Over the last six to seven weeks (or has it been longer?), I have made a point of isolating myself physically as well as possible. The challenges one faces in this ongoing process are by now almost commonplace. With the dramatic decline of travel we are witnessing, guiding tours is, for the moment, a thing of the past.
And yet: small, unexpected things bring me back to my “past life”. A friend pointed out a building I have cycled past on many occasions in our neighbourhood, saying it looked strikingly like a building of the National Socialist era. This was a good excuse to mount the iron horse once more and embark on a small fact-finding mission.
Just a few blocks away from Rathaus Schöneberg – the town hall where John F. Kennedy once uttered his famous words Ich bin ein Berliner – stands the Berlin School of Economics and Law. While the upper parts of its buildings clearly have been rebuilt, the bullet holes on the outside walls of the ground floor clearly indicated that this had been constructed before the Second World War. Originally constructed for the Reich Economic Chamber in 1939, today's House B became home the Supreme Command of the Wehrmacht the following year. The German Army housed its Abteilung Kriegsgefangenenwesen (Department for Prisoner of War Affairs). The rules and regulations for treatment of prisoners-of-war (POW) were determined here. As one can imagine, these varied according to the nationality of the prisoner in question. A Russian POW, for example, would have been deemed belonging to the Slavic ‘race’ and therefore sub-human, whereas a different set of rules would have been applied to a French, British or United States POW.
This reminded me of an issue that is often raised on my concentration camp memorial tours of Sachsenhausen. Located north of Berlin in the town of Oranienburg, Sachsenhausen was more than a concentration camp during the Third Reich. Among the adjacent facilities was the Inspectorate of the Concentration Camps, which coordinated the entire camp system on German and German-occupied territory. It had moved from Berlin to Oranienburg – the city in which Sachsenhausen stands – in 1938. One finds houses that had been built for camp guards and members of the SS (the elite paramilitary unit of the National Socialist Party in charge of the camp system after 1934) on the street leading to this building. In spite of efforts by the former director of the memorial, these houses are still privately held.
After a long and intense visit to the memorial, visitors often ask how one can live in places like these. This is an understandable question to which, having grown up and lived in Germany, I sometimes offer a simple answer: if you want to avoid living in a place tainted by the National Socialist past, Germany is not it.
There is a little more to this. The past is something one cannot escape, especially when it comes to dictatorship, global war and genocide in the twentieth century. There was no way for German society to avoid the legal, economic and political consequences if it wanted to re-establish itself in the world. The question is how one deals with that past – once you come around to it – and it is answered differently from generation to generation.
In our day and age the past actions of the regime are still owned by places like these. While the Sachsenhausen memorial serves a civic and educational function, the Berlin School of Economics and Law does not eschew the past of its facilities either. Its website provides a history of the building and this informs its commitment to learning and cultural diversity, even though it does not offer degrees in History. At a time when there are fewer of those who suffered in the camps alive today, transferring the lessons of the past to a younger generation, which can learn how to make the best of our crisis-ridden world, is vital for our future as a society.