Photos by Sina Iranikhah
1.1 million people were killed in Auschwitz.
430,000 Hungarian Jews were exterminated in the last three months of Auschwitz’s existence as a concentration camp. About 30% of that number died within hours of entering the camp.
The Nazi Regime is a reminder of the worst that mankind is capable of. It is a reminder that humans can be degraded to a number, or a science experiment. More importantly, it is a reminder to us all to never let something of that magnitude happen again. As George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This summer, I spent four weeks in Eastern Europe traveling and trying to understand the history of the region along with two of my closest friends from college.
Shoes on the Danube Bank – Budapest, Hungary. This memorial was conceived by Film Director Can Tongay and is to honor the lives of the Jews who were killed by Fascist members of the Arrow Cross militiamen. The Jews were ordered to take their shoes off on the bank so that when shot the river carried their bodies away.
House of Terror – Budapest, Hungary. A museum dedicated to detailing the life of Hungarians under Nazi German rule.
For a country that caused such immense suffering, Germany has openly acknowledged the mistakes of its past. In its major cities there are countless museums, memorials, and information boards detailing the atrocities of the Nazi regime. After speaking with some students from the University of Berlin, I learned that it is very common for German children to be taken to concentration camps and educated on other symbols of the Nazi regime. Additionally, depending on the school, students may have participated in an ongoing art project called Stolperstein, the largest decentralized memorial in the world. The aim of the project is to commemorate the last known residence of victims with an inscribed brass plate. Stolperstein translates to “stumbling stone”, which is literally what it is, a concrete cube with a brass plate inscribed with the names and dates of victims of the Nazi regime. Students will research archives, interview historians, and learn about victims of the Holocaust through family narratives in attempts to uncover their last known locations. For the final presentation, the student presents their findings of where the person last lived, and a Stolperstein is then installed at that location as a memorial.
Odeonsplatz – Munich, Germany. During Nazi rule, new recruits swore their loyalty to Hitler in this plaza.
The vastness of this project is a reminder of how much territory the Nazis occupied at the peak of their power. For the Nazis to have their hands in so many regions at the same time speaks to not only the complexity and intricacies of the regime, but also to its ability to inflict terror wherever its shadow was cast. It’s important to remember that at its peak, the German Reich controlled a majority of Europe, spanning from the French-Spanish border to the Soviet Union.
My friends and I were well aware that the countries on our list had been under Nazi control, but apart from Germany and Poland we naively underestimated the extent of Nazi rule in these other countries. City by city, we visited more and more museums, historical sites, and memorials – immersing ourselves even deeper into the present day time machine of the Nazi regime. As the days passed, we moved further into the heart of the empire and with this, experienced an increasing emotional burden. Sadness, guilt, and horror – they overwhelmed us. Every individual has their breaking point. Ours happened to be Auschwitz. Those same feelings, sadness, guilt, and horror, break down a wall within as you walk through the gas chambers and view the victims’ belongings, and realize that quite frankly, you are standing on the grounds of a place built for genocide.
Auschwitz Concentration Camp – Oswiecim, Poland. Empty gas canisters used for Hitler’s Final Solution are in display within shacks at Auschwitz.
Auschwitz Concentration Camp – Oswiecim, Poland. Prisoners were told to bring their valuable belongings on their journey to concentration camps, but Nazi officials encouraged metals especially. Items like pots and pans were commonly taken from the prisoners, melted down, and used for the war effort.
These historical sites, museums, and memorials have shaped Europe today, and for the Germans, have created a society focused on tolerance and unity. I would imagine that being exposed to evidence of the ultimate horror story as a child impacts you deeply, so much so that you may even resent being “German.” This seems to be the case for much of the German population. For example, in 1999, German Politician Laurenz Meyer claimed pride in his German heritage and received only backlash from citizens and political parties. Even prominent politicians like Environment Minister Jürgen Trittin called for Meyer to resign, which he ultimately did. Later, in 2014, Iranian-German author Navid Kermani commented on the mentality of Germans by saying that “[Germany is] the only nation that has recognized patriotism as the root of much evil and done away with it.” In other words, Germans have become careful about how much pride they place in themselves. Thus, the paradox becomes that Germans find their pride in not being overly prideful about their country. Instead, their pride is rooted in humility, respect, and openness – that is what being German represents.
Auschwitz Concentration Camp – Oswiecim, Poland. Personal items like shoes were taken from the prisoners and recycled with the same purpose above – the war effort.
Auschwitz Concentration Camp – Oswiecim, Poland. Simply put, hygiene was not present amongst the prisoners in the camps. Even simple items like brushes for shaving were taken up by Nazis.
The German mentality Kermani describes has slightly shifted, in much thanks to the 2014 World Cup, when they won the tournament. On the world’s biggest stage, native Germans recognized the praise foreigners had for their country, which far exceeded their own. In response, the patriotism debate was opened back up. Although Germans will now openly admit they are “proud to be German,” many still understand the magnitude of the history behind those words.
The reluctance to admit to being a “proud German” is also a result of the educational system. As most citizens recognize themselves as a part of a region (ex. Berlin, Saxony, Bavaria, etc) or as part of the European Union, schools do not teach patriotism. Children are taught about the displacement of different ethnicities during World War II, and are presented with a global viewpoint regarding past and current events, rather than one specific to their country. Although this practice has perhaps deterred a nationalistic attitude, it has also benefited the country by giving it a broader perspective. One of the direct results of this perspective is Germany’s willingness to bring refugees into the country. In 2015 alone, they received over 800,000 refugees from all over the world. Many nations have been reluctant to accept refugees, but Germany has a couple of key reasons for its open arms.
Auschwitz Concentration Camp – Oswiecim, Poland. Auschwitz was designed so that you were not able to leave. Barbed wire fences in tandem with electric fences were meant to keep the prisoners in, or in the event of an escape – kill them.
Auschwitz Concentration Camp – Oswiecim, Poland. A closer look at the barbed wire and electric fences.
First, over 70% of Germans believe that immigrants make the nation stronger. This central tenet of German culture dates back to 1945, when Germany had to accept over 10 million German-speaking Eastern Europeans into its war-torn borders. They rebuilt and came back stronger, so for many, immigration is just more of the same. Furthermore, because the population is pro-immigration, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s policy of accepting refugees has kept her on the good side of the voting population. Nothing quite like some good will, eh?
The second reason for Germany’s acceptance of refugees is economic gain. By 2020, Germany will lose 1.8 million workers, primarily due to aging, and with the pension system on the brink of collapse, immigration gives Germany access to young, talented, and bright workers who are willing to contribute to society. As a global economy, many refugees see Germany as a land of opportunity, driving the large numbers that we see.
Auschwitz Concentration Camp – Oswiecim, Poland. Between 6-8 prisoners were assigned to these congested sleeping quarters that often had rats, feces, or dead bodies present throughout.
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe – Berlin, Germany. Also known as the Holocaust Memorial, this site, designed by architect Peter Eisenman and engineer Buro Happold, is to honor the Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
Seventy-five years ago, nationalistic pride drove Germany to deport millions from within its own borders and occupied territories. But in 2016, German pride has turned into a beacon of light for many, and we can all take a lesson from a country that was once at the forefront of the worst human kind has to offer.