A German Christmas Story – Berlin, Day 3 – Topography of Terror (afternoon)
Germany is very upfront about the Holocaust. The Topography of Terror Documentation Center stands near a long stretch of the Berlin Wall on the former site of the Gestapo and SS headquarters. It is a low, modern building which seeks to lay out the thought processes of the architects of the Holocaust – and to disturb people so much that they will be more aware of modern day injustices that could lead – or are already leading – to something that tragic.
If you have ever read about the Holocaust, watched films about it, or studied it with any depth, the question always come up, “How did this happen?”, or, more specifically, “How did the people let this happen?”
As a history and literature teacher, I find everything about the answers to these questions to be frightening. A charismatic leader promises to lift a country out of its despair … but with a catch. We have to get rid of people who obviously did this to us. We have to get rid of them – and that leader will convince you slowly, building on existing prejudice, that these people are worthless. Rules and laws will come into effect. People will become scared that they are next. They feared consequences if they spoke out or did anything.
The way Hitler worked was incredibly insidious – and all this was captured at the Topographie des Terrors Documentation Center. It pulls no punches and makes no excuses for the people at the top level of the Nazi regime nor for the people who allowed it to happen. There is no “I was acting under orders” excuse. Guilt is guilt.
I found the part of the exhibit on the mass-shooting squads to be particularly chilling – especially in explaining how leaders got average men to do the shootings, seemingly without compunction. Alcohol had a great deal to do with it. Meh, shoot that guy. He was a cheat. He was a Jew. He was a homosexual. You’ve done that? Well, next up was the shooting fields. We immediately have images of Auschwitz in our heads when we think of the Nazi terror in the Holocaust. I will never, on my life, forget walking into the gas chamber there last spring. I wake up some nights when the image swims back into my consciousness. But the mass shootings took a great many lives in fields, in forests, and in the backyards of farms. The average person stood around and watched.
Still today, some of these mass graves are unmarked throughout Eastern Europe and Russia.
It is worth reading all of the exhibits if only to understand how scarily familiar this sounds today. Read and understand – understand and act.
Sitting in my hotel room later that evening, after visiting the Potsdamer Platz Christmas Market, I received a text from my family in the U.S.:
Let us know you’re alright.
“Alright?” I thought. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
I wrote as such back. I had no idea why I wouldn’t be alright.
BBC just said there was a truck that plowed into a Christmas market in Berlin.
What the hell.
I assured them I was alright – I was in my hotel room already, in bed – and the news was slow coming out in Berlin. I finally resorted to a Google search and found, after digging, the event she was referring to.
Had it happened at one of the markets I had just visited?
It took half a night, but it finally came out that it was the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church market, which I hadn’t yet been to, where the truck had run over and killed twelve people, injuring roughly fifty more. The terrorist had struck at the heart of Germany at this time – the beautiful markets where people gather to mingle and celebrate the season.
I sat in the dark for awhile, thinking about the world I lived in. It meant that we had to be wary of such things – that all these soft targets are perfect for potential terrorists. With so many open-air markets right next to major roads and intersections, it became reminiscent of Nice, France. We live in a world where trucks, commercial planes, and household chemicals have become forces of terror.
I went to high school in a post-Columbine world. That happened when I was 15, a high school freshman. I learned to fear bomb threats, and now, as a teacher, I teach how to perform a lock-down drill in case an active shooter gets into the school. What. the. hell.
Why do I have to teach this? Why do my students live in a world where, in additional to tornados and fires, I now have to teach them how to barricade themselves in the classroom, how to hide out of sight, and be so quiet that a shooter wouldn’t suspect we’re in the room. Why do I have to explain that, should a shooter get in the room, I, as the teacher, would do everything I could to protect them?
Why would you do that? one of my students asked.
I’m a teacher. It’s my job, and I’m meant to be their protector. But explaining such a thing to children is not something I want to do – but somehow, it’s become necessary.
I grew into adulthood in a post-9/11 world – it happened when I was 17, but I had never traveled by plane before 9/11. I just know in movies, the airport was a different place before then. I felt as if, somehow, things could still be innocent. I went to university with the war in Iraq and Afghanistan on our heads, as some of my classmates had gone off to fight – and years later, not come back. Saddam Hussain, al Qaida, and Osama bin Laden were names on everyone’s lips. Then ISIS took over, with terror attacks in France, Belgium, Germany, and shootings in the States. We heard about the horrible things they were doing to people in their home countries because social media somehow thinks it’s okay to post people being tortured that way.
My students are growing up in a post-9/11 world where terror is the norm, and they have stopped blinking when it comes to hearing about another attack. What is our responsibility, then, as teachers, to teach them differently? To develop empathy and create upstanders who don’t let others be treated poorly? To have them learn to put others before themselves?
Let me tell you, it is both a responsibility and an uphill battle.
The landscape of terror didn’t just stop with the Nazi regime. As the December 20th Christmas market attack shows, terror is a very real part of our modern world. It hits incredibly close to home for everyone. We check in via Facebook to let others know we’re alright. We post that we’re okay.
But, as the next evening showed me, despite this attack, the Germans still went on with their Christmas markets. People were still out, still enjoying glühwein, and still celebrating the coming holiday. They refused to be cowed by this. I went back to the Alexanderplatz market, near Marionkirche, and stared up at the steeple in the inky darkness. The cross at the top was barely visible, but there it was.
In all of this, the world is still love. It is still human. It still has potential.
Even if we have to fight hard to keep it that way.