Last week I visited the Topographie des Terrors in Berlin and wanted to share some thoughts that I was processing while walking through. The museum is built on the former site of the SS and Gestapo headquarters and exhibits the rise of NAZI ideology and acceptance throughout Germany and Europe. It’s particularly relevant today in demonstrating the mechanisms which can be used to bring mainstream acceptance of horrible, hateful, and evil ideas.
This post is organized by the flow through which I walked around the museum. I’m going to share a picture that I took from the exhibition and then write a little about each one. Please consider what I write, what you see in the pictures, and draw your own conclusions. Many of the techniques harnessed by the NAZIs are actively in play today. Some techniques are neutral and are merely used as a vessel to carry evil ideology – some techniques are inherently evil themselves and are only used when attempting to seduce someone into behaviors and thoughts they know are detrimental to humanity, society, and God.
Please take the time to read the captions in the pictures if you are willing. The captions translate and provide context for those images.
The question with NAZIism isn’t about how one person was terribly evil. The question is how that person convinced normal people to buy-in to that evil ideology. Hitler was elected in a democratic election – he won fairly. Over time he gradually radicalized his people through an intentional and subtle process. While the NAZIs regularly employed force and coercion they grounded their power on consent – they tricked people into willful support of open racism, genocide, racial supremacy, belligerence, suspicion, injustice, cruelty, and pride.
The NAZI message wasn’t all about putting others down. The strength of the mechanism that bred support was one of prosperity for the German people. The Führer brought jobs, food, and shelter to a people who were otherwise struggling financially. The Führer was making Germany great again through his policies and actions. He built a conflict of interest in his people by giving them what they wanted so that they would be more likely to tolerate or ignore his transgressions.
People who opposed the NAZIs weren’t cast as Hitler’s opponents – they were cast as opponents to the German people. Patriotism was enmeshed with NAZIism to the point where critique against NAZI ideology could be equated with malice towards the people. Journalists who spoke openly about the NAZIs were labeled as “enemies of the people.”
It wasn’t easy to stand in opposition to the group think of the day. Because of the way that critics were branded as those who want to bring harm to the general population there was undue pressure to conform. Something as simple as not raising the national salute or singing the national anthem was a way to blacklist oneself and receive public shaming. To not rehearse the patriotic hymns was a sure signal that someone hated the people, hated their prosperity, and wanted to harm them (this of course is wrong, but I’m writing in terms of how such non-conformity was intended to be seen).
Public humiliation was a form of control. The politicians and police would shame someone in public to persuade other people to look down upon them. Most victims had only allegedly committed crimes but it is enough to say out loud that someone is reported to have committed a crime for people to start treating them as a distant other. The government stole religious sentiments to rouse anger in the people against these “assailants” – they wanted people to feel personally affronted. Jews were accused of raping Christian women, of being natural rapists, of wanting to defile what society would consider pure and innocent victims. This contrast between the religiously pious and the barbaric other triggered knee-jerk reactions in the public which would help persuade them to hate the minority group – in this case the Jews.
The defamed here could have no defense; they could have no justice, because they were labeled as criminal, as liars, as untrustworthy, as contemptuous.
Torture and control was worked through institutions that the public trusted – the police. The SS and Gestapo needed to be cast not as people fighting political enemies, but rather as people fighting criminals. People support the suppression of crime, so it wasn’t enemies of the leader who were arrested and punished, but enemies of the people – criminals – lowlifes.
At the same time it needed to be seen as though crime and malice were on a sharp rise and therefore a strong leader was needed to curtail the threat. A strong police was needed to effectively carry out the will of the Führer in response to the crisis among the people.
More examples of the vehicle for political harassment and torture being cast as the protection of the people from the criminals. Evil doesn’t show its face quickly – it slowly reveals small bits of itself so as not to scare away those who are uncomfortable with it.
If you read something reporting blatantly evil behavior or intentions then it’s wise to be doubtful. Evil hides behind a friendly facade. Not only would the NAZIs cast their actions as punishing criminals, but they would also make the argument that they were doing their victims a favor. The evil leader will destroy a group through a campaign of protection for it. People will support the idea of protecting an at-risk or victimized population even if the true actions against them are deathly harmful.
In this shot we can see the notice asserting criminal behavior: the store was price-gouging and taking advantage of the population therefore it has been seized and shut down for the good of the nation. Before people would be comfortable with genocide they had to start believing that they were dealing with inherently criminal and malicious folk. We have to demonize the others before we will be willing to attack them and small examples like the one in the photo provide an ongoing and subtle narrative that all Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, communists, and other groups are all secretly waiting to take advantage of the normal hard-working citizens.
An evil regime doesn’t need to hide its torture facilities from a persuaded population. Misdirection and miscommunication can turn horrid things into flowers. The NAZIs built the concentration camps and even suggested that the good living conditions therein were even better than the criminals deserved. They weren’t building prisons because they were fanatical and demanded full control; they were building prisons because there was a surge in anti-patriotic behavior and a growing threat from those who want to harm the population.
On this point I remember how important it is to consider the prisoners. In the NAZI time most prisoners were unjustly arrested and convicted. Criminals are the mechanism through which we can build hatred towards a group of people. It’s easy to sneer at those who are in jail, to get behind the idea that they gave up their rights the moment they committed their heinous crimes. It’s hard to sympathize with them or believe that a criminal justice system could be the method of systematic oppression, especially if that system isn’t attacking one’s own kind.
This one reminds me of signs I’ve seen in novelty shops: “We don’t call the police here” implying with an image of a gun a kind of subjective frontier justice. Ordinary citizens were so persuaded of the vileness of other people that they were willing to voluntarily threaten them for their mere existence or presence. After persuading the population that Jews were an enemy of the people it became easier to be blatantly hostile towards them and make threats openly. The NAZI leaders didn’t have to do this – hatred took its own course.
If I had an order this one would be out of order. Regardless the NAZIs couldn’t persuade everyone of their evil ideology but it was sufficient to distract people with a growing economy so that they would tolerate the evil and defend against its existence. It would be easy enough to call the wicked plans as hearsay, rumors, and locker-room talk that wasn’t meant to be taken seriously or wasn’t ever real in the first place. It was real though and the toleration of those uncomfortable with embracing the evil were the ones who could have stopped it and didn’t.
Religious values were misused in order to slip lies into existing truths. The NAZIs didn’t persuade the majority of their people to hate other races because they told them to do so; they, like magicians, presented something palatable and familiar to their audience while sneaking in the trick – the people therefore could associate the innocence of others with the vileness of the trick. It sounds right and Christian to say, “he who shall not work shall not eat” and then justify starving those who cannot afford food. The NAZIs used these disguised untruths to build righteous animosity against the poor and already-victimized. By some point in time it became a natural consequence that not only those who were “work shy” were a harm to society but also to those unable to work and so the people welcomed a parade of genocide against the handicapped and impaired.
To openly describe the handicapped and sick and impaired as a financial burden on the economy can only happen after a training that persuades people to put aside their conscience in the most grotesque ways. Genocide occurs all around the world and all throughout time. We are often so amazed that it happened in Germany because we think ourselves so much like Germany: scientifically minded, rational, and genuinely good people. The scary part of this story shouldn‘t be that the awful offenses happened – the scary part is that we are comfortable looking away from what we consider small evils thinking we are safe from the big evils but that training process builds our immunity and we ourselves can become the demons we denounce.
By the later years of the terror the process was near unstoppable due to the way the SS ruled through fear and force. The people welcomed such ungodly leadership voluntarily (initially) but we can trace how successive steps removed accountability and leveraged fear and force to prevent a willful exit from the evil.
Standing out to me here is “Office for Combating Homosexuality and Abortion.” I’m sure my readers approach these subjects from a wide background of thought but what is of note isn’t whether these things are right or wrong – the evil here is the injustice applied to these singled-out demographics. Should we kill those who have an abortion? Should we round-up and torture the LGBT community? The NAZIs were murdering people openly and calling it noble at the same time they were hunting down homosexual men who were inflicting no violence or wrongdoing against anyone else. They were continually picking out “subversive” groups of people and using them as examples of how costly it was to stand out against the crowd.
We can see more “us vs. them” mentality and fear around every corner. It’s near impossible to convince a population to welcome moral atrocities unless they can be convinced that they are under attack. The Gestapo might go so far as murdering someone whose only crime was fraternizing with the “enemies.” The “other” group must be seen as subhuman, as criminal, as the enemy. If we get to know someone who is different than us we might start understanding their perspectives and sympathize with them and question the disparaging rhetoric laid against them in the public square.
This image particularly stood out to me because I recognized the train running in the background. It’s wrong to think that the persecution of the Jews, the Roma, homosexuals, communists, invalids, political opposition, and others was hidden from society and only by a clever trick was allowed to exist. Evil prefers to happen with full acceptance out in the open – it would rather bite its thumb in defiance of justice than operate in secret. The pattern repeats: convince a population that such and such a group is a group of criminals that deserve punishment and then you can convince them that slavery, torture, and death are justified. Just a tiny handful of crimes against the prisoners of the NAZIs include being forced to live in excessively hot or cold conditions, not getting sufficient nutrition, being withheld medical care. From a twisted perspective it’s easy to fall into the same trap: “those people were price-gouging and taking advantage of me; they don’t deserve to have fancy meals and live in luxury – heck – they probably have it better than I do working hard to get a decent plate on the table.” These are lies people repeated to justify abuse and to tolerate the stripping-away of human dignity.
Evil plays steadily and slowly. First with little incursions against “criminals” and later in small trials in foreign territory the boundaries were constantly pushed. The concentration camps couldn’t start as death camps. They had to first test the waters with the people and see if they would tolerate isolated camps, if they would turn their eye to forced-labor camps, if they would accept torture camps. Each pushing-of-the-boundary gave the leadership the approval to go further and eventually that led to the murder of millions.
This is one of many portraits of groups of SS officers, Gestapo killing squads, and NAZI leadership. They smile. This is the face of evil. These were smart people. These people were valued for their intellect and capability. Many of these kinds of people escaped the war crimes prosecution and would eventually be hired in high ranks among the government and police after the war ended. “Sure they committed genocide, but they really knew how to get things done,” or something like that. The evil didn’t end when the NAZIs fell – just imagine being a Jew returning to Germany and registering to open a business only to realize that the man officiating the process shot your parents and siblings before your very eyes.
“Alleged” was peppered all around the museum. It was never “innocent” people who were exterminated but “criminals” or “gangs” or “belligerents.” As they say, “the winners write history” and there’s a fine line between “the soldiers murdered everyone in the village” and “the soldiers successfully warded off a guerrilla attack from a hostile village.” The patriotism cult blinded people to military atrocities because it led them to assume the best of intentions among their own (who were the aggressors) and the worst among the “enemy” (who were the victims). Actually, gang activity was a frequent justification in many of the pictures where entire groups of people were tortured or murdered.
We don’t want to invite evil into our lives and then act like we are the victim once it unleashes its devastating force. The only time we have power to prevent evil is when people argue that it isn’t there. From the onset of NAZIism there were detractors and they were ridiculed, considered unpatriotic, lovers of other ideologies who wanted to bring harm to the people, morally corrupt. Where would the end have been if the NAZIs hadn’t been stopped? Once all of the “enemies” were eliminated who would be there to blame as a scapegoat?
The irony of delayed justice is that it can be worse than a cleansing but painful purge right away. Some very-high-up NAZI leadership remains alive and unprosecuted today, wealthy even. They have to live each day with the choices they made. That’s surely painful for them, though that’s a far cry from justice. Their victims have lived their lives under the shadow of the crimes committed against them.
My faith tells me there is another judgement, a higher justice, and that in time it will come and make right all the wrong we experience and observe. We may think that death is a sweet escape for the most horrible of people but I don’t think that’s true at all. Death is but a great mystery that hides us from eternity and behind that curtain is the justice we all seek even if we don’t all want it.
This isn’t a view of the Topographie des Terrors – it’s the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. I share it here just because I think its abstract nature captures my response to the museum and to the NAZI time. It’s hard to put words or any sensical narrative on what happened. There’s some part of me that hears from the randomly-arranged stones “stop trying to understand the thing and just learn from the thing.”
Was this a long post or a short post? I didn’t do a decent job of sharing the experience but I hope that I shared my experience of it well enough and that some of it can stir in you. I consider the topic extremely relevant because we find ourselves in a place where evil is trying to come out; it isn’t showing its face yet but it is calling on people to willingly draw it out. We are not only disagreeing with one another but mocking and humiliating those who disagree with us. We are taking away the human dignity from groups of those among us, separating families, and watching as those people die.
The story of Sophie Scholl is an inspiring story for dark times and I wish I could lay down all her quotes here. I wish I had the inner fervor she had. Just a couple quotes then to frame this post:
The law changes; the conscience doesn’t.
Das Gesetz ändert sich. Das Gewissen nicht.
This speaks to me to be careful when condemning someone who is a criminal. An evil government can trick me into hating someone because they break a law even when the law is unjust. We can put a man in prison for years because he smokes marijuana in his back yard and let another man go without punishment for greedy business practices that lead millions to hunger.
Even when we control the narrative we don’t and history will someday rewrite our story the way it sees fit. I want to live in such a way that I don’t fear that revision. I would rather be seen as one who did right though criminal than one who enabled evil when the law ordered.
How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause. I’ve been thinking of a story from the Old Testament: Moses stood all day and all night with outstretched arms, praying to God for victory. And whenever he let down his arms, the enemy prevailed over the children of Israel. Are there still people today who never weary of directing all their thinking and all their energy, single-heartedly, to one cause?
Wie könnte man da von einem Schicksal erwarten, dass es einer gerechten Sache den Sieg gebe, da sich kaum einer findet, der sich ungeteilt einer gerechten Sache opfert. – Ich muss hier an eine Geschichte des Alten Testamentes denken, wo Mose Tag und Nacht, zu jeder Stunde, seine Arme zum Gebet erhob, um von Gott den Sieg zu erbitten. Und sobald er einmal seine Arme senkte, wandte sich die Gunst von seinem kämpfenden Volke ab. Ob er wohl auch heute noch Menschen gibt, die nicht müde werden, ihr ganzes Denken und Wollen auf eines ungeteilt zu richten?
What is that saying? This may just be a movie quote but it goes something like “peace is not won; it is fought for every day.” All manners of war and brutality are little more than one man’s pursuit of wealth and power and control over another and the roots extend deep into the every day – a warning we should heed so as to not fall into it ourselves!
My faith tells me to value compassion and love more than wealth or prosperity. Will I be willing to stand out when harm comes to my fellow human even though it challenges my own sense of security? That love, Jesus said, is demonstrated no better than when one gives up his life for another. Do I fear my job will be taken? Do I fear that my tax dollars are being abused? Do I fear that others are secretly plotting against my security? I hope we can find our security in the eternity of a trustworthy and just God and not in a collective and temporary might which will eventually be shattered.
The walk through the museum particularly challenges me in the number of ways innocent victims were labeled as prisoners and burdens to society. Jesus told us that the way we treat “the least” of our peers reveals the truth of how we treat our maker. Why is it so easy for me to look with contempt on those in need? On those begging for food? On those who are dirty, sick, tired, and in need of help? I hope that my sense of security in God will overcome my tendency to trust in my wealth and safety when I’m confronted by those innocent victims I witness each day.
I hope that you too are challenged with me. I hope that you too are inspired as I am to stand up against the subtlest forms of inhumanity and disguised terror, to stand up for those being pressed down, and to stand alert against the gradual manipulation which leads us en masse to accept evil.