What Germany Did Right


  • Day 1: Cologne
  • Days 2-6: Romantic Road- Frankfurt, Rothenburg, Nordlingen, Augsburg, Fussen
  • Days 7-9: Munich
  • Days 10-13: Berlin and Potsdam

RTW Trip 2014: Peru→ Chile → Argentina → Antarctica → Argentina → Uruguay → Argentina→  Chile→ England → Morocco → Spain → France → Belgium → Netherlands → Germany → Czech Republic → Austria → Hungary → Croatia → Italy → Thailand → United States → Thailand → Laos → Vietnam → Cambodia → Australia → Taiwan

Dates: June 11-23, 2014

Our Odyssey: 

Put yourself in this conversation.

Our tour guide: In a study conducted by a psychology professor in the 1960s, where the experimenter used authority to order participants into administering what they believed were lethal doses of shocks to “participants” on the other side of the wall who were actually just actors, most people did it. Now, while no one was actually being shocked, the participants believed they were delivering real shocks to real people, and in this controlled situation with a powerful authority figure, they did it, even if they voiced concerns beforehand.

You: Well, maybe participants in that study figured the game out and knew they weren’t doing anything hurtful after all. I mean, I can’t imagine most people would knowingly hurt and endanger others. I certainly wouldn’t do that.

Guide: Some experts thought this too- so in the 1970s another group of researchers followed up with another experiment where they brought in college students as part of their coursework and asked them to administer shocks to a puppy. Now, in reality, the shocks were not very intense, but the students were told they were much higher, and the puppy would jump and bark in distress at the low shocks. Now, this experiment wouldn’t meet ethical standards today, but it does tell us something revealing. If the students protested about shocking the puppy, the experimenter would emphasize that this was for their coursework, and if they do not complete the study, they might not complete the course, meaning they wouldn’t get credit for the class and possibly not graduate on time or at all if they failed. These students were made to believe the stakes were high, and when authority told them to proceed with the shocks, most of the time, they did- men and women both.

You: Well not me, I wouldn’t hurt a puppy just for school credit…

Guide: Alright, well what if it was a pig, would you kill a pig via the lethal level of electric shock?

You: No, I wouldn’t.

Guide: So, you’re a vegetarian then?

You: Well no…

Guide: Oh you aren’t? But you do know that in order to eat a sandwich with bacon someone has to kill a pig, right?

You: Yes but I don’t like to think about where it comes from…

Guide: You don’t like to think about it?

You: Uh, well, I just want to eat it, I don’t actually kill it.

Guide: And if you went to the butcher and asked him why he was killing all these pigs, might he also say, hey, I’m just doing this because some lady wanted bacon on her sandwich, go talk to her about it. Diffusion of responsibility, just like the truck driver of a gas chamber truck with people suffocating to death in the back might say, hey I’m just a truck driver, what happens in the back is not my responsibility; or the man getting the prisoners into the back of the truck might say, hey, I’m just helping people get in the truck, what happens after doesn’t concern me. I am just a tiny part of this whole big wheel.

Now, back to the puppy experiment- you wouldn’t shock a puppy or a pig to death, but would you kill a lousy little sewer rat?

You: Yeah, that’s not so bad and they are gross anyway. If my college career depended on it, sure I’d give a lethal shock to a sewer rat.

Guide: Exactly, now imagine how people might behave after millions of dollars were spent on propaganda designed to convince you that there are people out there who are as different from you as a puppy is from a sewer rat. This is how we are all susceptible to the manipulations of a group like the Nazi party, and why something as horrible as the Holocaust can happen.

My retelling of this exchange can only convey a fraction of the power it had during our guided tour of Sachsenhausen, a concentration camp 45 minutes outside of Berlin, but I hope it gives you a sense of the reality that the Holocaust is not just an ugly piece of “German” history or even just Nazi history- it is a story of human history and the reality that in extreme circumstances, extreme evil can thrive, and if we are not mindful to avoid it, we are all capable of allowing it to happen.

This was just one of the somber realizations and take-aways of our time in Berlin, and it is from a mere five minute segment of a tour we took to this camp- that now stands as a memorial to those who were tortured and killed there.

Berlin has none of the charm of Munich and the rest of Bavaria- it is gritty, dirty, and generally bland, with the exception of a few buildings from the 1700s and 1800s that survived the wars. The buildings of the 20th century are concrete boxes, graffiti their only marks of color. But amidst the hodge-podge of centuries-old neo-classical buildings (mostly restorations of the originals that were damaged in the war) and their more modern neighbors is an abundance of complicated and interesting history, and, in its own way, a vibrancy and a life of a city still being reborn.

Walking throughout the city you can feel both the remnants of the Soviet Communist occupation as well as the sense that the city has moved on. In most ways it is like any other major industrialized city in Europe or the United States with business offices, skyscrapers, fast food chains, a subway system. But then you might walk by the remains of the Berlin wall, or a simple sign stating that the parking lot you are standing in used to be the entrance to Hitler’s underground bunker where he hid out at the end of WWII and eventually committed suicide, and it’s an eerie feeling imagining what life in this city was like for most of the 20th city. East Berlin and East Germany came out of the hateful Nazi regime only to be passed by the Allies into the control of a Soviet Communist one where they lost many liberties, suffered poverty, and could not freely move about to leave East Germany, while their neighbors in West Berlin enjoyed a better economy and freedom to move between the east and west as they pleased.

All of this came to be as a result of WWII. The Allies split Germany up amongst themselves, with the western half of the country going to the western Allies, and the east going to the Allies to the east – the Soviet Union. Berlin is actually entirely within East Germany, but as the central seat of government and administration, the Allies agreed to split the city into East, controlled by the Soviets, and the West, controlled by the western Allies, as well.

The Berlin Wall went up suddenly- for a while people were able to pretty freely move about in either direction between East and West Berlin, but due to the repressive lifestyle in the East, people began moving away and seeking asylum in the West. To prevent this, the Soviets built the Berlin wall- a circular barrier surrounding West Berlin in order to keep Easterners from crossing over and thereby obtaining access to the rest of West Germany.

The wall came down even more suddenly than it went up, when in 1989, on a television broadcast giving updates to the people of East Berlin on new laws (an initiative designed to give more transparancy to the government), the speaker erroneously misinterpreted a revision to a travel law, and casually mentioned at the end of his speech that all travel restrictions between East and West Berlin were being lifted. He clearly did not fully grasp the new law or the weight of what he was saying, and questions started flying from the people in attendance. “Does this include the Berlin wall?” Well yes I assume so. “When does this all start?” A long awkward silence ensues. It lasts for a while as he shuffles through his papers looking for the answer. As far as I am aware, it starts immediately.

At this point the people at home, excited by the news, begin swarming to the checkpoints to cross over to West Berlin for the first time in years. The checkpoint guards, of course, know nothing about this, since no travel bans were actually supposed to be lifted according to the misinterpreted legislation, so they held their ground and denied entry to people for several hours. Eventually, though, at one check point a guard finally gave up realizing it was futile, and people swarmed forward and began tearing down the wall. And this is how the wall came down- not a deliberate decision by the Soviet government, but an error made by one man on live television.

Now only a few remnants of the wall remain standing in the city, serving as a reminder of their past. In fact, Germany as a whole does a lot to remember their past. They do not shy away from it or act like it did not happen. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews just past the Brandenburg Gate is perhaps one of the most obvious testaments to this. The memorial is a sea of concrete blocks of varying heights. When you look at it from the outside, it ressembles gravestones at a cemetary. When you walk through and feel the massive blocks increasing in height and swallowing you in the maze of them, it is like walking through an empty maze of stone all alone. The memorial is highly interpretative but it is hard not to visit it and leave without at least a slight feeling of emptiness and death.

And while visiting that urban memorial is powerful, nothing quite compares to visiting a former concentration camp. Our tour guide was wonderful, which made us feel the weight of the place even more heavily. We saw the barracks where inmates would sleep, the boot testing track, where inmates would where 88lb packs and run 26 miles daily to “test the boots” for boot / shoe manufacturers until they died of exhaustion, and the remains of the “extermination” center- “Station Z”.

I would like to go into more detail about Station Z, but I must warn you it is unsettling and the details will almost certainly make you uncomfortable. I also suggest that you consider the planning that must have gone into this operation- the electricians, the architects, the interior designers- who all engaged in this project with the goal of efficient killing in mind.

When fresh off the bus arriving at the camp, if you offered no value to the Nazi regime (you weren’t strong enough to work, skilled enough to make counterfit money, etc) the guards would bring you to an administrative building where you would be registered. A person dressed as a doctor would come out and greet you and tell you that you were going to receive a routine physical exam to make sure you are healthy enough to work, and if you weren’t, they were going to work together on a plan to bring you back to health. When it was your turn, you would be brought back to an examination room, and the first step would be to take your height. When the faux-doctor brought the bar down to measure the height, a small window would open up behind your head, where another inmate, being used as slave labor, would have to pull the trigger of a gun, instantly killing you. The doctor would then bring the body into the next room where it would be processed for any remaining “valuables” (dentures, gold teeth, jewelry, even hair), clean up his examination room if there was any mess, and bring the next patient in. One after the other, each taking no more than a minute. This entire building was a killing factory, and the inmates had no idea they were going to be killed until it was done.

It was standing in the corner of the remains of Station Z where our tour guide asked us all to look within ourselves, telling us about the psychology experiments with the shocks given to humans for incorrect answers, and the later one with the puppies, illustrating how diffusion of responsibility, by breaking up cruel acts into simpler steps (one person processes the paper work, the fake doctor just brings the patient into the room, the guard just escorts the inmate from his barracks to the admin building), allows no one to feel ultimately responsible for these murders as they are happening. And this is why it is everyone’s responsibility- a responsibility to speak up when someone is saying hateful things about a group of people, to not be a part, however small, of a system that is evil, and to not turn a blind eye when something wrong is happening, just because it’s “none of your business”.

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Indeed, it was the diffusion of responsibility and the turning of a blind eye to the horror of the Holocaust that allowed it to continue for so long. One thing being in East Germany has taught us these past few days is that by remembering this piece of human history, Germany is committed to never allowing something like the Holocaust to happen again. And interestingly, when I grew up learing about Germany and WWII, I tied Nazis and Germans together in my own head- like many others seem to have done throughout history, but it’s important to remember that most Germans opposed the Nazi regime at its peak. Differentiating between German and Nazi is important, because this country is largely like all the others we’ve visited, with people being warm and kind and living life as we do all over the world. Germany is beautiful and Germans are largely wonderful people, like people anywhere, despite whatever history they have.

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