One who follows history cannot possibly go to Germany without setting aside the time to visit at least one of the former Nazi camps. During our trip, we visited two in Germany, and two in Poland. This was the first we visited, which was fitting because it was, in fact, the first of the system of camps, and was intended to be the model by which the subsequent camps were to be made and operated.
We drove from Berlin to Oranienburg, the headquarters of the camp system, and location of KL Sachsenhausen. It was a sunny day, and as we parked, we noted there were a number of tourists, but not nearly as many as we'd anticipated. Admittedly, Sachsenhausen doesn't seem to be as famous as Dachau, or Auschwitz, at least in North America. Perhaps that would account for the numbers.
As we approached the gates we saw the infamous slogan, "Arbeit Macht Frei", or "Work Sets You Free". Most people know this as the slogan on the arch over the entrance to Auschwitz I, but it started here first, like so much else. Many people stopped and took pictures here. Some posed beside it like a scavenger hunt item. I couldn't help but wonder if the dark humour of this was lost on them. Few were freed from here, or the other camps that donned those words. As the prisoners would say, the only freedom to be had was up through the chimney.
We proceeded through the gates and took in the open area around us. It seemed large. It seemed quite spacious, in fact. It wasn't until later that I would realize that many more buildings had originally been here in those days, and of course, many more people. Standing here today, if you let yourself, you will feel the contrasts between what you see, and what you know. It was crowded. It smelled of burning bodies. The sound of moaning, and screaming could be heard from the inmates who suffered through their incarceration and last days on Earth. It bore little actual resemblance to open, green, park-like place we saw before us now. So sanitary, and unoffensive.
We toured the prison and read the signs. We learned of the abuse and sometimes murder of prisoners in the bathrooms of the barracks. We learned that, because the prison was inside the borders of Germany, each prisoner who died had to be autopsied and an official cause of death listed that was rarely accurate. We learned how executions were carried out in the gas chambers, by firing squads, or sometimes, even by the doctors in the hospital wards. We found out that most of the earliest prisoners here weren't Jews, as one might expect, but rather Communists and various other more political type prisoners. Those who opposed, or were likely to oppose the Nazi regime as it swept to power.
Months later, I would read the memoirs of Rudolf Höss who was most famous as the first and longest-serving commandant of Auschwitz. He too got his start at Sachsenhausen. He explained the mentality of the Schutzstaffel (SS), as he understood it from within. He said that they were trained to believe that they were all that stood between Germany and those who wished to destroy it. The people they imprisoned, those they tortured, worked to death and eventually killed, were enemies of the state. They were people who would destroy the Utopia that Hitler was trying to create. It is this belief that fueled the fires of their zeal and removed any mercy they might have shown.
Irony will tinge the visit of the more-than-casual observer. The museum and memorial that this prison became was first created and opened by the Soviets who occupied all of Eastern Europe, including half of Germany, after the war. As a result, the memorial focuses heavily on the death of Communists at the hands of Fascists of the Nazi regime. Where irony plays its role is in the fact that the Soviets, shortly after liberating this camp, proceeded to use it for the very same purpose as part of its Gulag system. German prisoners of war, political prisoners, and many who opposed the continued Soviet occupation were kept here, and died here.
There are no clean hands in a place like this.