Our cultural outings (arranged by the German course) are over now. You could sign up for them every afternoon – we were originally told we could sign up for two of them over the whole six weeks, but most people didn’t bother taking up the option or were too busy, so any empty places were up for grabs. Needless to say, I went on every single outing, and would never have managed to get to so many places without the help of our teachers (who acted as guides). Though we visited art galleries and the very impressive restored Bundestag, the most sobering visits were to Topographie des Terror and Haus der Wansee Konferenz.

All of us have the bones of European history, but the details are so hair raising when viewed closely. The Haus der Wansee Konferenz is the site of the Wansee Conference, where, in 1942, Heydrich suggested the Final Solution to Hitler. Topographie des Terror is a Museum built on the piece of land where the Gestapo/SS had their headquarters (Hitler’s version of the Mexican “Federales” – a private military force attached to the Nazis). The impressive looking buildings were demolished after the war, and gradually people forgot what the site had been. In the 1980’s a makeshift centre was set up to start the process of documenting the site’s history, and in 2010, the current museum was opened. It’s interesting to me that when I lived in the Black Forest, almost 40 years ago, my contemporaries knew very little about the recent past, and nobody talked about the War, Hitler, Jews, concentration camps or What Happened Back Then. Of course, we were all a great deal younger, so perhaps our focus was on more frivolous aspects of life. It would seem that the generation that had actually experienced the War and it’s immediate aftermath wanted to produce a generation that had a ‘normal’ growing up period, so avoided close examination of the emotion, pain, guilt, anger and anguish that made up the previous half-century. When Adenauer came to power in 1949, he was over seventy and in his lifetime, lived through seven different regimes in Germany, from Kaiser Wilhelm 1 through to the modern democracy of West Germany, which he was hugely responsible in shaping. How much instability is caused by having seven different regimes in one lifetime? Looking at the history of Germany over the last hundred years, it’s impossible to separate pieces of history from what went before, or the root causes of events.

In the nineteen-seventies, angry young men and women in the Baader-Meinhoff Group communicated via bombs and shootings to convey their feelings about a failed de-Nazification process in Germany; many people associated with business or government in Germany at the time had either been Nazis or had Nazi connections. The questions they had were sidelined and they were painted as radicals (which they became). In the nineteen-eighties, German historians suggested that it was urgent to open up young people’s minds to the past for inquiry, for questioning the older generation, for airing an area that was hidden from sight. Every visit I have made to every monument or museum involves a discussion of what happened there before, during and after the Second World War. Guides constantly refer to what Hitler actually did, what each of the buildings were used for, how the process of the Holocaust was gradually normalised. It feels like a therapeutic journey, as if the Germans are opening up their wounds for the world to acknowledge. The German people alive today didn’t vote Hitler in, nor support anti-Semitism, nor endorse Concentration Camps, but they come from families who were either part of Nazi Germany, or complicit in the actions of same, or forced to become part of it just by being under National Socialism.



One visit to the Topography of Terror is really not enough. The permanent exhibition tracks the progress of the Third Reich from the beginnings of the Nazi Party in the early 1920’s thru Hitler’s rise to power, his appointment as Chancellor, his Anti-Semitism as a trademark slogan, the mysterious burning of the Reichstag by Nazi elements which gave Hitler the power to instigate martial law. He had always promoted the twin policies of German expansionism and anti-Semitism, imagining his enemies in France, Britain and Russia as being controlled by Jews. The SS started life as bodyguards for the Nazi Party, who were not averse to the odd punch-up with their political rivals. Interestingly, there were two levels of private military, one a group of ordinary men who were glad to escape unemployment and wear a uniform (often cobbled together from mixed origins), and one an elite set of highly skilled and intelligent officers. We always think of them as being simply dangerous human beings, but the majority of SS men had the benefit of a university education, and were lawyers, engineers, scientists, men who knew what they were doing. However, during the 1920’s in USA, Eugenics programmes were also in vogue, including forced sterilisations. The Nazi party took it a step further by obliterating the offending human beings.

When you look at how Hitler actually succeeded in taking over vast swathes of Europe, you can’t help but wonder how he planned it. You always think of Hitler in relation to France, Holland, Poland, but I’d never considered how he took over Norway or Greece. The precise organisation of the Nazi Party was put in place as it grew, so that when Hitler took over, the machinery and manpower was ready to follow orders. In 1929, Himmler was put in charge of the SS, and expanded it from a small group into an elite military wing of the Nazi Party, including running concentration/death camps. It’s the normalisation that’s so fascinating and horrifying, how anti-Semitism (always a feature within Europe anyhow) grew into an excuse to murder people, not just Jews, but anyone in the way.

The visit to the Wansee House was equally riveting. Our guide pointed out that the War was merely a matter of Hitler carrying out his policy of German expansionism. There were Germans living in countries all over Europe that he had to bring back into the fold, but in the process, of course, racial purity had to be maintained. She posed a question: of the 11 million who died in the Holocaust, how many were Jews killed in Germany? 165,000, one hundred and sixty-five thousand. The majority of those killed were in Poland and Russia, or what was called German-occupied Europe. The Wannsee Conference was called in 1942 so that Heydrich could put to the members of the Government, and to Hitler himself, the plan for The Final Solution to The Jewish Problem. Really, it was a matter of logistics – it was costing them too much in terms of manpower, time and ammunition to kill and bury all the Jews in Russia; far easier to transport them back in trains to Auschwitz (in Poland), where they could be gassed and burned. The Wannsee Conference came up with definitions of what constituted Jewishness, but it was not just Jews – those despatched to Auschwitz included political dissenters, Roma, homosexuals and prisoners of war. Put in these terms, The Final Solution sounds like a product you could use for extra Aryanness. It’s quite unimaginable that men sat around and discussed this over breakfast. There are those who see the museums, monuments and memorials as simply a tourist attraction, a money maker. I see them as a healthy reminder of what can happen everywhere, as a national education in the elements of terror, as an admission to the whole country of What Happened Back Then.