Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Topography of Terror

In a city for the first time and I plunge into its darkest historical moment by visiting the Museum of the Topography of Terror that chronicles Hitler's rise to power and the authoritarian state he created through the lens of the SS, SA, Gestapo and other police bodies. The museum is built on the site of the Gestapo headquarters - a somber grey building whose grounds are bounded on one side by the remains of the Berlin Wall, another, different tyranny.

It was the accumulation of detail that was so compelling and horrifying. There was no aspect of the state's infamy that had not been carefully recorded within the structures of its complex bureaucracy. Here you had examples of the many forms it took - orders, statements, photographs and films. Here all the victims were carefully acknowledged from political resister to Jew, mentally ill to homosexual, Roma to shot or starved Russian prisoner of war.

I was arrested in my own conscience by reading of those who had been 'protectively detained' for being simply criminals. Here the tenor of your horror dropped a little, ever so slightly. Your sympathy was not of the same quality and inwardly, noticing this, I recoiled. Look how easy it is, I thought, to begin making distinctions about people's rights - some are 'more' deserving of protection than others. It was ever so slight in my case but out of such cracks divides can be made. Consciences silenced because 'they' are not like 'me'!

And this terror was obviously something for which many factors slowly combined in history and also something that felt suddenly unleashed.

There was a very moving account I listened to of a woman recounting what happened to her family when they found themselves designated as 'Gypsies'. One year they were in a settled pattern of summer travel in a theatre troop and a winter at work in casual service jobs; the next year they find themselves forbidden to travel. Their innocent (and popular) entertainment no longer desirable because its performers are designated 'other': hostile to the values of the 'Volk'. She was sent to Auschwitz and survived. Her parents did not. 

Alongside the cumulative displays of this material were the commentaries of modern German historians that were both helpful in providing context, good at helping you see what happened, but of no real help as to offering up why. Undoubtedly because 'why' is the wrong question if the expectation is a single answer, there are no doubt multiple whys that came together to create that brief, searing, horrifying period and this is part of its continuing dark fascination - its mystery.

But not to depart on a dark note: the museum's very existence is wholly commendable - a country excavating  its most painful period to the opportunity of continuous memory, not as guilt, a remarkably useless emotion, but as witness and determination to try and be something wholly other, a better self (community).

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