Bearing witness 2: Sachsenhausen

Notes from Berlin, 1

Appell

Roll-call at Sachsenhausen, February 1941.

Screening my film in Berlin last week gave me the chance to explore a city that I hardly knew. It seems timely to negotiate a new place, a new transport network—I was beginning to feel that I can only find my way from my house to Li Manshan’s village.

Rather than some anodyne heritage flapdoodle à la chinoise, here I’ll introduce Sachsenhausen concentration camp, with a sequel on Stasi sites in Berlin itself.

* * *

Having been so moved by Sarah Helm’s harrowing book on Ravensbrück, I had hoped to get there, but with limited time Sachsenhausen (cf. wiki and many more detailed sites) is more accessible, and anyway demands a whole day (and I’m acutely aware that we can be suitably horrified by our day-trip and then come home to friends for a nice plate of pasta with wine.)

At the same time, it’s deeply inspiring to see not only how well documented such sites are (including the Stasi memorials) but also how busy they are—the grounds are constantly full of school groups receiving the most important education.

All such camps saw prolonged use, both before the war (Oranienburg concentration camp started operating in 1933, moving to Sachenhausen in 1936) but also long after, under Soviet (indeed allied) and GDR regimes.

* * *

I visited Sachenhausen last Friday—which happened to be Hitler’s birthday, occasion for a repellant Nazi festival in parts of eastern Germany.

To arrive by train at Oranienburg station is itself disturbing, thinking of how the inmates reached the camp. One of the most hideous accounts at the site tells how in September 1939 the rabid inhabitants of the town abused 534 Polish Jews as they marched to incarceration and death—though they had been duped that the arrivals were themselves murderers, one suspects this wasn’t an exceptional case (Wachsmann, KL [definitive source on the camp system], p.230).

In the barracks I was taken aback by the sitting toilets and washrooms—of course, inmates were highly vulnerable in these places, often being brutally beaten to death there, so it’s hardly relevant to contrast the primitive conditions at Chinese laogai camps, or ordinary Chinese homes.

Inmates (from all over Europe, and Russia) included political prisoners, Jews, homosexuals, and “antisocials”. In autumn 1941 alone over 10,000 Russian prisoners of war were executed at the camp. But individual lives play an important role both in the exhibitions and online, such as Dutch resistance fighter Ab Nicolaas (who later became a clown), or the German Sinto Walter Winter.

camp mouth organ

As Helm describes harrowingly for Ravensbrück, even the twice-daily Appell roll-call (see photo at head of article) was purgatory.

The infirmary exhibitions are substantial too, including sections on medical experiments on young Jews and the reunion of survivors fifty years later; and on the camp brothel.

Brothel

Among the most disturbing exhibitions is in the watch tower, on the relations of locals with the camp and the SS—“What would we have done?” again. The SS were billeted in town, with their own bands, taking part in street parties. People recalled how as kids they were handed out balloons and lollies by the SS.

Tarantella

“Tarantella for German soldiers”—SS officers attending a folklore festival on Capri, alleged to be the Blockführers of Sachsenhausen who had been shooters in the 1941 Russenaktion.

 

Death march and “Liberation”, 1945.

After the war
Then on to the display about the Soviet camp 1945–50, just as gruesome—12,000 of 60,000 prisoners died there. Here too the documenting of individuals is sobering, such as the meticulous diarist Günter Sack, and Stella Kübler-Isaakson, a Jewish spy for the Nazis who was imprisoned here from 1946 to 1956 (see Peter Wyden, Stella, reviewed here and here).

The Soviet Special Camp was closed in 1950, but not all of the prisoners were set free. The majority of the prisoners sentenced by the Soviet military tribunal were sent to East German prisons. Some of the internees were tried during the Waldheimer cases in the GDR, and Soviet prisoners were deported to camps in the USSR.

The site’s GDR history (see here, with sequel here) provokes thought too. There are exhibits, including films, of the first commemoration in 1955, with GDR citizens touring the camp; after 1961, as the memorial calendar became more busy, it became a site of “anti-fascist education” even as the repression continued. From 1976 couples even visited on their wedding day—not a simple case of indoctrination, but often related to the sufferings of their parents at the camp.At the same time (as the catalogue describes), the state appropriation of the memorial for its own purposes was gradually subverted; peace movements, church groups, citizens’ initiatives, and “excluded groups” began chipping away at the GDR’s “monopoly on heroism”.

Again, you can choose if you can bear to watch films like this:

* * *

How such catastrophic moral failure occurred remains imponderable—so much for the German Soul. As Neil MacGregor asks,

How did the great humanizing traditions of German history—Dürer, Luther’s Bible, Bach, the Enlightenment, Goethe’s Faust, the Bauhaus, and much, much more—fail to avert this total ethical collapse?

It does indeed seem a bit late for me to take all this to heart now. I can’t claim that if I’d have trodden a different path if I’d been exposed to all this history in my teens, but still. And at least now with my work on China I’m not churning out the patriotic agenda of the glories of Han­–Tang music, or merely collecting happy folk ditties: it’s all political.

Until recently it might have felt a blessing to be English, not to have been beset by such agonizing dilemmas—yet another “What would we have done?”. But how admirable the Germans have become since the 1990s: not only do they put us to shame in their response to the migration crisis, but further to have set up this network of memorial sites—whereas in Britain there are many who not only consider themselves separate from Europe but still have the hubris to protest the exposing of the crimes of our own imperialism, denying the lessons of history.

I also hope that one day in China there will be meticulously documented sites like this, to commemorate the self-inflicted disasters of its own modern history (cf. Wu Wenguang’s Memory project, and here). Mind you, talking of memorials, here’s one in the southern USA.

In all these places—Germany, China, the USA, and so on—such traumatic histories are an essential aspect of the cultural soundscapes that we so blithely celebrate. Including the Chinese ritual soundscape. And Britain?

For Mahler’s prophesy, see here.

* * *

Returning to civilization, on my walk from the S-Bahn at Jungfernheide I would pass charming door statuettes over the entrances to pre-War apartment blocks in Herschelstraße and Fabriciustraße (for shutter catches in Venice, see here; for the accordion, see here). Ordinary domestic life… I wonder what happened to the inhabitants.

 

 

11 thoughts on “Bearing witness 2: Sachsenhausen

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