When you approach the gatehouse of the concentration camp Buchenwald on a summer day and pretend to not know what’s behind, you would be easily able to imagine that this is the entrance of a vintage recreational park, romantically placed between the trees of the Ettersberg. But you know.
You are still on the other side of the gate. But the world changes behind the small iron door with its untypical modern and mirrored letters.
Those letters were made by Bauhaus student and Buchenwald inmate Franz Ehrlich (1907-1984), later architect of the famous Funkhaus Nalepastrasse in Berlin. He chose a typeface which was inspired by everything he learned from his teachers Herbert Bayer and Joost Schmidt. A modern design, which was condemned by the Nazis and called “entartet” (degenerated) on other occasions. But the the Nazi on watch wasn’t able to decode this revolutionary act of design. Shit happens, when you’re ignorant.
But the Nazis got their way with the content. “Jedem das Seine”. To each their own. Everyone gets what they deserve. Mounted on the inside of the gate, directed to the prisoners. Decades later, inmates still report the trauma they got from this perfidious message.
When you pass on the other side of the gate, everything changes. No possible imagination of a summer day at the lakes anymore. A cold wind blows around your neck and you look at a huge, empty, concreted space. Even the ears start to ring slightly from so much nothingness. As Buchenwald is placed on a mountain and all the trees have been cut down, you are able to look far into the vast landscape. You can see farmers working the ground, you see traffic on the streets and everyday life happening everywhere.
For every inmate freedom was visible at any time. But they were trapped here between humiliation, dust, typhoid fever, lice, hunger, fight, smoke and death.
Always good business: Making money with slavery
277.800 prisoners have been here, 56.000 people lost their life in the camp. I learned, that the Nazis killed two birds with one stone with the concentration camps. They followed their cruel ideology AND earned tons of money: Up to 2 Million Reichsmark a month. The monthly salary of a worker in 1939 was 167RM, a VW costed 950RM. Earning money with slavery was always good business.
Kids with weapons
During World War One a carreer in the military was mostly reserved for aristocrats. Whereas the Nazis recruited young impressionable men by the score. They felt honored to serve and to belong. Most of the SS officers in Buchenwald were not older than 18 years. Kids with weapons.
The double life of the Nazis
Topf&Söhne was once a normal industrial company with righteous engineers in Erfurt. But when Buchenwald camp asked them to build incinerators to burn dead people more efficiently, they did. Their engineers then have also been to Auschwitz to plan and to execute huge incineration plants. They have been the technicians of the Holocaust.
In a huge effort of research nobody found anything particularly evil on the characters of those people. Probably all of them went home in the evening, to kiss their children good night. There was even an openly Jewish accountant who’s relatives have been killed in concentration camps working there.
People abilities to compartmentalize are infinite.
The uptight research for a prove of the “Jewish race”
To fulfill their goals, the nazis desperately needed a prove of difference between the well promoted but totally invented “Jewish and Aryan race”. Research programs were installed to get there. In the following pictures you see a research done on the inmates of Buchenwald where every body part was measured, registered and compared. There was even an exposition on The physical and mental appearance of the Jews in Vienna in 1939.
Fake news become fake facts.
Buchenwald Memorial and todays politics
The former Head of the Buchenwald Foundation, Dr. Volkhard Knigge once said: Buchenwald is not a nostalgic institution. We heard, while being on the site, that the AfD (the right-wing extremist party in the German Bundestag) wants to transform Buchenwald from its actual status into something like a graveyard. People should come here and lay down flowers.
The AfD is widely known for a historical revisionism which just barely avoids to be holocaust denial. They want to stop the actual manner of examination and dealing with the holocaust and claim a u-turn in collective commemorative strategies (“erinnerungspolitische Wende um 180 Grad”). Their leader in Thuringia once called the Berlin Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe a “stigma in the center of our capital”.
Volkhard Knigge univited the representatives from AfD for a commemorative event because of conflicting goals:
- The goal of the Buchenwald Foundation is to sharpen the eye towards the endangerment of democracy and to encourage people to actively stand up in case of this endangerment. The ideal society in the eyes of the AfD on the other hand neither pluralistic nor democratic but a society with ethnic homogeneity. A state build on this ideals will always have violent exclusion as a result.
- Victims of the nazis invited to the event shouldn’t have to deal with denial or downplaying of their sufferings.
The AfD made 23% of votes in Thuringia.
How to deal with a memorial like Buchenwald today?
I wrote it already on my visit to Auschwitz: The only time in my life when I felt something like patriotism, was when I realized, that Germany was the only nation that dealt with guilt after a genocide. But I just read an article today that the supposed outcome I always imagined, is an illusion (German). Additionally, a 2020 survey in the US found out, that nearly two-thirds of US young adults are unaware of 6m Jews killed in the Holocaust.
How to deal with all of that? How to deal with a memorial in a political climate of hate and division? How to deal with a coming generation who won’t have the chance to listen to real victims or even perpetrators in their families? With people who lived through it? How to deal with other forms of communication and processing that are brought by up a younger generation in social media?
I hope we will find the right answers. If not, we will end up like the inmates of Buchenwald: Trapped, but with a view.
How do young people deal with the holocaust? (Try not to judge to quickly)
Movie from the Allied Forces after the liberation of divers camps (trigger warning)
Auschwitz on a sunny day
How fake news lead to genocide: House of the Wannsee Conference in Berlin
The researcher of the story of Topf&Söhne (German)