It is difficult for a conscientious traveller to pass through central and eastern Europe without reflecting on the wars, tyranny and oppression that have characterised this region for much of the last one hundred years. The anniversary of the start of the First World War in 2014 serves as a timely reminder that the peace and freedoms we enjoy today came at a devastating price. Whether we believe in the necessity of war or we are confirmed pacifists, I believe we should never forget the sacrifice and suffering of the millions who fell in battle or were persecuted on account of their race, religion, nationality, disability, political beliefs or sexual orientation.
The Topography of Terror Museum in Berlin provides a comprehensive and unsensational account of Hitler’s rise to power and the ensuing National Socialist (Nazi) regime until its collapse in 1945. This same period is also the subject of the permanent exhibition at the Documentation Centre in Nuremberg located in the former Nazi Rally Grounds. The Rally Grounds were intended to be the centrepiece for the regime, a 11 km2 complex of parade grounds, stadiums and deployment areas. While a number of large rallies were held there, the project was never completed and today only the unfinished colosseum-like Kongresshalle bears witness to the site’s ignominious history. Kim and I visited the Kongresshalle after dark (hardly a place to linger at night) and we both felt an eerie sensation knowing that eighty years prior Hitler had delivered addresses to the party faithful from the balcony before us.
What I find most striking is the pace of the Nazis’ rise to power in terms of how rapidly they were able to enact significant political and social change. For example, the book burnings and Jewish business boycotts began within months of Hitler becoming Chancellor and after only one year in power, the Nazis had succeeded in transforming Germany from a democracy (albeit an unstable one) to a totalitarian dictatorship without any effective political opposition. Six years later, they had convinced the German people of the necessity to go to war for the second time in 25 years. How they managed this remains a mystery to me. I understand how Germany’s economic situation in the 1930s created a fertile breeding ground for far-right nationalistic ideologies and I pay some credence to the notion of the ‘personality cult of Hitler’ on account of his supposed transformational leadership style. However while these factors may account for Hitler’s popularity during the early years of power, they do not satisfactorily explain to me how millions of free people could allow themselves to become subjugated to a state which practised evil on a scale rarely seen before or since. The worst of this state-sanctioned horror was the systematic extermination of an estimated 11,000,000 Jews, Poles, Romani, Sinti, political opponents, people with disabilities and homosexuals. One and a half million of these victims died at Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland.
We visited Auschwitz on a bright but bitterly cold day in December. Walking under the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei sign silhouetted against the clear blue sky, it is difficult to imagine the barbarity that occurred here. The buildings are still standing, the grass between them is green and lush and the barbed wire fence looks almost harmless in the midday sun. It is only when one steps inside the exhibition rooms that the true horror of what went on here is unnervingly revealed.
Two images from Auschwitz will stay with me forever. The first is an untidy heap of shoe polish tins that were confiscated from inmates on arrival along with all their other belongings. For me, this symbolises the intolerable cruelty and the wicked deceit practised by the Nazi regime. They lied to their victims, telling them to pack the possessions they would need to start a new life elsewhere. It is heartbreaking to imagine how those people must have felt at the moment when they realised that instead of polishing their shoes to go to work they would instead be taking them off to be led to their deaths.
The second image is of a large white house just beyond the perimeter fence. Camp commandant Rudolf Hess lived here with his wife and young family and it is said that he chose the location so that he could look out from his window and see the white smoke emanating from the bodies burning in the crematorium attached to the gas chamber. At what stage did Hess forget that those smouldering corpses were once human beings, many of them children no older than his own daughters?
Birkenau (also known as Auschwitz II) is 17 times the size of Auschwitz occupying an area of 265 hectares (about 360 soccer fields). Its scale has to be seen to be believed. While the Nazis tried their hardest to destroy the evidence of their evildoing, row upon row of chimneys are still visible in every direction and the remains of two large gas chambers can be seen beneath the rubble. The creepy watchtowers continue to provide 24 hour/ 360 degrees surveillance although the sadistic guards and machine guns have long gone.
After the end of the Second World War, the residents of central and eastern Europe were liberated from Nazi occupation only to be immediately subjected to a new oppressive regime this time controlled by the communist Soviet Union and lasting for 45 years. In Berlin, we visited the Stasi Museum to get a feel for what life would have been like for people living in the DDR (the former East Germany) during this period. The Stasi were the secret police employed by the Government to spy on and persecute its own people. At the peak of their powers, an estimated one in ten East Germans were employed by the Stasi in some capacity, most of them as paid informers supplying information on their neighbours, colleagues, friends and family.
The lengths to which the agents would go to collect information is almost laughable: listening devices hidden in wallets, pens and tie pins and secret cameras the size of milk cartons hidden in handbags seem amateurish and crude in comparison to today’s high tech surveillance methods. And yet for those unfortunate people who fell foul of the Stasi, the consequences were often very serious: imprisonment, solitary confinement and, in some cases, execution. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, most Stasi officers were not arrested but simply assimilated into everyday life. In many cases, they continued to live, work and socialise with the very people they had previously persecuted creating challenges for both aggressor and victim alike, as documented in Anna Funder’s excellent book Stasiland.
The nightmarish conditions of living under a totalitarian regime akin to the DDR was accurately presaged by the Czech writer Franz Kafka several decades earlier (we visited the fascinating Kafka museum while we were in Prague). Like Josef K., the central character of Kafka’s novel The Trial, a citizen of East Germany could be apprehended by ‘the authorities’ at any moment and imprisoned without trial or explanation. Orwell also saw it coming: the world of total surveillance he described in 1984 has many striking similarities with the East Germany of the 1960s and 1970s.
The DDR was obsessed with recording every meeting, conversation and movement made by its citizens to the extent that by 1989 it had amassed 111km of paper stored spine to spine, more than 1.4 million photos, videos and audio recordings and 39 million index cards. I think is important to note that this information was rarely collected for any practical purpose: evidence has little value if the right to a fair trial is denied. However, the knowledge that every aspect of your life is being monitored, captured and stored and might, at some later stage, be used against you is extremely effective at creating a climate of constant fear. The DDR is perhaps one of the best examples in history of how a governing elite was able to employ fear as a tool to achieve control over its people.
It is easy to dismiss the DDR and the Stasi as anachronisms, manifestations of twentieth century communism that have become irrelevant in our globalised neoliberal age (North Korea remains a notable exception). I take a different view. The DDR was first and foremost a totalitarian regime and its primary goal was to exert absolute control over its citizens. Communism was merely a convenient excuse for the governing elite to raise itself above the masses; one only need witness the plushness of the former offices of the Stasi directorate or gaze on the beautiful mansions of Pankow where the DDR leaders could escape out of sight from the workers to lead their comfortable bourgeois lives to understand their true motivations.
Throughout history, those who acquire power seek control. There is no such thing as a benevolent dictator. In my view, it is always wrong when those with more power try to exercise control over those with less regardless of whether their method is outright aggression (cf. the Nazis), covert surveillance (cf. the Stasi) or any other way they can find to suppress human liberty. The means never justifies the end. While central and eastern Europeans nowadays have high levels of basic freedoms, it is saddening to know that many people living in Africa, Asia and the Middle East are subject to oppressive, and in some cases, barbaric regimes.
In Australia and other western democracies, we enjoy individual liberties that are the envy of much of the rest of the world which not surprisingly makes us an attractive destination for those people fleeing persecution from oppressive governments. I will never forget how fortunate I am to live free of tyranny and war. However, this is not to say that the spectre of totalitarianism exists solely away from our shores. Recent revelations from Wikileaks and Edward Snowden have demonstrated that an emerging nexus of governments and corporations are plying a far more insidious form of control, playing on our fears and trying to convince us that we need our liberties curtailed in order to protect us from evil in the form of crime, terrorism or anarchy. Moreover, modern methods such as internet surveillance and unmanned drones are available to anyone with sufficient money and/ or political influence and are a far cry from a 5kg camera lodged inside a watering can. Over the last two decades, intelligence agencies have gained extraordinary powers to monitor, apprehend and hold without trial any Josef or Josefina K. suspected of wrongdoing.
Fortunately, awareness of what is happening is growing. The internet may have become another tool of control in the hands of the powerful (NSA, anyone?) but it is also an excellent means of organised resistance against oppression whenever and wherever it raises its ugly head. Groups such as Avaaz and Change.org have repeatedly been successful in elevating the needs of ordinary people over the wishes of the powerful elite all over the world. Hopefully in the future we will no longer need to fight wars to defend our liberties but instead harness the power of social media and crowdsourcing to achieve change. In the meantime, we can choose to live without fear and remember that vigilance against complacency is the price we must continually pay to secure our freedom.
Let me drink from the waters where the mountain streams flood. Let the smell of wild flowers flow free through my blood. Let me sleep in the meadows with the green grassy leaves. Let me walk with my brothers and sisters in peace. Let me die in my footsteps before I die down under the ground. (after Bob Dylan)
The entrance to Auschwitz I
Gate and railway track at Birkenau
Birkenau – the scale has to be seen to be believed
The women’s huts at Birkenau
Memorials to the victims of Auschwitz-Birkenau
Remains of one of the gas chambers
One of the countless watchtowers
Former Stasi headquarters, Berlin (now the Stasi Museum)
Hidden camera inside a jacket
Camera hidden in a wallet
Camera hidden inside a bag. The lens is behind the clasp
Bugging device hidden in a plug socket
Camera hidden in a tree stump
Camera hidden in a watering can
Scent jars. Collected from chairs once the target had vacated his or her seat (yes, seriously)
Majakowsring in Pankow, Berlin, where the DDR leaders led their comfortable bourgeois lives. The house once belonged to Chancellor Erich Honecker