In Germany, confronting the Nazi perpetrators

The SS commandant at Ravensbrueck could see the women's barracks and the roll call square from his balcony, says conservator Dietmar Gallinat, right, shown here with colleague Peter Wagner. (Toby Axelrod)

The SS commandant at Ravensbrueck could see the women’s barracks and the roll call square from his balcony, says conservator Dietmar Gallinat, right, shown here with colleague Peter Wagner. (Toby Axelrod)

Exhibit curator Alyn Bessmann, right, in the newly conserved home of Ravensbrueck's first commandant, presenting a special tour to employees and workers two days before an exhibit opened at the former women's concentration camp on March 20, 2010. (Toby Axelrod)

Exhibit curator Alyn Bessmann, right, in the newly conserved home of Ravensbrueck’s first commandant, presenting a special tour to employees and workers two days before an exhibit opened at the former women’s concentration camp on March 20, 2010. (Toby Axelrod)

BERLIN (JTA) — It isn’t easy facing the cold stare of a Nazi perpetrator, even in a photo. Increasingly, however, memorial sites in Germany are making the confrontation possible, opening a door that long has been sealed.

A new exhibit at the former Ravensbrueck women’s concentration camp in the ex-East German state of Brandenburg is the latest example.

“The Fuehrerhaus: Everyday Life and Crimes of Ravensbrueck SS Officers,” opened March 20, allowing a glimpse into the life of camp commandant Max Koegel and his SS underlings through informational panels arranged in his former villa, steps away from the barracks that once housed thousands of prisoners.

On April 18, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is due to visit the memorial for the first time to mark the camp’s liberation 65 years ago by Russian Red Army soldiers.

During a recent preview, members of the restoration crew and their spouses entered the peak-roofed house of Koegel, passed through the former dining area with its large fireplace, climbed the polished wooden staircase to the second floor and stepped out onto the balcony from which Koegel himself could survey the camp below.

The spheres of SS and prisoner “were two completely separate worlds,” exhibit curator Alyn Bessmann said. “We hope this [dichotomy] will be more tangible to the visitors now.”

The contrast “should make people think,” said restorer Dietmar Gallinat, 46, standing on the balcony. 

Koegel, notorious for his eagerness to punish prisoners for the slightest transgression, “was probably no different from the town baker” who ignored the brutality around him. “And there are still people who think this way today.”

“The whole thing has a kind of nightmarish atmosphere,” said painter Karsten Neumann, 46. “It is astonishing that people were capable of spreading such misery … and it is important to name these people.”

“When I think that they lived normal lives in these rooms, I feel sick,” said Neumann’s wife, Ulrike. “I felt I had to wash my hands after leaving the house because I did not want to touch what they had touched.”

Ravensbrueck reportedly is the third permanent exhibit on Nazi perpetrators mounted at a concentration camp memorial in Germany.

The first, about female camp guards, opened at Ravensbrueck in 2004. The second, also about guards, opened at the Neuengamme camp memorial near Hamburg in 2005.

At both sites, scholars thought it was time to confront perpetrators as a way to help Germans gain insight into a dark chapter of their own history and prevent future crimes.

The resulting exhibits highlight the victim’s perspective.

“The first thing you hear in the exhibit [about female guards] is former inmates speaking about these guards,” said Insa Eschebach, director of the Ravensbrueck memorial.

Major hurdles had to be overcome to launch the exhibit.

Skeptics, including survivors and their advocates, said such sites should be solely dedicated to the memory of victims. Some feared that exhibits about perpetrators might attract neo-Nazis or feed an unhealthy fascination with horror.

Eschebach counters that it was high time to confront the perpetrator after years of suppression.

In the former West Germany, memorials had been dominated by “a kind of religious intention,” she said, so chapels were built at such sites as Dachau, near Munich. And in the former East Germany, remembrance took on an anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist tone.

“If there was any mention of perpetrators, it was to say they were all sitting in West Germany,” Eschebach said.

After German unification in 1990, memorials started “providing historical documentation,” Eschebach said. “And with that came the question: Who were the perpetrators?”

New information centers opened in the early 1990s, including the “Topography of Terror” archive at the site of the former Gestapo headquarters in Berlin and the House of the Wannsee Conference, a villa outside Berlin where high-ranking Nazis met in January 1942 to map out the genocide of European Jewry.

A trove of archival material was suddenly available, and retired schoolteacher Werner Schubert was among those who took advantage.

At Wannsee, Schubert, now 85, learned that Rudolf Lange, one of the Nazis at the infamous conference, came from his own hometown, Weisswasser, in former East Germany.

Schubert’s work exposing the biography of Lange and naming other local Nazi criminals led a town leader to accuse him of “nailing perpetrators to the wall.”

“I answered that the perpetrators themselves are long dead, but they have children and grandchildren, and … they should deal with the past,” Schubert told JTA.

Increasingly, descendants of Nazi perpetrators have sought information themselves. At Neuengamme, a discussion group was started for them, said historian Oliver von Wrochem.

“The need to confront our own history is relatively large today, much more than 10 years ago,” von Wrochem told JTA. “That is partly because most of the perpetrators are no longer alive, so one can deal with this more intensively and more easily.”

But it is also because this history “is a part of their biography and they have started to think about it again.”

The daughter of a camp commandant and a granddaughter of a camp doctor once told Bessmann that “they very much wished to love their relatives and that they could not. And I think that this is something quite central in the country from which the perpetrators come,” she said.

But in a sense, all Germans might feel “related” to the criminals.

“In that moment when I stand before the perpetrator, I have a personal relation to him,” said Schubert, a former Wehrmacht soldier, though never a Nazi Party member, he said. The perpetrator “becomes like a neighbor. And when a personal relation is there, it is always hard.”

Empathy is a natural risk. Many debates have been heard in recent years in Germany as to whether films portraying Hitler, Goebbels or other high-ranking Nazis are too humanizing.

Bessmann isn’t concerned, having learned years ago from Israel’s Holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem “to show the perpetrator as a person whom we must confront.”

“And as a normal person, you just have to distance yourself from them,” said Schubert.

At a reception following the recent preview tour of the new exhibit, one of several roofers having a few beers together said he resented the fact that “we as grandchildren are still paying” for the crimes of the past. Another said he wanted his own grandchildren one day to learn about the past, “but it should not be exaggerated.”

Such views are not uncommon in Germany. But the resources are there for those who actively seek to know more.

“The confrontation with the perpetrator is so fundamental and important in this country,” Bessmann said, and “increasingly, people are ready.”

Today, however, the closest they may come to a confrontation is with a photo on the wall.


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