begins one of those great quotations any could use to inspire a trip to Berlin. These days, defined by the 21st century, the visitor to Germany’s capital can only marvel at the extraordinary vitality of one of Europe’s greatest cities. The investment in major public buildings, the universal coverage of its mass transport system (Train, U-&S-Bahn, tram and bus) , the quality of its walkways and bike lanes and above all the omnipresence of fast food of every description (still have to check out Currywurst) could convince any that bad times have never been part of the equation.
That Berlin has a dark side is put well beyond question by the authorities who have established many major memorials to the ill-treatment of its citizens. One of my favorites is the Stasi museum, in which James Bond-like gadgets developed behind the Iron curtain by Erich Honecker and his cronies are shown as part of the installations in their party headquarters. A very much more recent edition is the Holocaust memorial just south of the Brendenburg gate, a vast field of stone bocks beneath which are halls where individual and family stories of loss during the Nazi extermination programme of the Jews are told from across Europe.
35 km north of Berlin is the town of Oranienburg where the first internment camp was established for Hitler’s opponents and for those elements of society deemed unsuitable such as communists,homosexuals and gypsies. Heinrich Himmler ordered the building of a model camp in the nearby village of Sachsenhausen, one that was then exported throughout the axis territories, including the industrial manufacturing factories for weapons and armaments. Indeed one of the Heinkel bombers was assembled in the units outside the camp from 1942 onwards. You can get a sense of the awfulness of the camp from this Youtube video –
More than 200 000 were imprisoned here by the Nazis of which some 50 000 were brutally murdered – as opposed to Auschwitz which served the policy of racial genocide, Sachsenhausen victims were a mix of political opponents and then only later groups defined as racially or biologically inferior – increasingly from the newly occupied territories of Nazi dominated Europe. In 1938, in order to show the world that these new camps were not commiting atrocities, journalists and the Red Cross were invited to view the facilities. Despite careful screening and choreographed tours, what the camp commander could not hide was the sheer terror the inmates showed for their tormentors, treated as they had been with such ferocious inhumanity. The medical blocks still stand today and detail case after case of the most extraordinary butchery caused by doctors on their patients.
A journalist working for BBC Australia in 1938 reported back that whilst he had been a pacifist prior to his visit, he could now see complete justification for opposing the Nazi regime with military force, because the hell for their opponents had been revealed at Sachsenhausen. And this is very much the message that prevails across the various impressive exhibits and displays at the camp, preserved as a national memorial by the East German government in 1956, and much improved as a visitor destination over the past 10 years. In the kitchen block in the centre, there is now a 30 minute video showing some rare archive footage of prisoners at the camp, and a research centre too where the archives can be checked from a bank of desktop stations.
So we are reminded by the quote attributed to Edmund Burke, the great Irish political philosopher writing in 1770, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing”. Our group of Y11 pupils found this visit to Sachsenhausen the most moving of the trip, with the reinforcement of the personal family tragedies documented so well in the museums we visited elsewhere. We can always question whether the modern conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq of the last decade are justified, and we have current inquiries reviewing those decisions to report this year. I feel sure however our pupils returned to England with a great sense of pride that their country did indeed stand up and say something back in 1939.