“I tell the schoolchildren this is why our heads are round
– so our thoughts can make a U turn.”
–Wolfgang, “History For Everyone” guide in Nuremberg,
on using history education to prevent atrocities
Before we visited Nuremberg the only two things I associated with the city were gingerbread and the war trials after World War II. Touring the city opened a whole new world of “You Are There” perceptions which brought an entire period of history to life for me.
Nuremberg was the center of the Nazi party. This is where Hitler held massive rallies every September which propelled the party into national dominance. We saw the façade of the party national headquarters which Hitler began. An obvious copy of the Colosseum, this “Congress Hall” was left incomplete with the understanding that it would be completed after the war was won. Behind this building is Zeppelin Field, the site of the party’s largest rallies.
Seeing the review stand in Zeppelin Field now, even without its original colonnade, I found it incredibly easy to recall the scenes we know from the grainy newsreels. Looking across the parade ground opposite, I imagined hundreds of thousands of saluting ghost soldiers. A chilling moment, under appropriately cloudy skies.
Our tour guide that day was from a local history group, History for Everyone. He explained that for decades Germans (as family members and as a society) had been emotionally unable to talk about the Nazi era. This history group has addressed the topic in hopes that it will not happen again.
The persistent questions the guides face are “How could it happen?” and “How did Hitler manage to gain such control?” The answer they give is Fascination and Terror. We know now of the terror-inducing attacks such as the Night of the Long Knives and Kristallnacht. Even less recognized at the time were consistent smaller terrorizing acts against individuals and the complicit silence of authorities and press. What I had not appreciated before this trip was the Fascination aspect of the era. The magnetic power of the rallies, the seductive dream of national recovery and supremacy, and Gleichschaltung (the intentional, forced alignment in mindset of the press and businesses) – all completed what terror could not do alone.
Since our tour my husband and I have read In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson. This tells the story of the US Ambassador to Germany, William Dodd, who arrived in Berlin with
his family in 1933, just after Hitler was appointed Chancellor. Based on diaries, letters, and memos from daily and consular life in Berlin, the book provides insight into how things appeared to new arrivals in Berlin, and how the realities gradually emerged. It clearly presents the frustration Dodd felt in trying to convey to Washington the urgency of the dangers ahead. But Washington would not listen. I recommend the book highly.
One “take away” from our visit to Nuremberg was how much impact a personal visit to a historically significant place can have. Only a few such places have affected me this way. Fortunately not every such place embodies such horrific ghosts, but when they come alive it makes an impression!
Have you had a similar experience? Where has history come alive for you in unexpected ways?
Boundaries divide. Travel unites.
23 January 2014