Munich is a beautiful city. But remnants of a horrific past remain, frozen in beer halls and town halls and city squares where a zealot named Adolph Hitler once propagandized crowds into celebrating his demented vision. Not far from the city center is a stark reminder of just how far this man was allowed to go—Dachau. I wish every single American could visit, to understand exactly what’s at stake when fear becomes the driving factor within a society.
My family just shared that experience. Our private guide was extremely well versed in history, so we got a tour not everyone who visits Dachau will hear. His words, and the simple experience of being in buildings where people were interred, interrogated, beaten, hung, starved, warehoused, worked to death, experimented on, tortured, dissected alive, gassed and finally cremated, raised ghosts who will haunt me forever.
The people sent to Dachau (not to mention 1700—no typo!—other concentration camps) weren’t all Jews or Gypsies. Some were Catholic. Jehovah’s Witnesses. Clergy. Polish people. Russian POVs. Homosexuals. “Asocials” (people of “lesser worth” like street musicians, homeless or the disabled). Communists (the party was recognized in Germany at that time) whose philosophies clashed with the National Socialist German Workers’ (Nazi) party.
The Nazi party gained control of the Reichstad (Germany’s parliament,) through the 1932 election, garnering 37.3% of the German vote. Because Hitler founded the party, he was appointed chancellor six months later and when the German president died, Hitler declared himself Fuhrer. That’s right, the Nazi party was voted in, and the driving factor was fear.
At the time, the German economy was interdependent with ours, and America was on the tail end of the Great Depression. In Germany, unemployment was upward of 35%. People stood in huge soup kitchen lines. I saw a photo. And on the wall of an adjoining building was a huge graffiti endorsement of Herr Hitler. Read: propaganda. Hitler was a master, and he used propaganda to manipulate people’s fear, bringing to the surface hatred of anyone who might compete for jobs or food. Hatred of anyone different.
The different, the undesirables, were forced into the camps. When they arrived, all possessions (identity) were taken away. They were warehoused, eliminating any sense of individuality. While still of value as unpaid labor, they were fed enough to keep them working. As hope faded and their willingness to toil in impossible conditions dissolved, rations were halved, and then halved again. Many committed suicide before torture, starvation or the death marches claimed them. In total, more than eleven million died.
Most Germans knew. And, largely, they stayed silent as Hitler invaded sovereign nations in his quest to conquer Europe, bombing innocents right along with the armies forced to defend their homelands. They stayed silent as the elderly and disabled were “put down”; as children were “educated” as Hitler Youth; as adolescent Arian girls were gathered as procreative hosts, then bred like Thoroughbreds, to create a cadre of “pure German” babies—“Hitler’s Children.” When good people do nothing—stay silent—evil flourishes.
Which is why I can’t stay silent now. Those ghosts are telling me I really need to point out the parallels in this country right now. We don’t have a Hitler as president. But our last president invaded a sovereign nation, plunging this country into ten years of war, little of it related to the events of 9-11. Megalomaniacal politicians are legislating against sexuality, gender, ethnicity, disability and “other than Evangelical” religions, as well as education, labor, the disenfranchised, healthcare and senior care. And let’s not forget women, who apparently should only be allowed sex as a means of procreation.
An uneducated populace is easily manipulated. Fed propaganda, the vote of a fearful person is easily swayed. Fear makes people hate, and the United States has become the ugly side of hate. Racists have crawled out of their holes and proudly fly their flags. Blue collar works cheer for corporations whose CEOs pay themselves millions while dialing back wages and benefits for employees. Teachers and firemen and policemen draw scorn. Damn the children who don’t belong to us. Damn the strangers whose houses burn. Worst of all, people bastardize their faith to give themselves reasons for their hate. WTF have we become?
I have traveled a bit of the world now. Before, I truly believed America was the shining example of democracy on this planet. Not any more. Don’t tell me I should leave. If everyone who felt like me shut up and moved away, evil would continue to flourish in America. The US is my home. I love it. Yet, I’m ashamed of what it’s become, and will continue to devolve into if we choose “representatives” who only care about what’s in the best interest of the few. Money must lose its place in our estimation, and in our politics.
We can change this tide. It starts with refusing fear. Refusing propaganda. Refusing to hate. It starts with returning to the very simple concept of loving our neighbors as ourselves. Accepting every person as a human brother. America should be a shining example to the world, and it can be again. But it won’t if we allow evil to flourish, like they did in Germany seventy years ago. History teaches us much. No wonder a few are so focused on rewriting it.
A statue outside the Dachau crematorium bears these words: In memory of those who died here. A warning to the living. Powerful words I needed to share with you.