Banality / Day 47 of 64 / 25 June
Today, most of my time was spent at the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp Memorial. I booked a tour of the camp online, and it would leave from the Brandenburg Gate at 9am. I reached the Brandenburg Gate at around 8.45am, and spent the next 10 minutes buying snacks and drinks. The tour takes about 5 hours, so make sure you have enough to eat and drink.
At around 9.05am, the tour left Brandenburg Gate, and we headed to Oranienburg, a town northwest of Berlin, by S-Bahn. The sleepy town of Oranienburg once housed the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, and today it houses its memorial site. Although the memorial is located on the actual site of the former camp, the memorial officials do constantly try to remind visitors that referring to the site as a “Concentration Camp” is inappropriate. This is to remind visitors that although they may leave the memorial site, many thousands of prisoners never had the chance to leave the camp. Referring to the memorial as a camp would negate the struggles of those that were imprisoned here.
Tower A, entry point for most of the victims of Sachsenhausen.
I won’t describe the tour in detail: there’s simply too much information, most of which can be found online too if you’re interested. But, I will describe what I think is the most important lesson that the camp can teach us. Two main themes seem to lie in the story of Sachsenhausen, one of the “rationalisation of evil”, and one of indifference.
A typical barrack in the camp. Originally built to hold only 75 people, most barracks held up to 400 people during the most overcrowded periods at Sachsenhausen. All 400 would have to share a small toilet like this before their morning roll call.
Much like the stories told at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the murders at Sachsenhausen were not only driven by a “evil disposition”, but they were driven by a “bureaucratic evil” as well. You might also call it a “rational evil”. The company that made the crematoriums for the camp was clearly not concerned about the evil it was abetting. It was a purely “rational” choice: building this crematorium was just another business contract. In a disgusting move, the manufacturers even introduced new technology that allowed the furnace to harness body fat to burn more efficiently: this feature was never used at Sachsenhausen as most people were shriveled and skinny by the time they finally died.
A memorial built by the DDR (East Germany) government. This memorial, unfortunately, only remembers political victims of the Holocaust. The red triangles at the top represent the red triangles sewn onto the uniforms of political prisoners. For propaganda purposes, the DDR chose to invalidate and nullify the stories of the many Jews, homosexuals, disabled people, and criminals that were also murdered here at Sachsenhausen.
The many scientists, accountants, and soldiers were also similarly implicated. So absorbed in finding the one best and most efficient method for murder, all ethics were cast aside in the pursuit of ultimate rationality and bureaucracy. Calculations and experiments to find the minimum amount of Zyklon B needed to kill a room of Jews. A soldier asking a prisoner to run towards the camp walls so he could shoot and kill him with a paperwork worthy reason: attempting escape. These are just some examples of the immoral rationality that thrived during the Nazi era. Rationality and science are amoral, the decision to act ethically always lies with us. Rationality wielded by those without a moral compass is a terrifying weapon.
A trench that was used to conduct executions by firing squad.
Station Z and its accompanying crematoriums was the end point for some of Sachsenhausen’s victims.
Indifference was another main theme in Sachsenhausen’s history. Beyond the walls of the camp was a completely different world: the Aryan world, full of happy families and a noticeable lack of murder or torture. Yet, it wasn’t the case that those living in Oranienburg didn’t know of the atrocities occurring just next door. It’d be hard to miss the cloud of human ashes that rained down on the town almost daily. Sachsenhausen was just something that locals didn’t talk about and didn’t care about. They, mostly being family members of SS soldiers, would probably never end up in a camp for Jews, criminals, and homosexuals. Simply put, it wasn’t their problem, so why bother. And it’s scary to think how this indifference allowed such horrible actions to occur unimpeded, not just in Oranienburg, but across the whole of Nazi Germany. Indeed, the indifference towards minorities during the Nazi period spawned one of the most famous poems on the subject: a poem that I feel best describes the story of Sachsenhausen, and that also serves as a reminder for contemporary society.
“First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
– Martin Niemöller
The tour ended at around 2.15pm and I headed back to Berlin by S-Bahn. My next stop was the East Side Gallery. Probably the longest segment of the Berlin Wall still standing, the East Side Gallery has become a canvas for artists to leave their mark on a historic monument. And of course, a trip to the Gallery isn’t complete without a photo of perhaps the most famous mural here. After walking the East Side Gallery, I returned to my hostel to rest.
If you don’t take photo of this iconic mural, you haven’t really been to Berlin.
Amazing doner for dinner from Mustafa’s Gemüse Kebap in Mehringdamm. The queue sometimes can be insane.