t be repeated.

Synagogues and their worshippers no longer have to worry in Berlin.

 

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